Rosemary Smith RIP

Legendary Irish rally and racing driver, Rosemary Smith, dies aged 86.
Neil Briscoe
Neil Briscoe

Published on December 5, 2023

It is with great sadness that we have to report the death of Rosemary Smith. Smith, who became a legend in Irish and international rallying and racing circles, was 86.

Born in Dublin in 1937, on August 7th, Smith made her name by not so much breaking the glass ceiling for women racing drivers as utterly smashing it to pieces, and then stamping on the shards. Alongside fellow female racing luminary Pat Moss (whose brother, Stirling, you may also have heard of), Smith charged through rallying in the 1960s. Having learned to drive at just 11 years old and securing her licence at 16 through mildly nefarious means, Smith decided that a career as a dress designer - at which she was admittedly very talented - would not be exciting enough on its own. So she turned to rallying.

Having won the ladies' prize on the 1964 Circuit of Ireland rally (back in the days when the Circuit really was just that - a full lap of the entire island), Smith went on to secure a Rootes Group works drive and took overall victory on the famed 2,900km Tulip Rally in The Netherlands in 1965, in a Hillman Imp co-driven by Valerie Domleo.

Smith got caught up in the controversial disqualification saga of the 1966 Monte Carlo rally when the French organisers essentially started looking for tiny, inconsequential items on every car that wasn't French. Smith said that she would never again compete on the Monte unless the decision was reversed, not least because that year, she was the Coupes Des Dames winner.

Other triumphs included an outright win on the 1969 Cork 20 rally and stage victories on some of the toughest events of all time, including the Scottish Rally, the Alpine Rally, the Canadian Shell 4000, the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon and the 1970 London to Mexico World Cup Rally. She also scored two Ladies' Prizes on the Alpine Rally (essentially a summer running of the Monte Carlo), as well as on the Canadian Shell 4000 and the fearsome Acropolis Rally in Greece.

Although she scored her early successes with the Mini-rivalling Imp, Smith also became synonymous with the hugely powerful Ford 4.7-litre V8-engined Sunbeam Tiger. She also drove for Ford, British Motor Corporation and British Leyland, Porsche, Opel, Lancia, and Chrysler Talbot.

In 1978, at a speed run in Cork, on the old 1930s Cork Grand Prix circuit, Smith set an Irish speed record of 178mph (287km/h) in the incredible V12 racing version of Jaguar's XJ-12C Coupe.

Smith was a passionate advocate of improving the driving skills of Ireland, especially amongst younger people, and set up a driving school in the 1990s. In 2018, she wrote her autobiography, 'Driven - By Rosemary Smith', and the year before, at the age of 79, she became the oldest person ever to drive a contemporary Formula One car during a test at Paul Ricard with the Renault F1 Team. In 2022 she was rightly inducted into the FIVA (Fédération International des Véhicules Anciens) Hall of Fame.