Rally good fun

Melanie Whitehouse / 21 March 2017 ( 12 June 2018 )

In 1970, an all-female crew took part in a gruelling London-Mexico rally. Nearly 50 years on, two of them reunited for another challenge – in the same car...

Bron Burrell is wriggling into the driving seat of the ancient Austin Maxi she’ll be driving from London to Lisbon later this month. Beside her is her co-partner Tina Kerridge-Reynolds, both of them smart in navy jumpers and jeans.

‘This seat belt won’t fit me,’ says Bron, tugging at it. ‘I’m not made for this any more, I swear – but I’m going to do it anyway.’ 

She accelerates down the track, and puts the car – nicknamed Puff the Magic Wagon – through its paces around the slippery, muddy bends of the London Rally School, near Oxford.

Gutsy women in a man's world

At 72, Bron has lost none of the feistiness or driving ability she showed in 1970, when she, Tina and Tish Ozanne, who has sadly died, took part in the gruelling Daily Mirror World Cup Rally from London to Mexico. Taking in more than 25 countries, it was considered the most arduous race of its kind in the world. They were three glamorous, gutsy women in a man’s world, amateurs pitted against pros who didn’t believe they’d get as far as Lisbon, let alone make it through bandit-ridden South America.

Now, Bron and Tina, 77, are preparing to reprise the 2,000-mile London to Lisbon sector of their adventure 47 years ago.

It all began in 1970 when Tish, owner of Puff, asked Tina if she’d like to join her on the World Cup Rally. ‘I thought no, not really,’ says Tina. ‘I’d never done anything like that. It was 1,000 miles driving a day, 16,000 miles to Mexico. I had a five-year-old, a seven-year-old, a husband at home in East Cambridge and a research job at the Cambridge Veterinary School – but everyone kept saying I had to do it. I didn’t think my driving was up to the standard of Tish and Bron. But then neither of them had children – I knew I could be up all night and that I had the endurance side nailed.’

Bron had been rally driving for years, working as a secretary to support her passion. ‘I was put in touch with Tish by the competitions department of the RAC, which ran all the rallying competitions in the UK then,’ explains Bron, who lives near Christchurch, Dorset. ‘I was fairly penniless because I spent everything on rallies.’

This was the era of The Avengers, and photos at the time show the glamorous trio posing next to Puff in similar bell-bottom jumpsuits to those worn by sassy Emma Peel (played by Diana Rigg). Bron, then 25, was tall with back-combed blonde hair and a twinkle in her big blue eyes; Tina, at 29, sported a Sassoon-style bob and a shy, cheeky grin; and Tish, 45, was the elegant matriarch of the group. 

Saga Car Insurance: Join over a million drivers already benefiting from our outstanding cover and personal service for the over 50s. Get a quote and find out more!

From London to Lisbon

The world was at their feet, although there were a few practical considerations to take care of first. ‘We were worried about how we’d do our laundry on the move, so someone sponsored us with a huge box of pink, blue and white paper knickers,’ says Tina.

The intrepid trio set off at 10am from Wembley on Sunday April 16, 1970. ‘Our route took us to Boulogne, Stuttgart and then Vienna, three of us keeping going 24 hours a day, four hours on, four off, one driving, one navigating and one asleep in the back seat,’ says Tina, her face animated at the memory.

‘We went through Hungary, then Bulgaria, both behind the Iron Curtain, down to Yugoslavia and then back up to Monza in Italy, where we actually slept in a bed for the first time in four nights. It rained all the way. Ninety-seven cars started, most of them driven by top world-class rally drivers and sponsored by the likes of Ford and British Leyland – we were the only private entrant.

‘The first 70 cars that arrived in Lisbon were to be allowed to go onwards to South America. We never even thought we’d get to Lisbon but we did – and to our amazement we were 35th. We were off to Mexico.’

The basics of driving abroad

From Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro

From Lisbon, the winning cars were put on a ship to Rio de Janeiro and the girls followed by plane. ‘We played water polo with the Russians while we were waiting in Rio, which was a chaotic place,’ says Bron. ‘We learnt recently that they would probably have been in the KGB – anybody else would have defected en route!

‘We were asked if we wanted guns to go through South America, but we said we didn’t think it a good idea to have three premenstrual women in a car with a loaded pistol. We got on really well, though – we didn’t fall out once, apart from Tish telling us off for mucking about.’

The girls were unfazed by the perils of their journey through South America. Crossing wobbly plank bridges, skidding through red rainforest mud, braving rivers, deserts and mountains and stamping around to ward off snakes when nature called all quickly became everyday events. 

They particularly remember one incident: ‘We were squatting by the roadside at 2am when a car, another Maxi, came screaming down the road, screeched to a halt and reversed,’ laughs Bron. ‘The window went down and it was Prince Michael of Kent, who was also in the British team. “Can I help you?” he said. We told him to push off!’

Stuck in the mud

Then, south of Buenos Aires, 23 days into the rally, Tish skidded off the road in the dark and got stuck in a four-foot-deep ditch. ‘You’ve never seen mud like it,’ says Tina. ‘We couldn’t get out so we couldn’t finish the section in time and that meant we were out of the race, with just six days to go. We were devastated.’ Tina remembers crying, but Bron says hers were tears of anger.

Tina got a lift with the RAF and drove through the Andes and Bolivia before flying home from Peru. Puff was retrieved and Tish and Bron continued to follow the rally before flying back from Mexico City while Puff came home by ship.

A return to normality

Life returned to normality for many years. Bron and Tina lost touch with each other and with Tish. Tina went back to being a mum and working at the vet college. Her marriage wasn’t the same again, though, and she got divorced and then, in 1979, married one of the service crew on the rally.

Bron eventually ended up running an interior landscaping company. She never married but had a long-term partner, Rob Morgan, who died four years ago. ‘He was a lovely man, good-looking and the life and soul of the party. We had so much fun,’ she says. ‘After he died, my financial adviser said he’d found out about my rallying on Google, so I Googled myself – and found Tina!’ says Bron. ‘I emailed her immediately and we arranged to get together. Sadly, Tish had died in 2009.’

The adventures of Puff

Puff, meanwhile, had had her own adventure. She’d been found in a chicken shed in 1997 and done up. In 2003, a dealer had tracked down Tina and tried to sell her the car but she couldn’t afford it.

For the next decade the car competed in Italy, before being bought by a new owner and returned to the UK. In August 2013, Puff was due to appear at the Fenland Fair, near to where Tina still lives. It was the perfect venue for their reunion.

‘It was amazing to see each other again, and incredible to see Puff as well,’ remembers Bron. ‘Then Tina came to stay and it was like old times.’

Bron, however, was disgusted that Puff was appearing at classic car rallies. ‘I thought this car should race, not do show-pony stuff,’ she says. ‘So I bought her – I won’t tell you for how much – but she’s the most valuable Austin Maxi in the world. I was looking online at events I could take part in and the London to Lisbon rally, which only happens every three or four years, popped up. I’ve got my competition licence back and I still drive quite well, so I rang Tina and said we should do it again.’

Tina’s reaction was horror: ‘I’m 78 this year!’ But she didn’t take much persuading.

Take our Grown-up Test and see how young you are at heart

From London to Lisbon - again

The classic car rally leaves Brooklands Motorsport & Aviation Museum in Surrey on April 22 and takes nine days. Instead of driving 1,000 miles a day, they’ll be doing a sedate 250, stopping overnight in hotels. ‘We’ll be up against Ferraris and Bentleys – and we won’t have to wear paper knickers this time,’ says Bron. ‘Puff is the only endurance car taking part. Just to get to Lisbon will be a dream, even if we roll in last.’

Despite the creature comforts this time, they expect to find it tougher than before. ‘I find it hard to get Puff into reverse,’ admits Bron. ‘I drive an automatic these days.’

She’s pretty fit, doesn’t take medication and plays golf and tennis. Tina – now with nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren – has a bad knee, takes statins and blood pressure tablets. But they both firmly believe it’s all about the attitude. ‘I’m game,’ says Tina. ‘I’m only worried about messing up the navigation – we’re not allowed a TomTom.’

Are road maps making a comeback?

They’re probably not as fast at changing a wheel as they were in the past. ‘We had it down to a fine art and could do it in just under two minutes,’ recalls Tina. This time they’ve had Puff’s aeroplane-style dashboard modernised to take two cigarette lighters, so they can charge up their mobiles or plug in a portable tyre compressor.

Some sections of the rally have to be done at a particular speed in a particular time. ‘You have to cross the line to the second,’ says Bron. ‘It’s very precise, but we’re not taking part to win. We’re there to get to the finish, to get Puff to Lisbon again.’

The rally girls mantra

Get up and get on with it.

Enjoy every minute, because you don’t know what’s around the corner.

Do it for yourself, because you can.

Don’t be afraid to relive your youth – you’re never too old.

You can always pick up old skills where you left off.

The World Cup rally of 1970

The race celebrated the World Cup being played in Mexico City, four years after England had triumphed at Wembly

Tina, Bron and Tish (with Puff, entry no 20) were one of four all-women crews to take part in the rally, as 97 cars set off from Wembley Stadium on April 19, 1970. There were nine non-starters. Just 23 vehicles actually completed the event, which was won by the rally aces team of Hannu Mikkola of Finland and Sweden’s Gunnar Palm, crossing the line on May 27.

The winners drove a Ford Escort (souped-up, of course), beating Porsches, Jeeps, a couple of Rolls-Royces and even a VW beach buggy over the gruelling cross-continental course.

Try 3 issues of Saga Magazine for just £3

Subscribe today for just £3 for 3 issues...

Next article: The world's greatest road trips >>>

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.