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Rosemary Smith – Stylish Superstar of Rallying Passes Away Aged 86

*Tulip Rally winner also raced, at 79 she drove a Renault F1 car setting a new record

*A true star who graced many a works rally team with her talent and style

*Tributes from the rallying world, but also from the President of Ireland Michael Higgins and Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar.

Rosemary Smith – Stylish Superstar of Rallying Passes Away Aged 86

Irish motorsport legend Rosemary Smith who passed away aged 86 on December 5th was not just a winner, she also won in style, often insisting that her co-driver wore the latest matching outfits with her both in and out of the car. There was many a photoshoot of her standing on the bonnet of a rally car in the latest ‘hippest’ gear, but once the promotion was over and she was into action, the driver with the great looks turned into a demon behind the wheel. She remained competitive and active through her late seventies, finishing a London to Monte Carlo driving event aged 77!

She finished third and was very pleased, saying that you ‘can’t just sit down and do nothing – even at that age.’ Clearly once behind the wheel again the passion was reignited car, as she said at the time, ‘I just get into the groove and away I go and have a great time.’

Rosemary was multi-talented. She was also a dress designer who loved style which she maintained throughout her life, always looking immaculate, in fact, she started a boutique business with her mother. She followed her creed of always presenting herself and her car in the best possible light. Many rally fans will remember her perfectly manicured red nails seen in a blur of colour as she twirled the steering wheel on the stages. For all the elegance she often won, including thrashing the men in the Tulip rally in 1965.

A genuine motor sport legend from Dublin, she was a pioneer in so many ways, laying a flare path for so many more women to follow in her wheel tracks. Her father, a very quiet man had taught her to drive at 11! He helped nurture her career, encouraging her in the first place, but he only got angry once and that was when Rosemary turned down an offer of a ‘works’ drive after she had started as a navigator. At the time she thought it would affect her rallying as her sport was also her hobby.

That was all to change, of course, Smith's journey to the top was due to her skill, determination, and groundbreaking achievements on the racing circuits and rally stages. She was regularly seen in the big saloon car races at top tracks as well as rally stages – such as the rounds of the British Saloon Car Championship at Silverstone or Brands Hatch supporting the Grands Prix.

It was the Rootes Group's Competition Department that offered her the coveted and much-deserved works drive.

She paid them back in spades scooping the Ladies' Prize at the Circuit of Ireland Rally in 1964, but in 1965 came the big win of her career when with co-driver Val Domleo, they won the Dutch Tulip Rally outright beating many works teams including Ford’s Mustangs in their little Hillman Imp after 1800 miles and four days!

Rosemary Smith celebrating with Danny Keany at Carrigrohane in Cork in 1978

Rosemary went on to drive for many of the leading motor manufacturers, including Ford, BL, Porsche, Opel, Lancia and Chrysler Talbot as the trailblazer she became for Irish motorsport through her incredible talent.

There was the famous French disqualification of many UK teams in the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally, including Rosemary’s Hillman Imp, but she picked herself up, going on to even more success such as 3rd in the Scottish Rally that year. An outright win in the 1969 Cork 20 Rally and 4th in the Scottish Rally, then brilliant results in the Alpine Rally, the Canadian Shell 4000, the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon and the 1970 London to Mexico World Cup Rally.

That 1970 World Cup Rally from London to Mexico was an example of her pure grit, determination and endurance skills. The event was flagged away from Wembley, but before she went off in her unfancied and unreliable 70’s BL Austin Maxi, the Chairman Lord Stokes told her that he’d be pleased if they got as far as Dover – thousands of miles later, including struggling for power over the Andes, Rosemary and Alice Watson finished in Mexico 10th overall and took the Ladies Prize!

There were many strong results with co-driver Pauline Gullick such as their 20th overall on the Ulster Rally in 1981 in an Opel Ascona 400 proved, the pair were 10th on the Galway Rally in the same car. Pauline and Rosemary rallied together in the 90’s too, finishing 20th in the Historic Tulpen Rally in a Sunbeam Tiger similar to the car Rosemary had driven in her early career for the Rootes Group.

There was a catalogue of great results in the 70’s including 4th on Mull in 1972 and 7th on the Texaco Rally in 1973 in a Ford RS 1600.

And on she went, five years later Smith set a new land speed record in Cork, adding another achievement to her long list of successes. In the 1990s she founded a driving school, using all her experience and knowledge to help drivers, she also wrote her memoirs in her book that has gone on to sell extremely well ‘Driven’ by Rosemary Smith.

To add to Rosemary Smith's long list of achievements, she set the record for the oldest person to drive an F1 car! In 2017 at the age of 79, she drove an 800bhp F1 racing car during a test drive with the Renault F1 Team at the Circuit Paul Ricard in France.

Picture: Barry Cronin/

In 2022 she was inducted into FIVA ( Federation International des Vehicules Anciens) Hall of Fame.

Rosemary Smith with IVVCC President Myles O'Reilly when she was inducted the FIVA Hall of Fame in August 2022 (Image from Michael Chester)
Irish rally driver Rosemary Smith trains at Silverstone for the RAC British Grand Prix, July 13, 1967. Picture: Mike McLaren/Central press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

My enduring memory is of Rosemary Smith at Speed in the Forest Stages in the 60’s in her dark blue works Hillman Imp. I had a corgi model of that very car with doors that opened and jewelled headlights that encapsulated her style and success – may she continue to burn bright in heaven. Rosemary, you shone like the star you were. Rest in Peace.

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