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The Great Race: the larger-than-life rally drivers and the little known women of the Redex Trials

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Whatever else readers may think of his fiction, Peter Carey clearly has an eye for a yarn that might be spun from Australia’s rich history of eccentrics, liars and desperados. Carey’s forthcoming novel A Long Way from Home was inspired by an illustrious series of extreme endurance races that criss-crossed the Australian outback in the 1950s, attracting amateur competitors with no previous motor racing experience.

In A Long Way from Home, a fictional trio – a husband and wife duo plus their idiosyncratic navigator – enter their car in the Redex Around Australia Reliability Trial, an exceptionally tough annual race run largely over unmade roads. In real life, the classic Redex Trials, which took place in 1953, 1954 and 1955, were staged as reliability tests meaning that the cars had to be unmodified showroom models for the most part never designed for such treacherous driving conditions. As a consequence, breakdowns, rollovers, fires and other mishaps were not uncommon.

The Redex Trials, which lasted for days on end and covered many thousands of miles, gained nationwide news coverage and attracted international attention. The event hosted the cream of Australian motor racing legends such as John “Gelignite Jack” Murray, whose team won the 1954 race with, it was reported, the aid of the explosives he carried on board for clearing debris from the road.

Peter Carey’s new novel, A Long Way from Home, has characters based on real people from the 1950s Redex Trials.

In addition to his exploits as a driver, Murray co-owned a motor garage at Bondi with his brother and spoke of his feats as a champion wrestler and water skier. The Australian National Dictionary notes that Murray “claimed some sporting achievements that are open to question”. Murray professed to speak in two languages – “English and profane”. Much less common for a larrikin of his generation, he was also a teetotaller and didn’t smoke.

Murray is featured in two books based on the Redex Trials written by the late motoring journalist and rally driver Evan Green – the 1967 travel book Travels with Gelignite Jack and the 1990 novel Dust and Glory, the latter being set during the Redex Trial and featuring real life characters.

Green once described Murray as a “man with a touch of Nuvolari, Ned Kelly and Guy Fawkes”. In disfavour with the police in Australia for the illicit use of gelignite, Murray also attracted the attention of the law in England prior to competing in the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon over an unofficial water skiing stunt organised on the Thames near the Houses of Parliament.

In researching his new novel, Peter Carey, whose novel has characters based on real people, reached out to Associate Professor Georgine Clarsen, historian and an authority on the Redex Trials.

Professor Clarsen explained to Daily Review via email that “Peter contacted me in May 2014, after having read my research on the Redex Trials of the 1950s, especially my work on the little-known role that women played in those events. He flattered me outrageously, describing my research as ‘marvellous’ and ‘a gift and joy’ to read. Academics rarely get such praise, so of course I was delighted to help him with his next novel!”

Professor Clarsen went on to describe how Carey followed up on the initial adulation for her work with serious research of his own. “I was struck by how assiduous Peter was in researching the events he structured his story around. I put him in contact with others, too, like Hal Maloney from Maitland who knows more than anyone else about Australian motor rallies and historian Tom Gara from Adelaide who helped with researching key locations. This is a quintessential Australian story that has great personal resonance for Peter and I look forward to its reception here and around the world.”

The strong female involvement in the Redex Trials is one of the more remarkable aspects of the event. Women had participated previously in reliability trials in Australia, though never before in such numbers.

Back in 1905, Florence Thomson became the first female driver to enter the Dunlop Reliability Motor Contest, which started in Sydney and finished in Melbourne. One of the 17 out of 23 competitors to compete the journey, Thomson told a journalist she was determined to prove sexist critics wrong: “I know what people would have said if I had been forced to withdraw from the race: ‘Well, it was a foolish adventure for a woman and disaster was inevitable’”.

Half a century later in the 1950s, women were entering reliability trials in substantial numbers, albeit on terms still governed by dominant male attitudes. The 1954 Redex Trial featured an all-female crew sponsored by the hugely popular magazine The Australian Women’s Weekly, which featured the trio on the front cover dressed in matching white overalls and red berets. The three women were carefully posed in front of their Humber and shown studying a route map. They look like the most chic rally team ever assembled.

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In a seminal paper on female involvement in the Redex Trials, Professor Clarsen writes that the all-women teams “presented a challenge to the prevailing ethic of larrikin masculinity and the representation of women as adjuncts to their male partners”.

In addition to all-women teams, Clarsen notes that spouses were not unusual. “Some women entered as co-drivers or navigators in partnership with their husbands. They were generally assumed to be supplementary to the main game and, for the most part, it was only the women’s press that wrote about them at any length”.

Even so, Clarsen writes, there was one category of female Redex Trial entrant that managed to really break boundaries: “It seems that some of the female entrants best situated to resist their marginalisation within the masculine climate of the trials, and even turn it into a publicly applauded stance, were older women of independent means who remembered a more honourable past for women motorists were the so-called grannies of the trial.”

Winfred Conway always drove in hat and white gloves and delighted her fans when she turned up at the finish line with a fresh blue rinse.

The most celebrated of these women was Mrs Winifred Conway (main picture), a genteel widow aged in her sixties who lived in the harbour-side Sydney suburb of Rose Bay. Driving a sedate, compact Austin A40 – a car which presented a marked contrast to the large, tough-looking Ford V8 known as the Grey Ghost that was driven by Gelignite Jack – Conway became a much-loved public figure simply by doing it her way.

“What secured Winifred Conway’s popularity was not just her motoring confidence, but also her wit and vitality, her impeccable grooming, her sweet demeanour, and her apparent disregard for the combative ethic that characterised the trials”, writes Clarsen. “She always drove in hat and white gloves and delighted her fans when she turned up at the finish line with a fresh blue rinse.”

“Of all the female entrants,” Clarsen argues, “it was Winifred Conway who most forcefully expressed what the trials meant to her: ‘For years I have wanted to drive to Darwin and through Central Australia, but I was too afraid to go alone. I realised I would be perfectly safe on this trial, as the other drivers would provide a wonderful escort. As I mainly wished to see the country, take photos and enjoy myself, I have not worried about losing points. We have had picnics on the way.’”

Having nothing to lose by being herself and speaking her mind, Conway could be scathing in her assessment of the dangerous driving and desperate, at times life-risking competitiveness among her male counterparts. She questioned why men didn’t trust car makers to produce vehicles that would do the job of getting from A to B and insisted on tinkering with them.

Her outspoken stance attracted approval and publicity – she was also offered numerous sponsorships and gifts including having her competition car supplied by the Austin car company’s Australian distributer. Subsequently, she appeared as herself in promotions just like a reality TV star of today.

Winifred Conway wasn’t just famous for being famous. Along with Gelignite Jack and others, she was an extraordinary character whose life has become inextricably bound up with the memory of a bygone era of excellent outback adventure.

If nothing else, Peter Carey’s new novel, like the fiction of Evan Green before him, will help to keep this fascinating historical episode alive in readers’ imaginations.

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4 responses to “The Great Race: the larger-than-life rally drivers and the little known women of the Redex Trials

  1. In addition to the works of fiction mentioned in the article, the Redex Trials are featured prominently in the well-received 1978 feature film ‘Newsfront’. There is a great clip from the film posted on the Australian Screen website: https://aso.gov.au/titles/features/newsfront/clip2/#

    Also, a reader commenting on social media notes that the Redex Trials are the subject of a 2016 episode in ‘The Doctor Blake Mysteries’ TV series. Details: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4936528/

  2. In the early 1960s my parents owned a Humber Hawk and an Austin A40. Funny to think that is history now!! The parents never went on car rallies.

  3. Also worth noting that the episode of the anthology TV drama series “Michael Willesee’s Australians” about Jack Davey was set during a Redex Trial.

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