"When I first saw a motorcycle, I got a message from it," she said. "It was a feeling – the kind of thing that makes a person burst into tears hearing a piece of music or standing awestruck in front of a fine work of art. Motorcycling is a tool with which you can accomplish something meaningful in your life. It is an art."
Teresa Wallach nació el 30 de abril de 1909 en Londres, Inglaterra y se crió aprendiendo a manejar motos en contra de los deseos de los padres. Ella compitió en pruebas de trial, scramble y carreras de ruta. En 1928 ganó una beca para estudiar ingeniería en lo que hoy es la Ciudad Universitaria de Londres.
Brooklands era un circuito de velocidad situado al suroeste de Londres. Inaugurado en 1908 y cerrado en 1939 al comenzar la WWII, fue el primer circuito construido expresamente para ello. Con sus 4,43 km de longitud, este circuito oval peraltado acogía diversos eventos automovilísticos y motorísticos, Grand Prix (la F1 de la época), pruebas de resistencia y de velocidad, para disfrute de aficionados. Hoy en día Brooklands alberga varias empresas del motor, un aeródromo y un museo, así como parte del trazado original de la pista.
La BMCRC (British Motor Cycling Racing Club) celebraba carreras en las que concedía la "Gold Star" a quien completara una vuelta a mas de 100 mph. en su motocicleta, todo un reto para pilotos y máquinas en las primeras décadas del siglo XX
En 1939 Theresa ganó la codiciada Gold Star en Brooklands. En su biografía Francis Beart, el preparador estrella de Norton recuerda que Teresa entró en su taller en Brooklands y preguntó si podía pedir prestada una Norton Internacional de 348 cc para el encuentro de carreras de los fines de semana siguientes.
Él le dijo que le costaría cinco libras, que ella no tenía pero se las arregló para pedir prestado. Cuando llegó el día llovía a cántaros, pero su vuelta fue cronometrada en 101.64 mph - para gran disgusto del conductor estrella de Beart, Johnny Lockett, que nunca había podido dar mas de tres vueltas! Teresa fue una de las últimas Gold Star entregadas antes que Brooklands fuera cerrada al inicio de la Segunda Guerra Mundial.
Theresa Wallach was born on April 30, 1909 in London and adopted motorcycling against the not unreasonable wishes of her parents given the dangers involved in those days of unpaved roads and wandering beasties. She competed in trials, scrambles and road races. In 1928 she won a scholarship to study engineering at the Northampton Institute in London (now City University).
Brooklands was a banked circuit located southwest of London. Opened in 1907 and closed in 1939 at the onset of war, it was the first circuit built specifically for this purpose. The 2.75-mile (4.43 km) long oval-shaped circuit hosted numerous automotive and motorcycle events including Grand Prix, endurance and speed trials. Today Brooklands houses several motor companies, an airfield and a museum, as well as part of the original runway layout.
The BMCRC (British Motor Cycling Racing Club) granted the Gold Star to those who completed a lap with an average speed exceeding 100 mph, a considerable challenge for motorcyclists in the early decades of the sport.
Although initially not allowed to compete, only three extraordinary women achieved the Gold Star in Brooklands: Florence Blenkiron, Beatrice Shilling and Theresa Wallach.
"Tilly" Shilling was an aeronautical engineer whose solution to fuel induction problems in the Merlin engines fitted to Spitfire and Hurricane fighters was a determining factor in Britain's mastery of the skies during the first years of WWII. ²
In 1939 Theresa won the coveted Gold Star at Brooklands. In a biography of famed Norton tuner Francis Beart he recalls that Teresa came to his Brooklands workshop and asked to ride a 350cc Norton International during the following weekend's races. He told her it would cost her five pounds, which she borrowed. ¹. On the day, despite pouring rain she turned a lap of 101.64 mph - much to the dismay of Beart's star rider Johnny Lockett, who had never achieved the feat - and never would. Theresa received one of the last Gold Stars awarded before the Brooklands circuit closed at the onset of World War II and the facilities turned over to aircraft production.
During the war she was the first woman to become a despatch rider in the British Army, with whom she served for 7 years.
After demobbing she spent more than two years touring the US, Mexico, and Canada by motorcycle, with a sleeping bag on her rack and saddlebags full, travelling some 32,000 miles in the process.
Teresa returned to England, but within a year she was back in the USA and there established a motorcycle shop selling and repairing mainly Norton and Triumph, incidentally becoming the first unmarried woman to own and operate her own motorcycle business in the United States. She also established a motorcycle riding school and in 1970 published "Easy Motorcycle Driving"
The 1970s saw a decline in her business due to the Japanese onslaught and in 1973 she moved to Phoenix, Arizona to open a motorcycle riding school.
She was founder and vice-president until her death of the WIMA (Women's International Motorcycle Association).
Theresa never owned a car and continued to ride motorcycles until the age of 88 when vision problems forced her to give up her license. Theresa maintained an active interest in WIMA until her death in 1998 at age 90. A truly remarkable woman.
But wait, there's more. Much more!
Florence Blenkiron and Theresa met at the Brooklands track in 1933, the year Florence gained fame as the first woman to win the Gold Star.
On one occasion Florence said to Theresa that she felt that her best friend had emigrated to South Africa, and wanted to visit her. Theresa proposed to do it with her on a motorcycle.
In 1934, no motor vehicle had yet crossed the entire African continent.
It was a wild idea but Theresa insisted until Blenk, as she fondly called her, finally agreed.
Sponsorship was a problem as manufacturers were of the opinion that the venture would fail. (3) Their project was however supported by the influential Lady Astor (she of the famed drunk and ugly Churchill quote who at times graced the flapper seat of T.E. Lawrence) and another Brooklands regular Sir Malcolm Campbell, also a keen motorcyclist.
It took some talking to encourage Phelon & Moore to come aboard. P&M had supplied the army during the first war and it is possible that Campbell, who had been a despatch rider, had an association with them. The Panther 600cc Model 100 Redwing was an ideal sidecar hack, and the P & M workshops developed a specially reinforced machine aptly named "Venture" for the harsh conditions of the desert. The sidecar was by Watsonian and the combination pulled a large trailer.
The Redwing was equipped with a heavy duty Webb fork, thicker wheel bolts, wider mudguards to fit 3.5-inch Dunlop tyres, and a Moseley pillion seat. The sidecar was equipped with heavy duty springs.
A crowd of 1000 people attended the send-off for the women on December 11th 1934 when they sailed from England for North Africa. After obtaining the permits from the administrators of the French colonies they would traverse, the pair departed Algiers on the 26th of December 1934 facing over 7000 miles of rugged travail including almost 1000km across the Sahara desert during which they visited six garrisons of the French Foreign Legion. This was a prerequisite; the garrison commanders would contact the next in line and if the women did not turn up within a nominated time (several days) then a search and rescue mission would be launched. During the desert phase one of the many complications related to metric/imperial conversions arose when the baker delivered to them rather more bread than required and it filled the sidecar. "We looked and smelled like a boulangerie ...", they quipped. Subsequently they carried rice as their staple.
The most difficult stage was from Tamanrhasset to Agadez which had many large dunes, a track only recently opened to vehicles, and deemed impassable by a heavy sidecar combination. The Watsonian and trailer were dismounted and the women set off solo across some 900km of Sahara desert. One assumes by this stage they had a compass, which was reportedly omitted from their original kit - however unlikely that sounds.
Even with a solo machine the terrain was found to be terribly difficult, and the Panther retired hurt about 100 km from Agadez. It had a broken conrod. Tuareg tribesmen towed the motorcycle to Agadez by horse, arriving shortly before a rescue mission was due to be mounted.
It took a month for the replacement parts to arrive from the P&M factory in England in a whisky crate with a rather humorous apologetic note concerning the fate of the crate's original contents, and instructions on how to bring the poor creature back to life.
However, all was good, the sidecar and trailer arrived on the back of a camel (or whatever), the Venture's engine was resurrected, and the three of them resumed their journey to where the grass was greener.
From Niger they travelled through forests via muddy tracks, over rivers, adventure after adventure. Another mishap befell them in Chad when the front wheel was damaged, taking several days to repair. On then via the Congo to Uganda and Kenya. It all sounds so easy when you group them together like that, but check it out on a map. Immense distances!
By this time it appears they had become celebrities, at least in Africa, and were often treated to accommodation and entertainment by the local Europeans.
The film of the journey shows an abandoned vehicle which is probably the one they raided for parts to fix the trailer towbar, discovering in the process that their spanners did not fit the French bolts of wreckage. The film of course is silent, but one may imagine their purple prose... why can't they just keep things simple, I mean what's wrong with furlongs, farthings and a five-eighths of far call?
Both women were very competent mechanics, with Theresa having an engineering degree, so coping with breakdowns though arduous was never seemingly a great problem (except of course when the engine melted). They fixed numerous punctures and all manner of mechanical failures.
Yet another misadventure befell them when the only car in Tanganyika clobbered them on a curve. Survived that one almost unscathed - the book says little about their personal problems in the way of fatigue and battle scars.
Circumventing the Kalahari desert which no-one crosses and lives, in Rhodesia they experienced more mechanical woes and more nights camping with the wildlife. (Are there bears? Nope, just lions.) They then visited the magnificent Victoria Falls as a guest of the mayor of the city named for Dr. Livingstone, I presume.
On into South Africa via Pretoria and Bleimfontein (where they are confronted with the vile racism of apartheid) and finally, with their now totally exhausted Panther, into Cape Town where they were greeted by a sizable crowd and the international press. The date is July 29th, 1935, and they have traveled from one end of the African continent to the other, the first to have done so by vehicular transportation. 7,500 miles and seven months.
Silent, 7 mins. Home footage taken during the trip
A new machine had been delivered to South Africa by P&M for the return journey, the Venture II. However, relations between the two no doubt exhausted women had become strained, and Theresa, citing illness, returned alone to England.
Florence, unable to find a suitable partner for the return trip, rode a solo machine as far as Nigeria where she was prevented from crossing the desert and was forced to take a bus to Algeria.
This trip is not documented as Florence did not keep a diary, unlike Theresa who was quite meticulous in recording their adventures. The only evidence we have of adventure is from a talk Florence gave some time after her return to Great Britain.
The two women never met again, though both served in the army in WWII. Florence lived in India for some years, and died in England in 1991. Theresa survived until 1998. Her book of the extraordinary journey was finally printed in 1997 by Panther Publishing Ltd.
1. Basic wage for a labourer doing a 50 hour week in 1938 was £1 15s. If we assume that a young woman earned considerably less than that, then 5 pounds was a substantial sum.
2. Another Brooklands rider who played a major role in the development of military aircraft was W.O. Bentley.
3. "[Miss Wallach] found one too obvious similarity, however, the definite and complete refusal of all financial backing on the grounds that support would be aiding in sending the enthusiasts to certain death." The Woman Engineer, June 1936.