Queen of the road
With courage, tenacity and humour, a Sydney grandmother upstaged the rough, tough men of the outback tracks.
NEATLY ATTIRED, perfectly mannered and with a mischievous twinkle in the eye, 63-year-old widow Mrs Winifred Conway from Sydney’s eastern suburbs used an elegantly gloved hand to thumb her nose at the male-dominated automobile culture of the inaugural Redex Round-Australia Reliability Trial. ‘Granny’ Conway’s Austin A40 was one of 192 vehicles entered in Australia’s first post-war long-distance endurance rally – the second-longest race of its type ever staged in the world. The gruelling 10,460km race instantly grabbed the public’s attention. It created newspaper headlines in every town and city through which the cars barrelled during a two-week period in early September 1953.
Despite its name, it wasn’t a true round-Australia event. It started in Sydney, then headed north as far as Townsville, west to Mount Isa and eventually up to Darwin before turning south to Adelaide, continuing east to Melbourne and finally ending up back in Sydney. Redex was a newly imported petrol additive that drivers would add to their tank at the bowser, and the race was dreamt up by the product’s Australian distributor as a marketing exercise.
Back then the roads were rough and comfort stops few and far between, or non-existent. Vehicles entered had to be regular production cars with minimal modifications.The attrition rate was occasionally high as cars careered through the roughest stretches of Aussie bush.The rally gave rise to Australian racing legends such as ‘Gelignite’ Jack Murray. His habit of igniting dynamite sticks, ostensibly carried to clear fallen timber from outback tracks, typified the event’s ‘wacky races’ flavour. Others became local celebrities, including the eventual winner, Maitland chemist Ken ‘Tubby’ Tubman, after whom one of the city’s main thoroughfares was named. Sir Jack Brabham and radio star Jack Davey were also contestants.
But it was Winifred Conway who most often stole the limelight, even from the likes of Ken and the three Jacks. She was quick-witted and offered many a memorable quote to an eager press contingent who nominated her “the most popular entrant”. She played up her image as a vulnerable little old lady, but in reality was tough and resilient with a wry sense of humour. She’d attended a boys-only high school in Sydney’s inner west and described herself as a teenage tomboy. Widowed early, she raised two children alone during the 1920s. Her disregard for the mechanical side of rallying produced some of her more famous quotes, such as “My motto is never touch the engine.You always strike trouble when you start lifting the bonnet,” and “I’m never worried about the car, it will look after itself.”
Accompanied by a female navigator, and male co-driver, Winifred finished along with 135 others from the original 186 starters (six entrants failed to start). Not bad for a race that passed through some of the toughest country the vast continent could lay down.
‘Granny’ Conway toasts success in her second Redex Round-Australia Reliability Trial, in 1954.