Queen of the road

With courage, tenac­ity and hu­mour, a Syd­ney grand­mother up­staged the rough, tough men of the out­back tracks.

Australian Geographic - - CONTENTS - CHRISSIE GOLDRICK

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.

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