Colette Salomon in her Bugatti
France between the wars had a thriving women’s motorsport scene. As well as comparatively high levels of female participation in Grands Prix, rallies and other races, there were a number of dedicated women’s events. The best-known and longest-standing of these was the Paris-St. Raphaël Rally, which began in 1929. The competitions varied from celebrity gymkhanas to races for serious drivers in highly prepared cars.
One such contest was La Journée Féminine de l’Automobile, one of the biggest of its kind.
This event was held at Montlhéry, from 1927. It was organised by the newspaper, Le Journal, who promoted it and ran the Concours d’Elegance. The French Women’s Automobile Club also had a hand in it. The first event was officially started by the Duchesse d’Uzes, Anne de Rochechouart de Mortemart, who was the club’s founder, and the first French woman to obtain a driving license.
The first event was held on the twelfth of June in 1927. Contemporary reporting of the Journée concentrates mainly on the Concours d’Elegance part, which attracted both female motorists, such as the rally driver, Madame Mertens, and music-hall celebrities such as Mistinguett, who won one of the categories. There were cars bedecked with flowers, driven by members of the Women’s Automobile Club, cars and drivers in classical-themed decor, and interiors made from exotic materials.
Actual racing played a supporting role. There was at least one major race, a handicap, for which three prizes were awarded, for the overall winner (the Coupe de l’AC), the winner on scratch (Coupe du Journal) and a production car prize. As well as wheel-to-wheel racing, a prize was awarded for the best time in a speed trial. The drivers were a mix of enthusiasts and genuine racers, including Lucy O’Reilly Schell, Jannine Jennky in her Bugatti, the Belgian driver, Madame Mertens, in her Lancia, and Albertine Derancourt, in a Salmson. Colette Salomon, an actress and dancer who also raced, was crowned the winner.
The races were all handicaps, with the fastest cars being penalised. The handicapping was arranged the day before the Journée, and was carried out by a group of male professional racing drivers, who drove each car and assessed its chances.
The next Journée was held on the eighth of July, 1928. It incorporated a sprint speed trial as well as the handicap races. There were fewer established names this year, although Charlotte Versigny and Marie Depret, who later raced at Le Mans, performed well. This was also the competitive debut of Hellé-Nice, then still a nightclub performer. She was driving a Citroen.
A third Journée on the third of June, 1929, saw Hellé-Nice scoring her first win, in the “Grand Prix Féminin”. She won ahead of the favourite, Violette Morris, in a Donnet. This year, the blue riband event was the “Championnat Féminin”, run over 150km. There was also a “Grand Prix Féminin” of 50km in length. The Grand Prix was for the five fastest cars in the championship race. The focus of the 1929 event was more on the sporting side, the novelty value of an all-female race meeting having worn off. Marcelle Leblanc, a regular at Montlhéry at the time, won the Championnat, despite some disputes over handicapping from a Madame Le Bigot. Other famous names present included Lucy O’Reilly Schell and Gwenda Stewart.
By 1929, there were at least nine circuit races run, according to Miranda Seymour’s The Bugatti Queen. Le Journal in 1930 mentions a “Challenge” and “interclubs”. A club prize was certainly awarded in 1930, to a three-woman team from the Automobile Club de l’Île-de-France.
The 1930 meeting did not attract quite as many of the top names, although the grids were healthy. The event was retired for a year in 1931, and, according to Miranda Seymour and the documents of Hellé-Nice, reappeared in 1932, for at least two more editions. At this point, Le Journal may not have been involved, as there is little reporting of the event in its pages, apart from a few references to a 1933 Journée, in a discussion of a one-make Renault series for women, held in 1939.
As well as motor racing, there was an array of other entertainment on show, including dancers, air displays and celebrity appearances.
Below are the available results of the major races.
Coupe du Journal: Colette Salomon (Salmson)
Coupe de l’Auto Club: Marguerite Dupêchez (Amilcar)
Production car class: Madeleine Bachmann (Chatou)
Coupe de l’AC: Mme Johnston (Steyr)
Coupe du Journal: Marie Depret (Lorraine)
Speed Trial, open cars: Charlotte Versigny (Bugatti)/Marcelle Leblanc (Peugeot)
Speed Trial, closed cars: Mlle Sauer (Amilcar)
Championnat Féminin: Marcelle Leblanc (Peugeot 5CV)
Grand Prix Féminin: Hellé-Nice (Omega Six)
Speed Trial: two class wins for Violette Morris in two different cars, one for Madame Mertens.
Championnat Féminin: Comtesse de Lesguern (Simca-Standart)
Grand Prix Féminin: Marion Rogée (BNC)
Coupe du Journal: Madame Véniel (Chenard-Walcker)
Interclub Challenge: Automobile Club de l’Île-de-France (Comtesse de Lesguern, Mlle du Verger, Mme Lemaitre)
This article was made possible by the Le Journal holdings at http://gallica.bnf.fr/
(Photo by George Hoyningen-Huené, first appeared in French Vogue in 1927.)