Sylvia Österberg was Swedish driver active in the 1960s and 1970s, winner of the European Ladies’ Rally Championship in 1963.
Her earliest motorsport experiences were in rallycross, at club level. She only took up rallying after some strong encouragement from her husband, Ingemar. After seeing her drive in treasure hunt-type road rallies, he signed her up for the Swedish ladies’ championship in 1960, and the two competed together during that season. Their first stage rally together, an event for novices, led to a fifth place, with a class win.
Her performances in the Swedish championship caught the eye of the Volvo team management, and she was offered a contract as a works driver for 1962. Her car was to be a 122. Her first major rally in it was the 1000 Lakes Rally in Finland. With Inga-Lill Edenring as co-driver, she did not disgrace herself with a 21st place, narrowly missing out on the Coupe des Dames to her Swedish rival, Ewy Rosqvist. Later in the year, she was tenth in the RAC Rally, driving the same car. This was her first international top-ten finish, and she did particularly well on the forest stages, tying with Paddy Hopkirk for third on the Wark Forest stage.
Her performances in 1962 were enough to convince the Volvo team to keep her on in 1963, with an expanded programme of rallies across Europe. Once again, she teamed up with Inga-Lill Edenring, who would be her regular co-driver for much of her career. She started with a 20th place in the Monte Carlo Rally, losing the Coupe des Dames to Ewy Rosqvist, in a Mercedes. After the Tulip Rally, in which she was thirteenth, she drove in the Acropolis Rally for the first time, and scored another tenth place, ahead of Ewy Rosqvist this time. Her second top-ten of the season came in the Deutschland Rally, along with a Coupe des Dames. The best was still yet to come, however; she then broke into the top five in the Polish Rally, in fourth place. Before the end of the season, she had secured another fourth place, in the Geneva Rally. This was enough to secure her the European Ladies’ Championship.
For most of 1963, she drove the 122 again, although she did have at least one outing in the PV 544, the Midnight Sun Rally, which she does not seem to have finished.
1964 started with another run in the Monte in the 122, in which she was 33rd, a somewhat disappointing result, but not a bad performance in the ageing 122, and ahead of her rival, Ewy Rosqvist. The rest of the season was spent in a PV 544, which was faster, but not quite as sturdy as its predecessor. Sylvia could not finish her first Safari Rally, a brute of an event which almost three-quarters of the field failed to complete. She does not appear to have finished the Acropolis Rally, another car-breaker, or the Midnight Sun Rally, which, despite being her home event, was never her favourite. Later in the season, she was fifteenth in the 1000 Lakes Rally, and back in the top ten for the RAC Rally, in tenth. Her navigator this year was Siv Sabel, as Inga-Lill Edenring was taking some time out from rallying.
After 1964’s ups and downs, Sylvia went back to the 122 for 1965, trading some power for reliability. In February, she was rewarded with a sixth place in the Rallye dei Fiori, among Lancias and Renaults in the top ten. The KAK Rally in Sweden followed, and then the Tulip, which she finished over the time limit. She was in good company, and her Volvo team-mate, Tom Trana, also in a 122, was another on the OTL list. The Acropolis was another non-finish, and she followed it up with a 24th place in the 1000 Lakes, with a Coupe des Dames as a consolation prize. She ended the year with the RAC Rally, but does not seem to have been classified.
She and Siv Sabel stuck with the Volvo for one more rally in 1966, the Rallye dei Fiori, which had been a good event for them last year. They did not finish, and the 122 was promptly replaced with a Renault 8 Gordini, supported by the Swedish arm of Renault. Sylvia picked up another Coupe des Dames in the 1000 Lakes, and was 23rd overall, but did not finish the Alpine Rally. Reunited with Inga-Lill Edenring, she was tenth in the season-ending RAC Rally. On the first special stage, Bramshill, she was second, behind Roger Clark.
Her second season in the Gordini was shorter, but more fruitful. In January, she finally managed to pick up a Monte Carlo Coupe des Dames, finishing 25th overall, just behind her countryman and fellow Gordini driver, Harry Källstrom. A non-finish in the Swedish rally followed. She was then nineteenth in the 1000 Lakes Rally, before enjoying a good run in the French tarmac rallies. The Alpine Rally, usually a good event for her, led to a tenth place, and she was sixth in the Tour de Corse. Both times, she was the fastest lady. Her season was to have ended with the RAC Rally, but it was cancelled, due to an outbreak of foot and mouth disease.
After 1967, Sylvia’s career wound down somewhat. She began driving Opel cars, beginning with a Kadett in 1968. She and Ingemar teamed up once more and tackled the Swedish championship. They were thirteenth in class at the end of the year, with a best finish of tenth, in the Jämt Rally.
A couple more seasons in the Kadett followed, although it seems that Sylvia and Ingemar were part-time competitors at this point, rallying within Sweden and not regularly in major events. Another attempt at the Swedish Rally in 1971 led to another non-finish.
Despite her profile being lower than previously, the Opel works team took an interest in Sylvia. In mid-1972, she was part of a six-driver team that attempted a series of speed records in a diesel-powered Opel GT prototype. The tests took place at Dudenhofen in Germany. The other drivers were Marie-Claude Beaumont, Giorgio Pianta, Paul Frère, Henri Greder and Joachim Springer. As a team, they set a whole series of class records for speed, endurance and economy.
1972 saw a revival of Sylvia’s rally career, too. She was once again reunited with Inga-Lill Edenring, her most successful co-driver, and they drove a works Opel Ascona in Europe. The faster Ascona seemed to suit Sylvia’s driving style; after a slightly tentative 26th place on snow in the Swedish Rally, she was seventh in the Olympia Rally in Germany. Sadly, the RAC Rally, one of her favoured events, led to a retirement.
Sylvia’s last major international rally looks to have been the Monte in 1973. She drove an Ascona to 28th place. She carried on competing occasionally until 1975, then retired as a driver. This retirement was meant to be final, but she reappeared about ten years later, as a navigator in historic rallies. She assisted Tom Trana, her old Volvo team-mate, to two historic championships, and carried on in this role until the mid-1990s.
She died in 2012, at the age of 78.
Having been most active in an era where there were some extremely competitive female drivers – first Ewy Rosqvist, then rally winner, Pat Moss – Sylvia’s achievements are overshadowed somewhat. She was a very capable driver, particularly on forest stages and on asphalt, and perhaps would have scored an outright win, had she had a few more opportunities in big rallies and powerful cars.
(Image from http://rallyklassikerna.se/)