Half a century ago, our first female chair, Barbara Sabey, challenged gender stereotypes making waves as a rally driver, engineer, scientist and pioneer of road safety. In celebration of International Women’s Day, we take a look at some of her achievements while recreating her epic 1968 RAC Rally of Great Britain route in a modern Mini
To celebrate International Women's Day on 8 March, we’re honouring a trailblazing woman who shattered barriers and made significant contributions to motoring. Barbara Sabey, made history as a pioneer of road safety and one of the first women to compete in the prestigious RAC Rally of Great Britain, paving the way for others to follow in her footsteps and challenge gender stereotypes in motorsport.
Who was Barbara Sabey?
Barbara Sabey, first female chair of the CSMA pictured here with HRH the Duke of Kent, Patron of the CSMA
A key figure in the club’s history as its first female chair, Dr Barbara Sabey’s contribution to road safety is her greatest legacy. Originally recruited as a physics graduate by the Road Research Laboratory, she helped its Traffic and Road Safety division build its reputation in the Field of applied science.
Later in her 60-year career, Barbara led research into safer urban road design and much more; her work directly influencing regulations such as minimum tyre-tread depth, traffic calming measures, breathalyser tests and seat belts. In the words of Richard Allsop, who spoke on behalf of the Parliament Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS) at Sabey’s funeral in 2013, “There can be few, if any, who have done more to make our roads among the safest in the world.” That blazing, pioneering spirit fed into her personal life, too: she was a whizz behind the wheel and relished competing in challenging rallies.
Recreating Barbara Sabey's famous rally of ‘68
“How the ‘big boys’ fared, the facts and figures, the drama of accident – all this is reported many times in the motoring press. But my story is that of the ordinary club entry, starting towards the end of the field, for whom the incidents and drama may be very different.”~ Barbara Sabey, Forests of the Night
So begins Barbara Sabey’s account of the 1968 RAC Rally of Great Britain in Forests of the Night, which she wrote fresh from co-piloting a Mini Cooper over the punishing, 2,600-mile, four-day event. Gaining legendary status in Boundless circles and beyond, Barbara Sabey is one of the few females who participated in the 1968 RAC Rally, she embodied what Boundless is all about: adventure, travel, community, intrepidness and a love of all things motoring and motorsport.
Of the 96 cars that started in ’68, Barbara’s – and her co-driver Searle Siemssen’s – Mini was one of just 32 to finish. In fact, they made it into the top 20. To honour that remarkable achievement, and the CSMA’s long standing love of rallying (CSMA members have competed in the RAC Rally of GB since the very first event in 1932), we’ve decided to follow in Barbara’s tyre tracks, and retrace the route she tackled in 1968.
Vicky Parrott is a motoring journalist who has been writing about cars for more than 15 years, but she freely admits she’s never done a journey quite like this before…
Our car, like Barbara’s, is a Mini – albeit a bigger, more modern one. The Mini Countryman Cooper S All4 Untamed Edition is a world away from its ’60s ancestor, but it’s the car Mini would take rallying today – indeed, the last time Mini entered the World Rally Championship it was with a Countryman. With four-wheel-drive, 178hp and room for five, we should have a more comfortable trip than our forerunners in their stripped-out, 60hp Cooper. We’ve also given ourselves an extra day and a slightly truncated version of the ’68 route (allowing plenty of time for photography). Yet we still have about 1,500 miles ahead of us, so without further ado, it’s time to start our engine…
DAY 1: 280 Miles – Thruxton to Machynlleth
“I don’t mind admitting to being nervous before the start of any rally. On this event, my nervousness was magnified 10 times. This is where an understanding partner is essential…”.
Thanks to Forests of the Night, I know how Barbara felt before setting off in ’68. And I’ll admit to a few nerves myself as I roll up to Thruxton Circuit in Hampshire to meet my own understanding partner for this trip – photographer Tom Salt. After a ceremonial start at Heathrow Airport, Thruxton was one of four circuits that featured on the 1968 Rally GB route, and was one of the first of the 87 stages, the majority of which were on forestry tracks.
Talking of which, it’s just a 30-minute drive north from Thruxton to Marlborough and Savernake Forest, the first woodland stage – and the first of many waypoints where Barbara and Searle were met by fellow CSMA members bearing soup, sausages and lashings of encouragement.
From there it’s onwards towards Wales. The Brecon Beacons come and go in a blur of sweeping hillsides, as does Epynt – Stage 15 in 1968 – and before we know it, we’re one sandwich stop down and on top of the bleak SAS training grounds and firing range at Sennybridge. We stop for photos at the famous Drover’s Arms, but fluttering red flags and a prickly sense of being watched encourage us to move on briskly.
The Abergwesyn Pass cuts through the Nant Irfon Nature Reserve in the heart of Wales. It’s a fairytale land with mossy, oak-lined lanes that open up into a valley complete with murmuring river and – surprisingly – one of the most remote telephone boxes in the UK. At the eastern end is the imposing ‘Devil’s Staircase’ – a steep incline that hairpins sharply up the mountainside.
Barbara describes trying to sleep as she fought nausea while they navigated these twists and turns: “On Sunday morning, it was brought on by trying to sleep over the Abergwesyn Pass... the feeling of lying on a reclining seat while the car is travelling uphill round bends – the head is appreciably lower than the feet.”
I sympathise. It feels like my feet are level with my head, even in an upright driving position, as the Countryman heads up the hill. It’s actually quite manageable in a modern car, but if you stop and get out you can barely stand upright. What’s more, at this point Barbara and Searle had been driving for more than 24 hours with next to no sleep, and would get no decent rest for another 30 hours or more. We, meanwhile, retire for the evening in Machynlleth, to plot the next day’s route.
Day 2: 340 Miles – Machynlleth to Dumfries
“Sunday night and Monday was the most trying period. We were at our lowest ebb, fighting tiredness, especially in the dark, feeling lonely…”
This excerpt from Barbara’s account sticks in my head as we stop for a sunrise photo at the mirrorsmooth Llyn Tegid in eastern Snowdonia, as the morning sun peers over the mountains. If a choral symphony joined in from the heavens, it couldn’t be more stunning.
We’re here with a night’s rest and a belly full of breakfast, while Barbara and Searle would have barely slept having covered just 16 of the 87 stages. But we’re also on a deadline. So out of Snowdonia we go, skimming eastwards past Clocaenog before heading north to a very out-of-season, shabby looking Blackpool, where Barbara and Searle paused in ’68 for a tea break in the caravan of another supportive CSMA member.
Beyond, the Lake District beckons. Past Kendal, along the length of Lake Windermere and into Ambleside. This picturesque village would have seen the RAC rally cars blare through on their way towards the Whinlatter Pass. Today, it’s the same lovely rows of dark stone buildings, but it’s full of warmly lit shops and welcoming eateries. Ambleside oozes that cosy, fireside feeling, and offers a postcard-worthy scene at every turn.
Bolstered by sausage rolls, we head up ‘The Struggle’ – a treacherous lane leading towards the high Kirkstone Pass. The road climbs and the comforting illuminations disappear in favour of a flat, pre-snowfall light and icy bends – a stark reminder that this area can be as unforgiving as it is achingly beautiful. Even so, the Mini winds its way faithfully up the steep, twisty pass. As we stop to admire the lung-freezing wonderland at the top, I’m feeling rather fond of our unflappable Mini. Next up: Scotland.
Day 3: 310 miles – Dumfries to Edinburgh
“With a broken jack, unable to lift the wheels out, it almost looked like the end, but on any rally you have to have a certain amount of luck, and we certainly had it.”
Barbara and Searle’s misfortune occurred on Stage 39, in Galloway Forest. I wonder at the sheer relief they must have felt at the sight of the competing army Land Rover that appeared a few minutes afterwards, offering a tow. Yet persistent brake failure plagued them for the stages that followed, which must have required truly heroic low-gear dexterity and near-psychic planning and navigation. Between them, they somehow managed to nurse the stricken Mini safely to the distant support team.
With our trip almost halfway done, we round Glasgow and scoot up the side of Loch Lomond. The A83 is surely one of the most picturesque A-roads in the UK – a gorgeous, sweeping pass that cuts through the Trossachs, with the Rest and Be Thankful viewpoint at the crux of a junction that looks down a long-sighted valley.
Today it’s artfully snow-dusted for the perfect winter scene. But we can’t rest for long, as we must turn back towards Edinburgh – the Scottish capital was the first full night’s rest for Barbara and Searle, after three days of almost non-stop driving. For us, it’s a late finish after a night shoot in the city, overseen by the dimly lit castle, before turning south in the morning.
Day 4: 260 miles – Edinburgh to Whitby
“We pressed on, through the vast forests of Kielder… and through the Yorkshire stages. Tiredness gave way to excitement now.”
Like Barbara, we’re feeling chipper as the journey south unfurls through a pretty snowscape. The huge expanse of Kielder’s pine forest sits on England’s border with Scotland and is famous for its starry sky viewing at Kielder Observatory. Not far from the observatory is the gravelly Kielder Forest Drive – one of England’s highest roads (£3 toll), and a fabulous flavour of the wooded tracks that inspired Sabey’s Forests of the Night mini-memoir.
Picturesque as it is, I can’t help but think how tough it must have been to do a drive like this in a car that was half the size of ours, twice as noisy and far less comfortable. We have heated seats and Google Maps; they had a fan heater and stuck their directions to the dashboard with magnets. Feeling grateful for mod cons, we head onto the fast, flowing roads of the North York moors and are soon admiring the spooky silhouette of Whitby Abbey. It would be unforgivable to come to Whitby and not have fish and chips, so we brave a freezing sleet shower for battered cod at Trenchers (have gravy with the chips, it’s the absolute best). Then, unlike Barbara and Searle, we retire to a hotel.
Day 5: 310 miles – Whitby to Heathrow
“We were spurred on by a sense of achievement to have got so far, and by CSMA support all the way down, from many members… who came out with sandwiches and coffee and cheer.”
Barbara’s account is packed with tales of the CSMA members who cheered her and Searle around the country. In fact, she talks more of morale-boosting ovations and reviving sausage and-egg supplies than she does of the driving.
Members showed up everywhere, including for the Yorkshire stages, where – naturally – pots of tea and plates of cakes were brought to the roadside for the weary drivers. And that CSMA spirit is still alive today as we’re greeted by the smiling faces of the Boundless York Group, beneath the 13th century Clifford’s Tower in the city centre.
It’s heartening to chat to so many friendly faces about their enjoyment of Boundless, whether it’s the group’s monthly trips or talks, motorsport memories, meeting new people or a shared love of exploring our incredible country. Just the same stuff that spurred on those members who turned out at unholy hours in 1968.
Refreshed, and imparting huge thanks to the members who braved the chilly winter weather to join us, we start the car and leave the city. Grateful for the faultless reliability of our modern Mini, in awe of Barbara, Searle and all the other 1960s drivers, and with over 1,500 miles on the clock, we head for home – via one last stop at Silverstone Circuit, just as they did in 1968. It’s what Barbara would have wanted.
Do more with Boundless
Are you working in or retired from the public sector or civil service? Partnered with over 180 well-known brands to bring you exclusive savings on days out, holidays, car insurance and more - do more and spend less with Boundless. To find out more, visit www.boundless.co.uk/savings