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Tales from Brooklands: Margaret Allan

16 October 2021

In this Tales from Brooklands, volunteer Peter Kearns explore the story of successful Brooklands racer Margaret Allan.

Margaret Allan was born in July 1909 in Renfrewshire into a wealthy family that owned the Allan Line Steamship Company. Her upbringing was not typical of the day. The Allans were unconventional in their day and believed in a woman’s right to experiences and opinions. Her aunt was a well-known suffragette who was imprisoned for her beliefs.

She attended Bedales School near Winchester which was and still is, unconventional. The school had been founded in 1893 as a reaction against the limitations of conventional Victorian schools. It encouraged creativity and independence of thought. Its pupils included, for example, Dorothy Rayner who became a pioneer of palaeontology which was unknown for a woman at that time. More recent pupils include Giles Brandreth and the singer Lilly Allen.

When back home, Margaret’s mother encouraged her to learn to drive. She did this in the family car, which was a large Lagonda. She regularly used this to ferry house guests to and from the railway station.

Margaret Allan started to take an interest in the activities of the Women’s Automobile and Sports Association. It is said that she was not impressed by the attitudes of the trials drivers. She felt that the professional female drivers did not show the same dedication to their race craft that she had shown to road driving.

In December 1930, she successfully completed the London-Gloucester Trial in a Riley 9, earning the Ladies' Prize. Her driving was described as "neat and fast" by Motor Sport magazine.

She then competed in her first major rally with a factory-entered Riley 9, as co-driver to Eve Staniland in the 1932 Monte Carlo Rally; they finished in tenth place and were runners-up for the Coupe des Dames. Margaret became a keen rally driver and entered the Monte Carlo rally for the next three years driving a Rolls-Royce, a Triumph, and an AC.

During this time, she also continued to compete in the family Lagonda but it was too slow and cumbersome to be competitive. In 1932 her father purchased a supercharged Lagonda for her. It was with this car that she made her circuit debut at Brooklands, driving as part of the WASA entry in the Inter-Club Meeting.

In July that year, accompanied by her brother Hamish, she competed in the Alpine Trial with a Wolseley Hornet. This was regarded as the most testing road event in Europe; it lasted for seven days and attracted entries from many major manufacturers. She achieved a remarkable success for a relatively inexperienced driver, winning a Glacier Cup, for losing no marks, and tying for the ladies' prize.

For the 1933 season, she had a 3-litre Bentley fitted with a 4½ litre engine, and in this, she gained her first racing win. This was once again in the Brooklands Inter-Club meeting. She came first in a handicap race, lapping the Brooklands Outer Circuit at 97.65mph. She had a second Brooklands win at the 1934 Easter meeting, driving the Bentley to victory in the Ripley Junior Long Handicap.

The MG Cars team asked her to join their squad for the Light Car Club's 1934 200-mile Relay Race at Brooklands. Their all-female team, driving MG Magnettes, took third position overall in a race that ended amidst a torrential thunderstorm.

She then joined George Eyston's all-ladies team, “the Dancing Daughters", driving a works-prepared P-type MG in the 1935 Le Mans 24-hour race. All three cars finished the race and gained much publicity for MG. Allan shared a car with the Australian driver Colleen Eaton and they finished in 26th place.

In a handicap race at the 1935 Brooklands Easter meeting she came second, driving "Old Mother Gun", a 4½ litre Bentley belonging to Richard Marker. This car had won the Le Mans race in 1928 and was now fitted with a single-seater body.

In the same year, she drove a Frazer Nash and won a handicap race at the August Bank Holiday meeting, lapping the circuit at 119.15mph. In practice for this meeting, she lapped the track at 127.05mph but a subsequent attempt to take the 1500cc record for the track with this car failed after mechanical problems.

1936 was probably the most successful year of Margaret Allan’s racing career. At Brooklands, she beat Earl Howe’s outer circuit 1,500cc record of 127.05mph, but her lap wasn’t officially recorded, so she missed out on the coveted Brooklands 120mph badge. She then came close to claiming the badge at the 1936 March Short Handicap race, when she was recorded lapping at 119.36mph in ‘Mother Gun’.

It was in 1936 that Marker fitted the Bentley with a 6½ -litre engine, which made it a very fast car indeed. Margaret Allan drove it at the opening Brooklands meeting and, lapping at 119.15mph, gained second place in a handicap. She drove it again at the Whitsun meeting and won the Second Whitsun Long Handicap at an average of 115.25mph, including a fastest lap of 122.37mph. For this, she was awarded a coveted 120mph Brooklands Badge.

The following year, Margaret Allan married Christopher Jennings. Margaret Jennings did not continue with her motor racing, and she became a journalist.

During the Second World War she worked first as an ambulance driver. Later, she was invited to join the code breakers at Bletchley Park where she worked on the Italian naval section.

After the war, she returned to motoring journalism. This included being Vogue’s motoring correspondent from 1948 to 1957.

As Margaret Jennings, she did race again in 1950. In that year she entered the Circuit of Ireland Rally, in which she won the ladies’ prize.

She also became an enthusiastic gardener, winning RHS prizes and exhibiting at Chelsea.

When she was in her eighties, Autocar magazine invited her to spend the day testing three high-powered sportscars in the Welsh hills. She was so fast in the first car that she lost the journalist and photographer who had been sent along to cover the story. They had to wait for her to return to them, and the piece was short of pictures.

She was awarded honorary membership of the British Racing Drivers’ Club, in acknowledgement of her accomplishments at Brooklands, Le Mans, and in the world of rallying.

Margaret Jennings died in 1998 at the age of 89.

Peter Kearns, Brooklands Volunteer

Margaret Allan at Brooklands

Margaret Allan in the AC Saloon No.36,  JCC High-Speed Trials, Brooklands 29.6.35 

Margaret Allan in the Marker Bentley 'Mother Gun'

Margaret Allan going over the bump in the Marker Bentley 'Mother Gun'