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From Brooklands to Phoenix, Arizona, via Capetown – Theresa Wallach’s pioneering life with motorcycles

Guest Blog By Nina Baker, Engineering historian

Theresa Wallach was a woman engineer who not only was a pioneer in the sense of being one of those who took up such work when it was rare for a woman but also in her adventurous expeditions in Africa and America, which would have been just as pioneering for any man at the time. Born in 1909 into a middle-class family in the south of England, her German-born father was a stockbroker and gentleman-farmer, which sounds very mundane. However, he had also been an eminent explorer and collector with one of the most significant private anthropological and archaeological collections in the country.

Apparently enamoured of motorbikes from a very early age, Theresa was too young to get her start in engineering during the First World War but in 1928 her father allowed her to take an engineering degree at Northampton Polytechnic, part of the University of London, gaining a Certificate for her Mechanics and Heat Section work in 1931 and graduating in 1932. She then worked for British Thomson-Houston, the engineering and heavy industrial company. However, for Theresa’s future in and around motorbikes, her time at university was seminal in that her (male) engineering student colleagues taught her to ride a motorcycle. She proceeded to buy her first motorcycle, a blue BSA, which she had to hide from her parents who were horrified in equal measure by her acquisition and the trousers she found she had to wear to ride the machine.

She joined the London Ladies Motor Club and this led to her taking part in Brooklands races, astonishingly winning the first one she entered. The LLMC also engaged in tours and light-hearted ‘gymkhanas’ and introduced her to other women riders. This may have been how she met Florence Blenkiron, who in 1934 gained the first British Motorcycle Racing Club (BMCRC) Gold Star held by a woman, for lapping Brooklands at over 100mph. Theresa would not achieve her own Gold Star until 1939 but, with another pioneer female engineer Beatrice Shilling, would then become one of only 3 women to earn the Gold Star.

The meeting with Florence would be lifechanging. They became friends and shared a house in the south of London and from 1934 began the planning for their great adventure. In 1935 she and Florence Blenkiron set off on their headline-grabbing 8-month trip from London, via the Sahara Desert, to Cape Town by motorbike. Their Panther M100 was fitted with a sidecar and camping trailer, which unsurprisingly perhaps had to be frequently hauled out of soft sand. They encountered many technical and social difficulties along the way, as they were often in areas where such a vehicle had not been seen before, let alone one ridden by two Englishwomen. At every stage across the French-controlled Sahara Desert, they were required to check in at military forts within a pre-agreed timetable or risk a huge fine to cover the costs of going out to look for them. More than once they had to rely on the hospitality of the forts whilst awaiting spares to be shipped from England. They were followed, sometimes literally by journalists in aeroplanes, by the press and their arrival in Cape Town was both a media triumph and something of an anti-climax as it became apparent that the Panther could not survive a return trip and Theresa, at least, had no money.

Having made her way home to the UK by sea Theresa was penniless, sleeping rough in the streets of London. The years before the war were very tough for her as she was unable to gain any benefits from the promotion of the trip which the motorcycle and other companies were exploiting. It would not be until 2 years after her death that the book of the London-Cape Town venture would be published. The Rugged Road, is titled as authored by Theresa Wallach but it was pulled together with additional biographical materials by Barry M Jones of the Panther Owners Club, and was only published in 2001. As he had unique access to her archives (now held in the University of Arizona) as well as to years of discussions with her, this is the most complete published biography of Theresa Wallach. The 32 minute film of the Rugged Road is also on Youtube.

During the Second World War she was a despatch rider in the women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), and later the first ATS Unit mechanic sergeant, repairing tanks. After the war she went to the USA, picking up various motoring-related jobs, including test driving for Lagonda cars, to fund her extensive motorbike tours around the entire country. Returning to the UK in 1950 she again made the newspaper headlines when she found herself without money but in need of repairs to her motorcycle in the depths of the English countryside – when the garage-owner asked her if she had come far, she replied “About 30,000 miles!”. She soon returned to the USA for good and set up her own firm in Chicago selling and repairing British-made motorbikes, such as Nortons, and also teaching motorcycle riding, also publishing her successful book ‘Easy Motorcycle Riding’. Remarkably, to modern sensitivities, it is illustrated with line drawings showing both male and female riders and also black riders.

In 1973 she sold her Chicago shop and moved to Phoenix, Arizona where she opened her 'Easy Riding Academy' from her home in a suburb near the motorway.

One of the delights of delving into Theresa’s story has been making contact with a number of charming gentlemen of the Chicago Norton Owners’ Club who still remember her well from their own younger years of motorcycling. CNOC (www.cnoc.org) was founded in 1963 and Theresa was the speaker at their first meeting!

One CNOC member recalled “I tried to buy a BSA Gold Star from her, but she insisted that I first buy an Ariel Leader, then take lessons at her riding school. Then, she could sell me a 350 Jawa (Czech) and take more riding lessons. Then, MAYBE a BSA.” Another related “We used to ride in a farmer’s field, and she would demonstrate trials moves. She had a BSA and her shop was on East 79th in Chicago, near the lake for a time. If she did not like you, she would not sell you a bike.” and, yet another: “Theresa really helped me become a good rider at a young age. I lost touch with her, but still think of her pretty much every time I ride a motorcycle.”

What a great way to be remembered.

Always keen to spread her love of motorbikes she helped set up the Women's International Motorcycle Association in the 1950s, served as WIMA's first Vice President, and was active in the association until her death in Phoenix in 1999.

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Theresa Wallach at Brooklands on record breaking Norton.