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Roberta Cowell: The forgotten icon of motorsport

by / 0 Comments / 02/10/2017

Failing to qualify for a Grand Prix wouldn’t normally qualify as historic, but for one driver at least, it represented a breakthrough both in motorsport and society.

 

On the 20th of February 2017 Danny Watts, a two-time class winner at Le Mans, announced that he had decided to come out as homosexual. This was a crucially important moment for motorsport and its relationship and links with the LGBT community.

Whilst society in general has opened up to the idea of LGBT sportsmen and women, it has taken a while for sports such as motorsport to do the same — hence the reason for why it took Watts so long to take the brave move to come out.

Despite this, he is not the first racing driver to come out as LGBT. Before LGBT was used in everyday conversation there was another driver who pioneered another area of the famous acronym.

Roberta Elizabeth Marshall Cowell was born on the 8th of April 1918 and went on to become a racing driver and team manager after studying engineering at University College London.

In her spare time, pretending to be a mechanic, she would sneak into the paddock at Brooklands motor circuit in order to observe John Cobb racing his Napier Railton against the likes of Malcom Campbell.

Surviving the war after spending five months in various German prisoner of war camps as a result of her aircraft’s engine being knocked out over Belgium, Roberta returned to her pre-war passion of motorsport. She set up a racing team that competed in races across Europe, including the French Grand Prix at Rouen-Les-Essarts in 1954.

However, Roberta was officially her second name. In fact, she was born Robert Marshall Cowell and wasn’t just the first transgender individual in the United Kingdom but the first transgender racing driver in modern motorsport.

Despite failing to qualify for the French Grand Prix Roberta carried on with her team, Leacroft of Egham, competing in multiple national events including the Brighton Speed Trials and the Shelsey Walsh Speed Hill Climb, winning the 1957 running of the latter.

Roberta Cowell’s pioneering position as the first transgender racing driver in motorsport, as well as the first transgender person in the United Kingdom, and Danny Watt’s own success at Le Mans and in A1GP, demonstrate aptly the role the LGBT community has played in motor racing.

Despite this, the fact that it took so long for Roberta’s success to be noted and for Watts to have to wait until he retired before feeling comfortable coming out, demonstrates how far motorsport has to go before it can be seen as truly open and inclusive to all.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember Roberta Cowell for her own impact and bravery at a time when the question of being Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender was only just starting to enter the public sphere, let alone the paddock’s conscience.

For a long time, motorsport didn’t want to break down the barriers to LGBT acceptance. With Danny Watts it has made a leap towards this, but with Roberta it made the first steps.

 

 

I am currently an Undergraduate student studying War Studies and History at Kings College London. I report on both politics and motor-racing.