From veterinary assistant to champion rally driver.
My colleague and all-round good guy, James Ward, gave me a present today apropos of nothing other than he’s a thoughtful person – a little Matchbox car of a special 1962 Mercedes-Benz 220 SE.
I’m a sucker for old Mercs, and an even bigger sucker for diecast cars. I’m not alone in this obsession in the CarAdvice office.
What made this particular Matchbox car so interesting though, is that the Merc 220 SE is a special one, a 1/64th scale replica of the Benz driven by Ewy Rosqvist, proclaimed on the commemorative box as the ‘1st female touring car grand prix winner’.
Now, I’m ashamed to admit that despite half-a-lifetime writing about motorsport, I had not heard of Ewy Rosqvist. So I had to make amends. And what I discovered was the remarkable life of a pioneering woman who became a champion rally driver almost by accident.
This is her story.
Rosqvist was born in Sweden in 1929, one of five children – and the only girl – to a farming family. With her family’s interest in farming, it seemed only natural that Rosqvist would pursue a veterinary career, moving to Stockholm to study veterinary science and animal husbandry.
Having completed her studies, Rosqvist returned to her hometown of Herrestad in southern Sweden, and started to serve her veterinary apprenticeship. Little did she know, this career path would inadvertently turn her into one of the era’s great rally drivers.
As a vet assistant in rural Sweden, Rosqvist was required to cover great distances between client farms, one part of her job to deliver bull’s semen. The problem was, as Rosqvist described in her autobiography, Driving Through Hell: “Mostly, I have to visit distant homesteads. The farmers called vet Palsson [her employer] and ordered an assistant.
“We got our ‘day schedule’ and a thermos of semen from selected bulls. It must maintain a temperature below 5° C, otherwise it was useless. These thermos containers were completed each morning, so we must leave immediately.”
Rosqvist needed to cover vast distances, almost exclusively on poorly maintained dirt and gravel roads. And thanks to the fragile properties of her special cargo, she had to cover these distances in a timely fashion. In short, speed was of the essence.
Rosqvist’s car of choice was her dad’s Mercedes-Benz 170 S, the progenitor to today’s S-Class.
“The driving, which I had to carry out each day, amounted to between 150 and 200 kilometres, almost all on unpaved roads, gravel paths and farm roads,” she wrote. “I had to step on the gas and drive fast from one farm to the another.”
As her skills behind the wheel developed, Rosqvist would eventually cover her daily patch much faster than her co-workers, often returning to town several hours ahead of her colleagues.
Rosqvist said that over a two-year period, she covered around 220,000km in the Mercedes-Benz 170 S, almost of all of them on dirt and gravel. In the process, she developed, then honed the skills that would eventually serve her well in her second career which began in 1954 when she had her first taste of rallying, as a passenger in the Midnight Sun Rally.
“That was so much fun that I decided to take part in a rally myself, either driving or as a co-driver, as soon as possible,” she recalled in her book.
It didn’t take long for Rosqvist to switch seats, finding herself behind the wheel for her own attempt at the Midnight Sun Rally. As she described, it wasn’t a success, but the rallying bug had well and truly bitten.
“In 1956 I made my first rally appearance behind the wheel with Majbritt Clausson as co-driver. Once again it was in the ‘Rally of the Midnight sun’ in the month of June,” she wrote.
“I had one misfortune after the other. Finally we had engine failure and we had to stop, but this gave me even more motivation to continue. I took time off from work one time after the other to attend in smaller rallies. The success varied! Sometimes it was a hit and I positioned myself well, other times it went totally wrong.”
By 1957, Rosqvist was rallying a Saab 93 and with some success, winning the Rally Viking in Norway. The following year, she joined Volvo and as her trophy cabinet began to accumulate silverware, Rosqvist's fame started to grow.
She won the 1959 European Rally Championship Women’s Cup as a factory Volvo driver, repeating the feat the following year and again in 1961 to complete a hat-trick of titles.
“She is Europe's most skilled female rally driver, she is frappant (remarkable) and she has won her success with the Swedish Volvo car,” wrote one local newspaper of her success.
Mercedes-Benz had noticed too, and hired the young Swede for its newly-established rally team, partnering her with another Swede, Ursula Wirth.
Armed with the then new Mercedes-Benz 220 SE, affectionately dubbed the ‘fintail’, the duo tackled the gruelling and prestigious Touring Car Grand Prix of Argentina. Regarded as one the toughest long-distance rallies in the world, the event had been dominated by men since its inception.
No one gave Mercedes’ all-female duo much of a chance, dismissing car number ‘711’ as little more than a marketing exercise. Instead, the focus turned to the other four Benzes driven by all-male teams.
The women were having none of it, and proceeded to dominate the event, covering the six stages, totalling 4625km, in record time. The won all six stages, unprecedented in the history of the event, and finished three hours ahead of their nearest rivals. Along the way, they set a new speed record for the event, too.
Rosqvist continued to race and rally with acclaim for Mercedes-Benz, notable results including 16th place overall at the 1963 Monte Carlo Rally, 11th at the Acropolis Rally and, proving her skill wasn’t confined to gravel, she claimed victory in the 2500cc class the six-hour race at the famed Nürburgring.
In 1964, her successes included a class win at the Monte Carlo Rally, fifth-place overall at the Acropolis Rally, and third place at Spa–Sofia–Liège Rally. She ended her career with third place overall the 1964 Argentinean Touring Car Grand Prix, before slipping quietly into retirement.
Aged 91 today, Rosqvist lives in Stockholm, continuing to serve as a long-time brand ambassador for Mercedes-Benz Classic.
Ms Rosqvist, we salute you, and your 1962 ‘fintail’ now sits proudly on my desk.
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