Kay Petre 

  • Full name Kathleen Coad Defries (Petre)
  • Birth date May 10, 1903
  • Birthplace Toronto, Canada
  • Date of death August 10, 1994 (91 years 92 days)
  • Height 4 ft 10 in
  • Other roles Journalist

Born in Canada, Kay Defried came to England in her twenties and married Henry Petre in 1929. He was a keen flier who used the airstrip at Brooklands, and it was through that link she became interested in cars. A tiny woman - she was 4'10" - she began racing in a Wolseley Hornet bought for her by her husband, going on to compete in a number of different cars.

In 1933 she bought her first racing car - a two-litre Bugatti - and was soon making her mark at Brooklands, as well as taking part in hillclimbs and in 1934 she competed in, and finished, the Le Mans 24 Hour race partnered by Dorothy Champney.

She was also keen on speed for its own sake, chasing records. In a massive 10.5-litre Delage, the diminutive Petre was almost swamped - years later it emerged she had wooden blocks attached to the pedals to enable her to reach them.

On October 26, 1934 she set a circuit record when she clocked 129.58mph on a lap; ten months later her rival Gwenda Stewart broke it. Petre, looking on, immediately went out and smashed Stewart's time. Three days after that Stewart again drove faster, and this time Petre admitted defeat.

She took part in the 1937 South African Grand Prix, and back at home continued to turn in steadily impressive performances. But during a practice run for the Brooklands 500 Miles she was hit side-on by Reg Parnell's vehicle which had stalled high on the banking and slid down as she passed. She was crushed, suffering serious head injuries and was left in a coma.

In 1938 she made a final appearance at her beloved Brooklands, cheered to the rafters by the crowd, but by her own admission her nerve had gone. She never raced again, but did take up rallying, initially as a navigator but later as a driver.

By this time she was working as a motoring journalist and after the war was employed on the design team of Austin where, among other accomplishments, she helped select colours for the interior of the original Minis.

Her husband died in 1962 and she never remarried.
Martin Williamson

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