In the winter of 1928, Fay Taylour boarded a ship that would take her across the tumultuous ocean, from England all the way to Australia. Taylour brought only her most prized possessions: a suitcase packed with her riding leathers and her two motorcycles, a Douglas and a backup Rudge. She was doing what no one—man or woman—in the United Kingdom had ever done before. She was going speedway racing.
Taylour had a bit of a confusing heritage. She was born to a mixed Irish and English family and grew up isolated from her peers until going to an all-female boarding school. As the middle child, racing was just her way of having a little bit of fun while her parents doted on her older and younger sisters. According to Fay Taylour: Queen of Speedway by Brian Belton, she begged the gardener to help her go fast, and the man produced a four-wheeled speed demon crafted out of an old toboggan.
It became her obsession. Taylour would take the “boggie car” to the top of a hill, then push off and go careening down the lush grass, avoiding flowers, in the hope that she’d be able to whip the thing around and pull off a burnout down below. When she outgrew that, and when her parents upgraded from horse and buggy to car, she was one of the first behind the wheel begging to be taught how to drive.
The passion for speed was there, but it wasn’t until after college that Taylour really understood the freedom that a motorcycle could give her. Her mother fell ill, and with both of her other sisters pursuing medical degrees or getting married, Taylour was essentially only educated in the domestic arts, graduating just in time to start taking care of the house after her mother’s death.
Unfortunately, her father had moved out to the middle of nowhere. Taylour had no close contact to anyone her age unless she took the family vehicle out to hockey practice or one of those social gatherings that young women of a certain class were supposed to participate in—ones that Taylour absolutely hated.
So it was something of a lucky break when her car broke down and she had to take it into the shop where a flirtatious mechanic talked her into buying her first motorcycle.
That was the freedom she needed. Suddenly, with a vehicle of her own, Taylor was able to drive around the countryside as much as she liked. And it also meant that a local motorcycle dealer, Carlton Harmon, spotted her and talked her into participating in the Southern Scot Scramble.
Basically, the Scramble was a mad dash up the side of several incredibly steep hills. Whoever was able to do it the fastest and with the best form would be crowned the winner. Fay was by no means a tiny girl, but she was lithe in ways that many of her competitors weren’t. On that first ever run, Taylour didn’t win—but she did beat quite a few factory-backed big-name racers, and she won both the Novice and Venus cups for being the fastest rookie and fastest woman.
From there on out, Taylour was unstoppable. She spent about a year participating in trial runs and endurance races, where she quickly honed her skills as a driver. Before long, she was winning gold medals in the Leeds, National Alan, and Travers Trophy trials, with a handsome mix of silver and bronze thrown in there, too. She quickly made a name for herself as a rider to be reckoned with.
And people were willing to acknowledge that.
Since it was still a little strange to immediately sign a woman to a works team, the Rudge motorcycle company signed her on as a secretary. Taylour, though, had much bigger plans. She did a horrible job manning the front desk because she was spending more time out in the garage than most of the men in the factory. Rudge basically had to accept defeat and start entering her in trials with a 500cc four-valve competition bike.
With it, she won the Ladies’ Award at the London-Gloucester-London Trial, where she realized something fishy was happening. She couldn’t quite match the speeds of some of her male competitors. As it turned out, Rudge had added a compression plate below her cylinder barrel, which was basically keeping her from hitting her maximum potential.
That night, she tore out her motor, brought it to her hotel room, and worked into the early hours of the morning to remove the plate and rebuild the motor to her satisfaction. Unfortunately, the late night meant she showed up late to the Trial. Despite a perfect ride, Taylour had to content herself with second place due to a penalty.
It’s a pretty understandably frustrating thing to have your own factory team slowing you down. As per Belton’s biography, Taylour felt stuck at an impasse. She was madly in love with riding, but there was so much annoyance involved that it was hard for her to be as successful as she could be.
Enter: speedway racing.
In essence, speedway racing was motorcycle dirt track racing that had popped up in Australia and America before making its way to England’s horse tracks. She watched American rider “Sprouts” Elder broadslide his Douglas machine around the sharp turns and was enamoured. How did this tall man manage to stay on his bike when it looked like he was about to lose balance and topple over onto the ground? How did he manage to stay just fractions of an inch above the dirt?
She went around immediately trying to find a dirt track that would let her race. But no one was particularly keen on it. Speedway racing was a much different beast than trial riding, and no one was quite sure a woman of all people would have the mettle to make it.
So, off she went to a leather shop in London to get herself some riding leathers fitted, anyway. It was there, trying on helmets, that she met Lionel Wills. Wills was a wealthy tobacco heir who had fallen in love with speedway in its native Australia. He and Fay introduced themselves, and thus began a long, long partnership that was both professional and somewhat romantic.
He was able to drop her name with the right people and tell her what she needed to do to race. Annoyed at Rudge for their compressor fiasco, Taylour kept the machine, fitted it with a hook for her knee, and was able to sneak into a practice session at Crystal Palace.
Speedway racing was much harder than trials. Taylour spent more time on the ground than she did on her bike during her first few runs, but she was undeterred. She kept getting back up, throwing herself into the corners as she learned to broadslide. The secret, she found, was not letting up on the accelerator in the slightest. She had to power through the corner at full blast—it was the only way she’d be able to right herself after the momentum of the turn.
Wills was there the give her a helping hand getting a foot in the door. The track manager was not pleased to hear that there was a woman on his cinders, but Wills told a cheeky lie by claiming that Taylour had been signed by plenty of other tracks, and he’d be missing out if he didn’t sign her. So, Taylour was given a week of practice before her debut race. She even went out and bought a bigger, heavier Douglas for the big day.
Back then, no one believed a woman could compete against the men without a little help. So, during many of her first races, Fay was often given a head start of three to five seconds—it was the only way people could imagine a woman even having a chance to lead an event. But when she started taking home win after win, tracks stopped giving Taylour the advantage. And she still was managing to kick a whole lot of butt.
So much so that she decided to head to Australia.
See, back then, the Australians would head up to Europe to compete from March to October. After that, they’d head back home where the weather was beautiful to keep on going. No one in Europe had quite realized that they could do that too. Not until 1928, when Fay Taylour announced that she was going to be the first dirt track racer from Europe or the USA to compete on Australian turf.
And she made a name for herself there, too. Women weren’t a big on-track phenomenon, even Down Under, and Taylour became an incredible marketing tool for a lot of tracks. Especially after she managed to defeat local legend Sig Schlam in Perth—by beating him in competition and beating his lap record.
She had no contracts when she showed up in Australia, but Taylour’s immediate success and personable attitude made her a hot commodity. She went out and won races in front of crowds of tens of thousands—many of whom had turned out specifically to see her, the British-Irish female rider who had come down to compete for them.
It was an incredibly successful few years for Taylour. Upon returning to England, her skills had obviously been refined in contrast to her British male counterparts who had taken the winter off. She was back to winning races, including international competitions that saw her coming out on top. She rode her tide of success through 1929, all the way back down to Australia, where she was greeted as the star she continued to prove herself to be.
But then: that was it.
When Taylour returned to the UK in the spring of 1930, she was greeted with some bad news. Women had been banned from dirt track racing. Try as she might, even Taylour couldn’t use her star status as a way to find a loophole in the rules.
According to Belton’s research, the novelty of the female driver was thought to have run out. Taylour used to be a great marketing tool—come watch the lady race against the men!—but her success and the droves of female riders who were looking to follow in her footsteps were becoming a bit much. The male riders were upset at being championed by women. They were upset that these silly girls were coming to their track.
So, under the guise of the claim that dirt track racing would be banned outright if a woman was killed in this dangerous sport, the British government kept women off the motorcycle.
Taylour had a hard time accepting a life lived at anything less than full throttle. She decided to convert to four wheels for much of the rest of her life, competing in legendary competitions like the Mille Miglia.
But the banning of women had left a bad taste in Taylour’s mouth. According to Belton, her diaries were rife with anger and hurt and a feeling that Britain had almost rallied against her. As soon as Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, Taylour sided with the fascists. She joined the British Union of Fascists and attended meetings of the Right Club, where she was inspired to hand out pro-German leaflets to her fellow Brits.
In 1940, Taylour was arrested at home and interned for three years at various different prisons due to her pro-Hitler stance. She was exiled to Ireland in ‘43, as she was still registered as a citizen there, but she remained under observation for most of her life. She tried to get back into racing, but her name had become so tarnished that no one wanted to be associated with her. She had a very brief career racing midgets in the USA, but she was growing older and turned instead to a desperate attempt to document her life, either via memoir, autobiography, or film.
No one would publish her. She had squandered her accomplishments in the midst of a war by choosing the wrong side, potentially out of spite. Taylour passed away in 1983, when she died from a stroke.
It’s a difficult end to come to terms with. I was head-over-heels for this dangerous woman who was so hellbent on racing that she’d travel across the world just for a shot at taking down Australia’s biggest names and replacing their legend with her own. But her political leanings during WWII were frustrating and frustrated—and most of all, unforgivable in the face of the tragedy wrought at the end of the war.
Fay Taylour has still made her mark in history, though. She is easily the winningest female driver I’ve covered in this series, the one who most easily found her niche and carved out a place for herself in history. That is not something we can understate.