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Sheila Van Damm

Sheila Van Damm (1922-1987), rally driver and theatre director, was born on January 17 1922 in Paddington, London, the daughter of Vivian Van Damm and his wife, Natalie Lyons. Before inheriting the Windmill Theatre in London and initiating its format of non-stop revues, her father had sponsored motorcycle speedway events in the 1920s. However, Sheila's upbringing in an all-girl Jewish family generated no interest in motoring beyond her training as a Women's Auxiliary Air Force driver.

As a promotional stunt for the Windmill Theatre, in November 1950 Sheila Van Damm was persuaded to enter her first motor sporting event, the MCC-Daily Express car rally, driving a factory-prepared Sunbeam Talbot her father had persuaded the Rootes Group to enter, carrying the words "Windmill Girl" on the side of the car. Navigated by her sister Nona, she claimed third place in the ladies' section - a performance which so impressed the Rootes team manager that he invited her to join the all-women crew of a Hillman Minx in the 1951 Monte Carlo rally.

Her first major success was in the 1952 Motor Cycling Club rally, when she won the ladies' prize in a Sunbeam Talbot. Despite disappointment in the 1953 Monte Carlo rally, when a series of punctures forced her out of contention, she soon afterwards entered the record books, outpacing her more illustrious team-mate Stirling Moss to set a class record for 2 to 3-litre cars, driving the prototype Sunbeam Alpine sports car at an average of 120mph at Jabbeke in Belgium.

Described in a contemporary report as "a fresh faced woman, possessed of an infectious sense of fun", Van Damm had an ebullient and outgoing personality which masked a fearsomely competitive and determined approach to her sport. The 1953 alpine rally, one of Europe's toughest events, saw her, co-driving with Anne Hall, win not only the Coupe des Dames, but also one of the coveted Coupes des Alpes.

Van Damm competed in the Great American Mountain rally before claiming, with Hall, another Coupe des Dames in the 1954 Tulip rally of Holland, a performance that also saw her winning outright the ten-lap race around the Zandvoort circuit. Winning a further ladies' award in the 1954 Viking rally in Norway successfully clinched the Ladies' European championship for Van Damm and Hall, a feat that they were to repeat in 1955.

Despite covering over 14,000 miles a year on rallies, Van Damm still managed to combine motor sport with helping her father run the Windmill Theatre. Her final rally for the Rootes team was the 1956 Monte Carlo, in which she overcame myriad problems to finish, but without award-winning success. She was also invited to partner the Le Mans driver Peter Harper at the wheel of a Sunbeam Rapier in the 1956 Mille Miglia road race. Despite the severity of the event, she maintained intact her record of finishing every event which she started in her five-year career. Averaging 66.37mph, she and Harper won their class.

Van Damm maintained her contacts with the motoring world as president of the Doghouse Club for motor racing wives and ladies, and later as president of the Sunbeam Talbot Owners' Club. Her first love, however, remained the Windmill Theatre. She continued its wartime reputation as "the theatre that never closed" and its revue format, supporting young comedians including Peter Sellers, Tony Hancock, Harry Secombe and Bruce Forsyth. She inherited the Windmill from her father in 1960 and energetically presided over the theatre for a further four years, before relinquishing the battle against the advancing tide of strip shows and permissive cinemas in the Soho area which forced it to close in 1964. In later life Van Damm moved to Pulborough, in rural Sussex, where, with her sister, she enjoyed running a small farm. She died in London on 23 August 1987.

 
 
 

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