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Although road conditions have improved markedly in the last 70 years, it’s hard to imagine your 66-year old grandma driving right around Australia in just 20 days.  Better still, can you imagine your grandma driving right around Australia in a 17,000 kilometre car trial in a Volkswagen Beetle in 20 days, over some of the roughest roads, goat tracks and dust bowls that you could possibly ever come across? And against 181 other crews in a Redex Trial? Back in 1955, Charlotte Hayes, a feisty Scottish grandmother who loved Highland dancing, set out on one of Australia’s most-remembered marathon Redex car trials. She did so driving her private VW right around Australia and back to the finish in Sydney, with no more damage to her VW than two chassis cracks, and in 31st position. The story of Charlotte “Granny” Hayes is a remarkable one that has remained pretty much untold. But thanks to the discovery of a wonderful scrapbook of newspaper clippings that she kept at the time, her story can be told. It’s not that her trip around Australia was all that noteworthy or spectacular, it’s just that the image of a grandmother achieving the feat is quite remarkable.

What every mature-aged woman would have worn while rallying in the fifties! Note the fluffy slippers!

The 1955 event has gone down in history as one of the toughest of the Round Australias ever run and ended in a major debacle when the field of cars were taken through a bottomless swamp near Wee Jasper, just outside Canberra, not long before the finish. This section decimated the field. It was to be the last Redex Trial, because the company pulled out after a bitter press condemned the event as being a fiasco. But despite the odds, Granny Hayes and her crew were one of several handfuls of crews who managed to cross the finish line in Sydney. Cartoonists of the day often depicted a grandmother as being dressed in what we would now consider as daggy old clothes – a woollen overcoat over a tartan skirt and woollen twin set (a matching knitted jumper and cardigan), knitted beret on her head, handbag, gloves, brooch, thick stockings and black leather “matron’s” shoes, typical, in fact of how Granny Hayes actually dressed in 1955. For the time, her mode of dress was nothing unusual for a matronly senior citizen, but the image didn’t seem to fit well with the other trials competitors who were seen as a rough and tumble rabble of car nuts who didn’t mind going without washing, clean clothes or shaving for weeks on end as they battled their way around Australia. For them a dirty old pair of trousers and a dirty singlet were good enough attire, particularly in what was primarily a “blokey” type of activity.

There were several all-girl teams in the 1955 Redex Trial, including a team from the Australian Women's Weekly.

Granny Hayes was one of a number of competitors, including the legendary Laurie Whitehead and Laurie Perkins, who drove Volkswagen 1200s. With Volkswagen having just arrived on the Australian market, it was good policy for them to have a woman driving one, as well as a couple of respected rally drivers in others. VW’s reputation for building strong and reliable cars was just becoming well known, and was enhanced when VWs took major placings (eventually!) in the ’55 Redex Trial. Although it seems Granny Hayes’ car wasn’t factory supported, her eventual 31st outright placing out of 57 finishers encouraged Volkswagen Australia to publicise her achievement in such influential publications as the Australian Women’s Weekly and the Readers Digest. Even in those long-gone days, that was quite a feather in anyone’s cap. Despite cardigan, brooche and thick ‘lisle’ stockings (ask your granny!), she was the only woman in the entire field who completed the entire course. Charlotte (Granny) Hayes was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and migrated to Australia in 1912. Although nothing much was known about her until she posted off her entry for the 1955 Redex Trial, the fact that she was one of only 14 women who had entered made her newsworthy. Charlotte Hayes was apparently a businesswoman who regularly drove from Melbourne to Sydney on business trips and who claimed that “driving holds no fears for me.”  That in itself, for a 66-year old in 1955, was an indication of her tough Scottish make-up.

Granny Hayes and her son, George, teamed up in the 1955 Redex Trial.

Having entered the event in her Volkswagen, registered GHY 574, she enlisted the help of her son, George Ross, aged 42, a cartage contractor from Newport in Melbourne, and Jack “Fatso” Ricardi, a mechanic, from Sunshine, none of whom had had any previous trials experience. Perhaps they had entered after reading and hearing about the first two Redex Trials. These events captured the imagination of almost everyone in Australia during 1953 and 1954, at a time when post-war Australia was becoming increasingly keen on exploring the big continent. The opportunity to drive right around the country, exploring its vastness and its grandeur, appealed to many people who were beginning to break the shackles that the war years had imposed on them. Covering the continent in an organised, 17,000 kilometre adventure must have appealed to many hardy souls, not the least Granny Hayes. But giving her credit where it was due, Granny Hayes did not go into the event unprepared. Part of her pre-event readiness consisted of driving from Melbourne to Adelaide and return under similar trials conditions to what the Redex would throw up, and keeping to a strict time schedule.

Granny Hayes says farewell to a friend before heading off on the Redex Trial.

One can imagine that road conditions, even between Australia’s capital cities, more than 60 years ago, were very different to today’s super highways. As a final shakedown, just days before the start, Granny, George and Jack drove their Volkswagen to Sydney in readiness for their biggest adventure ever. Granny Hayes’ result would have been even better if she and her team hadn’t been penalised an additional 500 points when the post-event scrutineers discovered two small cracks in the floor pan of her Volkswagen, an offence which the organisers took seriously, docking points from many other crews as well. To expect a car – any car – to circumnavigate Australia under those conditions without sustaining any body damage at all was a ridiculous notion. To make it right around and cross the finish line under your own power was an achievement in itself. Not a great deal more is known about Granny Hayes and her exploits in Round Australia car trials, but we do know that one event wasn’t enough to satisfy her appetite for adventure. Her diary and scrapbook also revealed photos of her next car, a Fiat 600, which she entered in the 1956 Ampol Trial, one of two events (the other was the Mobilgas Trial) that took over from where the Redex Trial left off.

Granny Hayes brings her Volkswagen over the finish line after the gruelling 1955 event.

Similarly dressed – handbag, coat, hat, brooche and gloves – 67-year old Charlotte “Granny” Hayes posed for the camera outside Melbourne’s Devon Motors with her new Round Australia car. It’s not known how far she and son, George Ross, got in the 1956 trial. All we know is that one Fiat started the event and none finished, her dream of driving right around Australia twice probably dashed by the Fiat 600’s unsuitability for the rugged conditions. A Volkswagen the Fiat wasn’t! Regardless of how much of the actual driving Granny Hayes did in the 1955 Redex Trial, it was a remarkable achievement that must have taken a great deal of determination, stamina and guts. Not many people, women or men, can claim to have started, finished and survived such a gruelling event. And certainly not at age 66! We take our hat off to Granny Hayes, an unknown (until now) Australian rallying pioneer.
  • All photos from the RallySport Magazine archive
Footnote: The results of the 1957 Ampol Trial list a “G. Ross” as finishing third in class in a Fiat 600. It seems likely that “G. Ross” was Granny Hayes’ son, but the results do not mention Granny herself as a competitor that year.

Granny Hayes' second Round Australia attempt in a Fiat 600 was unsuccessful.

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