Jean Denton was an international rally driver between 1969 and 1972, after some years as a circuit racer.
She did particularly well in long-distance events, such as the 1968 London-Sydney rally, in which she won the sportscar class in her MGB. Her co-driver was Tom Boyce, a Canadian who had been a friend of Jean and her husband Tony at the London School of Economics, where they all studied. They were 42nd overall, out of 56 finishers and 100 starters. Jean was just pipped to the Coupe des Dames by the Volvo crew led by Elsie Gadd, who were 41st. The MGB was sponsored by Nova, an influential fashion magazine of the time. Jean was a marketing consultant for IPC Magazines, who knew how to use her contacts well.
In the 1970 World Cup event, which ended in Mexico, she, Pat Wright and Liz Crellin were eighteenth in a Morris 1800. Again, they did not manage to get the Ladies’ award, which went to tenth-place finisher, Rosemary Smith, in an Austin Maxi. Jean, however, did manage to secure another good sponsorship package. The car was nicknamed “The Beauty Box”, and was sponsored by Woman magazine.
Jean usually drove BMC/Leyland cars, including an Austin–Healey Sprite in the 1970 RAC Rally. It is not clear whether or not she and co-driver Sandy Lawson finished.
Despite her usual loyalty to British power, she drove a Fiat 128 on the RAC Rally in 1972. Her co-driver was the experienced Elma Lewsey, and they were 80th.
Rallying was not her first love, but her motorsport career had a far from orthodox trajectory. Her background was academic, and not particularly sporty. She did not even learn to drive until 1961, when she was 26. Just four years later, she was competing in a Cooper single-seater that had previously belonged to Jackie Stewart. In this car, she was ninth in the 1965 Leinster Trophy, in Ireland.
In between, she drove a Mini in British club races, although she sometimes found it lacking in power. The Mini was her first racing car, and she began driving it shortly after passing her driving test.
After a while, the expense of maintaining the Cooper to a competitive standard became too much, and Jean took a sideways step into sportscar racing. Her first experiences in a sports racer were in a Morgan Plus 4, much earlier, in 1964. In this car, she won a Ladies’ Handicap at Brands Hatch, organised by the London Motor Club.
In 1966, she started racing a heavily tuned MGB on the British circuits. Her first major race in this car seems to have been that year’s Brands Hatch 500 Miles. Driving with her husband, Tony, Jean was twelfth overall.
Another year of racing the MGB in the UK followed, although details are a little sketchy. One of the races she entered was a Ladies’ Handicap, part of the Oulton Park Spring Cup. This event was associated with the British Women Racing Drivers’ Club, of which Jean was a long-standing member. She was fifth overall.
In 1968, her career went pan-European, with appearances in races at Vila Real, Montes Claros and Mugello. Sadly, the results seem to have been lost. She entered the Nürburgring 1000km with fellow BWRDC member, Natalie Goodwin, but they did not finish. This was a big race, a round of the World Championship for Makes, and won by Jo Siffert and Vic Elford, in a Porsche 908.
This year, she won the second of her British Women’s Racing championships, awarded by the BWRDC.
A second attempt at the Nürburgring 1000km in 1969 led to a finish, in 36th place. Jean was driving an MGB for her own team, and assisted by Mike Garton. The pair raced together in Europe at least twice more that year, at Mugello and Barcelona, but did not make the finish either time.
Jean only became a rally driver through a coincidence. She was apparently at the dentist’s, and found out that the dentist rallied himself. She thought it sounded like a good idea, and got in touch with Tom Boyce again, who, she knew, owned a rally-prepared MG. Her husband, Tony, was unsuitable as a co-driver, as he often suffered motion sickness when a passenger in fast cars. Thus began the professional part of her motorsport career, in 1968, from very unlikely origins.
After 1972, she retired from active competition, and returned to the world of business. Bringing her race and rally experience with her, she worked in corporate communications in the motor industry, up to and including being the head of that department in the MG Rover Group, previously her staunchly-supported British Leyland. She was the most senior woman in the British motor industry.
Later, she became a Conservative politician and a Cabinet member, at first in the Trade and Industry Office, and then in 1994, the Northern Ireland Office, until the Conservatives were deposed in 1997. She was made Baroness Denton of Wakefield in recognition of her achievements.
She died in 2001, of cancer. Before her death, she used her influence and organisational skills to set up a support group called “Women On The Move Against Cancer.”
She is fondly remembered in motorsport circles as being down-to-earth and funny, as well as being a good driver and a highly organised team co-ordinator.
Author Rachel Harris Gardiner