16 November 1900 – 5 January 1994
Elisabeth Junek (née Pospíšilová), the most successful and famous lady racing driver of the Twenties, was born on 16 November 1900 in Olomouc, in what is now the Czech Republic. In 1920, she and her brother Stanislav spent time in France, where Elisabeth drove a car for the first time.
In 1922, she returned to Prague and in June that year married Čeněk Junek. Elisabeth was keen to share his hobby of motorsport, so she took a driving test and from 1922 until August 1924 accompanied her husband in his racing efforts. They also bought the delicate Bugatti type 29/30, the winning car of the Brescia Grand Prix, that they’d first seen in Paris.
During her brief racing career (September 1924 – June 1928), Elisabeth mastered hillclimbs, circuit racing and long-distance driving, but her most significant success was at the Targa Florio in Sicily. Her first Targa (in 1927) was cut short, as her Bugatti T37 failed while she was running in second place. However, the following year she finished fifth, despite problems with her Bugatti T35B on the last lap, and also scooped the cup for the fastest second round, the cup for best amateur performance, and the women’s prize. On her arrival back home, she was dubbed ‘the queen of the wheel’.
The greatest achievements of Elisabeth Junek’s career are considered to be:
- 1st place in the Zbraslav-Jíloviště hillclimb (1926)
- 2nd place in the under-2-litre sports car class Klausenpass hillclimb (1926)
- 1st place in the under-3-litre sports cars class German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring (1927)
- 1st place in the Coupé des Dames (1927)
- 1st place for lady drivers in the Grand Prix of Montlhéry (1927)
- 5th place in the Targa Florio (1928)
Klausenpass was considered the most difficult hillclimb and it was also the first start abroad for Elisabeth. Although it was early August, there was plenty of rain and even some snow showers. The 21.5km track had a 1,273m difference in altitude from start to finish, the finish line itself being at almost 2,000m. When Elisabeth started her run, a tropical downpour was raging in the lowest points, there was fog in the middle and 6cm of fresh snow at the top. Rudolf Caracciola finished in 20min 50sec in a supercharged works Mercedes – Elisabeth, in a naturally aspirated two-litre sports Bugatti, was 11 seconds faster.
Tragically, her husband Čeněk suffered a fatal crash at the Nürburgring on 15 July 1928, after which Elisabeth temporarily abandoned racing, although her motoring interests continued.
In early 1929, she undertook a 6,000km trip around India for Bugatti in their B-44 model and then participated in the 1929 Targa Florio as a steward. In the 1930s, she was co-author of the book Autokompas, and briefly travelled to Spain to test racing cars and act as a sports official. She helped to design the Masaryk circuit in Brno and was the main force in organising the race there. Using the influence that came with her name, she helped to convince important drivers such as Louis Chiron to compete at Brno. In October 1933, she took a permanent job in Jan Baťa’s emerging tyre production department, responsible for the wholesale business.
During the Second World War, she was involved in the domestic resistance movement and, in the Prague Uprising in May 1945, she made her flat available to the Czechoslovak military command as an observation point.
Post-War, Elisabeth Junek continued to work in the tyre industry. After the merger of the Baťa, Rubena Náchod, and Matador companies, she created the Barum brand and kept the stylised Baťa font, which Barum uses to this day.
She also helped organise the Masaryk circuit races, speedway and off-road motorcycle races, and the six-day international enduro competitions held in Czechoslovakia. For her racing achievements, she was invited to join the exclusive membership of the CIAPGP (International Club of Past Grand Prix Winners) in 1964. As an active CIAPGP member, she was responsible for events held in Eastern Europe, and in August 1983 was delegated to the Grand Prix of Hungary.
In 1966, she participated in the historic 50th Targa Florio and Premier Tour de la Principauté Monte Carlo with Alois Samohýl in his 1908 Laurin & Klement, thus returning to the international spotlight.
Over the years, she became a member of many honourable foreign automobile associations. In August 1986, she participated in celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the American Bugatti Club in Rockport, Maine and in 1987, the club dedicated a sculpture to her by the American sculptor Tom Malahn (alias Le Garagiste), depicting a scene with boulders on the last lap of the 1928 Targa Florio.
Also in 1987, she took part in the 60th anniversary of the 1st Grand Prix of Germany at the Nürburgring and in 1988, French President François Mitterrand and his wife visited Elisabeth in the Pod Petřínem hospital as part of their state visit to Czechoslovakia.
Due to her declining health, in 1991 she was unable to participate in the introduction of the latest Bugatti 110 to commemorate the 110th birth anniversary of Ettore Bugatti. To mark this occasion, the French medal-maker C. Gondard created a piece 15.5cm in diameter with Ettore Bugatti on the front and Elisabeth Junek on the reverse, which was presented to her in Prague.
A memorial bust of Elisabeth Junek was later unveiled in the building that houses the Automobile Club of the Czech Republic.
“I will never forget Mrs. Elisabeth Junek. I can still see her vividly in front of me, with her ashy blond hair and her tender figure and her soft singing voice. This remarkable petite Mrs. Junek is anything but an adventurous tomboy who would be fighting with the powerful horsepower hidden in the engines. When she was sitting at the wheel of her yellow-black Bugatti, she was always as feminine and elegant as she was when sitting in her own salon, looking out the window at the beautiful ‘Golden City’ panorama.”- Alfred Neubauer, long-time Mercedes Benz team principal
“I have proved that a woman can work her way to the same level as the best men in my field, but that is not so significant. What is important is the proof that she can develop according to her own natural feminine qualities and abilities. We are too inclined to explain our failures by complaining about nature. It is more useful to grumble less and train more. Then we see that many handicaps can, in fact, be surpassed.”- Elisabeth Junek