The Racing Queen of the Jazz Age: Eliška Junková

Post DD

Born at the dawn of a new century, right on the cusp of the age of the commercial automobile, Alžběta Junková would capture the age of jazz with her golden hands behind the wheel of her very own racing car, a Bugatti no less, the first woman to win the greatest race on Earth – The Grand Prix. Moreover, she would go down in history as the greatest female racing driver of all time. She conquered the road and the road almost conquered her. In one foul tragedy, she gave it all up, but in those glory years, Alžběta was the name on everyone’s lips. She sent a tingle down your spine and lit up the road as if it was her effervescent soul. So how did she take the world by storm, lose everything and be forgotten by pretty much everyone today? This is the story of the rise and fall of Alžběta Junková…

Prologue.

Alžběta Junková was born in the sleepy town of Olomouc, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She liked to be known as Eliška (el-lish-ka). She was the sixth of eight children born to a blacksmith – only four of the children made it to adulthood. This was the start of the 20th century and there was a cheery mood in the air – Eliška dreamt of travelling the world, her ever-present smile her most noted feature. But however would she do this?

She LOVED to study foreign languages and by the age of 16, she spoke fluent German and passable English (just like Londoners, then), which helped her land a job at a bank. Apparently. It was here she met the love of her life – Vincenc ‘Čeněk’ Junek, a man who was ambitious. He had been discharged by the army after being shot in the hand. Golly.

Both these young people were innocent yet headstrong, initially not really liking each other a great deal. But Eliška saw something in him – she was his first pick of new employee when he opened a new bank across town. Me? Oh, how nice of you! Clearly his favourite. The others weren’t best pleased, one assumes. And, over the next six months, romance blossomed between the two. She even followed him to Prague. He got a job there. She wasn’t a stalker.

Being in Prague, Eliška decided to immerse herself in the French language. Hmm. Eventually, Čeněk (shen-nek) proposed, so Eliška, not wanting to get married, moved to France. Ouch, that’s gotta hurt. She started work in a garden nursery, still dreaming big of seeing that big wide world. The deserts of North Africa! That’s where I shall go! Then to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Screw this gardening, she thought, I’m doing it!

So she packed her bags and headed to Gibraltar – where the Spanish customs officers wouldn’t let her embark for Maghreb. Still, she was DETERMINED to see Africa so she blagged her way onto a British ship heading that way. She applied for a job in the kitchen. “Experience? Me? Oh, erm… yes. YES! I have loads of that. TONS, in fact…”

She didn’t. And it almost worked. Except she was denied a visa in London and so, dejected, she headed back to her garden in France. What would her future hold?

Love, Čeněk Style.

Saddened and alone, Eliška sat at a café in Paris. Her dreams had gone up in smoke and she was completely lost. What’s that? Over there – in the distance? A man? He looks familiar. Yes, I recognise that man! Oh, shit, it’s Čeněk! Is he mad? Why is he here in Paris after I turned down his proposal of marriage and left him? It’s a very good question, Eliška. He still loved her. And he wanted to be there for her in her hour of need. So he packed his bags and went to Paris. Aww.

Except it wasn’t this romantic because they met in a car garage. Still in Paris. And he had come for her. But 1921, Čeněk had made so much money what with the Czechoslovak First Republic coming into fruition HE could finally indulge in HIS passion – fast cars. Real fast ones. Eliška didn’t share this passion at first, but she was so enamoured by Čeněk showing up just for her that she felt like she should at least show some kind of interest.

“If he is going to be the love of my life,” Eliška later recalled, “Then I better learn to love these damned engines.”

It wasn’t long before she became smitten with the cars, becoming as passionate about them as Čeněk was. The beauty, the speed, the raw adrenaline – oh, she felt SO alive! The passion was burning deep inside. The Italian designed, French made Bugatti’s especially took her fancy. So, with Čeněk, she returned to Prague, learning to drive in secret, getting her driver’s license. Čeněk, meanwhile, had decided to become a racing driver. In 1922, the couple won the Zbraslav-Jiloviste race, Europe’s oldest uphill course. Eliška rode as a riding mechanic – race cars back then were unreliable, so a mechanic, in this case, Eliška, had to ride along. And shortly after the race, they married!

She finally said ‘yes’, it seems. Imagine if she didn’t. “I CAME TO PARIS FOR YOU!”

Before long, the couple began competing in local racing events as a husband-and-wife team; because of his injuries during the war, Čeněk had trouble with the gear changes, so in these races, Eliška took over. In the autumn of 1922, they bought a Bugatti Type 30, a cigar-shaped racer. After a tough win in 1923, Čeněk gave Eliška the car! It would become her trademark.

First Paris and now a car! I guess he really would do anything for love.

Like a Bat out of Hell.

Buying a Bugatti back then, much like now, was a thing of pure prestige. Its founder, Ettore Bugatti, grew up in a house of artists and it really shows. His cars were unique, totally and utterly unique. In Eliška’s time, Bugatti’s made the most luxurious and sought-after automobiles on the planet. Oh, and the most expensive. But their pedigree lay with racing cars and when it came to that, few were better OR faster…

Ettore’s best friend was named Čeněk and if you’re thinking, ‘Hang on, is that the same one Eliška is married to?’ Yes. Yes it was. A close friend and a faithful customer. Their cars were so beautiful and both Čeněk and Eliška were in love. Bitten by the racing bug, Eliška was ready to race. Her knowledge of the intricacies of auto repair gave her the wherewithal to hold her own on any track.

In 1924, Eliška WON the touring car division of Switzerland’s Lochotín-Třemošná, becoming an overnight celebrity. To celebrate, the couple bought ANOTHER Bugatti. And she was the only woman on the track – the men were NOT happy, to say the least. At every interview, they did all they could to discredit her, arguing that, as a woman, she ‘lacked the strength or the grit to compete’. Ah, men are brilliant, aren’t we?

Eliška demonstrated immense tactical prowess and rigorous preparation to become one of the hottest new sensations of her day. By 1926, Eliška was so good she started competing in races throughout Europe, against all the best male drivers of the age. The glamorous couple were often seen in the high society corners of Czechoslovakia, a young country desperate for national heroes. One magazine wrote of the racing couple:

‘What a beautiful sporting couple; Junek and his wife. His dedicated and excited pupil, in whose slim body is beating the heart of a brave man and whose childlike hands drive her car with unmistakable security and at great speed through tight curves.’

Childlike hands? Oh, I shouldn’t laugh. Titter. Different time? It’s sort of a compliment, at least. They were trying. In their own very, very unique way…

The ‘20s was a golden age for Eliška – in 1926, she took second place at Klaussenpass in Switzerland and she did exceptionally well at the famed Targa Florio in Sicily, the most demanding course on Earth. Before the race, Eliška walked the entire track, committing to memory the 1500 corners of the 67-mile long course. The male drivers looked on, laughed and pointed at her. They truly believed she would lack the stamina to finish the race.

BUT, Eliška was so technically gifted her memory WAS her strength – no driver before her had walked a track before a race. She remembered landmarks and carefully examined the best lines out of the corners. She was in fourth – until she crashed. Her steering failed and she flew into a ditch, only feet from a very, very tall cliff. She faced difficulties again in 1928 when she took on the track for a second time, but that time, she managed to get her Bugatti to the finish line even though the water pump… kinda blew up. And she had a puncture! She finished fifth. Not bad going. For a seven hour race. Nine minutes behind the leader! Considering what she suffered on the track that day, pretty good going.

After returning from Sicily, Eliška was the centre of attention. Whenever she drove through, dozens of motorcyclists followed and cheering crowds lined the streets. Nothing could deter her. It wasn’t long before she was back in the saddle, ready to go again…

The Nürburgring.

For petrolheads like me, nowhere is more fearsome than the Nürburgring, a racing track in Germany. 78 people have died on that track since its inception in the 1920s. And Eliška was well-up for a go. She entered the German Grand Prix race for two-litre sports cars… AND SHE WON! She finally won. Eliška was a very tiny woman – when the race was done, one very husky competitor gave her a hug… breaking two of her ribs. Whoops.

She might not have won the event outright but she won her class and no woman had done that before. Eliška was unstoppable. Whilst other women were encountering resistance left, right and centre, Eliška was now well-loved by just about everyone. She had proven herself on the track. To make herself more appealing to the public, Eliška Anglicised her name… she became Elizabeth. Her fame was spreading across Europe as the press dubbed her the ‘Queen of the Steering Wheel’. Hmm.

However, her world came crashing down in 1928. During the German Grand Prix of that year, Eliška traded places with her husband. Sadly, he was involved in a deadly crash. Eliška watched on as the car erupted into a fireball. She knew. “NO!” she screamed, feeling weak at the knees. Everyone knew. Čeněk was dead. Overwhelmed by his death, Eliška sold her two Bugatti’s and Mercedes, announcing her immediate retirement from racing. She had no idea what to do with her life. Her entire world had vanished before her eyes.

Thankfully, Ettore Bugatti was right by her side throughout it all, and it was Ettore who helped Eliška learn to live again…

The Travelling Czech.

Eliška’s glory years were few in number but she had achieved so much in that time – she returned to her first love, long before Čeněk and racing. She travelled. She hit Ceylon and Ettore Bugatti, who remained good friends with Eliška, gave her a new touring car for the journey. And best of all, not only did she go travelling as she always wanted to do, shortly after World War II she found love again and remarried.

However, Eliška never raced again and the communist government of the day, disapproving of her high-flying, bourgeois lifestyle, refused to allow her to travel abroad. She was stuck behind the Iron Curtain, where, as time went by, she was slowly forgotten as new women of motorsports took centre stage. Not that Eliška really cared all too much. She remained unflappable, and tiny, well into old age.

She died on January 5th, 1994, in Prague. In my lifetime! That’s amazing. One of my all-time heroes. She was 93. Not too shabby.

Epilogue.

Other women in racing may and have come and gone since Eliška’s golden age, but her influence on racing is unfathomably huge. She was the first to say that a race can be won with something other than brawn, but with the might of intelligence. Wit and analysis, plus that awesome skill she possessed, were all she needed to not only compete with the women of her day, but the men of her day. She earned their respect because of her hard work and her determination to win. And she did it all in a shouty bright yellow Bugatti. THAT’S how to win in style.

For her time, Eliška was a crucial role model for young girls, proving that they too could take the wheel and be a success. It’s impossible to know just how many women have taken up motorsports because of Eliška, but she knew what she was doing. She knew that, in the age of jazz, women needed other women to look up to, a role she was very happy to play. She left her mark on history as a legendary racer, and although not many know of her, for others, like me, she is one of the all-time great racing drivers. That agility, that intrinsic knowledge of what the best line was and how to win using your brain. It seemed so effortless. She did wonders behind that wheel and did it all with that pleasing smile that, even to the end, never left her face…

Eliška wrote in her memoirs:

“I proved that a woman can work her way up to the same level as the best of men. We women sometimes tend to blame our failures on nature. It is far more productive to be less angry and more hardworking. Some handicaps can easily be overcome.”

Toodle-Pip :}{:


Images
1) Eliška Junková and her famous smile, 2) Eliška Junková and Čeněk with their famous Bugatti.
(credits: thedrive.com/accelerator/2287/celebrate-prewar-racings-finest-female-driver, reflex.cz/galerie/causy/75432/eliska-junkova?foto=0)


I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post. You can leave a comment  below. Likes and follows greatly appreciated.


Please feel free check out the latest posts from my other blogs:
The Indelible Life of Me (New Post Every Saturday)
Click Here to Read the Latest Post
To Contrive & Jive (New Post Every Sunday, Tuesday & Thursday)
Click Here to Read the Latest Post

2 thoughts on “The Racing Queen of the Jazz Age: Eliška Junková

Add yours

  1. Great article, just “The Right Stuff” for me, living close to Molsheim, Alsace,, where all the Bugattis came (and come) from. And owning a 1930ies car myself (sorry, no yellow Bugatti, tant pis!)
    The plot would also make a great Gatsby-like movie, I guess…
    Congrats also for your charming narrative style!!!
    Truly yours
    Mike Pfeiffer

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: