In 1934, two incredible women, Theresa Wallach and Florence Blenkiron, set out on a 600cc single-cylinder Panther equipped with sidecar and trailer and rode from London to Cape Town, South Africa. No modern roads, no back up plan, just a giant set of balls that any man would envy. Both women were already accomplished competitive racers, who were savvy enough to raise corporate sponsorship– which just goes to show how seriously they were taken as motorcyclists. The pair shot straight across the Sahara through equatorial Africa, and South to the Cape, on the long and brutal trek without so much as a compass. A feat that no man had dared to even attempt.
Here’s the AMA’s account of their story, and the incredible account of Theresa Wallach’s lifetime on two wheels. No wonder she was inducted into their Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
Warning: If you’re anything like me, reading this may make you feel like an epic under-achiever.
Motorcycling pioneer ~ Theresa Wallach
Theresa Wallach was a pioneering motorcyclist whose lifelong involvement in the sport included being a racer, motorcycle adventurer, military dispatch rider, engineer, author, motorcycle dealer, mechanic and riding school instructor. Wallach overcame numerous obstacles that confronted women motorcyclists of her era to become an enduring advocate of the sport. Wallach’s willingness to turn from traditional roles led to a lifestyle full of exploration, adventure and a never-ending dedication to motorcycling. Wallach was in the vanguard of redefining the role of women in motorcycling.
The Panther Redwing Model 100 motorcyle that Wallach & Blenkiron used was fitted with extra heavy-duty Webb forks, heavier gauge wheel spokes, wider mudguards to accommodate Fort Dunlop 3.5 inch car tires, and a Moseley block pillion saddle. The sidecar was a standard Watsonian touring model with long, heavy-duty flat leaf springs at the rear and coil springs at the front. Go read “The Rugged Road”, by Theresa Wallach.
Wallach was born in London, on April 30, 1909. She grew up near the factories that produced the famous British brands of Norton, BSA, Triumph and AJS, and got to know many of the people working at the factories, including test riders, engineers and racers. As a young woman, Wallach learned to ride from some of her motorcycling friends. She was trained by some of the best riders in England and rapidly became a solid rider herself. She tried to become a member of a local motorcycle club, but was denied membership because of her gender.
Undaunted, Wallach continued to ride and learned to work on her motorcycle, again with help from her friends in the motorcycle industry. Eventually, Wallach’s skills on a motorcycle could not be denied. She began competing in local meets and earned numerous trophies. Wallach’s parents made her keep the trophies out of sight, since a woman motorcyclist was still looked down upon in 1930s England. In 1928, she won a scholarship to study engineering at what is now the City University in London.
Adventurers Theresa Wallach & Florence Blenkiron alongside their 600cc single-cylinder Panther motorcycle equipped with a sidecar and trailer.
In 1935, Wallach and her friend, Florence Blenkiron, or “Blenk,” as Wallach called her, embarked on one of the most ambitious motorcycle journeys of the era. Riding a 600cc single-cylinder Panther complete with sidecar and trailer, the two rode from London to Cape Town, South Africa. No roads, no back up, just straight across the Sahara through equatorial Africa, and South to the Cape – in 1935, without even a compass! It was quite simply one of the most radical motorcycle journeys ever.
Undeterred by nomads, sand drifts, heat, rain, rivers, breakdowns and politics, Wallach and Blenkiron completed an expedition that might well defeat a modern motorcycle. From oasis to oasis, arguing with the French Foreign Legion for permission to continue, and winning; fashioning a tow hitch for the trailer when it broke in the desert; rebuilding the entire engine from scratch in Agadez: meeting gorillas, lions and snakes on the road; staying in African villages and meeting an amazing variety of friendly and helpful people. Not to mention having an accident in Tanganyika (Tanzania) with the only car seen on the road for days. At one point the women succeeded in pushing their rig for 25 miles following a total engine failure. The trip made the women celebrities among motorcyclists in England. Wallach documented the fantastic journey in her book “The Rugged Road.”
Adventurers Theresa Wallach & Florence Blenkiron in Africa alongside their 600cc single-cylinder Panther motorcycle equipped with a sidecar and trailer.
With her popularity from the Africa trip, Wallach was accepted by the British racing establishment. In 1939, she achieved her greatest racing accomplishment when she won the British Motorcycle Racing Club’s coveted Gold Star for circling the famous Brooklands circuit at over 100 mph. She was the first woman to accomplish this feat and she did it on a 350cc single-cylinder Norton. The triple-digit average was very rare for such a small-displacement motorcycle in the 1930s.
Wallach continued to be a pioneering woman motorcyclist in World War II. During the war, she served in the Army Transport Corps, first as a mechanic and later as the first woman motorcycle dispatch rider in the British Army.
After the war, Wallach fulfilled a lifelong dream by coming to tour America on a motorcycle. The tour lasted for two-and-a-half years. Wallach supported herself on the long trek by stopping and taking odd jobs – everything from airplane mechanic to dishwasher – just long enough to earn enough money to get back on the road. In all, Wallach rode 32,000 miles across the United States, Canada and Mexico on the tour.
Theresa Wallach on a BSA motorcycle, she owned her own shop that sold and serviced British bikes.
After her American trip, she returned home to Britain only to find a depressed economy and what she described as narrowing horizons. So in 1952, she returned to live in the United States. She moved to Chicago and made a living as a motorcycle mechanic. Early on, no shop would hire Wallach, but after hearing of the quality work she did in her own garage, a shop finally hired her. Eventually, Wallach opened her own motorcycle dealership specializing in British machines.
Her teaching career began unofficially in 1959. Three Chicago businessmen came into her shop to buy BSAs for a European motorcycle trip. Their inexperience was obvious so Wallach refused to sell them the bikes until she taught them the fundamentals of riding. The trio of businessmen took lessons from Wallach and consequently had a very successful trip. It was then that Wallach began devoting more time to instruction.
In 1970, Wallach’s book “Easy Motorcycle Riding” was published and became a top seller. The success of the book led to TV appearances and newspaper articles on Wallach. In 1973, she sold her shop and moved to Phoenix to open the Easy Riding Academy.
“Most of my work is done on an individual basis,” Wallach said in a magazine interview. “One-to-one is still the ultimate teaching ratio. With 20 students in a class, each student is lucky to get a mere 10 minutes or so of instruction. An instructor must be there to guide and direct each person as he is performing.”
Over the years, Wallach successfully taught hundreds of students to become safe and fundamentally sound motorcyclists. In addition to her school, Wallach was heavily involved in the formation and running of the Women’s International Motorcycle Association. She served as WIMA’s first vice president and was active in the association until her death. Having never owned a car, Wallach continued riding until she was 88, when vision problems forced her to give up her license. She died on her 90th birthday in 1999.
Wallach’s love affair with motorcycling is summed up in a quote from a 1977 interview with Road Rider Magazine–
“When I first saw a motorcycle, I got a message from it,” she said. “It was a feeling – the kind of thing that makes a person burst into tears hearing a piece of music or standing awestruck in front of a fine work of art. Motorcycling is a tool with which you can accomplish something meaningful in your life. It is an art.”
Incredible archival footage of wallach & Blenkiron’s epic motorcycle journey
Go out and find a copy now of this epic read “The Rugged Road” by Theresa Wallach.
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