Vivien West: The Fast Lady

Lynne Booker September 2012

Vivien West and husband Richard
Vivien West and husband Richard

Whether it be on roller-skates, bicycles or in cars, Vivien West has always had the compelling urge to go faster and faster although she says that she gets into most things by accident. She learned to drive at the age of 17 and was the proud owner of an MG. Her husband, Richard, had a long standing interest in motor racing and used to prepare cars for the racetrack. At one meeting, he found that he had a car ready to race, but no driver. Viv saw an opportunity and insisted that she should have a chance behind the wheel. To begin with, she just wanted a trial against the clock and after a successful trial, she found that she was hooked on motor racing. Within the year she became one of the top women racing drivers of 1972, with a first at Thruxton, a second at Brighton and a third at Brand´s Hatch.

At the beginning of her track career, Viv raced her MG road car but she and Richard soon decided that it just was not fast enough. If they intended to take motor sport seriously they needed a faster car. They agreed to save with the target of buying an Austin Healey frog-eyed Sprite. Once they had bought it, tuning it for the race-track was a job for Richard.

Both Viv and Richard had full time jobs to go with their very expensive and time-consuming hobby. Although they believed that motor racing is a sport for rich men, they were both totally committed to their racing partnership. They are particularly proud that, since some requirements have since altered, her class records at the Brighton Speed Trials and at Goodwood will never be bettered.

She had a big complaint against RAC, and she still feels sore about it. At the end of a race in which she crossed the finishing line first, the RAC awarded her the Ladies´ Trophy; the man who finished in second place behind her was awarded the trophy for First in Class. Not one to submit easily to such unfairness, she persuaded the awarding committee to change its mind and she took her rightful first place together with trophy for overall first place. She forcefully added I didn´t want to compete just for Ladies´ Awards.

On a number of different occasions in the early years, usually due to the expense of repairs, Viv retired from motor racing. But they could not give it up. When they decided to sell the Sprite in 1982, they immediately bought a single seater Formula Four car. Despite on one occasion blowing up the engine, she managed to finish seventh out of 39 in her first season of Formula Four racing.

Viv also enjoys skiing. I had to find suitable holidays in winter as we were always so busy racing in the summer, she said. She has tried parachuting and hang-gliding and she nearly managed a chance at ´wing-walking´ but was beaten to it by her friend´s daughter who arrived just in time to join her mum in enjoying the two chances for flying outside of the cockpit! Viv still feels that a great opportunity had been missed!

By 1985 both Viv and Richard felt that they had enough of motor racing. They had moved home from Durrington near Worthing to Lexham Cottage, in Findon and wanted to spend their time and money in renovating their new home and getting their garden organised. They severed their connexion with the motor-racing life.

This is precisely the moment when an opportunity occurred for both of them to fly with friends to France in a 6-seater Piper Comanche aeroplane. On that particular trip, bad weather prevented them from reaching France. Instead of spending a romantic evening in Le Touquet, they entertained themselves in Bournemouth. Richard knowingly recalls the big grin on Viv´s face as she experienced the thrill of being aloft in a small aeroplane. He knew what was coming - Viv wanted to learn to fly.

Viv´s love affair with the air had begun. Their plans to buy a BMW were scrapped. They decided to invest in a new hobby, and both Viv and Richard used the money they had saved on flying lessons at the Mercury Flying Club in Shoreham. Later they each coincidentally made their first solo flights on the same day.

Viv recalls that she soon became used to the solo flights around the Club´s circuit. She confesses to an initial feeling of apprehension when flying away from the Club and on her first away flight had to contend with ground recognition and wind drift, with only a chart to refer to. She managed to reach Petersfield and return successfully. Viv took her father as her first passenger and after a number of delays she found that night was falling too early. Of course she landed safely, but night landings remain a least favourite activity.

It is very expensive to hire aeroplanes, and to avoid this cost, Viv and Richard bought shares in two aeroplanes in succession. Their fellow shareholders were perhaps unlucky in their flights, since one of these aircraft crash landed on a beach. Ever the practical mechanic, Richard decided that he could assemble their own plane. They ordered a Van´s RV-6 kit from the USA and Richard spent 8 years building it. They had to sell their sports car to raise enough cash to buy the aeroplane powerplant, a Lycoming O 360.

Richard and Viv happened to have friends in the Algarve, some in the Sotovento and some in the Barlevento. On a visit in 1999 to the Algarve, they visited an estate agent´s office and in one morning in the Sotovento completed the purchase of the land for their house. We had not planned it, it just happened said Viv. It would have been wiser, she says ruefully, to buy a home nearer to the Algarve´s only airfield at Alvor. As their new home near Faz Fato was being built they sold their home in Sussex and moved to a flat while Richard finished building the aeroplane.

Viv flew the plane to Portugal in 2006, and landed in the Algarve at Alvor. She has flown back and forth to the UK on a number of occasions and she also organised the first fly in of RV’s at Alvor. For his part, Richard has caught the bug of messing around building aircraft and has helped to rebuild a de Havilland Chipmunk. Their roots still in racing, Richard has recently tried karting for a while. Viv is a founder member of the Faz Fato Line Dancing Club and she also participates in a Zumba class in Tavira. Having a home at Faz Fato, and keeping her aeroplane at Alvor, Viv is no stranger to the Via do Infante. Not only does the aircraft need to be maintained, but Viv also needs to fly regularly as a condition of keeping her pilot´s licence. As much of her spare time is spent in commuting backwards and forwards to Alvor, she must be as keen as anyone to see the end of tolls on this motorway.

There have been many newspaper reports covering Viv´s activities at the racetrack. Speed Queen, Daredevil, Fast Lady, out to make her mark in a man´s world are some of the headlines about her racing career. A concept which comes over strongly from both Viv and Richard is that they are a mutually supportive team, although they may not be the trendy young couple that they once were. Vivien West has certainly, with the full support of husband Richard, made her mark on the ground at the racetrack and is now making another mark in the air.