Gilberte Thirion raced between 1951 and 1957. She drove Porsche, Gordini, Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and Renault in rallies and sportscar races. She is one of the few women to win a World Rally Championship event, taking the Tour of Corsica in 1956.
Gilberte Thirion was born in Brussels, Belgium. Her father Max was an industrialist while her mother Hélène was a fashion model. Max was a sports car aficionado and during the 1930’s raced in the famous Liège-Rome-Liège and Moroccan rallies as well as the Spa 24 hour race. Gilberte was interested in cars form an early age and asked father Christmas for a car when she was just eight years old. She learned to drive just four years later, when she was 12.
When Gilberte turned 10, her parents divorced and she went to live with her mother, though staying close to her father. In 1949, Gilberte graduated from secretarial School and was immediately hired for Champion Spark Plugs by her father, as he was the importer and distributor for Belgium. Miss Thirion, after starting as a secretary, soon became responsible for the company’s Public Relations. In that capacity, she attended major races and got acquainted with the greatest drivers of the day such as Fangio and Ascari.
She entered her first competition, the Soleil de Cannes Rally, in 1951, driving a Healey (1211) with Georges Bouriano's wife. George often drove with Gilberte's father and had come second in the first Monaco Grand Prix in 1929. They failed to finish the event.
In the fall of 1952, her father took Gilberte, now 24, to the Salon de l’Automobile in Brussels. The Porsche display dazzled the young woman. In particular, a unique aluminum racing coupe caught her fancy and it was love at first sight. The “Gmünd Coupe” was the original racing Porsche and 350 lbs lighter than the newer steel version. The car had also won its class in the summer’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, scoring a first official victory for a German car since the outbreak of WW II. Max wanted to buy the car on the spot for his daughter. Pierre D’ieteren, the importer, had quickly to disabuse him: the Porsche, chassis number 356/2-061, had just been sold to a major customer from Ghent; the sales manager for the marque’s biggest distributor in northern Belgium.
Disappointed but undaunted, Max Thirion decided to bide his time and keep track of the car. Happily for him, he did not have to wait long. The new owner, a notorious playboy, soon took the car on a single trip to the Belgian coast with one of his conquests. Finding the little coupe too fast and dangerous, he wisely left it parked after arrival. In no time, Max Thirion was making him an offer, and the deal was closed. Max drove the car from the coast back to Brussels and proudly handed the keys to his beloved daughter.
With her father as navigator, she entered the Paris-St Raphael women’s' rally taking a second in class. Together they entered three more rallies that year, retiring from the Lyon-Charbonnieres and Alpine events but taking fifth overall and a class win in the Soleil de Cannes.
She also teamed up with the former French racing driver, Germaine Rouault, for two African events. Rouault had raced at Le Mans and other sports car events in the 1930s and 40s. Unfortunately they failed to finish either the Moroccan Rally or the 12 Hours of Casablanca. Back in Europe she entered the Tour de France with Ingeborg Polensky but was disqualified. She entered her first sprint, a flying kilometer event in Wolverthem, Belgium, setting a class record at 191 kph.
At the start of 1953 she crashed badly late in the Paris-St Raphael Rally after running near the front and was out for two months with her father taking over her entry in the Mille Miglia and taking a class second.
She was back behind the wheel in May driving Ingeborg Polensky's Porsche in her first circuit race, an event for Porsches at the Nurburgring. After a brief off, she fought back to finish a respectable 8th. A week later she drove the car again, this time teaming up with Polensky for the 12 hour race at Heyeres to finish fourth in class. At the Spa 24 Hour race she drove a Fiat 1100 with Frenchwoman, Annie Bousquet, finishing sixteenth overall and winning the Ladies' Cup and the King's Cup for the top Belgian finisher.
In Rallies she drove with Lise Renaud as navigator in the Alpine Rally but despite a couple of good stage results, problems with a broken clutch pedal and shock absorber dropped them to 44th. On the Moroccan Rally they took a class second and eighth overall. Teaming up with Polensky again she retired from the Tour de France. She also took a class win on the Tour of Belgium with Gonzague Olivier and set another class record in a sprint, this time at 201Kph at Jabbeke.
1954 started with a win in the Rally des Routes du Nord with Gonzague Olivier and they led the Bol d'Or at Montlhery until engine failure forced them to retire. She teamed up with Nadege Washer for the Randonnee des Routes Blanches rally finishing 6th and also the Soleil de Cannes where they finished 4th overall and took a class win.
She drove with Annie Bousquet in the Mille Miglia in a Gordini finishing 55th overall and wining the Ladies Cup, and teamed up with Ingeborg Polensky again to finish 5th in both the Tour de France, winning the Coupe des Dames, and the Tour of Belgium.
At Le Mans she drove a works Gordini T17S with André Pilette but retired after 11 hours with ignition problems.
She co-drove for Olivier Gendebien on the Lyon-Charbonnieres rally, finishing tenth in a Fiat, and he co-drove for her in the Evian Mont Blanc-Megeve Rally, finishing fourth overall and taking the class win, and on the Tour of Italy where they finished seventh overall with another class win. They also raced together finishing thirteenth in the Rheims 12 Hours in a Gordini.
She started 1955 with another win the 12 hour race at Huy driving an 1100 Gordini and enjoyed considerable success in a Mercedes 300SL winning the Come hillclimb, the Coppa Corallo and the Stella Alpina. She took a class sixth in the Mille Miglia with Nadege Washer in the Gordini T15S but retired from the Bol d'Or driving with Andre Milhoux. She also retired in the Agadir GP driving a Porsche 550. Late in the year she teamed up with Lise Renaud in a Renault 4CV to take second in class on the Tour of Belgium.
1956 began with a class second on the Monte Carlo Rally with Lise Renaud as her navigator and drove a Renault Dauphine on the Mille Miglia taking another second in class. In a year with tremendous variety, she drove Porsches, taking second on the Lyon-Charbonnieres and winning the La Roche hillclimb, the Mercedes 300SL, winning the Come hillclimb again, and an Alfa Romeo Giulietta with Ada Pace finishing 16th in the Nurburgring 1000Km race. She drove with Anna Maria Peduzzi in the latter's Ferrari 500TR to 10th in the 1000km races at Paris and Monza and in the Swedish Sportscar Grand Prix, she drove with Claude Dubois to finish twelfth in a Porsche 550. She drove a Porsche on the Tour de France with Ingeborg Polensky, finishing 11th.
In the Renault Dauphine she won her class on the Tour of Belgium with Lise Renaud and won the first ever Tour of Corsica outright with Nadege Washer (now Ferrier). Thus she became one of the only women to win a World Championship Rally. She was awarded the 'Lauréate du Trophée du Mérite Sportif', Belgium's highest sporting award, at the end of the year.
In 1957 she only entered one race, the Sebring 12 Hours. Driving a Renault Dauphine with Nadege Ferrier, they came 35th, and second in class.
After having had a successful season in 1956, a year in which her friend Annie Bousquet was killed racing at Rheims, Gilberte decided to retire and start a family.
She continued to maintain an interest in the sport for many years.
She died in 2008. She had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease and been confined to bed for over a year. She passed away on the afternoon of May 21st 2008 surrounded by her family at les Aubépines nursing home in the Uccle region of Brussels, Belgium.
historicracing.com with thanks to Jacques Mertens