Robert Cowell achieved much fame in the sensationally minded press by undergoing a sex-change operation in 1951 and becoming Roberta Cowell. Not only that but she annoyed Patsy Burt no end by taking the Ladies Hill record at Shelsley Walsh a few years later.
Robert Cowell was born in Croydon, the son of famous surgeon who was also an artist, sculptor, writer, lecturer, naturalist and a good violinist. His mother was strongly religious, a social worker, a fine pianist and a would-be singer. He had an older sister and a younger brother.
He left school at 16, and got a job at the General Aircraft Co, at Hanworth, which he saw as good training for a career in motor racing. He joined the RASC to get a flying commission through the ranks which he achieved in 1941.
In May of that same year, Robert married a girl he had known for some years, and very soon they started a family.
Robert was determined to become an airman, however, and was eventually accepted for flying training. He became a Spitfire pilot. After a number of wartime flying adventures, Robert was shot down by flak over the Rhine, a crash from which he was lucky to escape. But he became a prisoner of war, ending up in Stalag Luft 1, near Lubeck in N.Germany. The Russians came on May 5th, 1945, and Robert was repatriated to the UK shortly after.
After the war, Robert was faced with earning a living, having a wife and two children to support. With a business partner, Gordon Watson, and a couple of helpers he set up a specialist auto engineering company. He started racing again in 1946 entering as many events in as many different cars as he could. He hoped to use this experience to design and build his own racing car.
He had started planning to build a racing car during his captivity in Germany. In association with Gordon Watson, the car was to be powered by a 1500 cc supercharged engine with an Aspin rotative vave system. The car was conceived to comply with International GP rules and it was advertised in Motor Sport magazine. All you had to do was send £50 as a 10 per cent deposit and wait. And waiting it seems was all that happened as the whole thing was a con. One prospective purchaser was a young Stirling Crauford Moss.
During 1947 he raced an Alta in GPs in association with Gordon Watson.
His last appearance was in 1951 when he raced the F2/3 Alta once or twice. The last mention of Robert was in an event at Gosport.
Then on May 15th, 1951 Robert Cowell became Roberta Cowell the United Kingdom's first full surgically altered transsexual. This occurred almost 2 years earlier than Christine Jorgensen in the USA.
Robert continued to race but now as Roberta.
In 1957 she bought the old Emeryson F2 car. Paul Emery had fitted a 2.4-litre Jaguar XK engine with his own fuel injection system and ran the car once at Goodwood before selling it to Roberta who enjoyed various Ladies Class wins in hill-climbs, annoying Patsy Burt no end when she took the Ladies Hill record at Shelsley Walsh. She was still involved in the sport as late as 1972 driving a Kitchmac in a Formula Libre race in Rufforth.