Engineer of the Week No. 37 Theresa Elizabeth Wallach (30 April 1909 - 30 April 1999)
On her 110th birthday we remember Theresa Wallach, engineer, motorcycle racer, adventurer and author.
Theresa Wallach was a woman engineer who not only was a pioneer in the sense of being one of those who took up such work when it was rare for a woman but also in her adventurous expeditions in Africa and America, which would have been just as pioneering for any man at the time. Born in 1909 into a middle class family in the south of England, her German-born father was initially a stockbroker and then a gentleman-farmer. Apparently enamoured of motorbikes from a very early age, Theresa was too young to get her start in engineering during the First World War but at the age of 20 was working for British Thomson-Houston, the engineering and heavy industrial company, which was at that point part of the Vickers empire. She seems to have been an apprentice as she was also taking courses at the Northampton Polytechnic. In 1932 she went to join Kathleen Cook’s Hercules Engineering Company in Isleworth. In 1935 she and Florence Blenkiron set off on their headline-grabbing 8-month trip from London, via the Sahara desert, to Cape Town by motorbike.
They travelled with a sidecar and camping trailer, encountering all sorts of technical and social difficulties along the way, resulting in a best-selling book “Rugged Road” which is still in print. During the Second World War she joined the women’s ATS, initially as a despatch rider, the only woman doing that arduous role. Later she was promoted to sergeant as the first ATS Unit mechanic, based at the Allied Army Mechanised GHQ, where she led a group of male soldiers repairing tanks. After the war she went to the USA, picking up various motoring related jobs, including test driving for Lagona cars,to fund her extensive motorbike tours around the entire country. Returning to the UK in 1950 she again made the newspaper headlines when she found herself without money but in need of repairs to her motorcycle in the depths of the English countryside – when the garage-owner asked her if she had come far, she replied “About 30,000 miles!”. She soon returned to the USA for good and set up her own firm in Chicago selling and repairing British-made motorbikes, such as Nortons, and also teaching motorcycle riding, also publishing her successful book ‘Easy Motorcycle Riding’. In 1973 she sold her Chicago shop and moved to Phoenix, Arizona where she opened her 'Easy Riding Academy' from her home in a suburb near the motorway.
Always keen to spread her love of motorbikes she helped set up both the London Ladies' Motor Club in the 1930s and then the Women's International Motorcycle Association in the 1950s. She served as WIMA's first Vice President, and was active in the association until her death in Phoenix in 1999.