The world of Grand Prix racing has always attracted extreme people. Team bosses have often been ambitious, aggressive and anything but normal. Sometimes they are plain dysfunctional. It is part of the attraction of the sport. It’s a soap opera.
And some of those who don’t quite make it are just as extraordinary as those who do.
Take Robert Cowell, for example. He was a strange one, as you will see.
He was born 1918 in Croydon, the son of the then Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Cowell, who had been a prominent and decorated officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps on the Western Front during World War I. He would later be knighted but at that point he was a surgeon at Croydon General Hospital.
As Robert (Bob) was growing up, Croydon Aerodrome was developing into the first London Airport and the youngster was fascinated by the flying machines – and by automobile racing. He attended Whitgift School, played rugby and was a member of the school’s Motor Club. Cowell left school at 16, in 1934, and joined the General Aircraft Company in Hanworth to learn about aviation technology.
A year later he joined the Royal Air Force as a cadet and learned to fly Tiger Moths at RAF Grantham. He was the youngest officer in the entire Royal Air Force, but he suffered from air sickness and was instantly invalided out. His dreams were smashed.
He set himself a new goal. He would run his own Grand Prix team and be a racing driver. He enrolled at University College, London, to study engineering, and began his racing with a class win on the Land’s End Speed Trial, driving a Riley. He was often at Brooklands, helping out, gaining experience and by 1939 he three racing cars and drive one in the Antwerp Grand Prix that year. He also took up flying again and qualified for a civil licence…
And then the war came war, and he joined the Royal Army Service Corps, served in Iceland with the goal of getting back into the RAF. He achieved that after a little over a year. By then he had also married and by the end of the war he had two daughters.
He flew Spitfires and had a series of adventures while flying reconnaissance missions. Shortly before D-Day he was fortunate to survive a failure of his oxygen supply which left him unconscious in the cockpit, flying over enemy territory. Incredibly, the aircraft stayed in the air, was not hit by flak nor attacked by fighters, and gradually descended until he regained consciousness while over the English Channel and he was managed to fly it back to RAF Gatwick.
A few months later, flying a Typhoon on a reconnaissance mission over Germany, his luck ran out. A direct hit from flak meant he had to make a forced landing and was captured and sent to Stalag Luft I, near Lubeck. He was a POW for five difficult months, he was starved but spent most of his time, planning the car he would when his Grand Prix team was up and running. He was liberated in 1945 and returned home. He was then 27.
He hooked up with whisky heir Gordon Watson and set up a coachbuilding firm called Leacroft in Egham and they created their own Cowell-Watson sports car, based on a Lea Francis chassis. They also ran an Alta Grand Prix car and both raced it in a variety of events.
At the same time he ran a construction company to generate money and even started a dressmaking firm. There was never enough money and Cowell was often in trouble with creditors. The Grand Prix car was never built and in 1951 the name Robert Cowell disappeared from the racing scene.
Instead a Roberta Cowell started appearing.
It would later emerge that in May 1951 Bob Cowell underwent the first ever sex-change operation, performed by Sir Harold Gillies, the New Zealander known as the father of plastic surgery.
Cowell’s businesses failed and Watson disappeared from the scene, but Roberta continued to appear from time to time, winning the Ladies prize at Shelsley Walsh in 1957.
The news of the operation broke in the press in 1954 and Cowell was paid considerable sums by newspapers and publishing companies as a result. But the money did not last long and grand plans for flying records failed and by 1958 Cowell was declared bankrupt. She increasingly became reclusive, living with another woman for many years. Her last appearance in racing was in 1972.
Largely forgotten by then, she spent her last year’s living alone in Hampton, Middlesex, where she died in 2011, aged 93.
Strange, but true.