Automotive history

Meet the Alfa Women Who Stormed the International Endurance Stage in the ’70s

by Grace Houghton
8 March 2024 3 min read
Meet the Alfa Women Who Stormed the International Endurance Stage in the ’70s

The first woman to drive in Formula 1, Maria Teresa de Filippis, may have raced for Maserati, but Alfa Romeo’s 20th century driver lineup included Hellè Nice, one of motorsports’ most colourful characters, and Tatiana Calderon, the first Latin American woman to appear on an F1 grid (albeit as a development driver). A long list of women tackled all manner of events under the marque’s flag, but I’m particularly struck by the stories of two characters who raced in the ’60s and ’70s: Christine Beckers and Liane Engeman.

Christine Beckers

No branch of motorsports was too gnarly for Beckers, who cut her teeth rallying an NSU Prinz in France and Belgium before adding endurance circuit racing to her schedule. Alongside Marie-Claude Beaumont, Beckers became one of the first women to finish the Spa 24 Hours. Beaumont and Beckers’ 24th-place overall finish caught the eye of Alfa Romeo, and in 1968, at the age of 25, Beckers accepted a works contract with the Italian manufacturer.

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Christine Beckers driving the Alfa Romeo 2000 GT Veloce at Zolder in 1972.

Beckers continued to balance rallying with circuit racing, winning the d’Houyet hillclimb in Belgium and the Benelux Cup at Zandvoort. Though she still rallied with her NSU, she also competed in Alfa’s 1750 Berlina, Giulia GTA, and Giulia GTV. In the late ’60s, Beckers also wrangled a singularly rare beast in Group 5: the Giulia GTV-SA, into which Alfa had stuffed an insane version of its 1600cc GTA engine. The mill made 250bhp at 7500rpm, thanks to twin superchargers spun not by the crankshaft but by a hydraulic pump. Information about the 10 GTV-SA cars made remains scant today; rumour has it Alfa converted them back to naturally aspirated spec.

In 1971, Beckers returned to the Spa 24 Hours, sharing seat time with Dutch driver Liane Engeman. Though their Alpina-campaigned BMW 2800 CS retired due to engine failure, Beckers remained undaunted. She appeared multiple times at Le Mans racing Chevrons (a B21 and its successor, the B23), refusing to be turned away by mechanical failures and doggedly returning each year. In ’74, her patience was rewarded: Alongside Marie Laurent and Yvette Fontaine, Beckers won the 2000cc class of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Her appetite for adventure was only whetted by these achievements; Beckers went on to tackle the Paris-Dakar Rally (multiple times) and even made an appearance at Daytona in a NASCAR race.

Beckers’ one-time teammate, Liane Engeman, pursued a less eclectic mix of events but had an unusual entry into the sport. One day, 15-year-old Engeman, who drove taxis for her father’s company, met rally driver Rob Slotemaker at a Netherlands bus stop. After this serendipitous meeting, Engeman followed the professional driver to Zandvoort, where she bought a race-prepped Mini Cooper. Four years later, she began racing in the 1200cc class in Formula Vee.

Liane Engeman

Possibly finding the Netherlands motorsports atmosphere less than thrilling, Engeman travelled to the UK in 1966 and joined Alan Mann Racing, competing in Minis and Hillman Imps in the British Saloon Car Championship. Along with Formula Vee, Engeman explored Formula 3 and the European Touring Car Championship. In the latter, she typically raced Alfa Romeos, though she never held a factory contract like Beckers did. Engeman also co-drove a Matra Djet 5S with Janet Guthrie at the 12 Hours of Sebring in ’67, and returned with Guthrie to Sebring in ’69 to campaign an Austin-Healey Sprint with Donna Mae Mims.

1969 Donna Mae Mims Janet Guthrie Liane Engeman sebring 12 hour endurance motorsport women
Donna Mae Mims, Janet Guthrie, and Liane Engeman at Sebring in 1969.

She transitioned back to the Netherlands in the ’70s, spending most of her time racing Fords, following a stint with Autodelta and its Alfa GTAm. The stay in her home country didn’t prevent Endeman from turning the wheel in touring cars (mostly Alfas and Fords) at legendary European circuits like Monza and Hockenheim – and even participating in the Targa Florio in Sicily. However, in 1973, she scratched for the Spa 24 Hours; she and carpet-chain owner Piet Hein Keijzer were expecting a child. She would subsequently retire from motorsports to raise a family.

Engeman and Piet Hein Keijzer

They may have overlapped only briefly at Alfa Romeo, and few may know their names today, but Christine Beckers and Liane Engeman are inspirational reminders of women who pursued the sport they loved, even when circumstances did not favour them. Their stories serve as a reminder that you don’t have to be an F1 world champion to help forge a path for women in motorsports. Win or lose, you just keep showing up to the race track, helmet in hand.

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