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Founded in 1906 by wealthy driver and enthusiast Vincenzo Florio, the Targa Florio road race in Sicily rapidly took its place among the world’s most important motorsport events.
By the 1920s, it was seen as the ultimate test of man and machine, but the 1927 edition created history when woman and machine participated in the Sicilian epic for the very first time.
That woman was Eliška Junková, also known as Elisabeth Junek, and her machine was a Bugatti Type 35B.
Within minutes of the start she was frightening the wits out of several much more experienced and race-hardened men, many with well-established reputations, and by the end of the first lap (of five, each measuring 67.5 miles for a total race distance of 337.5 miles) she was in fourth place, just 10 secs behind the works Bugatti of Emilio Materassi, and ahead of the factory machines from Maserati and Peugeot.
A third of the way into the second lap, however, the steering gear of the Bugatti broke, throwing Elisabeth and her mechanic (who also happened to be her husband) off the road – fortunately without resulting in any serious injury.
Undeterred, the 27-year-old was back the following year, this time a few weeks in advance so she could be better prepared by practising the circuit again and again, marking the lamp posts, walls and trees that flanked the route with chalk to indicate the type of curves ahead.
Starting the race with a new, freshly acquired Type 35B, Junek was once again up to fourth by the end of the first lap on elapsed time, with the Targa Florio following the traditional Italian practice of each entrant being flagged off at two-minute intervals.
The enduro was being led by the redoubtable French ace Louis Chiron in a works Bugatti, followed by Giuseppe Campari in an Alfa Romeo then Chiron’s teammate Albert Divo, but Junek was barely 30 secs adrift of the leader.
Into the second lap and Chiron, pushing too hard, went off the road. As the pitstops played out, Junek found herself out in front.
Thus, on 6 May 1928, a female driver was leading one of the greatest road races of all time, for the first time, and it was a lead she would retain until the end of the third lap, when a hard-charging Campari managed to edge past.
Although Campari had built a considerable buffer by the final lap, he was slowed by a puncture. As the gap between Junek and the Italian star narrowed, the thousands lining the circuit began rooting for ‘Miss Bugatti’.
The fairytale win was not to be, as her progress was thwarted by a puncture and a holed radiator, but Junek still came home a creditable fifth, nine minutes behind eventual winner Divo.
Junek was born Alžběta Pospíšilová on 16 November 1900 in Olomouc, Moravia, the youngest of ironmonger Kašpar Pospíšil’s four children.
After completing two years at a girls’ business school, she took a job with Prague Credit Bank, where she met Vincenc ‘Čeněk’ Junek.
She followed him to Brno when he was transferred there to establish a new branch, and as early as November 1917 they considered getting engaged, but decided to wait because Alžběta wanted to travel the world.
In 1920, she left home with her brother Stanislav to work at the Lyon Trade Fair, in France, before moving on to Antibes to study horticulture until July 1921. It was in the south of France where Alžběta piloted a car for the first time, immediately catching the driving bug.
By April 1922 she had returned to Prague, but over the previous winter she’d reconnected with Čeněk in Paris, where they saw a Bugatti Type 22, the car that had won the Brescia Grand Prix for voiturettes earlier that year. They decided that the dainty little Bugatti sportster was just what they wanted.
Alžběta married her beloved Čeněk in June 1922, changing her name to Eliška Junková. Although she initially pictured herself in the role of housewife, to get closer to her husband and his passion for motorsport she passed her driving test.
From 1922 until August 1924, Eliška accompanied Čeněk on his racing exploits, riding shotgun as his mechanic and even changing gear at times to save aggravating her husband’s wartime injuries.
But the occasional gearchange simply wasn’t enough. Elisabeth soon developed a desire to get behind the wheel, and that finally happened in 1924 when she took part in the Lochotín-Třemošná race in her native Czechoslovakia, placing first in the Touring Cars category. Encouraged by this success, as well as a ban on mechanics accompanying drivers in certain races, the Juneks bought a second Bugatti.
Soon Elisabeth was to be seen competing in all manner of disciplines: hillclimbs, circuit racing and long-distance events.
As well as winning the ladies’ class in Prague twice, Junek’s most memorable achievements were her overall victory – the first recorded by a woman in an international hillclimb – on the 10th Zbraslav-Jíloviště from 1926, and then winning her class in the inaugural Grand Prix of Germany in 1927 at the famous Nürburgring Nordschleife, in the 1.5-to-3-litre category.
At the 1926 edition of the Swiss Klausenpass hillclimb Junek finished second, ahead of German legend Rudolf Caracciola aboard an 8-litre works Mercedes-Benz. And that after she’d lost her goggles on the snow-covered course.
To this she added that fifth place in the overall rankings (and first among both the women’s and privateer drivers’ categories) in the 19th Targa Florio, in 1928.
Later that year, Čeněk decided to register for the German Grand Prix, to be held once again at the Nürburgring on 15 July, and had no trouble convincing his wife to join him aboard the couple’s second Bugatti.
Well placed on the starting grid, Elisabeth held the lead in her class until the loudspeakers announced that an accident had taken place.
Tragically, Čeněk went down in history as the Nordschleife’s first victim and, shattered by her husband’s death, Elisabeth withdrew from the race and decided to abandon her competition career.
However, she wasn’t ready leave the world of automobiles altogether. In early 1929, still coming to terms with the tragedy, Junek agreed to embark on a 6000km overland journey to India with a pair of Bugatti Type 44s, in order to promote the glamorous French brand to the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire, which was fast becoming an important market for Europe’s leading prestige marques.
The three-month expedition took her over terrain that was hostile and difficult, yet she completed the epic trip, writing to Le Patron Ettore Bugatti – in French, a language in which she was fluent – explaining the disadvantages of the Type 44 for Indian customers used to driving American cars: ‘The engine overheats and dies easily in town running. The gear change is hard and noisy, the chassis too low, so the crankcase, exhaust and battery are often in danger. One has to ford many rivers, rarely finding a bridge, there being ferry barges, very dangerous for the casing and exhaust pipe, which I damaged in spite of taking great care whilst crossing a river before Bombay.ʼ
Although she managed to sell the two Bugattis in India – one Type 44 still survives in the country – the marque never made much headway in the country, selling fewer than two dozen vehicles to the subcontinent.
Just months after returning from her Indian travels, Junek was back at the Targa Florio, but this time as a steward.
In the early 1930s she collaborated on the book Autokompas before briefly travelling to Spain, where she made a few exhibition drives and participated as an official.
In October ʼ33 she took on a permanent role in Jan Baťaʼs emerging tyre-production department, managing the wholesale business. After the merger of Baťa, Rubena Náchod and Matador, Junek created the Barum brand, ensuring that the new name kept the stylised Baťa font, which Barum still uses to this day.
A long-time member of the Automobile Club of the Czech Republic, her motoring activities included helping to design the Masaryk circuit in Brno and she proved to be a driving force in organising early races there.
Junek leveraged her impressive contacts book to convince top-level engineers such as Ferdinand Porsche, Hans Ledwinka and Enzo Ferrari to compete before WW2, as well as key drivers including Chiron and Tazio Nuvolari.
In 1964 she was invited to join the exclusive membership of the Club Internationale des Anciens Pilotes de Grand Prix (International Club of Former Grand Prix Drivers), and two years later she was behind the wheel again, returning to the spotlight to participate in the 50th Targa Florio and the Premier Tour de la Principauté Monte-Carlo with Alois Samohýl in his 1908 Laurin & Klement.
In August 1986, Junek was invited to join the party for the 25th anniversary of the American Bugatti Club in Rockport, Maine, and the following year she took part in the 60th-anniversary celebrations for the German Grand Prix.
When French President François Mitterrand and his wife made a state visit to Czechoslovakia in 1988, they made a point of calling in on Junek in Pod Petřínem hospital, where she was recovering from illness.
Junek passed away peacefully in 1994, at the ripe old age of 93.
Recognition and several awards have followed since her passing, and to this day Junek remains an honorary president of the Autoclub of the Czech Republic, as well as receiving the Highest Merit from the Czech president in 2019 and a Deserved Master of Sport.
Following the establishment of the Heritage Hall of Fame by the Fédération Internationale des Véhicules Anciens (FIVA) in 2021, last year an eminent jury of industry experts decided to honour Junek by selecting her as one of the second group of inductees.
Stan Minarik, who has been associated with FIVA since 1985, as well as several Czech clubs and institutions including the Autoklub České Republiky, knew Junek well.
“We had been living near Elisabethʼs flat, at the residence of the Swedish ambassador in Prague Castle,” explains Stan. “My wife and I visited her often, and took her to motorsport events such as the Barum Rally, the Zbraslav-Jíloviště hillclimb or out to Brno circuit.
“I invited her to social events during the FIVA general committee meeting that I organised in Prague. She was an amazing lady; even in her 90s she remembered everything, and she recounted her stories in several languages, all spoken fluently.
“The president of FIVA at that time  was Kraft zu Hohenlohe-Langenburg. It was after the Velvet Revolution, and we were renewing our membership to this international organisation.
“The gala dinner was held in a beautiful castle in Troja, Prague, where dozens of interesting historic cars were on display in a large park. The official dinner started, as usual, with speeches and the atmosphere was very starched. But nobody knew Eliška.”
“After the main speeches were over, she began to reminisce about her friends from different countries, starting her sentences in Czech, then switching to French, Italian or English,” Stan continues.
“Everyone relaxed when listening to her, and the previously formal evening turned into an unforgettable event, long remembered by all involved. And that was all thanks to the diminutive 90-year-old Eliška Junková.”
In the Heritage Hall of Fame, Junek joins the likes of Soichiro Honda, Osamu Suzuki, Battista ʻPininʼ Farina, prominent collectors Evert Louwman and Luis Spadafora, engineer Mauro Forghieri, designers Marcello Gandini and Giorgetto Giugiaro, and legendary motorsport figures Rosemary Smith, Cesare Fiorio and rally World Champion Walter Rörhl.
Even if memories of Elisabeth Junekʼs achievements have faded over time, now at last this pioneering ʻqueen of the wheelʼ is enjoying a well-deserved place in the sun.
Images: Junek family archive
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