Sybil Audrey Marie Colley (or Wellesley-Colley) was born at Greenfields, her parents’ sheep farm near Clive in Hawke’s Bay, on 1 August 1916, the daughter of Ethel Violet Mary Goulter and her husband, Joseph Wellesley Colley. Her mother came from a well-established Marlborough family descended from Cyrus Goulter, a founder of the province. However, her father got into financial difficulties in Hawke’s Bay and the young family retreated to Marlborough, where Joseph was declared bankrupt in February 1923.
Sybil showed an aptitude for mechanics from an early age, spurning dolls to build model railways and play with Meccano. ‘They all laughed when I asked for boys’ toys,’ she recalled later. ‘But I used to get them in the end.’ At the age of four she is said to have smashed a new dolls’ tea-set, upset that her gift lacked ‘wheels and things’. Her Catholic family had a tradition of home schooling and Sybil was educated by governesses. She competed on her ponies at country shows, built radio crystal sets and was adept in needlework, but she particularly loved to ‘mess around with machinery’. From the age of 11 her father taught her to drive and transmitted his own enthusiasm for fast cars. Family finances had evidently recovered, because at 14 she was driving an M-type MG her father had been persuaded to buy; she contributed some money by selling carrots to rabbiters.
Sybil wanted to be a mechanical engineer, an occupation her parents did not consider ‘suitable for a lady’. She took a correspondence course in car maintenance, practised on the family cars and helped with farm machinery repairs. As a seasonal worker at S. Kirkpatrick and Company’s Nelson canning factory from 1936, she naturally gravitated to machinery operation. Determined not to go nursing, Sybil tried secretly – but unsuccessfully – to find work in garages. However, G. A. Stent, Kirkpatrick’s chief engineer, employed her in the cannery’s machine workshop and in 1938 assisted her into a job at J. G. Ingram and Company’s garage. There she met John (Jack) Morris Charles Lupp, a motor sport enthusiast and former mechanic, who was sales manager at the garage. They were married at St Mary’s Church, Blenheim, on 18 April 1939. Sybil worked at the garage as a car saleswoman until 1940, when a daughter was born.
After an abortive business venture in Perth, Australia, Jack enlisted in the Royal New Zealand Air Force and was based in Marlborough as an equipment assistant. From September 1941 until September 1944 Sybil Lupp served in the New Zealand Women’s Auxiliary Air Force at RNZAF stations Woodbourne and Delta. Employed as a driver, her duties included vehicle maintenance, and she took a correspondence course on diesel engines. After she was made a corporal, a training report described her as ‘a very hard worker’ who showed ‘great tenacity’.
A son was born in June 1945. Then, on 31 July, Jack died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Money worries added more stress. His estate was in debt and the bureaucratic process before she received his war pension was lengthy. Her parents supported her through the crisis. On 8 April 1947, again at St Mary’s, Blenheim, Sybil married Jack’s younger brother, Percival Louis Lupp, a returned soldier and scientific instrument maker, who shared her love of fast cars. Living in Dunedin, they helped found the Otago Sports Car Club, initially sharing the duties of secretary; Percy was subsequently club captain and Sybil a committee member. As the club’s delegate in 1947–48 she became the first woman member of the executive of the new Association of New Zealand Car Clubs (later the Motorsport Association of New Zealand).
From the Otago club’s first competition in August 1947, which she won, Sybil Lupp went on to collect a number of Otago championship trophies for the hill-climb and the standing-start quarter-mile sprint. After becoming the first woman to win the Otago Automobile Association’s Sundstrum Memorial Trophy in 1951, she repeated the feat in 1952; other victories were gained in Southland, Canterbury and Nelson. She was South Island hill-climb champion in 1949 and third fastest in the 1950 New Zealand hill-climb championship. The fair-haired, grey-eyed young woman provided a touch of glamour in the usually male-dominated sport. At one event, having arrived directly from a wedding, she made the fastest time ‘wearing a handsome outfit, topped by an enormous picture hat’. Overalls were her usual racing attire, although she insisted on wearing a dress underneath.
The New Zealand Road Racing Championship (later the Lady Wigram Trophy race), the country’s first national circuit car race, was inaugurated in February 1949 at the Wigram RNZAF station. The only woman among the 22 entrants, Sybil came fifth. Her greatest triumph came a year later when she finished second in the championship, and first in the handicap section. Nearly five decades later no other woman has matched that success. In May 1950 her speed of 102.27 miles per hour in a flying-start quarter-mile event was said to be a South Island record. The next year she raised the New Zealand record for class F (1,100–1,500cc) cars in the flying kilometre from 75 to 100.52 mph; it stood until 1957.
By 1954, however, Sybil’s focus had turned from racing to her growing business. She had always done her own tuning and mechanical work, and other car owners began to call on her skills, particularly in tuning high-performance motors with twin (or more) carburettors. A small-scale backyard business developed and from 1951 Jaguars became her speciality. Her travelling tuning and repair service acquired clients throughout the South Island, then the lower North Island, and she began selling used Jaguars. She was a founder of the MG Car Club in New Zealand, having raced in a succession of MGs. But after assisting Dunedin physician Bruce Hay to race his Jaguar XK120 in 1953, she bought a second-hand one herself. It was the first of 15 Jaguars she was to own.
By 1957 Sybil Lupp had shifted permanently to Wellington to serve a growing North Island clientele. (Percy remained in Dunedin, which suggests a marital rift.) She was working seven days a week in her Jagservice workshop, a Newtown double garage she nicknamed ‘the cave’, when a meeting with Lionel George Archer, who had been a Jaguar engineer in England, led to a rewarding business partnership. In September 1958 they registered a private company, Jag Service, with premises in the central city. Sybil had seven mechanics working full time on Jaguars by 1961. The expanding sales branch was registered as a second private company, Archer and Lupp, in 1966.
The Lupps divorced in 1961, and following Lionel’s divorce in 1968, he and Sybil married in the Taupō Methodist church on 12 April 1969. Rheumatoid arthritis curtailed her mechanical work during the 1970s and she concentrated on sales. Duane (Danie) Lupp, the son from Sybil’s first marriage (there were no children from her later marriages), bought the assets of both businesses in October 1980, allowing Lionel Archer to retire. Sybil was a shareholder in Danie’s new company and continued with sales work until the mid 1980s.
In reluctant retirement Sybil busied herself, despite increasingly severe arthritis, with part-time work for a market research company and voluntary work for the Mary Potter Hospice. The ‘Jaguar lady’ continued to enjoy her ‘big cats’: her gold 1972 E-type V12 was legendary for being custom-painted to match a favourite evening gown. At 74, when it became awkward for her to drive, she replaced it with a bright red limited edition Le Mans XJS with automatic transmission and power steering. She was patron of the MG Car Club (Wellington Centre) and the local Jaguar Drivers’ Club. After her death in Wellington on 26 December 1994, members of both clubs farewelled her in an impressive funeral motorcade. Lionel Archer died in February 1995.
Although she made her mark in a male-dominated sport and occupation, Sybil Lupp liked feminine clothes, protected her hands with rubber gloves in the workshop and always wore make-up. She enjoyed cooking and gardening and as a young woman was a capable dressmaker and knitter. Vivacious, articulate, assertive and talented, she commanded the respect of male competitors and colleagues, and apparently found them helpful and admiring rather than a barrier to achievement. She vigorously rejected the label of ‘feminist’, declaring in 1973, ‘I am quite against the women’s lib movement. I think it’s ridiculous … I’m quite adamant that the male must lead us’. Nevertheless, she believed that women were capable of doing anything that interested them, and should not let others make choices for them. The first New Zealand woman to achieve national prominence in motor racing and to establish a significant automotive business, Sybil Lupp showed that the field of endeavour for women need not be a narrow one.