Marvellous Motobirds: The story of the UK’s first all-female biking stunt team
In 1972, 17-year-old lab technician Mary Connors was idly flicking through a local newspaper when she spotted a small ad: Girls required to ride motorcycles, full training given.
"I honestly thought it would be delivering pizzas," Mary – now Weston-Webb – tells MCN. "But I was bored with working in the lab so decided to find out more. I went along to this strange place in Syston, five miles north of Leicester. The sign on the door said 'Stunt School for Girls – Karate Chop to Enter!'"
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Pushing open the door, little did Mary realise that what she was about to do would change the course of her entire life and transform her from bored teenager into an international stunt rider as part of the Motobirds – Britain’s first all-female motorcycle stunt team.
The brainchild of Leicestershire showman, Joe Weston-Webb, Motobirds were born out of a desire to do something a bit different.
"Joe had an existing stunt display team called the Destruction Squad, six lads and one girl, Teresa King, who did these amazing, daredevil feats for shows. But he was fed up with others copying his act, so one day he hit upon the idea having an all-girl team, because at the time it was something nobody else was doing," says Mary. Joe trained Teresa to do bike stunts, then advertised for others to join her.
"He had a huge response to the adverts and in the end got me and a couple of others, and they trained us up too," Mary adds.
With none of the girls having much if any bike experience, training started with the basics before rapidly progressing to more extreme manoeuvres.
"It wasn’t how you’d normally learn to ride a bike," admits Mary. "We were always either standing up or facing backwards or something like that. After learning the controls, we next learned how to wheelie. Yes, we flipped them a lot when we first started and took our fair share of knocks, but it made us very, very tough."
Motobirds vs White Helmets
Throughout the 1970s, the Motobirds expanded from a team of three, to six then a whole troupe, as they spent their summers touring the UK and getting up close with the stars of the time – in some cases, almost too close.
"I did the big jumps," says Mary. "We would either jump over the other girls or we’d get volunteers from the audience. But this one time, we were at an event with Chris Tarrant and the Tiswas team. I think they must’ve been fairly drunk because we convinced them to lie down for my jump. Only, as I was flat out on the bike making my final approach, Chris Tarrant stood up and I had to swerve around the ramp at the last minute to avoid hitting him! After that, we had to get a bit stricter on what we could jump over!"
Although motorcycling was male dominated at that time, Mary says the Motobirds were always well received, even when going head-to-head with the legendary Royal Signals display team, the White Helmets.
"At first we were scared to death about what bikers would think about us, because we could only do what we could do and none of us had bike licences. We thought the proper motorcyclists would ridicule us – but in fact, they were some of our best audiences.
"One time, we were at the same event as the Royal Signals display team and we were distraught that we were on the same billing as them. How could we compete against these full-time, professional army stunt riders? Just six girls who were relatively inexperienced and training part-time?
"The Signals did their show and their finale was one of the team jumping over a car. At that point Joe stepped into the arena and challenged them to a jump-off, declaring that the Motobirds would jump the length of two cars! We actually didn’t have two cars to use so we asked the Signals if we could borrow theirs.
"As you’d expect, they were reluctant to let us have it, but they had to bow to pressure from the audience who’d started booing at this point. Joe gave them £300 deposit in case I clipped it on landing and I went ahead and jumped two cars. As the Signals weren’t allowed to change their act to a two-car jump, we’d won the challenge and the audience absolutely loved it. We’d beaten the White Helmets!"
While Evel Knievel was performing his Wembley Stadium jump in London, the Motobirds were jumping their Kawasaki KS125s all over the UK and beyond, visiting county shows and fairs. But after a period of four years as a team, Mary and Joe decided to go solo.
"Joe and I eventually got married and we toured all over the world with me doing shows as a solo stunt rider. I also went on to do television, films and advertising work, and actually made it on to the Equity Stunt Register, which was a bit of a coup as they only let four people on a year and very rarely women. In fact, in one project I ended up doubling for John Cleese – which was bizarre when you think about it! I had to ride a bike wearing these huge shoes! I don’t know why I was picked!
"I did an advert for Benson and Hedges cigarettes, which involved jumping through fire and it was really quite hairy. But I did what was required, although I remember being quite miffed that the model they’d employed for her beautiful hands and nails for the close-up handlebar shot earned more than I did. They couldn’t use my hands because they were motorcyclist’s hands – all grubby and battered!"
Mary’s stunt career lasted for 12 years, up until the point she and Joe started a family.
"It was a charmed life," she remembers. "We did a lot and managed to get away with it. It wouldn’t happen at all these days, health and safety wouldn’t allow it. But it was a fantastic experience. We were well trained and were sponsored for bikes and kit, and eventually we didn’t have to look after the bikes ourselves like we did in the early days. The show organisers were always really keen to have us stay at the event after we’d done our shows because the crowds always wanted to follow us, so we used to be able to get on all the fairground rides for free. We’d have people wanting our autographs and we ended up with a fanclub, too.
"Until the Motobirds, we were just ordinary girls from Leicester. Up until that point, I’d never even been to a restaurant and then just a few years later I was wining and dining with stars, travelling the world and earning more money than my dad.
"The world’s a different place now. Back then, live entertainment was huge and getting 10,000 people at a county show on a summer Saturday was the norm – you just don’t see that these days. I guess stunt shows have fallen out of favour because it is dangerous and people have been hurt or killed. Joe always made it as safe as possible for us – it looked madcap from the outside, but it was really well rehearsed."
After going their separate ways in 1976, some of the Motobirds got back together in 2016 after the BBC’s One Show put out an appeal for the riders to get in touch.
"We’re all in our late 60s now, all OAPs!" laughs Mary. "But it was wonderful. I’d often thought about tracking them down but because most had changed names through marriage it was extremely difficult. But it was great remembering what we achieved. We really did have a fantastic time."
The next generation of female stunt riders
Sarah Lezito, France Considered the world’s best stuntwoman, Sarah rode for BMW Motorrad in the Stunt World Championships and has also doubled for A-listers such as Scarlett Johannson in Avengers 2.
Growing up on a vineyard, she started stunting on her father’s quad at 13, before progressing to a 125, she competed on a modified BMW S1000R, head-to-head with male riders. Now riding a Kawasaki ZX-6R 636, she says "Men do have more power, so I defined my own style: I focus on balance and smoothness."
Vicki Golden, USA Champion freestyle MX rider, Vicki Golden, rode an Indian FTR1200S through 13 walls of fire in July 2019 at an event set up to honour Evel Knievel.
The feat, which saw her blast for 600ft through burning fences, broke a world record that had been unrivalled for more than a decade. She dedicated the stunt to her late father, a dirt bike racer who had been paralysed in an accident, but was a huge Knievel fan. She said: "I did it for him and I did it for Evel."
Mary Perkins, New Zealand Known as 'Scary Mary' for her wild riding style, the MX rider set a world record for the furthest motorcycle ramp jump by a female rider in 2005, at a distance of 159.4ft (48.5m).
A member the world famous Crusty Demons of Dirt, Mary retired early due to a leg-shattering accident and a cancer diagnosis in 2009. Now Mary Wanhill, she’s married and runs an off-road riding school with her husband in NZ.