Historic Grand Prix cars

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LAST MONTH I explained how the 1952 Formula 2 Connaught found itself able to run in Grand Prix events and a similar thing happened to the “voiturette” 1½-litre ERA in the nineteen-thirties. The 1938 Formula for Grand Prix racing put top limits of 3-litres for supercharged engines and 4½-litres for unsupercharged engines, but it also had a complicated sliding scale of weights and capacities that allowed smaller engined cars to take part in GP races. This sliding scale was totally unrealistic and there was no incentive for anyone to use other than the maximum capacities, but in theory a lightweight supercharged 750 c.c. car was supposed to be a match for a supercharged 3,000 c.c. car, and between them a 1½-litre was supposed to be on even terms with either of them. Most of the 1½-litre ERA cars were racing in handicap events in Great Britain with no thought of Grand Prix racing, and any that did venture “abroad” had plenty of 1,500 c.c. “voiturette” races to take part in. In 1935 Grand Prix racing came to England with the Donington Grand Prix at the Leicestershire circuit, and each year races were run to the International Formula, cars like the ERA qualifying under the 750 kilogramme weight limit. The 1938 event, on October 22nd, was the first British race to be run under the new Formula and the sliding scale of weights and capacities allowed the ERA cars to continue to take part in their home Grand Prix, albeit with no hope of success. In 1938 the ERA under review took part in the Donington Grand Prix and finished 7th.

ERA B-Type 1935
Chassis No. R1B
Engine No. 5001A

When R. J. B. (Dick) Seaman decided to progress from his 1100 c.c. MG Magnette to the next class, the ERA was his obvious choice and he ordered the first of the 1935 specification cars. With his sights firmly set on Grand Prix racing with a factory team, his programme encompassed a lot of European “voiturette” races, rather than the home events at Brooklands, Donington Park and in Ireland. He could see that to race on circuits like Pescara, Berne. Nürburgring and so on, where he hoped ultimately to drive Grand Prix cars, was the best form of apprenticeship, and the principle still applies today with Formula 3 and Formula 1. He asked to have his car delivered in time for the opening meeting at Donington Park, in order to give the car a “shake-down” run before setting off for the continental events.

Seaman was a truly professional racing driver and had little time for the British sporting element and the casual approach, so that when it was obvious that his new ERA would not be ready in time he made his displeasure known at Bourne. He had yet to drive an ERA and had a very full season of continental races lined up, so the ERA factory agreed to lend him one of their team cars for the Donington meeting. This was the works prototype R1 and the agreement charged Seaman with all expenses and responsibility for any mechanical breakdown, while any prize money accrued would be shared 50 / 50 with the factory. Raymond Mays and Peter Berthon were as tight as Seaman was professional. He raced in a 25-mile handicap event, taking to the ERA with ease, and led most of the way, to finish second behind Charlie Martin’s 2.3-litre Bugatti.

The new car for Seaman was completed at the beginning of June and was fitted with the engine from the car he had driven at Donington Park, No. 5001A, after being rebuilt. As the 1935 cars were being built with numerous improvements to the chassis and suspension the B-series was started and Seaman’s car was R1B. Because of this the previous four cars that had been built were given the suffix A, to differentiate them from the 1935 cars. R1B was finished in black, with black wheels, a colour Seaman had chosen for his previous Bugatti and MG racing cars. As soon as the car was ready it was loaded into its van and taken to Belgium for the Grand Prix des Frontieres at Chirnay on June 9th. It was an unhappy debut for a piston burnt out on the third lap. One week later Seaman raced in the 1,500 c.c. race of the Eifelrennen at the Nürburgring and though the car was going well it was consuming a lot of oil. This probably lost Seaman the race, for he was challenging Raymond Mays in a works car, when he had to stop for more oil, leaving Mays to go on to victory. Seaman was not too pleased about this.

While in Germany he went to the Kesselberg mountain hilIclimb where he experienced awful brake trouble, the front brakes locking on in practice and bending the front axle! In the event he could do no better than 6th in the 1,500 c.c. class. He then returned to England, the one being looked after by the Bourne factory, and entered for the Nuffield Trophy race at Donington Park, but once more there was trouble in practice, this time with low oil level in the dry-sump tank, which caused the big-ends to run, so R1B was a non-starter. A week later the car was over in France to run in the Dieppe “voiturette” race. From a front row starting position Seaman took the lead on the second lap, set up a new 1,500 c.c. lap record and retired on lap 5. This time the supercharger drive sheared.

Becoming very disenchanted with she service and maintenance he was getting from the Bourne factory, Seaman took R1B away from them and organised a workshop in the Mews behind his mother’s house in Kensington. He engaged Jock Finlayson as full-time mechanic and Giulio Ramponi as part-time consultant, and the two of them totally rebuilt R1B to Ramponi’s exacting standards. This was done in under two weeks and at the beginning of August Seaman drove the black ERA at the Grossglockner mountain hilIclimb and finished second overall behind Mario Tadini’s monoposto Alfa Romeo. He then went on down into Italy and won the 1500 c.c. race at the Coppa Acerbo meeting at Pescara and followed this with another victory, in the Prix de Berne, before the Swiss Grand Prix. Continuing his continental tour with R1B Seaman was second in the Freiburg-Schauinsland mountain hillclimb, only one second slower than Hans Stuck with the works Auto Union.

To conclude this 1935 season Seaman journeyed to far away Czechoslovakia to rust in the Masaryk Grand Prix at Brno and made the journey worthwhile by winning the 1,500 c.c. category. Since taking the car away from Bourne he recorded three outright wins and two second places, results which spoke for themselves. With Ramponi persuading him to embark on a new project for 1936, which turned out to be “fairy-story book” successful, R1B was put up for sale and was bought by G. F. Manby-Colegrave at the beginning of the 1936 season. This young newcomer shared the car with the experienced Buddy Featherstonehaugh, competing in three major events in 1936. They were fifth in the International Trophy at Brooklands, ninth in the County Down Trophy in Northern Ireland and retired with sparking plug troubles in the 200-mile race in Cork. Mid-way through 1937 R1B had another new owner in the shape of the famous band-leader Billy Cotton. When he could get time off from show-business W. E. Cotton was quite an accomplished amateur driver and had been racing Riley and MG cars. They were maintained by the Bellevue Garage in South London, under the care of W. E. (Wilkie) Wilkinson, so naturally he took charge of R1B. Billy Cotton ran once in 1937, at Phoenix Park in Ireland, where he finished third in the 1,500 c.c. class and then the car was prepared for a very busy 1938 season. It ran in ten events, most of them of major importance on the British calendar, and in the longer races the driving was shared by “Wilkie”. They got third place in the British Empire Trophy at Donington Park, while Cotton claimed two third places in short Brooklands races. At the end of the season they entered for the Donington Grand Prix, run under the new Formula rules and finished seventh, the second British car home behind all the German Grand Prix cars.

They continued to race the car during the shortened 1939 season, war putting a stop to racing in September but Cotton had the distinction of winning the very last race to be run on the triangular Mountain Circuit at Brooklands with R1B. After the war it came out again in 1947 and “Wilkie” drove it in the Jersey Road Race but had to retire with engine trouble. Cotton gave up racing then so R1B was sold to T. C. (Cuth) Harrison who used it once or twice, but kept it mainly as a source of spares for his later ERA. In 1951 it was advertised for sale for offers near to £1,100 and was bought by C. J. Hamilton who used it in Club racing. All this time it had been altered very little since the Seaman days, apart from Manby-Colegrave painting it green in place of the Seaman black. In 1955 and 1956 it was used by David Good in hillclimbs and sprint meetings, and he returned it to its original colour, and in spite of being black it was an outstandingly smart looking car on the British club scene.

By 1957 it was going as well as ever, but the world had caught up on it and its performance was only suitable for VSCC historic racing, where it was raced by Martin Brewer and in 1959 it was bought by Alan Cottam who raced it in VSCC events for the next six years. Such are the vagaries of money values that R1B was bought for £1,750 when new, reached an all-time low value of £500 in 1954 and sold for £1,800 in 1965, when the present owner Patrick Marsh bought it. For the past sixteen years Marsh has raced R1B in VSCC and Historic racing events wherever possible and is still racing it today. As far as Patrick Marsh can achieve, R1B is in exactly the same form as it was when Dick Seaman was racing it. It is black, as it should be, has its same chassis, engine and bodywork and the only things that have been changed are those items that wear out or break, though its reliability has been exemplarv. Unlike a lot of so-called historic ERA cars, R1B is still in original 1,500 c.c. form, whereas many of them have new 2,000 c.c. engines installed in the “go-faster” search for fame and fortune. When you see Patrick Marsh in the black ERA number R1B you can rest assured that to all intents and purposes it is as it was when Seaman was racing at Pescara, Berne, Dieppe or Nürburgring. Apart from its colour change you know it is the car that Cotton and Wilkinson drove in the 1938 Donington Grand Prix. — D.S. J.

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