Dawn of a new ERA

Losing is the English disease, they say. Grands Prix give lie to that. Paul Fearnley samples an English racing automobile that put us on the road to recovery and total dominance

Snick. Stamp. Shove in the back. Snick. Stamp. Shove in the back. Can’t think why I had been so worried. Or why the brass plaque mounted atop it bears such stem words. Adjustments: to be made by company’s service depot only. Come off it Armstrong-Siddeley of Parkside, Coventry, this pre-selector gearbox lark is easy. Slide the lever into the next notch on the quadrant down by your right thigh — it follows neat little C-shaped paths and is guided into station by a positive spring — and depress the clutch when you’re good and ready.

Except there is no clutch in this particular case. The Wilson-patent pre-selector, absolutely en vogue in the 1930s, is a complex mass of internally toothed drums, sun wheels, planetary gears and contracting friction bands. It’s heavy and saps horsepower. But its constant-mesh epicyclic mechanism also provides snappy, graunch-free changes — a boon for the era. Originally intended for luxury saloons, it was shorn of centrifugal clutches and bob weights for racing purposes and, hey presto, there goes another gear.

Complicated to explain, straightforward to use. Except, of course, now I’ve lost my place. Is that the gear I’ve pre-selected or the gear I’m currently in? The trick to it is to make your next selection immediately after a gearchange. Do this and you can forget about it, concentrate on your braking, keep both hands on the heavy steering at turn-in and — stamp on the selector pedal.

It takes a bit of getting used to, but we’re talking laps not years — and perhaps a couple of races to learn all the tricks. For example, for a rapid getaway, first can be selected by half-raising the pedal. Then, while holding the car stationary on its fiddle brake, second can be pre-selected. You can miss out gears, too. One press of the pedal can take you from top to bottom if you so desire.

I’m still in my ‘laps’ phase, though, and I discover another slight worry for the pre-selector novice. I realise that the usual movement of my arm as I pass a lever through neutral sets the rhythm of my heel-and-toe shifts. Shorn of this, the timing isn’t quite there and to compensate I make sure that the revs are low enough to prevent tipping the car on its nose with an unsympathetic change.

Speaking of which, my nose and visor are now interfacing as a consequence of the onrushing air. You sit high and exposed aboard an ‘English Perpendicular’ ERA, in a sort of Chesterfield armchair, and the sense of speed is intense. Those bullet upshifts, whining front-mounted vertical Roots blower, strong torque from the long-stroke Riley-based straight-six and sensational traction from the ZF-type cam-and-pawl limited-slip duff and ‘doughnut’ 16-inch Dunlop racers flings you from corner to comer. This is modern supercar territory — only minus the ceramic discs, carbon pads, power steering and independent suspension.

The sprung-spoke steering wheel sits right in your chest. And you sit bolt upright. The closeness of the wheel — this cockpit is particularly tight due to its long-range tail tank — allows you to haul on lock in the slower corners. It provides another useful service, too: driver location. Hitting a bump at no more than 60mph briefly separates pants from seat, thigh tops flexing the wheel before everything comes back into land microseconds later. Hmm.

But that it is all forgotten as the needle whips around the large, white-on-blue rev-counter. The usual base howl has been heavily silenced for the purposes of this test, but at 5000rpm its true aural character reasserts itself. It really starts to go, too, even 1000 revs short of its 6500 limit. Er, time for some brakes…

Built in 1936, one of seven customer cars sold in ERA’s third year of competition, R7B features the stiffer chassis, altered spring rates, and minor engine and supercharger mods over the original quartet of A-series cars of 1934/35. However, independent front suspension (provided by Dr Porsche’s trailing-link, transverse-torsion bar system), Girling Luvax hydraulic dampers, box-section chassis frame and Lockheed hydraulic brakes were still a spec in the distance. No, today, we have to make do with channel section, semi-elliptics and friction dampers all round, and Girling cable-and-rod brakes. There is, though, a clever twist, literally, to the latter. A neat system allows the shoes to pivot forward upon application, which in turn generates a self-servo effect, pulling them into ever-harder contact with the drum. The travel is long, and the pedal has an unnerving sideways movement due to the actuating arm’s impressive length, necessary to generate the required leverage, but you indisputably shed speed quicker than anticipated.

It all feels rock solid, flex-free and stable, too, at least on this smooth-ish track. In fact, this is one of the tightest racing cars, of any era, that I have been privileged to drive. And yet R7B, with the greatest respect, used to be a rolling wreck. Owned by Dudley Gahagan from 1960, it gradually fell into disrepair despite regular track use. Dudley modded it by fitting hydraulic brakes and shockers, but it is fair to say that, although he loved the car, he did not exactly pamper it.

That came with current owner Paul Mullins, who commissioned a reworking/restoration by GTO Engineering, under the auspices of project leader Simon Bish who put the car back to its original specification, albeit retaining a 2-litre motor. R7B is a white swan once more. She is absolutely stunning.

Although originally purchased by Arthur Dobson (see panel), Cyril Paul gave R7B its first three runs, with a best result of third on the Isle of Man in 1937. Charles Brackenbury also raced the car that year, at Donington Park, while Dobson was on JCC 200 duty with the works squad. That was the season ERA reasserted its dominance of voiturette racing.

In 1935, thanks to the efforts of team founder Raymond Mays, English-born South African Pat `Skidder’ Fairfield and determined young thruster Richard Seaman, the marque from Bourne had put Great Britain back on the GP map, more than 10 years after the Segrave/Sunbeam successes, by winning every major voiturette race they contested.

As such, the A- and B-types of 1934/36 were greater than the sum of their parts. Designed (by Reid Railton of Thomson & Taylor) and built in a little over six months during the winter of ’33/34, the car broke no new ground with its straightforward chassis and leaf-spring suspension. Indeed, with its pushrod engine and high seat position, there were plenty who did not predict great things from it. But it was blessed with outstanding traction and acceleration, and although the overstretched team’s preparation was not always of the highest order, an ERA would be there at the end to claim the spoils.

The team got a rude awakening in 1936, though. Seaman, who had left in high dudgeon, created a legend in miniature with a reworked nine-year-old GP Delage, while Count Felice Trossi made the most of two extra cylinders and independent front suspension on the new Maserati 6CM. In a bid to keep up ERA pressed on with its use of Zoller superchargers in the place of Murray Jamieson’s original item. This raised power by 35bhp to 225, but caused a spate of retirements.

The C-type’s stiffer chassis and softer suspension improved the handling for 1937, while Peter Berthon designed new conrods to cope with 25psi of boost. ERA was right back on track. Except that Humphrey Cook, the wealthy racer who had funded the project, could no longer ignore the bottom line: every B-type (£1700 for a 1.5-litre in 1935) had been sold at a loss. By ’38, the team was concentrating on its R4D development car and the too-little-too-late E-type, while privateers were left to their own devices. Not only that but Alfa Romeo had revealed its unbeatable 158 — and Maserati made its new 4CL available to wealthy privateers as from ’39. The sun had set on ERA’s glory days.

It was, however — and continues to be so in the longest of Indian racing summers — a triumph of pragmatic engineering, of setting realistic targets and hitting a bull’s-eye. Sixteen of the 17 ERAs built scored a win pre-war — the ill-fated R3B had to make do with a best of second. And those 16 still exist, dominating historic racing.

It strikes me as odd that Mays and Berthon, having awoken the giants of British industry to the positive effects of GP racing, should seemingly forget the harsh lessons learned and points proved with ERA, that they should so disastrously overreach themselves in the early days of BRM. R7B is the antithesis of V16, a million miles from its complexity— and is all the better for it

Dobson: Understated and very underrated

Serious-looking, bespectacled and moustachioed Arthur Dobson’s exploits tend to be overlooked. And yet in the short period between the death of Richard Seaman in the 1939 Belgian GP and the outbreak of WWII, he was arguably Britain’s best racing driver.

Dobson was one of three racing brothers. Austin bought and raced one of the mighty Bimotore Alfa Romeos at Brooklands; Arthur’s early outings were in a Bugatti and Riley sportscars.

He came to prominence when he bought R7B in 1936, and his subsequent duels with a similarly mounted ‘Bira’, particularly at the newly opened Crystal Palace circuit, were big news, helping to stoke up a new public interest in a sport that had been in the doldrums in the UK. The pair, who were good friends and regular riverboat companions, even staged a match race at the ‘Palace in ’38: Dobson won after Bira punctured.

In 1937, Dobson had split the works ERAs of Pat Fairfield and Raymond Mays in the Nuffield Trophy at Donington Park, and he subsequently replaced the former in the squad after his fatal crash at Le Mans. Arthur made an immediate impact in his new role, winning the Prix de Berne and JCC 200 aboard RI2C.

ERA throttled back its works involvement in 1938 and Dobson hopped back into R7B. He was a determined racer, but Bira’s purchase of the superior RI2C often meant that he was the bridesmaid in their duels. It was Dobson, however, who finished best of the rest behind the Silver Arrows at the Donington Grand Prix, six laps down in sixth. He also finished third in the Modena GP, a rare pre-war trip abroad for R7B.

In 1939, Dobson’s final year of racing, he concentrated on ERA’s new E-type, GPI. It was a fractious time with a troublesome car. His best outing with it was a lap record and a race lead in the Albi Grand Prix, an encouraging outing that sadly ended in the hay bales.

Dobson did not return to the scene after the war. He had gone through his fortune and found himself in straitened circumstances. Indeed, he attended only three race meetings in his remaining 35 years.