Privateer on Parade

Such was Bob Gerard’s talent that he could take on post-war works GP teams in ancient ERA. Bill Boddy remembers him.

Frederick Robert Gerard – Bob to the motor racing world – was born in the year of the ghastly First World War, on January 19, 1914 to be precise, in Leicester. He grew up amongst a family who favoured Riley cars. In later years Gerard ran a road haulage and truck engineering business, so was well equipped to work on racing cars, and he took proper preparation very seriously.

Before that Bob played his hand in by driving in trials, with a Riley Nine in the 1933 MCC Land’s End classic for instance, in which he scored a Premier Award. By the later 1940s he was a very capable and successful driver of two ERAs, and a fully qualified BRDC member through speed trials and racing at Brooklands and Donington Park. I remember him with his boyish smile, hair never changing into middle age, and with those deep-lensed glasses. It was sometimes reported that he was the fastest of shortsighted drivers, and one can romance that the quickest racers might well be either those with exceptional sight, or those who have poor sight and do not see hazards until they are upon them.

In the top sight category I would cite Stirling Moss. We were once sitting the evening before a big race, laughing because Jenks had produced a tiny reproduction of a page from Motor Sport, about 3x2in, and no one could read the tiny type. Enquiring what was the joke, Stirling took the minute page and read from it perfectly, then said that as he was driving the next day, he should be off to bed; had anyone got the time? No-one had. “Never mind”, Moss said, “I’ve just seen the church clock over there”. We looked where he had pointed, but none of us could even see the hands… But whether or not Bob Gerard could see the corners of the circuit as well as Moss, he never showed any sign of easing up.

Bob Gerard graduated from the Riley Monaco to trialling a 1 1/2-litre Riley Sprite, and by 1937 was racing at his home circuit, Donington Park, where he won two races and beat a 2 1/2-litre BMW and a 2.3 Alfa Romeo. Bob followed this by third place in the Derby aid District MC’s 12-hour Sports Car race, A D Bateman co-driving, and ninth place in a Riley in the Donington TT.

In 1938 there was a poor result in the Nuffield Trophy but a second and third at the Hospitals Meeting, and just before the war closed things down, Bob went south to Brooklands where he took a third at the 1939 Opening Meeting in his ivory-hued 1 1/2-litre Riley and won the next race. At Easter, Gerard scored a third place, but trouble with shock absorbers and plugs held him back in the JCC International Trophy long-distance race. Finally on that fateful August afternoon he won a Campbell circuit handicap.

To mark the resumption of racing after the war, Rivers Fletcher so ably organised demonstration runs on a short course at Cockfosters, in 1945. Gerard had purchased ERA R4A for some £1000 from Reg Parnell, and with spares from R6B had rebuilt it, helped by Frank Wooley. He made the first ERA run at Cockfosters, and as Rivers said “made us all fed we were really. going back to pre-war racing as his car’s exhaust note thrilled the spectators”. Before that, Bob’s wife Joan, always smartly dressed and made-up, had demonstrated her equally immaculate Riley Sprite. Later that year R4A made FTD at the Bristol hillclimb and the Filton speed-trials, justifying its careful reassembly.

To prepare for the 1946 season, Gerard bought ERA R14B, the ex-Wakefield Zoller-supercharged car. The cars were carefully rebuilt and modified, and R4A tied for third place with Heath’s R1A at the VSCC Elstree speed-trials which got things going again, and it was fastest at Cofton Hackett. Bob then took R14B to Geneva but was a disappointing ninth in his heat. However, in Ireland it was third behind Bira’s ERA and Parnell’s Maserati in the 49-mile Ulster Trophy race, where instead of the big Zoller blower Bob was using a Murray-Jamieson unit. A sixth place at Prescott with R1A, third at Shelsley Walsh in R14B and the course record at Cofton Hackett with the later ERA ended the season.

Encouraged, Bob Gerard set about getting ready for the 1947 races. With his good workshop facilities he had replaced the ‘crash’ gearbox of R14B with a pre-selector box, apparently intended for, or from, an Armstrong-Siddeley. It was to be used for circuit racing, R4A for sprint events, and he was building up a special 2-litre engine on a Riley Six crankshaft. To obviate things going wrong as they had at Geneva, Bob formed a team to look after his motor racing: Frank Wooley was appointed Team Manager, Mann and Turner were respectively engine and chassis mechanics, and Joan Gerard was to be time-keeper in the pit.

The first real test came in the jersey 166-mile Road Race, when R14B, its Zoller s/c back and in 1 1/2-litre form, was third until an oil pipe broke and a long stop dropped it to twelfth. Next it was up to Bo’ness in Scotland for the hill-climb, when Gerard in R4A with his 1943cc engine was fourth first time out, beaten only by a 3.3 GP Bugatti, a 2.9 Alfa Romeo and a 2.3 Bugatti. At Prescott R4A was on form, taking an easy FTD from Ansell’s R9B.

Then carne a splendid performance, despite of every kind of set-back prior to R14B starting the GP d’Europe at Spa. The Murray-Jamieson s/c had to be used as the Zoller was faulty, Turner was ill so couldn’t drive, the van broke down in Brussels and there was an overnight toil for the mechanics to fit a remade universal joint. Bob and Joan used their Dodge ‘William’ to drive to Spa, and T C Harrison became Bob’s second driver. Where did they finish? Fourth, behind the three victorious 158 Alfa Romeos of Wimille, Varzi and Trossi… They stayed for the Marne GP and were third behind Kautz’s Maserati and Chiron’s Talbot.

The successes continued, Gerard’s meticulous pre-race work paying dividends. He aimed at improving the reliability of the ERA engines, taking built-up components to races, giving each team member well defined instructions, copying May’s rear-axle torque-rod, and checking weather conditions before tuning the SU carburettor. There was FTD at Prescott in the cream R4A and victory in the 1947 Ulster Trophy race in R14B. Bob then won the BE Trophy race in the IOM. R14B was not quite a match for May’s 1400cc R4D or Bira’s 2.9 Maserati at Brighton but was third fastest and Joan expertly drove R4A as well, only 1.3sec slower. So slim dark-haired Joan took the ladies prize.

At Prescott in September 1947 only the undefeatable Hill Climb Champion Raymond Mays in ERA R4D beat the irrepressible Gerard in R4A, and only by 1.01sec. So very capable was the Gerard set-up that to describe all his successes would use up too much space. His greatest drive was in the 1949 British GP at Silverstone, when he finished behind de Graffenried’s works Maserati, tile first time a single-seater British car had come home in the first three in a top international event.

This ability to mix it with the great Continental drivers as a private competitor put Gerard in a class almost of his own; not only did he win the Empire Trophy event three times in 1947, 1949 and 1950, but he was the victor in Jersey’s road race in 1948 and 1949, came home third in the RAC British GP at Silverstone behind Luigi Villoresi and Alberto Ascari’s factory Maseratis. All in ERA R14B which had left the Bourne works back in 1936…

Despite these important races, in 1948 Gerard did not snub the smaller club events. At the Luton Hoo VSCC speed trials he made FTD, beating Dennis Poore’s big 3.8-litre monoposto Alfa Romeo and again at BOC Prescott where the 2-litre R6B broke the record. Bob then took R6B to the Stanmer Park speed-trials but thought the pull-up area too short. About to leave, he was persuaded to compete and had a monumental accident after crossing the line having made a very fast FM run. Organisation paid off again because he was able to get the damaged engine from R6B into the R4A chassis in time a week later.

At Brighton in 1948, Bob came second (Mays fastest) and Joan fifth in the 2-litre R4A. Joan made a hesitant start, but she was only 0.77sec slower than her husband. That gained her the ladies’ prize and much attention from the mikes and cameras. Nor was Gerard a stranger to the fine Goodwood circuit, having been second in the ’48 Goodwood Trophy race, with the now I 1/2-litre R14B. He closed the season with ninth in a race at Penya Rhin, the car then going to the BRDC Racing Car Show in London with a new, still lower bonnet line and more sloping radiator cowl.

In 1949, after the three great aforementioned victories. Bob was seventh in the Silverstone International Trophy race. Illness then kept him out of racing but in 1950 he was on former form in the British GP at Silverstone, with an epic sixth, and he took the same place at Monaco, behind the likes of Fangio, Ascari and Chiron. The Daily Express IT race saw Bob spin off, a reminder of how safe a driver he usually was, pebble glasses notwithstanding!

He had won the 50-lap Gamston race in R4A, and later at the Notts circuit he was second to R4D, now driven by Parnell. Bob had a third and a fourth at Goodwood before winning the Castle Combe Formula Libre race, now back in R14B. Those were the glory days of ERA racing, but Bob continued using his ERAs until increasing competition made him drive a Cooper-Bristol. R4A went to Africa, R14B to Jimmy Stewart.

At Brands Hatch in 1950, sporting Joan Gerard had driven in a F3 race in a Cooper-Norton, finishing third, an event which produced the amusing sight of husbands and boyfriends holding ladies’ handbags and looking notably worried (for their cars or for their women?). In 1951 Bob was second to Moss in the loM British Empire Trophy, both in Frazer Nashes, and in 1952 in the old 2-litre ERA he broke his own Castle Combe lap record and easily beat Wharton’s V16 BRM in the Charterhall TT race.

To list all the successes which this extremely versatile driver chalked up is impossible here, but in the three years following 1952 he won, sometimes more than once, at Goodwood, Brands Hatch, the Crystal Palace, Charterhall, Silverstone, Oulton Park, Castle Combe and at Mallory Park where a corner was named after him. Moreover he is one of the elite who have driven at Le Mans, but the Frazer-Nash he shared with TG Clark was a non-finisher due to a defective crankshaft damper. He also won the 2-litre class in the 1950 Dundrod TT, and in 1951 was third overall, a great drive which split a Jaguar 1,2,3 finish.

When he was approaching middle age Bob Gerard was as keen as ever, competing with the 500cc Cooper before he ran the Cooper-Bristol and finishing a long career with a sports Turner.

I remember Gerard as one of the great privateers, and an outstanding ERA exponent, whose skilled and strategic driving was matched by his meticulous preparation of his racing cars. Bob Gerard died in 1990, one week after his 76th birthday.