Bob Gerard looks back

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The history of the ERA in pre-war “voiturette” races has been well chronicled and widely acknowledged as one of the first tentative steps which led towards the development of Britain’s post-war dominance in international motor racing. But with the immediate years following the war, the ERA was campaigned with vigour by many private entrants against the measurably more powerful and up-to-date works teams from Maserati and, subsequently, Ferrari. Those British drivers who took on the Italian teams did so in the knowledge that they had no chance of an outright victory over the opposition, unless some unexpected problems intervened, but they provided a ray of hope and enthusiasm for the patriotic British enthusiast.

Of all the post-war ERA stars, possibly the most prodigious privateer in terms of results was Leicester garage owner Frederick Roberts Gerard. Having started with Rileys at Brooklands and Donington in the 1930s, he graduated to ERAs after the war and continued to race Cooper, Maserati, Frazer Nash and Turner right up until 1961, when he retired from active participation and took up the role of entrant, a role which he maintains up to the present day. Now just turned 60 years old, Bob Gerard presides over a large garage group in Leicester, the hub of which we visited to spend an enjoyable day chatting with him about his varied career in motor racing which embraces some 38 years.

Bob Gerard took his first active part in motoring competition in 1933, but his father had been a director of Parrs (Leicester) Ltd. since 1904 and actually imported some De Dion Boutons in the early years of the century with which he had participated in some hill-climbs. Bob Gerard recalls how he went “straight from school to the Land’s End Trial with a Riley Monaco (they dealt with Rileys at the time) which the Guv’nor was so disgusted with that he wouldn’t sell. Prior to actually going on the Trial, my father went to find out how steep Beggars’ Roost was and promptly came back to the workshops where he winched up the front of the Riley to the same angle and started running the engine flat out”. It’s not recalled what dire effects this simulated test had on the Riley’s engine!

Prior to the war, Gerard’s racing was all revolving round the Riley marque and in 1934 a Gamecock was purchased, followed shortly afterwards by a sawn-off Brooklands and an off-set single-seater with a two-seater body, allegedly “found in the loo at the Riley factory after they went bankrupt”. Parental enthusiasm for young Gerard’s racing was mixed, his father condoning it “as long as one should learn from taking part”, while his mother simply worried all the time, he made his international debut in the Donington 12-Hours of 1936, finishing third in a race won by “Bira’s” Delahaye whilst he was second in class in the 1937 and ’38 Tourist Trophy with a 1-1/2-litre car at the same circuit, sharing in the former event with Daunt-Bateman.

In 1939, they purchased an 1,100-c.c. Riley to supplement the stable (this was used after the war by Gerard’s wife Joan), but with the outbreak of hostilities efforts at the Leicester business were turned towards the war effort. In 1936 Parrs had sold out their substantial local ‘bus interests to Midland Red and started to concentrate on commercial vehicle maintenance. They were subsequently appointed agents for Gardner diesel engines and later, when the young Foden brother split with his relatives, ERF commercials.

Immediately prior to the war, Gerard had a few outings in the sawn-off Brooklands Riley fitted with a 1-1/2-litre TT engine at the Surrey track—”but it really wasn’t much point racing Rileys at Brooklands with Fred Dixon holding sway”—and they had a couple of efforts at doing a 100-m.p.h. lap in the 9-h.p. Monaco, in sports trim. “We could get it lapping in 108 m.p.h., but couldn’t get sparking plugs to last the hour without fouling up.”

During the war the collection of Rileys was laid up in Leicester and, during the course of the five years, Gerard acquired a trio of ERAs from Reg Parnell, the ex-Fairfield, ex-Wilson R4A 1,100-c.c. machine, the ex-Johnny Wakefield R12B 1,500-c.c. with Zoller blower—”it didn’t take long to get rid of that appendage”—and the ex-Beniafield R6B 1,500-c.c. which was bought in pieces. During the immediate post-war years Gerard alternated between R4A, fitted with a 1,500-c.c. motor, and R12B, leaving R6B to be cannibalised for spare parts when necessary.

The first post-war outing was to a static demonstration at the Cockfosters Rally where one of the ERAs was displayed, and the first actually raced was at a Cambridge University CC event at Gransden Lodge, where Gerard recalls that “I spun R4A very neatly”. But it wasn’t until August 1946 that Gerard took the ERA to its first serious race, the Ulster Trophy at Ballyclare; “I astonished myself by leading the first lap ahead of Bira and Parnell”; one gathers that he almost slowed as much out of deference for his exalted competitors as from the handicap of the car! He finished third.

The first foreign race he participated in was the Grand Prix des Nations at Geneva in 1946 where Gerard remembers “it was the first time we found out the delightful ERA habit of dropping its valve seats. Of course, there were endless problems with the head gasket mating the aluminium head to the iron block and, by the time the head had cooled down and we’d removed it to examine the valves, everything seemed all right. It was only when the aluminium heated up under hard work that the valve seats started playing their tricks”. That event at Geneva stirs memories in Gerard’s mind as the only time he ever raced against Nuvolari.

In 1947, post-war motor racing really started to get under way and Gerard mapped out an ambitious programme with his ERAs. On their first continental outing, the Grand Prix d’Europe at Spa, Gerard shared the Zoller-blown R12B with Cuth Harrison and took fourth place behind the Alfa Romeos of Wimille, Varzi and Trossi, while “we were unlucky not to win the Grand Prix de la Marne at Reims, for Kautz’s winning 16-valve Maserati blew up just after crossing the line and Chiron’s Talbot ran out of petrol on the slowing-down lap. We took third place”.

Back to Ballyclare for the Ulster Trophy and this time Gerard took his first fine win, taking the lead after Parnell’s newer E-type ERA broke a de Dion tube and Marshall Watson, father of works Brabham Formula Two driver John, backed his Alta off the road through a hedge and was unable to continue. Then on to the Isle of Man for the British Empire Trophy where “we won by a minute and a half after a great scrap with the other ERAs of Abecassis and Whitehead”. International racing within the British Isles was very much a leisurely affair, “my family came everywhere with us, and we generally went to the Isle of Man or Jersey for a week’s holiday before and then stayed on for a week after the races!”

Hill-climb successes also came his way, Gerard taking records at Stanmer Park and Bo’ness in 1947 before beating Mays’ best at Prescott the following year. Then came the first of two victories in the Jersey road race, in 1948 beating the Maseratis of Abecassis, Parnell, Bira and Ansell, while the following year he splashed home to a very wet triumph ahead of Mays’ similar ERA. “I won’t say that I actually liked driving in the wet, but it seemed to be less of a handicap for me than it was for some others.”

The 1948 Grand Prix marked Gerard’s first major Silverstone success, taking the ERA to third behind the Maseratis of Villoresi and Ascari, while the following year contemporary reports in this journal tell of a “calm and unflurried” race to take second place in the Grand Prix behind Baron de Graffenried’s works Maserati, a performance which he looks back on with great satisfaction. In the Isle of Man he again took victory, this time staving off a challenge from the promising Jock St. John Horsfall, deputising for an injured John Bolster in Bell’s ERA. The season was rounded off with a lowly seventh in a sad Silverstone International Trophy marred by the death of Horsfall.

By now, even though well over the age of 30, Gerard was accepted as a top British driver and the 1950 season sent further to emphasise this reputation, the editor recalling with enthusiasm how Gerard beat the much vaunted BRM at Castle Combe with his pre war car. He won the British Empire Trophy in the Isle of Man for the third time since the war, but it wasn’t a hat trick for he’d failed to win in 1948, and took sixth place in the first British Grand Prix to count for the newly instigated World Championship. But the ERA was really beginning to feel the pinch from more modern machinery and Jersey told a different story that year, Peter Whitehead’s 1-1/2-litre V12 Ferrari winning, the Maseratis of Parnell and de Graffenried taking the next two places. Gerard was fourth but took sixth place in the Monaco Grand Prix and second at Dundrod in the ERA, plus third place in the production car event at the Ulster circuit in a Frazer Nash assuring Gerard’s name prominence at the time.

As part of the firm’s business expansion, 1951 saw Parrs as Cooper dealers and, although the ERAs were retained, Gerard confined his success more to the lesser events. He took a Cooper Norton Mk. 5 to a second place at Garston near Sheffield, but the only other first places which came his way were at the wheel of the ERA in Formule Libre events at Garston and Castle Combe. Things revived somewhat the following year with a win in the International Trophy with the now 2-litre-engined ERA, but a Copper-Bristol Formula Two car was subsequently purchased and it was with this that Gerard raced in British Grands Prix from 1953. He missed the 1952 race, for the first time in post-war years, but managed to qualify the little car halfway down the grid between the HWMs of Macklin and Hamilton the following year.

The Cooper-Bristol continued to be used throughout 1954, scoring tenth place in the British Grand Prix, five laps behind the winning Ferrari of Gonzales; but, nevertheless, the first British car to pass the chequered flag. Success continued with a win in the London Trophy at Crystal Palace, while he “took over Stirling’s Maserati 250F for a race at Charterhall when he wasn’t available. We had Alf Francis, the whole crowd in attendance, and we kept up reputations by managing to win the Libre race”. By this time, Gerard’s wife Joan had stopped racing. “By the time she retired, she’d briefly held the ladies’ record at Prescott with the 2-litre ERA and established a ladies’ record at Brighton which wasn’t broken for many seasons. In fact, if she hadn’t dawdled a bit at the start she’d have given Ray Mays a run for his money.”

In the mid-1950s, Gerard had to slow down his international racing with the expansion of the business and this was further aggravated by the death of his active father in 1954. “But I always tried to take part in the British Grand Prix, although I missed it again in 1955”, while he started the following year as the sole Cooper-Bristol entry. Gerard then installed a Bristol engine into the rear of a single-seater Cooper for the following season, the car dubbed the Cooper BG-Bristol, “although I think it would be fairer to have called it the NBG!”

Nevertheless, as Moss and Brooks sped to victory at Aintree in 1957, Gerard survived to finish with a single championship point, even though he was eight laps down on the winning Vanwall by the end of 90 laps’ racing; “the only thing I can remember about that performance was the car catching fire twice and running over Horace Gould’s toes in the pits when I came in!”

The Cooper-BG Bristol was clearly a major white elephant and “after several attempts to adapt it to run the 2-1/2-litre on nitro-methane, which ended with the motor seizing up solid”.

For the last few years of his active racing career, Gerard was an agent for Turner sports cars, so again took to the circuits to advertise the products. Using BMC A-series motors, Gerard used one of these cars to contest the 1959 Autosport Championship. He finished up joint winner of the overall Championship and class victor in the up-to-1,000-c.c. category. But single-seaters still provided a terrific attraction for him and, continuing the relationship sparked off by the 500 Norton car and continued with the Bristol-engined car, Gerard’s last two seasons were spent with Coopers. He handled a Formula Junior up until the 1961 season “when I went straight out at Snetterton and piled it straight into a bank”.

Gerard recalls that he hadn’t any preconceived ideas about just when to retire, “but I thought if you can’t do better than that, then you’d better stop’. The fact that, later on, they found that all the tyre pressures were wrong didn’t alter my decision. Once having said I was going to stop, I felt it best to stick by my word.”

But simply because Bob Gerard, then almost 50 years old, chose to stop racing, didn’t mean the end of his team. He maintained a push-rod Ford-engined Cooper for his mechanic John Taylor and continued to enter him in races up until 1965 when he left to drive for John Bridges. Then came John Rhodes in an F1 Cooper-Climax before the Formula Two days started as entrants of the works Cooper for Bob Anderson. This gave way to FVA-powered cars for Peter Gethin and Mike Beckwith in 1967—”but they handled disastrously”—and that project came to an end quite quickly.

Shopping round for a chassis after the end of the Cooper deal brought Gerard to the door of Colchester Racing Developments—”they were prepared to do a deal for us to run two works-supported Merlyn Mk. 12s”—and thus the 1968 season was settled. But, again, the Merlyn deal proved to be one of those proverbial “good ideas at the time”, but there were at least plenty of drivers taking it in turn to prove the point: Cardwell, Beckwith, Stiller, Hart, Powell, Walker, Julian Gerard (a second cousin), Rollinson, Gaydon, Walker, van Lennep and Hezemans all having a try until “Mr. Bob”, as he was by now affectionately known by the team, was prevailed upon to buy a second-hand Brabham BT23C in the middle of the 1969 season. The upshot of that development was that Robin Widdows won the Monza Lottery and Brian Hart beat the BMW team at Hockenheim within a couple of weeks of each other.

Thus encouraged, Gerard Racing laid plans to run a pair of Brabham BT30s for Hart and Gaydon in 1970, but the intervention of Henri Pescarolo and his lack of mechanical sympathy plus another big engine disaster resulted in the team curtailing its activities before the end of the year. Hart subsequently drove one of the BT30s on odd occasions in 1971, but that seemed the end of Gerard Racing on the international scene . . for the time being.

“Mr. Bob’s” pretty secretary Maggie Morris, herself a keen racing enthusiast, had become engaged to the firm’s chief mechanic Bob Salisbury and the pair of them shared an FF Merlyn before getting married during 1970. With the old F2 Brabham still lying around, Gerard decided to give Salisbury his chance in a few Libre events in 1971 and subsequently purchased a new Brabham BT35 to use in Formula Atlantic last year. A promising first season, in which Salisbury finished fourth in the Yellow Pages Championship, prompted Gerard to purchase a brand new Surtees TS15 for this season, and it’s the team’s intention to run in some selected Formula Two races as well.

Motor racing in Gerard style is now very much a “family” affair with Robert working in the garage during the week and his wife still helping “Mr. Bob” in the administration of the large Renault dealership which Parrs now hold. But at the weekends, the caravan Is packed as well as the transporter and it’s off to a race meeting, with “Mr. Bob” rolling up his sleeves to work on the car with just as much enthusiasm as he shows in reminiscing over his racing days. Whether it be as postwar Grand Prix driver or contemporary entrant, Bob Gerard is still a familiar face to many and shows no indication of giving up his consuming involvement in the sport. – A.H.

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