Down the years I’ve been lucky enough to find myself behind the wheel of some immortal racing cars, like the Vanwall, the Lancia D50 and the Maserati 250F. I’ve driven Edwardian road-race leviathans and DFV-powered Formula 1 cars, and on one ear-shattering occasion a V16 BRM. But up there with all of those, maybe even topping them, was a day I spent recently with two examples of one of the most important British racing cars of all time, the ERA.
Those I drove spanned ERA’s history from the early A-type to the final D-type. R4A is the ex-Pat Fairfield, ex-Bob Gerard car that won the 1937 South African Grand Prix, and now holds the pre-war class record at Shelsley Walsh. R4D, the only D-type built, was the Raymond Mays car that set best time of the day at Shelsley an unrivalled 16 times between 1935 and 1956 in the hands of Mays and then Ken Wharton. So, of course, the only place to try these cars has to be the hallowed 1000 yards of Shelsley Walsh, unchanged since Mays’ day and indeed, apart from surface improvements, for the last 111 years.
My first jumbled impressions after tackling the hill in these two awe-inspiring bolides are that they are fast: not just by 1930s standards but by the standards of today. R4D is developing about 350bhp in a tall, perpendicular car that weighs little more than 700kg, and its acceleration off the line, in a blast of noise and tyre smoke, is like a sudden fist in the solar plexus. Never has Shelsley Walsh seemed so narrow, or so bumpy – the suspension is rock-hard – and never have I felt so busy in a car, jouncing around in that high, exposed cockpit innocent of seat belts, juggling the pre-selector lever and the actuating pedal, hauling on the big, string-bound wheel close to my chest, feeling the oversteer as the next corner comes rushing up long before it should.
My mind, trying to keep up with the car, is working too hard to worry about that huge supercharger spinning at 20,000rpm between my knees, but I can hear its rising high-pitched whine mixing with the deafening exhaust barking beside my left ear. Further up the hill, accelerating out of the steep second Ess and jabbing the left pedal to take third as I charge for the finish line, the torque and noise and relentless power just keep on coming. R4D’s last owner, Mac Hulbert, has shown that its 0-120mph time is 12.33sec – 2sec faster than a racing Ferrari Daytona and more than 4sec quicker than a 7-litre Cobra.
In 1933, Grand Prix racing, then dominated by the Italians, would soon be swamped by the might of the Hitler-financed Mercedes-Benzes and Auto Unions. But Raymond Mays believed that for the next rung down, the Voiturette formula, England could produce a winner. Already famous for his exploits in Bugatti, Mercedes, Vauxhall and Invicta, Mays had a lot of success during 1932 with the White Riley, the product of his special friendship with a brilliant young engineer called Peter Berthon. Aided by supercharger expert Murray Jamieson, a road-going 12/6 Riley chassis was much modified to become The White Riley, a highly effective hillclimb and circuit car.
This, using a supercharged six-cylinder engine whose twin side camshafts and short pushrods betrayed its Riley roots, became the basis of Berthon’s design for the ERA. In November 1933 English Racing Automobiles Ltd was founded, with premises in the grounds of May’s home in Bourne, Lincolnshire. The money came from a shy, patriotic young enthusiast called Humphrey Cook, who at the age of 12 had inherited a very large textiles fortune.
Over the next six years ERA went on to become the leading British racing marque, flying the flag across Europe and also in South Africa and Australia in the hands of drivers like Prince Bira, Dick Seaman, Arthur Dobson, Earl Howe, Johnny Wakefield – and of course Mays himself.
But by 1938 relations had become strained between Mays and Cook, who was dismayed by the voraciousness with which his fortune was being eaten up. So Mays resigned from the ERA board but bought his current works car, R4D, from the company and, taking Berthon with him, continued to race it as a privateer.
The development of the E-type, a dramatically different successor, was halted by World War II, but after the war ERAs continued to be successful in private hands until well into the 1950s.
In all 20 ERAs were built, including two E-types. Each is individually known by its chassis number, and all but one still exist. R4A, the first customer car, was ordered by Pat Fairfield, known as ‘Skidder’ because of his wild racing style. Before his death at Le Mans in 1937 he scored victories in South Africa and France, as well as at Brooklands and Donington. After World War II Bob Gerard campaigned R4A with distinction for five seasons. In the hands of a succession of owners, notably John Venables-Llewelyn, it has been racing all its life. It now belongs to Nick Topliss, whose achievements have won him the ERA Club’s Rivers Fletcher Trophy for the last two years.
R4D was effectively the works development car. It was built in 1935 as R4B before being updated to C-type specification. This featured a heftier supercharger, mounted on the back of the engine for better weight distribution, and independent front suspension borrowed (with permission) from Dr Porsche’s design for the Auto-Unions. By 1938 the car had a completely different chassis frame, of stiffer box section with lightening holes along the side rails, as well as hydraulic shockers and bigger, better brakes. All this justified a number change to R4D.
Mays continued to win with it until the end of the 1950 season, by which time he was 51 years old and very occupied with the development of Britain’s new Grand Prix hope, the BRM. Subsequent owners included the brilliant Scot Ron Flockhart and Ken Wharton, who used it to win the British Hillclimb Championship. It has continued to be raced every season in the hands of a string of top historic racers, notably Anthony Mayman, who in 10 years scored more than 50 victories until his suicide in 1993. In 2001 it was bought by Mac Hulbert, who raced it with flair, determination and great success for 15 seasons. He has now sold it to Brian Fidler, and the car is prepared and raced by R4A’s owner, Nick Topliss.
Seeing R4A and R4D sitting quietly side by side in the early morning Shelsley sunshine I appreciate at once how beautifully turned out they are, just as working racing cars should be – not polished and chromed like museum pieces, but with everything spotless and ready to go. These cars are complex, and starting them requires a disciplined, step-by-step process. Nick is meticulous about this, and believes it’s essential to ensure mechanical reliability when the car is driven in anger.
When garaged, the engine is kept drained of water to avoid any danger of capillary action into the cylinder bores, and Nick brings along a big tea urn so that it can be filled with water that is already hot. The oil is heated up too, using an element inside the tank. Says Nick: “If we started it with cold oil, the pressure would go up to 250psi and the engine would be a bomb.” Next, the rear wheels are jacked up, the six spark plugs are removed, an electric starter is inserted in the front connecting with the crankshaft, and the engine spun round to raise the oil pressure from zero. Now softer plugs are screwed in, while into the fuel tank is poured 10 litres of neat methanol. Nick says that will do for a couple of runs up the hill: allowing for a bit of safety margin, I make that less than two miles per gallon. Turn the fuel tap in the cockpit, pause five seconds for the float chambers in the two huge horizontal carburettors to fill up, then flick the magneto switch. Keep pumping up the fuel pressure with persistent strokes from the plunger on the dash, and with a burst of the electric starter the engine comes to life.
It is run at a steady 1500rpm until the water temperature gauge has climbed to 75 degC. The car is in neutral, but the jacked rear wheels are spinning because of drag from the transmission. The engine is stopped again for the soft plugs to be replaced with hard racing plugs and restarted, running at gradually higher rpm, and the fuel pressure is pumped up again – because it’s not until the engine is running hard that the fuel pump provides enough mixture to keep the carbs full and the supercharger supplied with mixture. Now off the jacks, and finally we’re ready to go.
Raymond Mays, who was very superstitious, would only ever race wearing blue. He got his racing overalls made in blue silk by his Jermyn Street shirt maker, and under the overalls he always wore shirt and tie. And he would only ever get into the car from the left-hand side. I thought it would be appropriate to follow him in that, until I found it would put me dangerously close to the exhaust pipe of the already warmed-up car. The approved way in is right foot on right-hand rear spring shackle, swing left leg onto seat, then right leg, and slide down to pedals – in R4D wrapping my calves around that huge supercharger, which reaches up to my knees.
The upright, bolstered seat is surprisingly comfortable, but the big sprung-spoke steering wheel feels very close. ERAs have their steering box mounted on the right of the chassis, and the wheel is accordingly angled to the right. But Mays’ left arm was slightly shorter than his right, the legacy of a childhood accident, so R4D’s steering box is on the left of the chassis, and the wheel accordingly angled left.
Nick’s briefing to me is detailed. All ERAs have a preselector gearbox, which means that the drive is taken up by bands faced with material rather like brake linings. There is a small lever on the right of the cockpit to pre-select the gear you’re going to want next, and an actuating pedal that looks like a clutch pedal but isn’t. When you want to change gear you jab your foot down and back on that pedal as fast as you can, and instantly you are in the next gear. But it is important that you do not ride that pedal as you might a clutch when manoeuvring or moving off, because that will wear the bands very quickly. And selecting the wrong gear means disaster. The gear clusters turn at five times engine speed, so 6000rpm at the engine is a suicidal 30,000rpm in the gearbox.