English Racing Automobiles

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Fifty Years

Fifty years ago Motor sport published an article in the June issue (1934), entitled “First ERA Racing Car Completed.’ which detailed the formation of the concern with the name English Racing Automobiles Ltd, financed by Humphrey Cook, a city businessman and racing enthusiast, in conjunction with racing driver Raymond Mays and his engineer, designer friend Peter Berthon. In July 1984, 50 years later, the Vintage Sports Car Club organised a special race at their Silverstone club meeting, exclusively for ERA cars (and derivatives), at which all but two of the total production of the firm appeared, though not all of them actually competed. Nonetheless, it was an impressive turn-out and a remarkable tribute to the long-lasting qualities of the ERA racing car, notable mainly for its straightforward design and relative simplicity which has enabled enthusiastic amateurs to keep them in running order over the years. The main reason that people have kept the ERA cars running, and competing, for 50 years is that it is inherently an “honest” car that is easy to drive, very forgiving in its handling characteristics, fast enough to be exciting and successful in historic racing, and above all it is enormous fun to drive as I can testify, having had the opportunity of driving one of the most famous ERA cars, namely R5B “Remus” for many laps of the Silverstone club circuit.

The reason for the formation of the ERA firm is best conveyed by reprinting the article that appeared in Motor Sport in June 1934:

“All British racing enthusiasts must have cherished a hope to see a team of cars from this country competing in foreign Grand Prix events, but last year, at any rate, the possibility seemed fairly remote. The success of the supercharged Riley driven at Shelsley Walsh last autumn by Raymond Mays was destined to be the starting point of one enterprise of this nature, and with the financial support of Humphrey Cook, whose name has so often been associated with projects for reviving British racing prestige abroad, a company called English Racing Automobiles, Ltd, was formed to undertake the construction of cars based on this design. After the usual delays the first car has just been completed, and will make its debut in the Isle of Man Round the Town races.

“The engine is based on the six-cylinder 1,488 cc Riley unit, which has a bore of 57 mm and a stroke of 95.2. The cylinder block, which is a steel casting, is similar to the standard Riley and is in unit with the top of the crank-case. The aluminium head is an entirely new production. The valves are set at 90 degrees to one another in a hemispherical head, and are operated by Riley-type rockers and short push-rods from the camshaft on each side of the engine. The valves are approximately 1 1/2 in in diameter, and the exhaust valve is hollow and filled with a special salt which encourages heat flow from the head. 14 mm plugs are used.

“The three-bearing fully balanced crankshaft is most massive in appearance, and is carried in three bearings, rollers being used in the centre. The connecting rods are steel, with cast-in big ends, and the pistons are of the slipper type with three rings.

“A two-vane Murray Jamieson supercharger is mounted vertically in front of the engine, and driven by bevel gears from the crankshaft. A single SU carburetter is used, pressure fed from the rear tank. Dry-sump lubrication is employed and the double pump is mounted below the crankshaft, worm driven. A vertical Scintilla magneto is carried on the off-side of the engine.

“The rear end of the engine is bolted to an elektron housing, which also acts as a chassis bracing.

“A 15 hp Armstrong-Siddeley self-changing gearbox is secured to the rear side of this housing, with a cable-operated lever on the dash. The propeller-shaft is enclosed in a torque tube, with a bevel-driven back axle.

“The chassis was designed by R. W. Railton, and was made by Thomson and Taylors. It is straight in front and swept over the rear axle. In front it is braced by a light box-member behind the radiator, amidships by the elektron rear engine support and by a dash of the same material, and by two light cross-members at the back, diagonally trussed by a pair of well-drilled channel-section stays. The front axle is of I-section between the springs, and is solid up to the steering pins. Two Hartford shock-absorbers accused for the front axle, and four are fitted at the rear. Short half-elliptic springs with shackles, back and front, are used, and radius rods are fitted to the front axle.

“The petrol tank is pivoted at the rear and rests on two rubber blocks in front. It holds 23 gallons.

“The brakes have large ribbed elektron drums, and they are operated on the Girling system, with its straight rods and high mechanical efficiency.

“Burman steering is used, with an off-set box bolted to the side of the chassis, and the column has a universal joint at the bottom, Bugatti fashion, and is supported by a bearing in the dash.

“Large section Dunlop tyres are fitted, with a new ‘S’ pattern tread. Marked ’16 by 6.00′ they are mounted on wide rims, and are fully 6 in across. This new departure is made with the idea of obtaining increased road adhesion.

“The wheelbase is 7 ft 10 in and the track is 4 ft 3 in, and the cars complete.” (NB at this point in the article some lines were omitted, which at a guess referred to the all-up weight!).

“The cars are single seaters and the bodywork consists simply of light aluminium panels secured to the chassis through small brackets. A long louvred bonnet is used, and the fuel tank forms the rear outline of the body, while the 5 gallon oil tank is similarly faired into the under-shield. From the side the cars bear. a resemblance to the single-seater Maseratis, but with a distinctive radiator cowling. The team colour will be an attractive shade of light green.

The design of the cylinder head, the crank-shaft and the modifications necessary for installing the blower, together with the general chassis layout are the work of Mr Peter Berthon. He has long been associated with Mays in his supercharging experiments, notably the Vauxhall-Villiers. This remarkable three-litre car, based on the old TT Vauxhall which once belonged to Cook, develops 260 hp and revs to 6,000 rpm with a stroke of 132 mm.

“The cars are being built at Raymond Mays’ racing workshop in Lincolnshire, which is equipped with lathes, milling machines, grinders, a heat-treatment furnace, and most treasured possession, a Heenan and Froude dynamometer, running up to 8,000 rpm. A fine drawing office and stores have just been completed, and in short what is now the works of the ERA is equipped in every way for the manufacture of racing cars. The workmanship which was being put into the chassis under construction one might fairly term exquisite.

“It is intended to make the ERAs in three capacities, 1,100 cc, 1,500 cc, and two-litre. The first will be obtained by reducing the throw of the crank-shaft, while the cylinder-block will be bored out to give the largest capacity. The 1,500 cc engines give over 160 hp at 7,000 rpm, only 20 hp less than that of the 2.3 Grand Prix Alfas of a year ago. It runs on Shell racing fuel, on a 6 to 1 compression, with 15 lb blower pressure.

“Discussing the cars with Mr Mays, he confirmed our impression that they were intended for Grand Prix racing and not simply for hill-climbs, which of course, have been his speciality for the last ten years. Nearly all the Continental races have a class either for 1 1/2-litre or two-litre cars, so there will be plenty of scope for the ERAs. The apalling expense of constructing new engines, and the fact that the original motor has shown no signs of distress after all the tests to which it has been subjected made us think that we were justified in building a racing car round it. If all goes well, we may think of a three-litre straight-eight in a year’s time.’ He agreed that there was a market for an English produced racing car and that the company would be able later on to cater for this demand, but for the present the dozen mechanics were working night shifts to get the team cars ready for their first engagements.

“The 1 1/2-litre car has been entered for the Isle of Man races and Shelsley Walsh, and the first 1,100 cc model should be finished in time for the latter event. These two cars and the two-litre have also been entered for the British Empire Trophy on June 23rd. If no unforeseen snag occurs, some of the cars may be run at Dieppe in July, while next year Mays hopes to take part in the Monaco Grand Prix. He will, of course, be driving in all the events given above, and Cook will also take a wheel in some of the races. The other driver has not yet been decided upon.

“This courageous attempt to produce an English-made racing car will be supported by the good wishes of all followers of motor sport, and the first appearance of the new car in the Isle of Man will be keenly awaited.”

The 1 1/2-litre was completed just before Whitsun, and on the following Tuesday was taken down to Brooklands in the Company’s Leyland van, which can carry three cars and also provides sleeping accommodation for the mechanics. The engine was brand-new, and tests were confined to driving slowly round the track and checking over oil-pressure and similar matters. The “equipe” returned to Bourne the same night and the engine was put on the bench to complete its period of running-in.

Thus Motor Sport brought the news of this exciting newcomer to the British sporting world. It was the first pure single-seater racing car, purpose built from scratch, to appear in England, of all-British manufacture. There were plenty of racing cars about in those days, but most of them derived from a production sports car, such as various MGs and Rileys or were small-capacity cars like Austin Sevens. The English racing world at that time was reliant upon Continental factories selling obsolete “works” cars, like Alfa Romeos or Bugattis, or Maseratis which were rare and expensive.

The debut of the ERA was not blessed with success, for though it appeared in the Isle of Man, in 1,500 cc form to take part in the Mannin Moar, it was withdrawn after practice as Mays was unhappy with the handling and steering. It had shown impressive acceleration but was unstable at high-speed and Berthon put this down to the spring rates being wrong and the steering geometry being at fault. As a consequence the entries for Shelsley Walsh were withdrawn as well, and the major change to the steering was to mount the drop-arm from the steering box inside the chassis frame, rather than outside.

Eventually the first car was sorted out and from then on the name ERA became a household word in British motor racing and also made its mark in European events, in everything from round-the-houses races like Monaco, to mountain hill-climbs like the Grossglockner. In order to establish its performance potential Mays made successful attacks on standing-start records, the kilometre being the most popular one at the time, and orders for ERA cars arrived at Bourne from well-known drivers as well as newcomers.

Each car was given a chassis number identification beginning with “R” and ending in a serial letter. thus the first car was R1A, the second R2A. the third R3A and so on. The first car to be sold was R4A, which had an 1,100 cc engine and was bought by the South African driver Pat Fairfield, who was showing such natural driving talent that he was seconded into the factory team, running his own car with factory support. The real customer series began in 1935 with the fifth car built, which also started a new series using the letter B, thus R1B went to Dick Seaman, R2B to Prince Bira, R3B was a works car, as was R4B; R5B was bought by Prince Chula tor his cousin Bira to drive in addition to R2B, and R6B went to Dr Benjafield, R7B to Arthur Dobson, R8B to Earl Howe, R9B to Dennis Scribbans and R10B to Peter Whitehead. R11B was bought by Reggie Tongue but R12B was retained as a works car. There was no R13B and R14B was sold to Johnny Wakefield and was the last of the original type cars to be built. By today’s standards, a production run of 13 cars does not sound very great, but for the time it was quite a fair output bearing in mind the limited number of people able to afford to go motor racing. Of the 13 cars built all but one of them were very active in the years 1938 to 1939 when war put a stop to motor racing. The odd one out was R3B which was involved in a bad crash in 1936 at Deauville, when being driven in the works team by Marcel Lehoux, who lost his life in the accident. The wreckage was returned to the Bourne factory and completely dismantled and never rebuilt, such salvageable items as remained being used as spares for other cars.

Although the ERA was offered in three forms, 1,100 cc, 1,500 cc, and two-litre, most of them were 1,500 cc models as this was the most popular category at the time. Only one 1,100 cc model was sold, as already mentioned, to Pat Fairfield and nobody bought a two-litre. In fact the only two-litre engine to be built was kept exclusively for Raymond Mays, who used it principally for hill-climbs and speed trials. All the cars chalked up long racing histories, some remaining effectively unaltered throughout their life, others undergoing continual modification and development. Naturally the works carried on a continuous development programme on the cars that Mays drove and in particular R4A went through four phases of development, A, B, C, and D, so that there was little left of R4A by the time it had become R4D, the development being like the famous axe which was original although it had had four new heads and six new handles. The only difference with R4A was that at each “rebuild” it either had a longer handle or a heavier head, so that in the end its only similarity with the original was the fact that it was an ERA. One major design change was in the C-type which involved independent front suspension on the Porsche principle with trailing arms and transverse torsion bars. This appeared on R4 in its C-form and R8B and R12B were also rebuilt into C-form. In 1939 R12C suffered a huge accident and was rebuilt back in B-form without the independent suspension, and in recent years a new ERA has been built to represent R12C, even though the original car still exists in its 1939 rebuilt B-form.

By 1939 the 1 1/2-litre category in International racing, which was in effect a sort of Formula 2, was becoming very popular and the ERAs were surpassed by the latest Maseratis and Alfa Romeos, while Mercedes-Benz were joining in and Auto Union were considering the category. Mays and Berthon produced an entirely new car to match this European opposition and this was the E-type, the first being chassis GP1, while parts for GP2 were under way. The E-type was a disaster for various reasons and the war stopped its development.

After the war GP2 was completed, but was no more successful than its sister. Meanwhile the B-series cars were raced in all manner of events and many were modified to try and keep pace with new Maseratis that were appearing. Telescopic shock-absorbers appeared, limited-slip differentials, long radius rods to control the rear axle, improved hydraulic brakes, better superchargers, reduced body heights and so on. Remarkably, the 1935/36 cars continued to give a good account of themselves and proved to be very reliable.

Eventually new post-war cars such as Alta. HWM, Ferrari, Gordini, Maserati and Cooper took over the scene and the old ERAs were turned out to grass. But not for long, however, as the Vintage Sports Car Club was thriving with racing for obsolete cars and the ERAs moved into this category and continued to race, and are still racing as fast as ever in vintage and historic events.

To commemorate 50 years of ERA the VSCC held a 10-lap race on the Silverstone Club circuit on July 14th and all but R3A and R4D turned up in the paddock, on show if not to race. GP1 was there, less its engine and half way through a resurrection, R14B was there without its engine, but the rest were present and ready to race, R1A driven by Wildbolz, R2A by Classic, R4A by Venables-Llewellyn, R1B by Marsh, R2B by Bill Morris, R5B by Lindsay, R6B by Green, R7B by Gahagan, R8B by Spollen, R9B by Mann, R10B by Mason, R11B by Martin Morris, R12B by Kergon and GP2 by Wallis. Joining in was the “bitza” R12C of Stephens.

Over the years some of the ERAs have been improved, others have remained remarkably original and some have deteriorated, but all are raceworthy and the sound of all those supercharged six-cylinder engines getting away at the start was quite something. Lindsay, M. Morris, Spollon and Venables-Llewellyn all use 2-litre engines nowadays and soon pulled away into a procession, but Classic, Mason, Marsh, Mann, Bill Morris and Green indulged as the sort of 1 1/2-litre battle at close quarters that was truly representative of the ERA in its hey-day, when Bira, Dobson, Tongue, Martin, Wakefield and Cotton raced in similar fashion. It was a fitting tribute to the marque and a worthy 50th anniversary.

Some people assumed this to be the first time an event had been organised exclusively for ERA cars, but in fact it was the third such race. In 1936 on October 17th a 10-lap race round the Brooklands Mountain Circuit was organised by the BARC restricted to ERA cars only. An entry of seven was received and number 1 was Prince Bira with R2B, which was only right and proper as the race was for the Siam Challenge Trophy presented by his cousin. Number 2 was Dennis Scribbans in R9B, number 3 was Arthur Dobson in R7B, number 4 was Douglas Briault in R6B, number 5 was Raymond Mays in the works car R4B, number 6 was Reggie Tongue in R11B and number 7 was Peter Whitehead with R10B. Unfortunately Bira had to withdraw before the event, as new pistons in R2B gave trouble, and Whitehead was also a non-starter in R10B. The race saw a good scrap between Mays and Dobson, and the result was 1st Mays, 2nd Dobson, 3rd Scribbans. In 1938 another ERA race was held at Brooklands, again organised by the BARC, over five laps of the Campbell Circuit on August 1st. This time only four cars took part, Dobson R7B, Wakefield R14B, Billy Cotton the band-leader R1B, and Reggie Tongue R11B and they finished in that order, Tongue actually retiring before the end with brake trouble.

There was one further event in which only ERA cars took part, though it was not a race in the ordinary sense of the word. Throughout 1938 there was much discussion in the correspondence pages of the motor papers as to who was the best driver, Bira or Arthur Dobson, for these two had indulged in some memorable races during the season. At the end of the season the Imperial Trophy was due to take place on the Crystal Palace circuit in South London, and Harry Edwards, the secretary of the Road Racing Club who organised the event had the bright idea of putting on a match race between Bira in R2B and Dobson in R7B, to try and settle the argument that everyone discussed whenever motor racing was the subject. Unfortunately it all fizzled out for Bira picked up a nail in a rear tyre of R2B and had to retire with a flat Dunlop, leaving Dobson to a hollow victory. The idea was not repeated, so we never did come to any conclusion.

The ERA has always had a big following, probably because it was the first real single-seater racing car to fly the British flag in Europe in the 1 1/2-litre days, and because it had such a splendidly sharp exhaust note. For 50 years, excluding the war years, the ERA has personified the term “racing car” to the British enthusiast, and the fact that they are all still in existence and are nearly all as active as ever they were, tells the whole story of the enthusiasm for the marque. You don’t find ERAs in museums, you must go to a racing circuit to see them and you can still hear them. Racing cars in museums are all very well, but there is nothing like seeing and hearing them in full flight, even if they are not as fast as a Formula Ford.

Thanks to the generosity of a Motor Sport reader, Mr Riches of Camberley, Surrey, we are able to produce a photograph of the five ERAs starting the 1936 all-ERA race at Brooklands. Mr Riches, a reader since 1933, took the photograph himself from the paddock grandstand by the starting line of the Brooklands Mountain Circuit. Anyone seriously interested in the ERA cars should acquire a copy of “The History of English Racing Automobiles Limited” by David Weguelin, published by White Mouse Editions, of 23, Craven Hill, London W2 3EN. It is a vast tome, rather expensive, but worth every pound. It is one of those books you do not regret buying, no matter how heart-searching the original purchase was. — D.S.J.

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