The History of the English Racing Automobile Company

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The History of the English Racing Automobile Company

The White Riley

In the early 1930s, British motor racing was, as far as international events were concerned, in the doldrums. Indeed, the cars built for Brooklands were so specialised that they could hardly hope to be competitive with the leading Continental racing machines. It was a situation which did not please Humphrey Cook, a wealthy amateur who had started racing at Brooklands with a 100 hp Isotta Fraschini in the summer of 1914, and appeared at the track during the 1920s with a succession of Vauxhalls and Bentleys.

Cook had known Raymond Mays since the early 1920s, and realised that the supercharged six-cylinder 'White Riley' sprint car, which Mays had developed for the Shelsley Walsh hill climb, could form the basis of a racing voiturette. Accordingly, the English Racing Automobile Company was formed, with workshops behind Mays' house at Bourne, Lincolnshire. Partners in the company were Cook, Mays and Peter Berthon.

The new car's chassis was designed by Reid Railton, while its engine was, in its original conception, a 1.5-litre, overhead-valve, supercharged unit with a power output of 150bhp (1100cc and 2-litre versions became available soon after); unusually for a racing vehicle, a four-speed Wilson pre-selector gearbox was used. The first ERA, which was built in 1933, had a top speed of 125 mph, and was available at a price of £1500.

Ken Wharton and the ERA in action at the Shelsley Walsh hill-climb
Ken Wharton and the ERA in action at the Shelsley Walsh hill-climb.

Raymond Mays at the wheel of the ERA E-Type at Brooklands in 1939
Raymond Mays at the wheel of the ERA E-Type at Brooklands in 1939.

W. G. Everitt competing in the 1936 Isle of Man International in his ERA
W. G. Everitt competing in the 1936 Isle of Man International in his ERA.

RA prepares for the start of a race held at the Crystal Palace circuit
An ERA prepares for the start of a race held at the Crystal Palace circuit.

Stirling Moss assists with the preparation of his 1952 Bristol-engined ERA G-Type
Stirling Moss assists with the preparation of his 1952 Bristol-engined ERA G-Type.

Ken Wharton rounds an S bend in his twin rear-wheeled B-Type ERA at the Schauinsland hill climb in 1951.

Douglas Hull in Prince Bira's ERA Remus
Douglas Hull came out of retirement to do a few laps in the ex-Prince Bira ERA, Remus.

Bristol engined G-Type with de Dion rear suspension
Bristol engined G-Type with de Dion rear suspension. The G-Type was the last leaf in the ERA book, but was a failure even in the hands of the highly capable Stirling Moss.

ERA Formula Two G-Type
ERA Formula Two G-Type.

The Isle of Man Mannin Beg

The ERA's first competition outing was a failure: it was taken to the Isle of Man for the 1934 Mannin Beg race, but failed to survive the practice period, brake trouble causing its withdrawal. The car was equally unsuccessful in that year's British Empire Trophy at Brooklands although, at the August Bank Holiday meeting, Humphrey Cook, driving an 1100cc ERA, won a handicap event at an average of over 76 mph. It was a victory, however, that was not without incident, as Cook recalled in the late 1960s: 'On August Bank Holiday 1934, one of my front brakes locked as I was coming off the finishing straight on the mountain circuit, and I motored up the slope of the Members' Banking'.

In September 1934, Mays took the new and relatively untried 2-litre variant of the ERA to Shelsley Walsh; in pouring rain he took the hill in 44 seconds, holding slides and accelerating like a demon, cutting in and out on the corner. It was the fastest time of the day, beating even Whitney Straight's 2.9-litre Maserati, and Mays scored a double victory by carrying off the 1.5-litre class with a 1500 cc ERA. A few days later he also won the Nuffield Trophy 100-mile race for 1.5-litre cars at Donington Park, averaging 61-5 mph against an excellent field.

History at Shelsley

In 1935, Mays made history at Shelsley with the first-ever climb inside 40 seconds, again with the 2-litre car; his actual time was 39-6 seconds. He also beat 40 seconds at the same meeting with the 1.5-litre car. By the time World War 2 broke out, Mays had used the 2-litre to good effect, and left the Shelsley record standing at 37.37 sees, an average speed of 54.735 mph, which meant that, at the end of the twisting 1000-yard course, the ERA's engine was turning at 5500rpm, representing a speed of 110mph.

Pat Fairfield won the Mannin Moar in the Isle of Man in an 1100cc ERA in 1935 (blown 1.5-litre cars were barred from this race), although Mays and the redoubtable 2-litre retired in the Mannin Beg.

Victory at the Nurburgring

The year 1935 also saw the marque's most notable victory to date, when Mays, Cook and Tim Rose-Richards took three ERAs to the Nurburgring for the Eifelrennen; a fourth ERA was entered privately by Dick Seaman. The day of the race was wet, but Mays roared away from the start, between the rows of Nazi storm-troopers lining the track, to hold the lead for the first two laps. Then Seaman, driving brilliantly, went out in front until a shortage of oil at the halfway stage sent him into the pits and let Mays into first place.

The two ERAs were being strongly pressed by Ruesch and Chiesa, both in Maseratis, and, in the later stages of the race, Mays was unpleasantly surprised to find Ruesch right behind him. The Mays pit immediately signalled Mays to go faster, adding the unwelcome information that Ruesch was only 10 seconds behind, but the ERA managed to maintain its lead, and Mays finished first, followed by Ruesch's Maserati, with Rose-Richards third, Seaman fourth and Cook fifth.

Victory at Dieppe

Pat Fairfield had another victory, at Dieppe, later in the season, rounding off the year with a win in the Nuffield Trophy at Donington. Dick Seaman, whose racing philosophy consisted of entering as many Continental events as possible, won the Coppa Acerbo, the Prix de Berne and the Czech Masaryk race in his black and silver ERA 1.5-litre; he was only just beaten by Tadini's Alfa, in the somewhat risky Grossglockner hill climb and also made the second-fastest time up the Freiburg hill. However, at the end of the season, Seaman switched his allegiance to Delage and proceeded to trounce both ERA and Maserati.

During 1935, a modified ERA, the B-type, had appeared, differing from the original A-type in having a more rigid chassis; subsequent versions of this were known as C and D-types. The total production of the archetypal ERA B-type was a mere seventeen, a remarkable figure when one considers how omnipresent a feature of the international racing scene the ERAs were. Indeed, on occasion, more than fifty per cent of the Bourne works' output lined up under starter's orders in one race, as was the case in the 1936 RAC 1500cc event on the Isle of Man, in which ten ERAs were beaten by Seaman's ancient Delage.

Zoller Superchargers

Zoller superchargers became available in 1936, replacing the original Roots blowers and giving a vastly augmented power output - up to 340 bhp from 2 litres. There were some notable successes; B. Bira won the Monaco 1.5-litre event (ERA took four of the first five places), the Brooklands International Trophy, and also the Picardie Grand Prix at Peronne, in which he was followed by Fairfield and Lord Howe. Fairfield, Howe and the Hon Brian Lewis took their ERAs across the Atlantic for the Vanderbilt Cup race at the Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island, where the piercing scream of the supercharged engines much impressed the Americans.

They passed most of the American drivers on the long straights, but lost ground on the wide, flat curves, which the locals 'broadsided' round in dirt-track fashion. The reliability of the ERAs was remarkable: all three cars went the entire 300-mile distance without any mechanical attention (except for the replacement of a sparking plug on one car), and both Fairfield and Howe drove the whole race without relief. The race went to Tazio Nuvolari's Alfa, followed by a Bugatti and two more Alfas; after a protest over the scoring method used, Pat Fairfield was awarded fifth place.

About the same time, Raymond Mays had a successful afternoon at Brooklands, winning the twelve-mile Mountain Championship with the 2-litre and the Siam Trophy with the 1.5-litre, while Reggie Tongue, who had already gained a victory for the marque at Cork, won the Oxford and Cambridge Mountain Race from the Frazer Nash of A. F. P. Fane. In the end of the season Donington Grand Prix, the ERAs of Whitehead/ Walker and Tongue came third and fourth, behind the Alfa Romeos.

The ERA C-Type

ERA's best season of all was 1937, when the C-type, with hydraulic brakes and Porsche trailing-arm independent front suspension, made its bow. Fairfield and Dobson took first and second places in the Coronation Trophy at Crystal Palace, while Bira led a gaggle of ERAs home to victory in the Isle of Man race. There were convincing victories, too, in the London Grand Prix, the Nuffield Trophy, at Phoenix Park, Crystal Palace and Brooklands.

The South African Grand Prix went to Fairfield's 1100cc car, while Raymond Mays won the Peronne event in his Zoller-blown car after a battle with Dreyfus's works Maserati. The very first ERA, RiA, came first at Turin, and other Continental victories were recorded at the Berlin Avus, Berne and Albi. The next year saw more victories, including the South African GP (Howe) and the Australian GP (Whitehead); the Picardie Grand Prix saw a terrific duel between Mays and Bira.

Mays almost threw the race away by starting too rapidly and burning out bottom gear on his preselector box, but managed to force the pace hard enough for Bira's car to blow up in spectacular fashion: 'One connecting rod came right through the side of the crankcase, bounced on the road, shot backwards right over the bonnet of my ERA, missing the top of the screen and my head by a matter of inches', recalled Mays, who then cruised home to victory.

Twice As Many Race Wins As Mercedes-Benz

ERAs won at home, too, among their successes being the Donington Nuffield Trophy, which was becoming an ERA benefit. However, the strain on Humphrey Cook's private purse was beginning to tell and, early in 1939, he was forced, reluctantly, to withdraw his backing, having spent some £75,000 to keep the ERA name alive. Beside the vast state backing offered to the German Auto-Union and Mercedes companies, this sum was insignificant, yet in 1937 ERA had scored twice as many major race victories as Mercedes-Benz.

An ERA Club was formed to raise money by subscription to keep the Bourne works going, but, in the spring of 1939, production of customer cars ceased. Nearly all of the original seventeen ERAs were still in existence 40 years later, most of them active in vintage racing. Mays was still racing his ERAs, but as an independent; he won the Campbell Trophy at Brooklands, and set up an unlimited Road Course Record of 77.99 mph at the Weybridge track. Bira won the Nuffield Trophy at Donington (followed home by three more ERAs) and the Sydenham Trophy at the Crystal Palace.

The ERA E-Type

There was now news from the ERA Club of a further model, the aerodynamically-contoured E-type, with a short-stroke six-cylinder engine and Zoller supercharging, said to give 260 bhp. All-round independent suspension was a feature, with a C-type front end and a de Dion rear axle; the transmission arrangements must have seemed sheer heresy to the faithful, as the Wilson box was replaced by a synchromesh unit. The new car seemed to promise much, and performed convincingly in the Albi Grand Prix, until its driver, Arthur Dobson, crashed it. Unfortunately though, the E-type was a dud, whose realisation fell far short of its design ideals.

After the war Mays and Berthon had moved on to develop the new BRM, and ERA was acquired by Leslie Johnson, moving to new works at Dunstable, Bedfordshire. The new company attempted to make the E-type competitive, but it seemed perpetually plagued by carburettor and supercharger troubles. It gave a hint of its potential in practice for the 1947 Rheims Grand Prix, where it was timed at well over 160 mph on the i^-mile straight from La Garenne (this compared favourably with the pre-war 190 mph of the 3-litre Mercedes which held the lap record), but the two cars entered for the race both retired.

Experiments with lowered supercharger pressures and modified oiling systems failed to cure the problems although, by the time that the company decided to give up the E-type, it had at least been developed to the stage where it stood a fair chance of going the distance. In its last active year, 1949, the E-type took two second places, two thirds and a fifth, but to have continued with its development would have been pointless in the face of competition from the new-racing cars which were now making their appearance, with all the benefits of post-war technology.

Still Competitive

However, if the latest ERAs were failures, the old-stagers were still competitive; indeed, they enjoyed the rare distinction of being eligible both for front-rank races, like the Lyons Grand Prix, and for vintage events - and acquitted themselves honourably in both. Reg Parnell opened the 1947 season with a victory in the Swedish Winter Grand Prix at Rommehed with the very first ERA of all, the fourteen-year-old RiA; a close second was Brooke's B-type, with George Abecassis's modified B-type, with Technauto independent front suspension and streamlined bodywork, in third place.

An interesting comparison was possible in the the rare distinction of being eligible both for front-rank races, like the Lyons Grand Prix, and for vintage events - and acquitted themselves honourably in both. Reg Parnell opened the 1947 season with a victory in the Swedish Winter Grand Prix at Rommehed with the very first ERA of all, the fourteen-year-old RiA; a close second was Brooke's B-type, with George Abecassis's modified B-type, with Technauto independent front suspension and streamlined bodywork, in third place.

The British Empire Trophy

An interesting comparison was possible in the British Empire Trophy, held over forty laps of a 3.88-mile circuit at Douglas, Isle of Man, for Leslie Brooke entered his E-type, running with only 6 lb per sq in supercharge from its Roots blower, against the A-type of Abecassis and the B-types of Gerard, Whitehead, Harrison and Shawe-Taylor, plus Mrs Derbyshire's ERA-engined Riley. The E-type appeared to handle badly on the slower corners, but finished fourth, nevertheless. The B-types of Gerard and Whitehead took the first two places.

Sprint and hill-climb honours were equally divided between Gerard and Mays: Gerard won two out of three Prescott hill climbs and Mays took the other. At Shelsley, Mays won in June and September, his latter time virtually equalling his pre-war best. He won the Brighton speed trials, too, covering the standing kilometre at an average speed of over 92 mph.

The second the lights went amber, he brought the revs up to a steady 3800 rpm, held them there and, as soon as the lights thought of going green, he powered off the line with the minimum of wheel-spin. All along the course, the engine could be heard accelerating on its perfectly chosen axle ratio, and finally he shot over the line at an engine speed equivalent to 159 mph.

Eberan von Eberhorst

ERA, having lost interest in the E-type, turned their attention to road-going sports cars and, in 1949, their designer, Eberan von Eberhorst, produced a new-model for Jowett, which became the Jupiter sports convertible. There was one brief return to racing-car manufacture, with the one-off Bristol-engined G-type of 1952. It had coil-and-wishbone independent front suspension, a four-speed gearbox in unit with a de Dion rear axle and a twTn-tube chassis, and was driven in various minor Formula Two events by the then relatively unknown Stirling Moss. Even the Moss magic could not make a winner out of the G-type, and it was sold to Bristol for development work. ERA closed down for good after that.
B. Bira's ERA B-Type Racer
The ERA B-Type, the same car which B. Bira had so much success. Prince Bira retired and returned to Thailand and the car went to rest at Lord Montagu's museum.

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