R1A

The ERA story began when Raymond Mays oversaw the conversion of the Maltings building adjoining his home at Eastgate House in Bourne and a new factory was erected in the  orchard . Staff were appointed and five sets of chassis side members were ordered by Thomson & Taylor from specialist manufacturer John Thompson. H-section front axles were forged by Hadfield’s along with steering components and final machining was done by Thompson and Taylor . Reid Railton and Raymond Mays set demanding standards of workmanship and  the new chassis members were delivered in February 1934, by April the first rolling chassis was ready with an Armstrong-Siddeley 4-speed pre-selector gearbox installed less engine.

 

George and Jack Gray made the car’s  bodywork from a design by a Mr Piercy and a 6-cylinder Riley engine with a Murray Jamieson 100mm Roots-type supercharger was used. On May 22 R1A was unveiled to the public at Brooklands and ran a bearing as Mays demonstrated it.

 

A week later it was repaired and ran at the Isle of Man meeting. The engine performed well but the new car handled badly. Reid Railton was sent for from T&T with a range of replacement road springs but none suited and the car was retrieved to Brooklands.

 

In June it was ready for its first race, the 300-mile British Empire Trophy. An oil pipe broke while the engine was being warmed-up and more time was lost due to a puncture, then a hole in the Brooklands silencer, the car finished though .

 

R1A was then entered in the Dieppe Grand Prix in July 22. Its acceleration matched that of the  Grand Prix cars, although its handling needed improvement and a rocker failure ended the cars race.  It had a new badge designed by Squadron-Leader Pingo Lester  and the now famous interlinked circles with had ERA lettering.

After Dieppe Mays finished second to Aubrey Esson-Scott’s Bugatti  in the Second Esher Mountain Handicap and broke the Brooklands Mountain circuit lap record for Class F 1500 cc cars leaving it at 76.31 mph. Then Mays attacked the International standing-start kilometre and mile records at Brooklands on August 28 raising the Class F record to  96.08 mph.

 

In 1936 the chassis design was modified and the forward pair of rear spring mountings were lowered and reinforced and the chassis frame was stiffened by addition of diagonal cross-bracing beneath the driver’s seat and a revised cross-member design used which permitted the seat to be mounted lower. Ten-leaf rear springs, bound with twine were fitted and the steering box mounting was stiffened with gearbox, radiator and fuel tank improvements.

 

in the 1935 season Humphrey Cook in R1A added a victory in the 5-lap New Haw Mountain Handicap race at Brooklands opening meeting in March  and then won the 1500cc class in the Inter-Varsity Speed Trials at Syston Park, Grantham on March the 23rd. On April 13 at Donington Park Pat Fairfield made his debut in his new ERA  while Dick Seaman – impatient that the car he had ordered was not yet ready – was provided with R1A to drive and finished 2nd in a 10-lap, 23-mile, handicap race.

 

At Brooklands on April 22, Humphrey Cook took 2nd place driving R1A in a 5-lap Mountain circuit race. He drove this car again in the major 261-mile JCC International Trophy at Brooklands on May 6, finishing 12th after being troubled by grabbing brakes. At Shelsley Walsh hill-climb on May 18, Raymond Mays set 2nd fastest time of 39.8secs in R1A.

 

The works team went to the 1500cc Eifel Rennen at the Nurburgring in Germany, on June 16, 1935 and Tim Rose-Richards drove R1A  into 3rd place.

 

The German Prinz zu Leiningen then co-drove ‘R1A’ in the 300-mile British Empire Trophy race at Brooklands on July 6, 1935, sharing it with Oliver Bertram to finish 12th.

 

Raymond Mays drove ‘R1A’ again at Brooklands on August 5, finishing 2nd in the Siam Trophy race, before Prinz zu Leiningen took over for the Prix de Berne at the Bremgarten circuit in Switzerland, misfiring his way home again in 12th place. Mays then drove the car in the Freiburg mountain climb, setting 3rd FTD while customer Seaman beat him into second place in his ERA.

 

‘Motor Sport’ magazine reported of ERA: “The most remarkable feature…has been the sudden rise to supremacy of a British racing car in the 1½-litre class. Continental organisers are ordering new gramophone records of the British National Anthem to play at the end of their races, for the ERA is regarded as unbeatable. Maserati and Bugatti – names to conjure with – have been subdued”.

 

At Shelsley Walsh September 28 - Raymond Mays managed 2nd FTD in 1500cc ‘R1A’. Seven orders were received for 1500cc Voiturette-class Era's for the 1936 season. ‘R1A’ was retained by the works team but competed only twice; once at Brooklands on May 2 when it was entrusted to  Mrs Kay Petre in the JCC International Trophy race – from which it retired – after which it was shipped to Long Island, New York, for the Vanderbilt Cup race on October 6 – in which it was driven by the Honourable Brian Lewis, another outstanding British racing driver of the period, and the future Lord Essendon. But ‘R1A’ was not on good form and he finished 15th.

 

ERA was by this time a much-admired – and feared – force in International motor racing at Voiturette level, just one step below full Grand Prix competition. Norwegian Alfa Romeo driver Eugen Bjornstad first saw an ERA when he raced against Ian Connell’s ‘R6B’ in the 1937 Swedish Winter GP on Lake Flaten, Stockholm, that February. He asked Connell to buy him such a car, and the Englishman negotiated purchase of ‘R1A’ on Bjornstad’s behalf. Fellow owner/driver Reggie Tongue recalled Bjornstad as “a most dangerous but very pleasant driver. He did three laps with his shock absorbers slacked right off and went faster than anyone. Two classic statements of his are ‘I always have 7,000 revs, no more, no less’ and ‘Every race I run off the road, once, no more’…”. These ERA owners – whatever their true individual driving capability – was a sporting gentleman, and the Era's had become very much “the motor racing gentleman’s weapon of choice”.

 

Eugen Bjornstad made his debut in ‘R1A’ in the major Turin Vetturetta race in Italy on April 18, 1937, and he won. He humbled Rene Dreyfus’s works Maserati on Italian home soil. Tongue recalled watching Bjornstad open-mouthed as he drove “shooting from side to side of the road, cannoning off everything”. But ‘R1A’ became the winner of this major International-Formula road race.

 

Bjornstad and his now red-painted ‘R1A’ then went on to finish 3rd in both the Naples Vetturetta race and in the unpronounceable Elaintarharnajo-Djurgaardsloppet event in Helsinki’s Djurgaard Park, Finland. He also finished 7th in the AVUSRennen Voiturette event in Berlin, Germany.

 

He then sold ‘R1A’ to British enthusiast W.E. Humphries in 1938 and the car was not raced again until after World War 2. It had in fact been acquired by John Heath and George Abecassis in 1942, and emerged as one of their joint stable of racing cars to be campaigned upon the return of peace in 1946, under the banner of their joint business – HW Motors Limited of Walton-on-Thames, Surrey. Their company’s initials would become famous as HWM.

 

John Heath set 3rd fastest time in this car in the VSCC Speed Trial at Elstree on April 22, 1946, and Ken Hawkes then took 3rd in class with it at Finchampstead on September 15 that year. The car was then re-sold by Heath and Abecassis to the man who would prove himself Britain’s leading racing driver of the immediate postwar period, Derbyshire haulier-cum-farmer Reg Parnell. He drove ‘R1A’ in competition three times, winning the 1947 Swedish Winter GP at Rommehed and the follow-up Lake Vallentuna event – both in snow and ice – and setting FTD in the much more parochial Cofton Hackett Speed Trial back home; three outings, three wins.

 

The car was then taken over by Parnell’s business associates, the brothers Fred and Joe Ashmore, who ran ‘R1A’ eight times through 1947 and accumulated 3rd in the Nice Grand Prix, France, 4th in the Jersey Road Race, 5th at Marseilles and 7th at Nimes. For this season’s racing the car had been modified by the legendary mechanic ‘Wilkie’ Wilkinson who reduced radiator and cockpit bulkhead height by some 2 inches, lowering the bonnet and cutting-down the original body panels to suit. He had also rebuilt the engine.

 

Fred Ashmore crashed the car at St Gaudens in France during the Comminges GP, and after repair ‘R1A’ was then acquired by another British owner/driver, David Hampshire, for 1948. He won his class at Bo’ness hill-climb in Scotland, finished a fine 2nd in the British Empire Trophy classic at Douglas, Isle of Man, 3rd in the Goodwood Trophy race and 7th in the Zandvoort GP in Holland.

 

He reappeared in this prototype ERA twice in 1949, placing 10th in the Dutch GP back at Zandvoort, before another of this happy touring band of British motor racing and business brothers, Joe Ashmore returned to ‘R1A’ driving duties through 1950 – competing in the car in Jersey and at Goodwood. David Hampshire returned to ‘R1A’s driving seat in 1951, competing at Gamston, Goodwood and Winfield – all British aerodrome circuits – and at the Berwick, Lothian & Hawick Motor Club’s Winfield meeting negotiations began which saw the car sold to Edinburgh racing enthusiasts Alastair Birrell and Ron Flockhart.

 

They would campaign ‘R1A’ between them through 1952, after which Flockhart would go on to make his name in the ex-Raymond Mays 2-litre works ERA ‘R4D’ and ultimately graduate into Mays’s postwar Formula 1 BRM team handling the V16-cylinder supercharged and 4-cylinder Grand Prix cars. He would also become a Le Mans-winning star driver for the Ecurie Ecosse Jaguar team.

 

Ron Flockhart’s best performances in ‘R1A’ included a class win at Bo’ness hill-climb and a 2nd at Rest-and-be-Thankful, while Birrell won a circuit race at Snetterton in 1952, another in 1954, and a long string of second and third place finishes in the progressive series of British Formula Libre races which characterised the early 1950s.

 

By 1955 these much-loved ‘Old English Upright’ Era's were recognised as obsolescent, and enthusiast amateur members of the Vintage Sports Car Club (VSCC) came to regard them as affordable, competitive at their level, and the most enormous fun. In the December 16, 1955, issue of ‘Autosport’ magazine, Alastair Birrell advertised ‘R1A’ for sale. The asking price was £400. For 1956 it was bought by Bill Moss of Luton, who almost immediately won a VSCC event in it at Silverstone. Having fitted a ZF limited-slip differential, he then advertised the car (for £600!) that June, and sold it to a Mr Smith of Wellingborough. By 1958 old ‘R1A’ was being advertised again for sale, the price now £495. It was described as being ‘Fitted with Gerard B/C engine” – a reference to the great postwar ERA exponent Bob Gerard – “…run in one club race since, spare engine, wheels and trailer”.

 

After five months the price had been reduced to £395 and it was acquired by one E. Hammersley. He did not appear publicly in the car, but entered it for long-term owner A.G. ‘Sandy’ Murray’s first race in it, at VSCC Silverstone, July 25, 1959. Mr Murray won immediately, and he would retain ownership of this important Voiturette racing car from then well into the 1980s. As a leading light of the ERA Club, ‘Sandy’ Murray began entering ‘R1A’ for leading historic car restorer/preparer Tony Merrick from 1966 forward. In Mr Merrick’s hands ‘R1A’ became a regular winner at VSCC and historic racing car level, his record including multiple victories at Curborough, Silverstone, Prescott, Doune and elsewhere.

 

Messrs Murray and Merrick eventually restored the car to its original successful works team specification, reversing many of the modifications which had quite disfigured the car during its long racing career. New bodywork was necessary as the original had been cut down during ‘Wilkie’ Wilkinson’s lowering work in 1947-48, and a new dash board was cast since the original had also been cut down and drilled for extra instruments during the same conversion. Original-style shock absorbers were fitted and radius rods which had been added to the rear axle were dispensed with in the cause of originality.

 

During this overall period, ‘R1A’ became a regular player on the phenomenally active ERA scene in British historic racing. In 1983 the car was acquired by Swiss enthusiast Jost Wildbolz who maintained it as a regular runner within the historic racing scene for the next ten years until 1998 when it was acquired by American-in-England Mr Dean Butler. Driven by the owner, Martin Walford, Julian Bronson and others, ‘R1A’ continued to see action, including a series of welcome appearances in the much-admired Goodwood Revival Meeting, from 1998 forward.

 

R1A is at present owned by an ERA enthusiast  in Dorset England and isn’t currently being campaigned.

stewart@englishracingautomobiles.co.uk