1934 ERA A-Type Prototype Single-Seater Racing Voiturette Profile
Ex-works/Raymond Mays/Humphrey Cook/Richard Seaman/Tim Rose-Richards/Oliver Bertram/Prinz zu Leiningen/Mrs Kay Petre/The Hon. Brian Lewis, Eugen Bjornstad – John Heath – Reg Parnell – Ashmore Brothers – David Hampshire – Philip Fotheringham-Parker – Alastair Birrell – Ron Flockhart – Bill Moss – Sandy Murray
Just study the above list of works racing team drivers, and the subsequent ledger of owners and drivers, and we hope that you as a potential owner of this wonderfully evocative and historically most important racing car will instantly appreciate how much its career has been woven into the very fabric of British and European road racing lore. During its 74 year life this prototype ERA ‘R1A’ has been celebrated as the first of the iconic English Racing Automobiles – the classical ‘Old English Upright’ ERA.
English Racing Automobiles Limited came into being on November 6, 1933, when the business was first registered at Companies House in London. It had been created to manufacture and campaign a team of single-seater racing cars capable of upholding British prestige in Continental European road racing. By modern standards the reason might seem a little overblown, but in the early 1930s the combination of extreme patriotism and intense frustration had fired the imagination of a wealthy British racing enthusiast who had been unable to buy a competitive British car in which to go motor racing Internationally.
His name was Humphrey Cook. He had been competing at amateur level since before the First World War when he had first driven a 10.6-litre Isotta-Fraschini at Brooklands. He had inherited a fortune at the age of just 12 when his father had died, leaving him the thriving wholesale drapery firm of Cook Son & Co, of St Paul’s Churchyard, London.
Burly, shy and an intensely private man, Humphrey Cook became a confirmed motor racing enthusiast. He became a prominent competitor in sprint and hillclimb events, notably with his TT Vauxhall ‘Rouge et Noir 2’, and in that category during the 1920s into the early ’30s his main rival in British events was Raymond Mays, the extrovert Bugatti-driving son of an upper middle-class businessman from Bourne, in rural Lincolnshire.
While the cost of aspiring to contemporary Grand Prix class racing was prohibitive, the subsidiary or ‘schoolroom’ class of 1500cc supercharged ‘Voiturette’ racing – the Formula 2 or GP2 category of the period – seemed within reach. Humphrey Cook had toyed with the idea of creating his own racing car factory and team for several years, until in 1933 he was immensely impressed by the sheer power and speed of Raymond Mays’s latest hillclimb mount – ‘The White Riley’ – tuned and developed by his engineer friend Peter Berthon, working with Austin racing designer Tom Murray Jamieson and design draughtsman Aubrey Barratt.
‘The White Riley’ shone in its class through 1933, and it was at the end of that year that Humphrey Cook offered to back its creators and driver in founding the first British company ever to manufacture pure-bred centreline single-seat racing cars in series for customer sale. In this aim, ERA was the first to follow the established lead of Harry Miller in the USA, and of the Maserati brothers in Italy. What a level to aspire to!
To finalise the prototype English Racing Automobile – or ERA – in time for the 1934 racing season required immense effort in a very brief period. The great Reid A. Railton of Brooklands-based racing specialists Thomson & Taylor Ltd agreed to design a thoroughbred open-wheeled single-seat racing chassis around the 6-cylinder essentially ‘White Riley’-based engine. Railton’s assistant Ralph Beauchamp actually penned the first design drawing on October 23, 1933, before the new ERA company had been formalized. The drawing is identified as the ‘R.M. Project’ – for ‘Raymond Mays’.
Meanwhile Mays oversaw conversion of an old Maltings building adjoining his home at Eastgate House, Bourne, while a new purpose-built factory was erected in his former orchard there. Staff members were engaged, and on December 23, 1933, five sets of chassis side members were ordered by Thomson & Taylor from specialist manufacturer John Thompson. Elegant H-section front axles were forged by Hadfield’s together with steering components while final machining was undertaken by T&T’s at Brooklands. Both Reid Railton and Raymond Mays set extremely demanding standards of workmanship and finish. The brand-new chassis members were delivered to T&T on February 16, 1934, and in April the first rolling chassis – then numbered just ‘R1’ but effectively that now offered here as ‘R1A’ – was ready with Armstrong-Siddeley 4-speed pre-selector gearbox installed but less engine. It was immediately transported for completion to the new factory in Bourne.
The panel-beating brothers George and Jack Gray hand-fashioned the new car’s slipper bodywork there, to a design credited to a Mr Piercy who had previously designed the bodywork for Malcolm Campbell’s ‘Bluebird’ record breaker. Freddie Gordon-Crosby – artist to ‘The Autocar’ – was also involved, designing perhaps the radiator cowl and certainly ‘R1’s first badge, which combined the initials ‘ERA’ with a rising sun motif – perhaps signifying the dawn of a new ERA?
The further-developed 6-cylinder Riley engine with its custom-made Murray Jamieson 100mm Roots-type supercharger was tested at Riley’s Coventry factory before being mated with this prototype chassis. Mays and Cook had planned to enter both the 1500cc ‘R1’ and an 1100cc sister car for themselves to drive in the Isle of Man races in May that year, but it rapidly became evident that only ‘R1’ would be available in time. On Tuesday, May 22, this ERA was unveiled to the public at Brooklands Motor Course near Weybridge in Surrey. Unsuspected by its audience, ‘R1’s new engine ran a bearing as Mays demonstrated it…
Within a week the car was repaired and running at Douglas, Isle of Man. The engine performed well, but the new car handled appallingly badly. Reid Railton was summoned from T&T with a range of replacement road springs. But none suited, and the car was retrieved amidst considerable embarrassment to Brooklands. On June 23 ‘R1’ was finally ready for its first race, the 300-mile British Empire Trophy there. An oil pipe broke while the engine was being warmed-up immediately before the start. Time was lost replacing it, followed by another 20 minutes delay due to a puncture and a hole in the mandatory Brooklands silencer. But Mays and Cook still co-drove their new car to the finish.
This car ‘R1′ was then loaded into the team’s ERA-lettered Leyland van and shipped to the Dieppe Grand Prix in France on July 22, 1934. Its vivid acceleration matched that of the full Grand Prix cars, but its handling still demanded improvement. Mays’ race ended in rocker failure. At Dieppe ‘R1′ wore a new badge, copied from that designed by Mays’ friend Squadron-Leader ‘Pingo’ Lester for the Leyland van – now famous as the interlinked circles with E R A lettering. Not long after Dieppe the second ERA – then numbered ‘R2’ – was completed as an 1100cc class contender. In August at Brooklands Humphrey Cook actually scored his new marque’s maiden race win in ‘R2’ – winning the 6-mile Second Esher Handicap event. Mays then finished second to Aubrey Esson-Scott’s Bugatti driving ‘R1’ in the Second Esher Mountain Handicap. He also broke the Brooklands Mountain circuit lap record for Class F (1500cc) cars leaving it at 76.31mph. Thus encouraged, Mays and Cook then attacked the International standing-start kilometre and mile records at Brooklands on August 28 – and both were successful, Mays in ‘R1’ now offered here raising the Class F records to 85.35 and 96.08mph.
A third ERA – chassis ‘R3’ – became May’s sprint and hill-climb contender, powered by an enlarged 2-litre version of the 6-cylinder Riley-based engine. And then at Donington Park on October 6, 1934, Raymond Mays scored ‘R1’s first race victory, winning the 100-mile Nuffield Trophy event in arduously wet conditions. Not only was this to become the famous marque’s first-ever victory in a long-distance event, it also proved that the basic ERA design had all the stamina, reliability and pace its creators had expected of it.
The magazine ‘The Light Car’ then carried an announcement in its November 2 issue that “a limited number of E.R.A. cars is to be made available to owners who know how to handle a car of this kind and will race it”. Provisional prices were quoted as £1,500 for an 1100cc version, £1,700 for a 1500 and £1,850 for a 2-litre. The first customer to step up to the plate was South African newcomer Pat Fairfield, closely followed by Richard John Beattie-Seaman – the legendary Dick Seaman – who would become the greatest British driver of the era, shine in his new ERA, eventually join the Mercedes-Benz factory team and win the 1938 German Grand Prix for them.