ERA A-Type Prototype Voiturette R1A – Car Profile Page Two
For 1936 the original ERA chassis design was modified by Thomson & Taylor. 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, permitting the seat to be mounted lower. Ten-leaf rear springs, bound with twine, replaced the nine-leaf type fitted after ‘R1’s abortive Isle of Man debut. The steering box mounting was stiffened and the gearbox, radiator and fuel tankage improved.
Humphrey Cook in ‘R1′ commenced ERA’s 1935 season with victory in the 5-lap New Haw Mountain Handicap race at Brooklands’ opening meeting of the season on March 16, and then won the 1500cc class in the Inter-Varsity Speed Trials at Syston Park, Grantham, on March 23. On April 13 at Donington Park Pat Fairfield made his debut in his new ERA ‘R4’ while Dick Seaman – impatient that the car he had ordered was not yet ready – was provided with ‘R1’ to drive, finishing 2nd in a 10-lap, 23-mile, handicap race.
Back at Brooklands on April 22, Humphrey Cook took another 2nd place for ‘R1’ 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. Then at the important Shelsley Walsh hill-climb on May 18, Raymond Mays not only set a fantastic FTD of 39.6secs in 2-litre ERA ‘R3’ he also set 2nd fastest time of 39.8secs in the 1.5-litre ‘R1’.
New customer Pat Fairfield then won the 202-mile Mannin Beg race at Douglas, Isle of Man, in his works-run 1100cc customer car ‘R4’, although Cook was forced to retire ‘R1’ after 30 laps of the 1500cc Mannin Moar race there after scavenge pump failure. Dick Seaman’s new customer car was finally completed upon the team’s return from the Isle of Man. It was then decided to classify that car ‘R1B’ as the first of the T&T re-designed ‘B-Type’ models, whereupon the four earlier machines were retrospectively entitled ‘A-Type’. It was at this stage that the additional suffix letter ‘A’ was added to their chassis number stampings on the front and rear dumb-irons. Thus this car offered here became ‘R1A’ and its three sisters ‘R2A’, ‘R3A’ and ‘R4A’. The Dick Seaman car emerged as ‘R1B’ – and it is NOT to be confused with ‘R1A’. The A-Type cars were – as time passed – much improved in line with B-Type modifications and experience, and would prove equally competitive, while one – Mays’s ‘R4A’ was developed through subsequent C-Type spec to become the unique ERA D-Type ‘R4D’.
When the works team took the battle to the strongest International opposition in the 1500cc EifelRennen at the Nurburgring, Germany, on June 16, 1935, Tim Rose-Richards drove ‘R1A’ home into a fine 3rd place, while Mays actually won outright in ‘R3A’, Seaman placed 4th in ‘R1B’ and Cook finished 5th in ‘R2A’.
Back home, ‘The Autocar’ enthused “What a thrill to see the green of England leading the red of Italy, the blue of France, and the white of Germany….!”. This was what Cook and Mays had created English Racing Automobiles to achieve. Mays would later recall “When I realised that all four ERAs had finished in the first five places my joy was unbounded!”
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. The Siamese Prince ‘Bira’ received the latest new ERA – chassis ‘R2B’ – as a 21st birthday present from his cousin, guardian and mentor Prince Chula. He would achieve enormous success with it and two sister ERAs which were later added to their ‘White Mouse Stable’ team.
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 on the demanding 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.
‘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”.
Shelsley Walsh on September 28 proved another Raymond Mays benefit, FTD overall in his 2-litre ‘R4B’ and 2nd FTD in 1500cc ‘R1A’. Seven firm orders were received for 1500cc Voiturette-class ERAs 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 the dazzlingly pretty and extremely capable 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 ERAs 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 Formule Libre races which characterised the early 1950s.
By 1955 these much-loved ‘Old English Upright’ ERAs 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.
This is by some margin one of the most historically significant – yet still widely useable and potentially very competitive – single-seater racing cars that we at Bonhams have ever been asked to offer. It is the progenitor of one of the motor racing world’s most charismatic pre-war marques, and thence – by association – of the postwar Formula 1 World Championship-winning BRM (British Racing Motors) saga. Its racing history includes not only ERA’s very first long-distance race win (in the 1934 Nuffield Trophy at Donington Park driven by Raymond Mays), but also maiden victory in an International Voiturette race by first owner ex-works Eugen Bjornstad (at Turin, Italy, in 1937). Its frontline International racing career has then been followed by more than 50 years of subsequent racing endeavour – almost always in harness, consistently ‘on the scene’, an historic motor racing fixture. In an era in which the terms ‘historic’ and ‘classic’ are perhaps over-used and too often exaggerated, ERA ‘R1A’ offered here is self-evidently a very, very special racing car indeed. And now it can be yours.
Chassis number ‘R1A’ – the first prototype ERA – one of the truly iconic cars of the Vintage racing scene from 1956 to the present day – sold to a private UK collector for £359,000 at the Bonhams Goodwood Festival of Speed auction held July 11, 2008 in U.K.