Dieselpunks

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Lord K's Garage #134: Spirit of the ERA

This not-so-famous car make is related to at least two great names in automotive history - Reid Railton and Richard Seaman.

British Motorracing was at an all-time low in 1933, Bentley's Le Mans domination seemed ages away and Britain's last international single seater success dated back to the early 1920s. A wealthy amateur racer felt something had to be done and he provided the finances for setting up a new company. The effort was headed by Raymond Mays, who had already scored many successes with Invictas and in 1933 had campaigned a Riley special. ERA (English Racing Automobiles) was the name picked for the company and cars. Reid Railton was hired as designer of the new car for the Voiturette class.

1934 ERA R1A

1934 ERA R2A

1934 ERA R4A

Riley's straight six engine was the logical power choice after Mays' experience with it in 1933. The 'six' was by no means conventional, as it featuring camshafts on either side of the engine. One camshaft operated the intake valves, the other for the exhaust valves, both actuated by pushrods. Two engines were available in the first cars; a 1.1 litre and a 1.5 litre. Assisted by a large Roots-Type Supercharger the latter was good for around 166 bhp. Mated to the modified Riley unit was a Wilson pre-selector gearbox. Pre-selector gearboxes were very popular in the 1930s. Drivers selected the gear before using the clutch so that the selected gear was automatically engaged when the clutch was pressed.

1935 ERA R4B engine

Railton designed a ladder-frame chassis, much like that of the competitors. Front and rear suspension was made up of live axles, sprung by semi-elliptical leaf springs and damped by Hartford friction shock absorbers. Large drum brakes made sure the ERA stopped quickly to compliment its already fierce acceleration.

1935 ERA R4B

A series of four A-Type ERAs, R1A through R4A, were built and raced by the works team in 1934 and 1935. For the first privateers, a slightly revised B-Type chassis featuring a more reliable engine became available in 1935. 13 of these were built, R1B through R14B. Chassis number 13 was not used for superstitious reasons. Customers included one of the best known privateers of the era; Prince Birabongse Bhanubandh, 'B.Bira' of Thailand. His three B-Types secured over 20 British and International victories. Most famous of all ERA drivers was Richard Seaman, whose performance in R1B earned him a spot in the Mercedes-Benz Works racing team.

One of ERA's best customers was no doubt Prince Chula of Siam (Thailand), who ordered no fewer than three B-Types for his cousin Prince B.Bira to drive. Featured is the very first of these, R2B, which was sold new the Princes' 'White Mouse' Racing team in 1935.

When a second example was added to the stable in 1936, R2B was nick-named Romulus and the new car Remus after the mythical twins that founded Rome in 753 BC. With well over a dozen victories in major and minor races, including one at Monaco, Romulus was one of the most successful of all privately campaigned ERAs.

ERA R5B pictured above was the second of three B-Types ordered by Prince Chula of Siam for the 'White Mouse' team he ran together with his cousin Prince B.Bira, who was responsible for the driving. To distinguish the new car from its stablemate, R5B was nick-named 'Remus' after one of the two twins that according to myth founded ancient Rome after being raised by a pack of wolves.

It was used together R2B, or 'Romulus', during the 1936 season, but it was not nearly as successful as the sister car. It did manage to score a victory in the Albi Grand Prix, although against minimal competition. The following season R5B was used for spares and subsequently sold to Tony Rolt.

The featured R11B was sold new to Reggie Tongue, equipped with a 1500 cc engine. It was latere upgraded to full two litre spec. Tongue raced the car, nick-named 'Humphrey' after Humphrey Cook, very successfully in many major hillclimbs, taking wins in Switzerland, Germany and his native Great Britain. For 1937 Tongue switched his focus to the popular European Voiturette races and recorded several podium finishes, but no wins. In 1938 R11B was sold to Peter Aitken, who took the car to South Africa for the winter season. His best placing was second and upon his return to England, he only sparsely raced his ERA.

Prince B.Bira's third ERA was R12B, first constructed in 1936. Its history combines a long list of victories with an even longer list of modifications and rebuilds, as was very much the custom in the day. Fitted with a 2 litre engine, it was first campaigned by Raymond Mays with some success at the end of the 1936 season. It was rebuilt as a C-Type in the following winter with a revised front suspension and hydraulic brakes. The 2 litre was replaced by the smaller 1.5 litre unit, to make the now R12C eligible for voiturette racing. In the hands of various works drivers, including Mays, R12C had a fairly successful 1937 season.

At the end of the year it was sold to Prince B.Bira's cousin for the Prince to drive. Like his previous ERAs, R12C was christened with a nick-name; 'Hanuman'. The Prince continued the chassis' winning record up into 1939, when he crashed it heavily. He escaped with some minor injuries, but his ERA was badly damaged. With no C-Type chassis available, R12 was once again built up to B-Type specification and from then was known as R12B 'Hanuman II'.

After the War, B.Bira recorded another victory before selling it. In total R12B/C recorded 16 major contemporary victories and many more in historic racing, in which it campaigns up until this date. In the 1980s, R12B's owner used a bunch of spare parts to 'rebuild' R12C 'Hanuman', which is also raced regularly.

Now, a stunning little streamliner:

In the mid 1930s, English Racing Automobiles or ERA managed to put Great Britain back at the forefront of Grand Prix racing. The six cylinder engined A through D-Type were raced with great success throughout Europe in the popular 'Voiturette' (French for 'small car') class against the likes of Maserati. With the German Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams completely dominating the top class of Grand Prix racing, various other manufacturers took an interest in the 1.5 litre Voiturettes. To take on the renewed competition work was started in 1938 to build a completely new ERA that could potentially also be used against the three litre Grand Prix cars.

Reid Railton, the talented designer of the original ERA had long since left the company to work in the United States. The responsibility of drafting up the 'E-Type' Grand Prix racer was bestowed on one of his assistants; Peter Berthon. This was an overwhelming task for the young engineer and it only got worse when the British press got wind of ERA's intentions of building a full fledge Grand Prix car. Berthon's resources were also extremely limited as most of the company's backers were preoccupied with preparing for War, which became a bigger threat every day.

At first glance it is immediately obvious that Berthon was greatly inspired by the dominant Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix cars. The E-Type looks just like a mini W154. Under the aluminium panels there is evidence that Berthon borrowed some designs from the Germans. In fact the DeDion rear axle is a blatant copy of the rear end of the W125 right up to the locating ball with corresponding slot in the final drive unit. Slightly lower than previous ERAs, the chassis was conventional with two tubular side members. Front suspension was by trailing links and transverse torsion bars.

One of the biggest problems Berthon faced was unavailability of an engine that suited the contemporary Grand Prix regulations, which allowed for a 3 litre with forced induction or 4.5 litre for unblown engines. Smaller engined machined could run with a lower minimum weight, but all successful cars were equipped with the largest possible engine. As a stop gap, Berthon developed the Riley derived six cylinder engine to its largest possible displacement, which ERA claimed was 2.2 litre. It is more likely that the largest engine used was a 2 litre, similar to the one fitted in the D-Type. For the E-Type power was increased by 20 bhp to 260 bhp.

After lenghty delays, the E-Type with the ambitious chassis number 'GP1', first took to the track during the 1939 International Trophy at Brooklands. It was fitted with a 1.5 litre version of the straight six, so it could be raced in the Voiturette class. Even in this form the E-Type was highly uncompetitive against the German and Italian competition and was withdrawn after practice. Thanks to its very small frontal area, the E-Type did prove to be very fast in a straight line, but the handling let it down. One of the biggest culprits was the overly complex steering through a large number of gears, which made the steering remote and at times completely unpredictable.

After its disappointing debut, the car was shipped to France for the Grand Prix at Reims. Although being clocked at 275 km/h on the tracks long straights, it was again withdrawn before the race with technical problems. In the hands of Arthur Dobson, the E-Type finally made its racing debut at Albi. Dobson led the race when he crashed out and was forced to retire. Before the hostilities ended all racing activities, the ERA was entered in one more race and again withdrawn before the start. After the War a second E-Type was built, but despite being raced up until 1950 no notable results were achieved.

Source (text & images): Wouter Melissen @ Ultimatecarpage

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