ERA Cars are Great Britain's forgotten greats

December 14, 2015
Djordje Sugaris

  • English Racing Automobiles

In the world of pre-WW2 racing, one company is overshadowed by the success of German, Italian and French vehicles, most notably Auto Union, Mercedes-Benz, Alfa Romeo and Bugatti. The company’s name is ERA or English Racing Automobiles and it was founded in 1933 in Bourne by a businessman Humphrey Cooks along with racing pilot Raymond Mays and his friend, designer and engineer Peter Berthon.

The White Riley was the first test mule for English Racing Automobiles' first car

The White Riley, a test mule for the first ERA race car

After several delays, the first car was completed in March 1934, and in June of the same year, Motorsport Magazine published an article entitled “First ERA Racing Car Completed”. The car was based on a Riley of the era, developed on purpose for English Racing Automobiles. It was called ERA R1A and had a 200-hp supercharged six-cylinder 1.488cm³ hemispherical head engine sitting on a chassis developed by Bluebird land speed record car constructor R.W. Railton. The bodywork of the car was all aluminum. After initial handling issues, R1A and the upgraded R3A started winning numerous races and one of the most memorable wins was in 1935 at the Nürburgring where it scored first, third, fourth and fifth.

ERA R1A was the first racing car of English Racing Automobiles

ERA R1A was the first racing car of English Racing Automobiles

ERA was selling its automobiles for gentleman racers from around the world

During the thirties, ERA scored numerous trophies with drivers such as Dick Seaman, but they were also sold to rich privateers and gentleman races. In this case, the most memorable owners of the decade were two Siamese princes, Chula Chakrabongse and his younger cousin Prince Birabongse, who later became the only Thailandese man to drive a Formula 1 car. The White Mouse team ran two cars, R2B and R5B, nicknamed Romulus and Remus. In addition to scoring second on Isle of Man and third at the Nürburgring, Prince Bira even won the race at Monaco and at Brooklands, ahead of ERA founder Raymond Mays! The White Mouse team later continued racing ERAs, winning half of the season’s races in 1938. Remus switched owners in its later years, while Romulus was kept in the Chula family and today, it’s considered one of the most preserved English Racing Automobiles.

E2B Romulus driven by Siamese prince Chula for White Mouse

E2B Romulus driven by Siamese prince Chula for White Mouse

The decline of English Racing Automobiles’ fame

Prior to the beginning of WW2, ERA started developing the GP1 E-Type race car fitted with a 1.5l straight six engine, but state-funded German and Italian engineering moved a lot faster producing cars whose speed is great even by today’s standards and ultimately, the war halted company’s operations. By the time the war ended, Mays and Berthon moved to found BRM, while ERA was bought by Leslie Johnson. Before Johnson’s takeover, ERA built two examples of GP2 E-Type which suffered from reliability issues. Both the GP1 and GP2 cars had several botched attempts of winning the podium, often scoring great times during practice sessions, but failing to finish the race. However, one of the heroic results of GP2 was at Monaco in 1950, where Bob Gerard won sixth place in the car that was fifteen years old at the time, competing against much newer, modern and refined machines.

G-Type, a project that promised lots and delivered little

In 1952, a new car was developed for Formula Two and was named the G-Type. The fundamental design of the car was laid down by none other than Robert Eberan von Eberhorst, the engineer behind the Auto Union Type D. The car had a 1,5l engine originally coming from Bristol and it was constructed out of two magnesium tubes with four crossmembers, with front suspension being double wishbone with coil springs and rear being de Dion tubes. Eberhorst’s protegé David Hotkin completed the design, including necessary engine modifications, but unfortunately, the car that was genial on paper didn’t turn out to be as successful in real life, even with Stirling Moss in its cockpit. One of the most praised British drivers later commented: “It was, above all, a project which made an awful lot of fuss about doing very little. By this time I was very disillusioned by the Clever Professor approach to racing car design. I would eventually learn that even the most brilliant concept could fail if the team concerned lacks the manpower and organization and money to develop the inevitable bugs out of it.”

Maserati 250F and ERA E-Type GP1 battling at Silverstone classic race in 2010.

Maserati 250F and ERA E-Type GP1 battling at Silverstone classic race in 2010

As a result of disappointing performance, Johnson sold the project to Bristol, a company that made it a basis for their more successful Le Mans race cars. Post-G-Type ERA became a company focused on research and development (it was even renamed to English Research and Application Ltd), and was finally sold to Zenith Carburetors, which was later bought by Solex. The last notable ERA project brought the company to its roots – it was the 94HP supercharged Mini. The name was later revamped by Jim Dudley and Tiger Sportscars with a retro-looking single seater, but the real legacy of ERA lies in its rich history and subsequent success in classic car racing, where it keeps the memory of the greatest British racing company that never was.