ERA – English Racing Automobiles, the road cars

The Automobile magazine published an article in its August 2020 issue by Doug Nye on the aspirations of the ERA organisation to market road-going sports cars as a means of financing its racing car programme. Our understanding of the ERA story is enhanced by reference to a stock of letters left by Raymond Mays which Doug Nye had the good fortune to discover in Mays’ old house at Bourne. These letters flesh out the dealings and tensions the creative duo of Mays and Berthon had with the originator of the ERA idea and financial backer, Humphrey Cook, and in turn their dealings with other notable participants in the ERA story such as Charles Follet, Lancelot Prideaux Brune, Philip Merton, Laurence Pomeroy Jr and Alec Rivers Fletcher. The artist Stefan Marjoram has illustrated what the proposed road-going cars may have looked like and his image above shows what the ERA-Standard, one of three projects, might have looked like in two door coupe form.

Back in 2011, the MSMT financially supported the publication by Veloce of The Book of the Standard Motor Company by Graham Robson, which filled an identified gap in recorded motoring history. In the book, Doug Nye is quoted on the matter of the relationship between Captain John Black of Standard and Raymond Mays of ERA and the various proposed collaborations for introduction of a road-going ERA sports car. The article in The Automobile is an expanded version of the account in the Standard book of the 4-litre ERA sports car, The Raymond Mays Special and the ERA-Standard sports car. Only the Raymond Mays Special actually made it on to the road and even then, in limited numbers - ERA insiders dispute whether four or five cars were constructed and the type of body fitted to the fifth car. Ken Richardson, who was involved in the construction of the initial batch of four cars, stated that these were the only cars constructed. It may be that the fifth car was constructed after Richardson left the Bourne operation. There are two accounts of the fifth car, one appeared in Alec Rivers Fletcher’s article on the Raymond Mays Specials in The Automobile for November 1988. Rivers Fletcher was very much an insider at Bourne, test driving several of the cars as bare chassis and when completed. He maintained that the fifth car had been built with a drophead coupe body of the sort fitted to the Standard 12. This seems an odd thing to do as the wheelbases were different so considerable modification would have been required and it may well be that this was a Standard 12 with modified suspension and/or the V8 engine but not a full Raymond Mays Special. The car was sold to Gordon Clegg, a well-known Shelsley Walsh hill-climb competitor. The alternative scenario, which is supported by the recollections of the son of a prospective purchaser who tried the car and by the time he made up his mind found that it had been sold overseas, is that the fifth car was built up as a four-door saloon, in line with one of the drawings in the sales brochures. Those familiar with this car believe that it was subsequently lost when the ship transporting it to New Zealand was torpedoed and sank.


The Standard involvement in the 4-litre ERA project was terminated by a letter from Black to Mays of 28th April 1938 and the ERA-Standard by a similar letter of 5th November 1938 both citing the exclusive agreement for supply of parts between Standard and William Lyons of SS Cars. As the Standard book points out, a number of supply agreements existed between The Standard Motor Company and AC, Railton and Morgan around the same time without incurring any similar allegations of breach of the contract with SS.


It is worthwhile considering the relative positions of the products of these companies. The production volumes of AC, Morgan and Railton were very low, and even with a like-for-like offering, SS would have had considerable economies of scale with their production volumes and would undercut these hand-built offerings by a considerable margin. SS models ranged from the SSII of 1932 to 1936 at 9/10/12HP to the 1938-introduced 25HP 31/2 Litre saloons and SS100 sports cars. AC were firmly in the middle of the SS range at 16HP (2 litre) and in 1936 a two-seater AC of 80bhp was quoted at £425 whereas a 20HP SS100 of 104bhp was only £395, emphasising SS as value-for-money. On this basis perhaps William Lyons, who would no doubt have noted the similarity in design of the AC chassis to that manufactured by Standard for SS at motor shows, would not be overly concerned. Later on, in 1938, the “baby” Railton coachbuilt on the Standard 12HP running gear arrived in 1938 and in 1939 Standard began supplying modified 10HP engines to Morgan. SS had, however, moved upmarket and the smallest model available by 1938 was 14HP so neither of these could be said to be direct competitors of SS.


Having considered these arrangements, we can but wonder why the 4-litre ERA sports car and the smaller 10HP ERA-Standard sports car could have aroused the objections of William Lyons. Given that the ERA would have been more expensive and a much more limited production sports car in the Railton mould, probably similarly priced at least 20% above the 31/2 litre SS100 and therefore not seen as a direct competitor. The smaller ERA-Standard would have been in the same market as the Morgan, smaller MGs and Singers and again would not be a direct competitor to anything in the 1938 or later SS range. That leads us to two other possibilities, namely that Lyons objected for some other reason or that he did not in fact object and Black used the threat as a reason to terminate discussions with Mays and Berthon. Taking the first possibility, in the post war period when Lyons was President of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) he vetoed support for Mays’ new project, the BRM. It is not known why Lyons took this action, whether it was business logic or whether it was driven by his objections to Mays’ well-known proclivities which would have offended Lyons’ strong moral convictions which today would be categorised as homophobia. Black on the other hand was photographed with Mays and one of the Raymond Mays Specials on the 1939 RAC Rally and his support post-war for the Mays-instigated BRM project indicate that the men's personal relationship was unaffected by the abrupt termination of discussions between ERA and Standard. The other motive that Black could have had for declining to proceed and blaming Lyons was financial. ERA had a history of living hand-to-mouth despite Humphrey Cook’s financial support and Black would have been well aware that on more than one occasion Riley had been forced to resort to instructing solicitors in order to obtain payment for outstanding invoices for engines. Berthon had somewhat ill-advisedly written in a letter to Standard in relation to the ERA-Standard sports car that it would be desirable that “the Standard Motor Company arrange to extend to ERA Limited a floating credit that would fit in admirably with the present scheme and enable us to put the whole thing over with a very minimum of capital”. This made it plain that there would be no money to pay Standard for parts until the completed cars had been sold and paid for. This may have persuaded Black that rather than proceed and worry about a substantial debt owed from the impecunious ERA concern he should terminate the talks and use Lyons as the fall-guy.


More details of the relationship between Standard and SS Jaguar appear in a previous book supported by the MSMT and published by Veloce in 2004, The Rise of Jaguar - A Detailed study of the "Standard Era" 1928-1950 by Barrie Price. Standard's records, quoted by Graham Robson in his book, shows seven rolling chassis allocated to the Raymond Mays Special. The first-hand account of Ken Richardson, quoted in both Doug Nye’s article and the Standard book shows that the four cars entered in the 1939 RAC Rally were converted from complete Standard V-VIII saloons. Richardson's assertion is that these cars were acquired by Lancelot Prideaux Brune, a motor trader who owned the Winter Garden Garage in London. Doug Nye's article reveals that Prideaux Brune was keen to be appointed distributor for the 4-litre ERA sports cars the major components of which they hoped would be made by Standard. The Winter Garden Garage was later the appointed distributor for the Raymond Mays Special and Lancelot Prideaux Brune was a shareholder in Shelsley Motors Limited, the company behind that car. The Shelsley Motors Limited arrangement appears to have been a device to circumvent the involvement of Humphrey Cook, the financial backer of ERA, although the downside was that the ERA name could not be used. Needless to say, this devious behaviour caused some resentment which was apparent from the letter that Humphrey Cook sent to and was published in The Motor, in which he explained that he was in no way involved with Shelsley Motors Limited. Prideaux Brune tried to reconcile the parties but ultimately it lead to the dissolution of ERA as a collaboration between Cook, Mays and Berthon, leaving Cook alone to manage and then dispose of ERA in the post war period. As a motor dealer and agent for Morgan, Prideaux Brune would have been able to secure the Standard saloons at a good price, this model was not being a commercial success and consequently slow-moving as far as dealers were concerned, but this would still have made them significantly more expensive than rolling chassis. The decision to go for the more expensive route of using complete cars and discarding fully kitted out bodies rather than starting with rolling chassis has two possible explanations. One possibility is that Standard had cold feet about dealing directly with Shelsley Motors Limited as it might have provoked objections from William Lyons as had been alleged in regard to the ERA and ERA-Standard sports cars. Dealers selling complete cars for conversion neatly takes Standard out of the loop and they could claim to SS Cars that they had no involvement or prior knowledge. The second possibility is that Standard only produced batches of this model as and when required for maximum efficiency on the production line, and as it was a slow seller the next production batch, including the rolling chassis for Shelsley Motors Limited was some way off. Mays was keen to participate in the 1939 RAC Rally and booked advertising in the May 2nd issue of The Motor and the May 5th edition of The Autocar to publicise their success. Thus, it may have been shortage of time that dictated the expensive use of complete cars to source parts rather than wait for the rolling chassis to be produced.

The completed Raymond Mays Specials, three tourers and one drophead coupe, were duly entered in the RAC Rally to gain attention, with Mays and S.C.H "Sammy" Davis both driving tourers, Prideaux Brune driving the coupe and his workshop manager, C.M. "Dick" Anthony driving the remaining tourer. Unfortunately for Mays, they did not sweep the board, the best result being Prideaux Brune's at 3rd in the closed class (the tourers ran in the open class), not enough to publicise, so the advertisements that had been booked in The Motor and The Autocar, merely announced the launch.

The Railtons built on Standard rolling chassis were the Little Chobham and Little Fairmile with coachwork by Coachcraft. The book that won the inaugural Michael Sedgwick Award in 2012, John Dyson's Coachcraft: 1930s Coachbuilding Style, published by the Railton Owners Club, includes photographs of the "little" Railtons. The book also contains a drawing of a proposed four door close-coupled Railton based on the Flying Standard 12 HP chassis with a 14 HP engine which could have put the cat amongst the pigeons. It might be thought that William Lyons did not object to the arrangement with Railton as the "little" Railtons, introduced in 1937, were not in the same market as SS Cars as the smaller-engined SSII had ceased production in 1936. The proposed larger 14HP car would have competed directly in engine size with the 1½ litre SS Jaguar which used the Standard engine with the Harry Weslake-designed overhead valve revision so an objection from Lyons would have been more likely if this car had gone into production.

Another book supported by the MSMT has links to this story, Morgan International Adventure, written and published by John Clarke has the story of Morgan's foray to Le Mans with the Coventry Climax-engined 4-4 model. A young woman by the name of Prudence Fawcett, despite little competitive motoring experience, set her sights on competing at Le Mans. She was acquainted with Rivers Fletcher, the racing driver involved with Mays and activities at Bourne who pointed her in the direction of Prideaux Brune and the Winter Garden Garage. In the early 1930s, Prideaux Brune had been a majority shareholder in Aston Martin and had financed the 1932 team entry to Le Mans. After selling of control of Aston Martin when profitability did not return, Prideaux Brune remained a distributor, and accompanied a team of private owners to compete at the 1933 Le Mans for the marque. The following year, the Winter Garden Garage were pit crew and support for Reggie Tongue, a well-known private entrant. Back in 2002, the MSMT supported the autobiography of Reggie Tongue, High Speed Diary – The Life and Times of Reggie Ellis Tongue. Eventually relations between Prideaux Brune and the new Aston Martin management soured so the Winter Garden Garage ceased to have a relationship with that company and gained a concession for Morgan cars in early 1938. As recounted in Morgan International Adventure, Prudence's co-driver was the Sales Manager at the Winter Garden Garage, Geoffrey White, and "Dick" Anthony, who was Sales Representative and Service Manager managed the team which resulted in a 13th overall, 5th in 1100cc class. For 1939, Prudence Fawcett had given up competitive motoring but, in an effort to win the biennial cup, she again entered the Morgan with "Dick" Anthony joining Geoff White to share the driving duties making an all-Winter Garden Garages driving line up. This year the Coventry Climax engine of the Morgan was overbored to put it in the 1100-1500cc class where competition was thought to be less intense. The result was a 15th overall and 2nd in class, and once again the single Morgan had lasted the distance at pace. Morgan International Adventure includes short biographies of Lancelot Prideaux Brune, "Dick" Anthony and Geoffrey White.

As mentioned earlier in this article, the Morgan name comes up in The Book of the Standard Motor Company with a supply of engines despite the SS Cars arrangement for exclusive parts supply. H.F.S. Morgan found that Coventry Climax had no other volume clients for their engine and the lack of economies of scale and the desire of Coventry Climax to concentrate on fire pump engines made the engine supplied to Morgan too expensive and supply difficult. Ted Grinham, the Chief Engineer of Standard designed an overhead valve version of the 10 HP engine, along the lines of the Harry Weslake version of the Standard 16 HP and 20 HP supplied to SS Cars. Morgans with this engine went on sale from June 1939 and, like the "little" Railtons, it might be that as a 10 HP they were not in competition with SS models which by then were all 14 HP or larger, so William Lyons did not object. The proposed ERA-Standard sports car suggested by Mays and Berthon to Black had been based on modified 10HP Standard running gear, suitably modified to achieve a top speed of circa 90mph. It is possible that this was the inspiration for developing the overhead valve conversion which was then marketed to Morgan, who were on a sound financial basis and did not involve the credit risk associated with any of the Mays-connected entities.



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