Just because a car is old doesn't mean it's slow. Yet there's a tendency for people to think that's the case, even if the car in question is a racer. If you show people a picture of an old racing car, such as this writer's own 1961 Lotus 20/22 Formula Junior, and tell them it will lap a track faster than a modern supercar, they tend to think you're nuts. Even automotive writers will look at a prewar racing car and wonder if the drum brakes actually stop the vehicle, to which you're tempted to reply, "No, you throw an anchor out the back."
We decided to see just how fast old racing cars actually are. Where do they get their speed compared with a modern supercar? Where on a track-and why-are they slower? How do different generations of racing cars compare with one another and with a supercar?
We assembled three great old racing cars and a Porsche 911 GT3 at England's Donington Park circuit. We chose cars that are the fastest of their breed today: an ERA (English Racing Automobile), to represent the prewar era; a Lotus 16, as the ultimate front-engined Formula 1 machine; and a Brabham BT11A from the early mid-engined period. We used our Racelogic VBox to analyze acceleration, braking, and cornering performance objectively, and we drove all four for subjective comparisons.
1935 ERA R4D
At the end of the 1930s, the fastest racing cars on the planet were German: the Mercedes-Benz W154 and the Auto Union D-type. Nowadays, however, for a number of reasons, they would struggle to keep up with Mac Hulbert's sinister black ERA, chassis R4D, around Donington. First, this particular ERA has been tweaked continually since the 1930s. Second, the Mercedes and the Auto Union use nineteen-inch tires that don't have as much grip as the ERA's sixteen-inch tires. Finally, the German cars were built for long straights and fast, open corners-a circuit type that has all but disappeared.
This ERA is thus the fastest prewar car in vintage racing. It uses a supercharged, 2.0-liter OHV in-line six-cylinder engine that makes about 300 horsepower, which is fed to the rear wheels via a four-speed Wilson planetary preselector gearbox. The car has a live axle with semielliptic leaf springs at the back and a Porsche-type trailing-arm independent front suspension with torsion-bar springing. Ready-to-run weight with the driver aboard is 1834 pounds.
Around Donington, the ERA lapped three seconds off the pace of the GT3, which is as good a track car as you can buy. A regular Porsche 911 Turbo or a Ferrari 360 Modena would be hard-pressed to better the ERA's time. The almost-instant gearshifts, which barely register on the data traces, and the 1.14-g cornering limit are amazing. Sure, the tires are tenacious, but the car generates all that grip despite a high center of gravity and relatively narrow rear tires on 5.5-inch-wide rims. It loses out to the Porsche in cornering speed-especially in the faster bends-and in braking, but it holds its own in acceleration once you have it pointing straight.
You feel the ERA's age when you step into it, however. You're perched high in what feels like an armchair, with a giant steering wheel ahead of you. The monstrous Godfrey supercharger lives between your legs, which is scary when you realize that the rotors will be spinning at about engine speed. There's a commanding view over the long hood and the front wheels, which makes the car easy to place in the corners, and you can see much of the track ahead of you at any given time. You tend to drive the ERA based on what the front wheels are doing: because you actually can see the understeer, you just add power to get the front wheels into a neutral attitude. When the front wheels are countersteering, you back out the throttle.
The preselector gearbox is as fast as and smoother than a modern sequential manual. To shift, you preselect the required gear on a quadrant down by your right leg and engage it by pressing the left-hand gearshift pedal. The ERA's handling balance relies on your right foot and your own bravery, because it will understeer off throttle, become neutral under power, then oversteer wildly if you use too much of the abundant torque. R4D has a reputation for being evil at the limit, but stiffer front torsion bars have made it friendly, even in the wet. The steering is deliciously accurate but is heavier than the Lotus's or the Brabham's.
The brakes are powerful (for drums) and produce 0.71 g under heavy retardation. The engine is a thing of some beauty, producing lots of power from 1500 rpm to Hulbert's 6500-rpm redline. It makes a wonderfully sharp exhaust bark overlaid by the whine of the supercharger, and it emits a heady stench of Castrol oil and burnt methanol. It also propels the ERA extremely quickly down the straightaways.