Birth of an Icon - The Merna Mk1 and Mk2
At last, I’m posting that story of how Erin’s most popular car ever came to be.
This is a long ol’ post, but I’ve done my best to make it nice and interesting
Backstory - From Sports Cars to Family Cars
In 1960, Erin saw a colossal increase in sales after the release of their third ever production car, the Tegra (not that much of an achievement given that their total sales 1959 came to just 82 vehicles), so much so that work on a brand new factory was under way to allow for the mass production of their cars. However, this factory was so big that the company would need to fill it with some other production lines to get their money back.
Erin’s board of directors, which at the time was made up of just 5 people, decided this was ample oppurtunity to experiment and expand - they already had two lines of sports car, they didn’t need another yet. And they decided bring the emerging ‘Erin brand’ to a whole new market - the family car sector!
At the time in Europe, this was a fairly mundane sector of car production, made up of dull, slow, simple vehicles made to be practical, nothing else. Here, Erin saw their chance: they would make a groundbreaking new small car to shake this sector up.
Setting aside a whole new team to design and build the car, they told the team to be “as innovative as possible” and “go wild”. 1 year later, at the Earls Court Motor Show, they revealed the Mk 1 Merna.
1961 Erin Merna (Mk 1)
This was what a bunch of former race engineers and sports car makers decided a family car should look be. The Merna was compact, practical and fairly good to drive.
A large cabin, with plenty of head and leg room; a big boot, which could be made bigger thanks to rudimentary folding rear seats; very simple but at the time amazing extra features such as side lights and an AM Radio as standard; the Merna was an ideal family runabout.
At least that’s what history says. In truth, the Merna only achieved all of this by being quite a lot more expensive than its rivals. On areas such as reliability, speed and comfort, it was no better than its rivals. Then, there were the engines: all were derived from a single range of frankly anemic Acting OHC i4s that were as responsive as a sloth. It was also fairly mundane to drive, despite the sports car origins, thanks to basic suspension an all-round drum brakes.
Worse still, Erin didn’t have a clue how to market this thing or develop the trim range. So, it came with just two trim levels, two engines and was sold on the basis that “A Le Mans winner made it!”.
The automotive press agreed - it was a bit of a dissapointment. Erin needed to improve the car’s image if they were to sell these things long term, so they did the one thing they were best at…
1962 Erin Merna Touring-62
In an instant, this car was revolutionised. Now, the things that made it a family car didn’t matter; with its race wheels, flared wheel arches and fantastic 1.8l i4 Twin Cam engine, the Merna had become a brilliant touring car.
When it turned up at Snetterton on April 12th 1962, for the opening round of that year’s British Saloon Car Championship, few could have guessed the career in touring car racing this one marque was about to begin. It completley outpaced its rival Austin Mini’s and Ford Anglia’s to finish 1-2 in its class, the same position it would finish overall at the end of the season.
Capable of 0-60 in 9.7 seconds and weighing just 760kg, it was an absolute dart on the track, and thanks to its RWD setup, regularly got sideways too.
The Merna Touring racing in the BTCC during 1964
And then, the X Department got their hands on it.
1963 Erin Merna Sport
In 1962, the as yet unnamed division suggested developing some kind of one off sports version of the Mk 1 Merna, which would be tuned and developed by them. Using a detuned version of the same engine in the Touring version (producing 89 hp) and the same racing gearbox, the Merna Sport was an early example of what was essentially a hothatch.
Well, not quite. More just a performance version of the Merna. But boy, this was thing was quick: 0-60 in 12.8 seconds, top speed of 102 mph, and, thanks to beefed up, race quality suspension and disk breaks, this thing cornered pretty well too.
The public liked it too, accounting for almost 20% of the sales of the Merna that year, certainly enough to make it more than just a one off special. This became the X Department’s “breakthrough vehicle”, and would earn them their own official budget and facilities up in Ashbourne, Derbyshire.
By this point, sales were increasing year on year, and the Merna name was being established.
1965 Erin Merna Mk 1.5
Erin designed an improved version of the original Merna in 1965 which has since become known as the ‘Mk 1.5’. Underneath, the chassis was technically the same; the ladder chassis had been reworked into a makeshift monocoque, onto which a reshaped body was put, which in turn had new aesthetics .
It wasn’t as pretty as the Mk 1, but the chassis was now far more solid and the car drove far better. A range of new SOHC engines was also brought in, and the trim range was overhauled.
The first rally version of the Merna, called the ‘1800R’, getting some air during the Dalnit-Bralka Rally 1965 (courtesy of HowlerAutomotive)
As the 60s drew on, the time came to release an all-new Merna, to continue its success and build on the flaws of the previous one. It was no longer just an experiment in family vehicles, the Merna was now bringing in a lot of money for the company and needed to be competitive.
1968 Erin Merna (Mk 2)
If the Merna was Nirvana, then the Mk1 was Bleach and the Mk 1.5 the singles released between 1989 and 1991, making the Mk2 its Nevermind.
This car changed the face of Erin for ever. It proved that they weren’t just a race company who dabbled with road cars for the sake of it; no, they really could be a serious car maker. The car was now front wheel drive to create more space in the cabin, it had a proper monocoque chassis to save weight and improve strength, and almost 90% of the parts were brand new or bespoke, showing just how far Erin had gone to make this thing a success.
A proper range of trims and engines, seriously improved driving characteristics and highly competitve economy, reliability and practicality - this was a truly brilliant little car.
New production facilities and better design meant they could sell the car for much less than before too, putting into competition with the Ford Escort, Austin 1100/1300 and Vauxhall Viva. But it had one key advantage against all of them - it was a hatchback, and that made it far more useable and practical.
Better still, different variants were made available, including 3 and 5 door options and, from 1970 onwards, an Estate version, the first of any British car of this size.
And naturally, a race version followed soon after.
1969 Erin Merna Touring/Mk 2 Touring
From 1969 onwards, the Merna Touring was updated year on year, keeping it competitive. But, more than that, Erin Motorsport put an emphasis on making the Mk 2 Touring variant a ‘racing platform’. At the time, this didn’t mean much, only meaning that touring and rally versions of the car could be produced, but the ethos has remained - today, the Merna Touring is wide customisable race platform.
The Mk 2 Touring would go further and farther than any Merna yet, reasserting Erin Motosport’s (soon to become Erin[color=turquoise]Sport[/color]) dominance in BTCC and bringing the Merna to the European and later World Rally Championship.
The Merna becoming a two wheeler, somewhere in the BTCC in 1970.
All in all, over 1 million Mk2 Merna’s were built betweem 1968 and 1975, almost 60% than the combined total of Mk 1s and Mk 1.5s
Fin! Well done if you read all that, though I don’t mind if you just came along for the pictures. I can release more stats if you want, but they aren’t terribly intresting (short of it is that the Touring variants all have much lower drivability and higher sportiness, and lower weight basically).
(thanks @HowlerAutomotive for the picture of Merna on the the Dalnit-Bralka rally )