Notes from the Archive – James Orr
August 25th, 2016 by Sherry Grantz
It all started with an email from a car enthusiast in Hawaii looking for information on a former SF Region racer from the 1950’s by the name of James Orr. More specifically, he was interested in one of the cars that Orr raced, an Italian sports car called an Ermini. These cars were built by Pasquale Ermini from 1946 until his death in 1958. Over that period of time, Ermini manufactured only thirty-nine cars in total with most using a FIAT based 1100cc engine with a twin cam cylinder head of Ermini’s design. His cars were quite successful in road racing, hill climbs and rallies including the famous Mille Miglia.
More about the Ermini shortly but lets shift our focus to James Orr, a Kentfield, California resident who had a successful residential real estate business. The first mention of Orr racing I could find was at Sebring in March of 1954 when he co-drove an Austin Healey 100 with James Brundage. Unfortunately they only lasted thirty-six laps and did not finish the race. Orr must have had previous racing experience to enter an event such as Sebring but I have not been able to uncover any information so far. The first SF Region event I show him competing in was at Pebble Beach in 1954, driving an XK-120 as a Novice. He next raced a preliminary event at March Field in November driving J.P. Kunstle’s Porsche 356 finishing 4th in class. At the time he began racing Orr was in his late forties, relatively old for the sport but had obviously he had been bitten by the bug.
In 1955 Orr raced a full schedule of events in a new car, a Devin Panhard. Orr had met Bill Devin at a previous race and struck up a friendship so when Devin introduced his first fiberglass bodied car, the Devin Panhard, Orr bought the second one produced. He would race this model in twenty-four events over the next three years in H Modified Class finishing third in national points in 1955 and first in 1956. He raced in Northern and Southern California and at the Bahamas Speed Week for three years in a row, 1955-57. Now, here is where the story gets interesting.
While at the Bahamas Speed Week in 1955 as part of the “California Gang” (Orr, Harry Banta, Phil Hill, Jack McAfee, Jim and Marion Lowe, Lou Brero Sr. and Jr.) he spotted a really good looking sports car which upon further investigation turned out to be an Ermini model 357. Orr was smitten with the car and bought it from its driver/owner, Antonio Pompeo. After the races, Orr shipped his Devin Panhard and the Ermini back to Kentfield. One month later he drove the car in a race at Torrey Pines but suffered a DNF then did not use the car again until August 1956 at the Arcata Road Races. While he took the car to the event, he ended up driving his Devin Panhard in the race. In between those two events, Orr agreed to loan the car to his friend Bill Devin who loved the body style of the Scaglietti designed Ermini. Devin wanted to expand his product line and felt the Ermini was the ideal car to use as a “plug” to make molds from for his new body. The first advertisement appeared in the November issue of Sports Car Illustrated magazine priced at $295. Not long after, Devin introduced a larger version of this body which he called the Devin SS and it became his best known product.
For 1957, Orr raced an AC Bristol entered by Edith Field, for the bulk of the the season along with an occasional ride in a Triumph TR3, MGA and his old reliable Devin Panhard. The Ermini appeared only twice more under Orr’s ownership, at the March 1957 Stockton race driven by Bob Winkelmann to a second in class finish and again at the first Hawaii Road Race in April. He only used the car for a timed one mile run competition the day before the main race in which he raced the AC in E Production.
For whatever reason, Orr decided to sell the car and its next home was in the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps the car was outclassed in the G Modified class which was dominated by Harry Banta’s Genie so Orr felt the Ermini was no longer competitive. The Ermini was raced in the NW for a period but over time it changed hands then disappeared without a trace. Orr raced on through the 1957 season and placed sixth in national points in E Production. Oh yes, Orr was also the SF Regional Executive for 1957, a busy man indeed.
After 1957, it appears Orr may only have entered a few events before apparently retiring in late 1960. Perhaps, like several other drivers who had begun racing when it was a purely amateur sport, the arrival of big teams and professionalism soured his enthusiasm for the sport. It is known he eventually moved to New Mexico later in life and passed away in 1989. Even though he had a relatively short racing career he was an active participant, a Regional Executive and remembered for his connection with Bill Devin.
If any of you readers have more information on James Orr or the Ermini, please drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org so I can complete the story.
Words by: Gary Horstkorta – July 2016