A war-time road test of a 1½-litre Mark II long-chassis Aston-Martin

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An excellent secondhand example loaned by Rowland Smith of Hampstead

WAR is no respecter of animal or of human sentiments, and those persons who have scorned the idea of purchasing used cars may very soon have no alternative, for the industry is now virtually restricted to production for export purposes only, and dealers’ stocks of new cars will not last for ever. In our world, this is of lesser significance, for many enthusiasts have long regarded the purchase of a secondhand car as quite permissible, either as an economy measure, or because a certain make or type no longer available from the manufacturer possessed an especial appeal, apart from which lots of folk have had heaps of enjoyment from cars which they could never have owned at all had it not been possible to buy in the used car market. Whichever way you look at it, this war has already placed the good-quality used car on a new footing, and for as long as the war goes on, and most probably for some time afterwards, this will continue to be so. Consequently, when the well-known dealers, Rowland Smith of Hampstead, informed us that they could place at our disposal a 1934, 1½-litre Mark II, long-Chassis Aston-Martin two-door four-seater, we decided to test it in the same way as a new car, within the limitations imposed by fuel rationing, the impossibility of using Brooklands Track, and the fact that the speedometer was not working, so that we could not take all the performance figures we usually quote. Actually, it is greatly to the credit of the dealers concerned that this six-year-old car, costing originally £640, but now offered for 145 gns., could really be regarded practically as a manufacturer’s demonstrator, for its black finish and interior leather upholstery were in really good condition, there was no excessive lost motion in the steering, and in some 190 hard miles no oil loss was evident, nor did oil fumes enter the driving compartment, while with the exception of the speedometer, screen-wipers, and the minute hand of the clock, every instrument and minor control was working. The hood was quite unworn, and the side screens, hood cover and tonneau cover equally presentable, and the screen glass entirely unmarked. With the exception of rather smooth front covers and one rear tyre, which punctured and was replaced by the retreaded spare, in like condition, the car might well have been a maker’s demonstrator, and as such we drove and analysed it throughout the test. Our first impression was of the distinctive lines achieved externally, the whole car having an extremely well-balanced appearance, rendered distinctive by the low radiator, and two flexible outside exhaust pipes and external silencer and pipe on the near side. Installed in the driving seat, there was not a single item to negative the impression that here is a real motor car and one that expressly fulfils the needs of the true enthusiast. The stubby, rigid central gear lever, with big rubber knob, protrudes from the remote-control in exactly the right position, the big, four-spoke, rather thick-rimmed spring wheel is nicely raked, and the right-hand brake lever, if rather close to the door, is extremely well placed, with a pull-up ratchet control which holds securely, and provides racing action when not in use. The seating position is quite low, but both wings are just visible, and the seat has an air cushion, pleasantly flexible back, and Leveroll adjustment, like that for the passenger, both seat-backs folding well forward for access to the rear compartment. The pedals, with the accelerator central, are close-spaced, but not embarrassingly so, and there is sufficient, if not overmuch room, wherein to rest the clutch foot away from the pedal. The facia is well laid out with no unwanted ornamentation, being truly business like. From left to right it carries:—cubby hole; Kigas; dashlamp; 6 inch Smith 100 m.p.h. speedometer below; water thermometer; oil gauge; 6 inch Smith 6,000 r.p.m. rev.-counter below; ammeter and fuel gauge between speedo and rev.-counter; dashlamp; St., Christopher medallion; stop-lamp switch; ignition and fuel pump switches below; horn push. The ignition and main and reserve pump switches occupy a separate inset panel, and are of the type in keeping with the car, and the starter button is up behind the facia. The cubby hole is rather apt to eject large objects, and the horn push was not in use. The pull out dashlamps are adequate. On the steering wheel centre are the three levers controlling throttle, ignition advance and retard, and dynamo charge and lamps, working accurately in fine serrations. The horn button in the wheel centre operates the mellow horn above the dumb-iron apron. The driving position is generally excellent, and the driver’s door is appreciably cut-away in a manner most effective if the seat is brought really close to the wheel. The twin screen wipers have a central motor-box out of the line of vision with the screen flat. The external mirror gives quite a reasonable rearward view if one leans out to see into it. The doors, which lock, shut nicely, and the bodywork is generally solid and well made, while not seeming to be unduly heavy; the brake lever rather demands contortionism in leaving via the driver’s door.

Not long after we had taken over the car, torrential rain started to fall and we had very good reason to investigate the weather protection. The hood deserves full marks for being the easiest to erect and lower we have ever experienced, and it has a large rear light providing excellent visibility. In spite of the age of the car, the hood sat rigidly and had no tendency to sag or become detached. With the glass side-pieces, which serve also as aero-screens, attached to the main screen, and the forward side curtains erect, the protection is highly satisfactory, but it says much for the body layout, and the effectiveness of the deep cycle front wings that although the driver did not wear a coat and did not use the off side sidescreen, his right arm remained reasonably dry. We believe rear screens were originally provided, but these were missing; nevertheless, the low hood kept the rear seat occupants quite dry, so that the fair sex did not complain at all, and it was not necessary to drape the tonneau cover about one. The storage arrangements deserve comment, the side screens and glass pieces living in a pocket in the rear locker, wherein is a tiny cupboard for the hood envelope. The clips and materials are of high quality; a minor criticism is that there is no provision for securing the lower edge of the hood envelope, and unless it is carefully stowed, the hood tends to escape and billow out behind. It is already evident that the Aston-Martin is very well suited to ordinary as well as to sporting occasions. Additional confidence is lent by the rigidity of the cycle wings, those at the front anchored to the brake back plates and turning with the wheels, and of the outside exhaust system; the Aston-Martin is one of the few cars on which such things are carried out really well, so that fear of sudden detachment never arises and even undue rattles are obviated, in spite of hard usage. Having made these observations, we were anxious to see how the road behaviour would line up. The 1,493 c.c. four-cylinder o.h. camshaft engine from the start proved to be perfectly docile. It would open up instantly with no sign of a flat spot and, run up to high speeds with no vibration periods, and it would run happily at 25-35 m.p.h. (1,500-2,000 r.p.m.) in top gear without distress. Driving in built-up areas with no speedometer readings, and, later, on a black, wet night on side lamps alone, there being no masks on the headlamps, meant prolonged restraint, but the K.L.G. M60 plugs did not in any way object. The engine was almost inaudible at tick-over, and would actually run down to about 340 r.p.m. (6 m.p.h.) in top gear with the ignition retarded. Equally, the Aston-Martin was happy at the other end of the range. In the lower gears we achieved 4,700 and there was no sign of valve bounce, and the revs, were still going up; the rev limit is 5,500 r.p.m. This was equivalent to 28, 43 and 68 m.p.h. respectively. In normal driving, the car got along nicely if upward changes were made at 4,300 r.p.m. in each case, equivalent to 26 m.p.h. in first, 40 in second, and 62 in third. In town, or to conserve fuel, it was perfectly practical to change up at 10 m.p.h. (1,500 r.p.m.) in first, and at 18 m.p.h. in second, and 30 m.p.h. in third (approximately 2,000 r.p.m.). The maximum speed attained was 80.5 m.p.h., equal to 4,600 r.p.m. on the top gear ratio of 4.66 to I. This was attained with the screen up and hood erect, on a short stretch of straight road which made it imperative to ease up early, and it was subsequently found that the ignition was not quite fully advanced. At this speed the car felt somewhat light and not altogether stable, but later, with four up on a dry concrete surface, it felt safe at a speed only a little slower. Clearly, the gear ratios were high, and the car is presumably fairly heavy, so that acceleration on third and top, while good, is not outstanding. Consequently, it was desirable to use the lower ratios liberally to achieve good get-away, so that the ability to run up to high engine speeds without protest was appreciated. On “Pool” petrol very audible pinking occurred at certain throttle openings, but this was completely curable by retarding the ignition, which one soon did subconsciously between gear-changes. Actually, it was possible by carefully notching up the advance and maintaining small throttle openings, to use full advance with no trace of pinking at really low speeds in top gear, which suggests good head design. Acceleration suffered with the ignition retarded, and it was possible to feel the particular spot on the magneto at which pinking ceased at the expense of performance. This characteristic need in no way worry the ordinary driver, but gave undoubted scope to one prepared to humour the engine.

Getting the Aston-Martin along in a hurry on the open road or over less easy going was a job in which any enthusiast would delight. The gear-noise on all the indirects is quite considerable, the howl changing to a blower-like scream as speed mounts in third, the rather Bentley-like burble in the silencer growing to a power-roar as you pass above touring gait. Against this, the rear axle is not noisy, and there is no lost motion on the overrun, the only effect being a clean change-over from power-roar to exhaust burble as the throttle is eased back. Using the lower gears liberally to maintain speed might prove tiring if much twisty going had to be negotiated, but the writer enjoys the exhilarating music of the gears sufficiently to regard this as a comment and not as criticism.

The clutch takes up smoothly and has a light action, and there is no slipping. The gear change is difficult to master, but once mastered, rapid changes are possible, and the expert dispenses with the clutch. The initial mistakes are those of using too great an engine speed increase when double-declutching to go from top to third, these ratios obviously being quite close, and that of missing the gate going from third to second, because there is no reverse stop, and the movement sideways is appreciable. The gear positions are normal, with the higher ratios on the left of the gate, with a bigger movement between first and second than between third and top; reverse is forward beside first. The gears would seem to have fine teeth and nice synchronisation is necessary. Quiet but unhurried changes up are possible by double-declutching, but a single clutch movement speeds things up if good judgment is maintained and also assists in preventing the dogs hanging up on the change from third to top. The short lever moves beautifully in the visible gate, and no vibration is transmitted along the remote control tunnel.

The brakes were sufficiently powerful given a fairly heavy pedal pressure, and pulled very square on wet and dry surfaces alike. They were not particularly progressive, but it is probable that there was considerable adjustment left, which would improve the action and also assist in a heel and toe action on the pedals when changing gear.

The steering is quite light, nicely geared and has mild castor action. There was some lost motion, but the feel of the road wheels could still be detected, the action being very accurate, and very little column movement took place. Tram lines pulled at the wheel despite the tyre section. The lock is generous and the wheel asks 2⅓ turns, lock to lock; even so, the 10′ 0″ wheelbase makes the turning circle considerable.

The suspension displayed typical sports-car tautness and the Aston-Martin took rough stuff with a clean action. There is absolutely no trace of roll and the tyres only protest under vigorous negotiation of acute bends. When the car slides it plays no tricks and only felt unstable at really high speed on a wet road, for which loose shock-absorbers that at the near side front was noticeably so—and rather bald front covers were probably responsible. Otherwise, the car controlled impeccably.

In fast cross-country work and rapid main road work, the water temperature reached 94-96° C., and first gear work up a trials hill resulted in boiling, though this never happened on the open road. The oil pressure varied with engine speed, being approximately 10 lbs. per square inch at 2,000 r.p.m., and 15 lbs. at 3,000 r.p.m. When the writer road-tested a new Aston-Martin of identical type in 1933, the oil pressure was 43 lbs. per square inch. However, in this case the water temperature was nearer 60°C., which would have some effect on oil pressure in spite of dry-sump lubrication, and when we later added a little fresh oil, the reading improved to nearer 20 lbs. at the lower engine speeds. So there is no reason to suspect any fault, and undoubtedly if the temperature was brought down, still higher pressures would be shown; the engine was not running retarded, so possibly Pool fuel was to blame for hot running. No oil fumes entered the car, and the driving compartment became warm, but not unpleasantly so. The engine started easily from cold without the Kigas; and was ready to pull very quickly, the temperature rising quite rapidly; the carburetters never spat back. On two occasions the starter pinion refused to engage, but it always resumed duty after the engine had been started by another method. There was ample dynamo charge.

In the course of a most exhilarating day’s motoring, for which interesting experience we are indebted to Rowland Smith, one or two notable readings were recorded. Thus, the Aston-Martin was capable of taking the road up to Newlands Corner, in Surrey, faster than conditions will permit, and up Pitch Hill from Ewhurst it reached about 60 m.p.h. (4,000 r.p.m.) in third, which is a very excellent rate of progression.

Fuel consumption appeared to be around 30 m.p.g., driving quietly, and something like 20 m.p.g. was recorded for the total distance of 190 miles of hard and varied going. The reserve pump is needed when about 1-1½ gallons remain in the tank, when the gauge shows zero. Radiator and fuel tank have excellent quick-action filler caps and the dumb-iron oil tank has a usefully large screw cap. We have already commented on the car’s excellent appearance, in sober black, with silver Rudge wheels and plated exhaust system. The headlamps carry unobtrusive black stoneguards; they were unmasked. The horn and spot-lamp—also unmasked—live above the easily detachable apron over the oil tank—which may explain the high water temperature. The pneumatic red leather upholstery was in good condition and a generous mat covers the floor and the remote gear control tunnel. The rear seat has two small separate air cushions; the propeller shaft tunnel makes it impossible to seat more than two abreast. The rear locker lid carries the spare wheel, is nicely balanced, and locks securely. The low build of the car makes running boards quite unnecessary; the valance is cut away to facilitate handbrake adjustment and greasing of the rear shackles. There is no accommodation for luggage and a carrier would have to be fitted for touring. When we changed the punctured wheel, the jack worked well, and if the copper-clouter boasted more lead than copper, it did the job. The bonnet clips work admirably, and the rigid bonnet opens easily. Beneath it, the alloy scuttle with alloy tool chests above, and the remainder of the available space filled with engine, is very pleasing to the enthusiast. The engine is the Bertelli designed 11.9 h.p., four-cylinder 69 x 99 mm., 1,493 c.c. unit, first produced in 1927. It has o.h. valves, all inclined in one plane in a deep head, and operated via rocker gear by a chain-driven o.h. camshaft. The alloy valve cover has a plate on the off side giving maintenance data; the tappet clearances are, in. .006″, ex. .008″, and the firing order 1, 3, 4, 2. On this side are the two black-bodied S.U. carburetters feeding into a square-section manifold flush with the block, Auto Kleen filter, and the plugs set horizontally, a trifle inaccessibly behind the carburetters. A toothed segment lighting control at the steering column base is typically A.-M. One of the oil pumps is external at the front of the engine, feeding via large bore flexible piping, and the dynamo is driven from the front of the crankshaft. On the near side are the twin two-branch exhaust manifolds with flexible tubing to the silencer, water pump and Lucas magneto beside the block, and a breather which can be quickly unclamped from the valve cover. If the number of pipes makes the engine rather untidy, the detail work is beautifully done. The fuse boxes live in front of the passenger, on the cockpit side of the scuttle partition. Good engineering is typified throughout the design and, in keeping with the rigidly mounted wings, the scuttle only floats under severe road conditions, the bonnet does not weave, and the generally solid feel of the Aston-Martin is reflected in the absence of body rattles. A loose bracket set up some sound and on acute right-hand corners the steering tie-rod knuckle fouled the wall of the tyre, though no appreciable marking was evident and no trouble experienced.

Details apart, this long-chassis Aston-Martin created a profound impression as a very interesting car to handle, able to set up excellent averages, essentially safe, and possessing dignity and reliability not very often found in what some persons rather humorously call par sang motors, although having all the desirable qualities which prompt such a descriptive phrase. Incidentally, the Mark II was introduced in 1935, so it seems that this is probably a very late 1934 car. It was tested in the second week of July, so whether it is now still available is not definitely answerable, but Rowland Smith have a big stock of similar cars, and, at the time of the test, had another Aston-Martin, a short-chassis four-seater, for sale at £62, and had just sold another. These cars should contribute much to the enjoyment of Service personnel on leave, and are admirably suited to their needs. That a big selection of sports-cars can be seen under one roof at premises one minute from Hampstead Tube Station, open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day (and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sundays) must appeal in such circumstances. Rowland Smith’s telephone number is Hampstead 6041.

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