The Type C is Aston’s least known product. That’s a shame says Gordon Cruickshank, as it pointed way to the future
The name Bertelli has been central to most of Aston Martin’s history. Today it often refers not to the revered designer himself, but to the firm which specialises in all Astons with Bertelli pedigree. Made prominent as Morntane Engineering by Derrick Edwards, racer and mender extraordinaire, and Nick Mason, the company exists today under a new owner as Ecurie Bertelli, and while Edwards is no longer involved, due to illhealth, his wife Judy Hogg is still part of it, and continues, with Mason, his wife and daughters, to race the pre-war Astons in the Mason stable.
Andy Bell came to work for Derrick and Judy in 1977 and ended by buying the company. Today the Olney workshop is packed with Bertelli Astons in his care: the 1924 200-mile race entry, Le Mans cars LM5, LM19 and CMC 614, Prince Bira’s car about to be reassembled. . . And, standing ready for our inspection, the strange all-enveloping curves of a Type C. A whole crop of aerodynamic projects withered with the coming of the Second World War, and this is one of them.
In an article in the AMOC Review, written in the 1960s, Gordon Sutherland, son of AM’s owner and Managing Director of the outfit, recalled that the streamlined cars grew from the desire for publicity when the Speed Model was conceived in 1935. Very much a development of the Ulster (chassis numbers continued to carry a `U’), the 2-litre Speed Model still used Bertelli’s overhead cam motor. Available power rose from around 85 to perhaps 105bhp at 5500rpm, elevated from the cooking version with a hotter cam, compression raised to 9.5:1, and a gurgling pair of 15/8 SUs, while to make sure it stayed together in the heat of competition, there were tougher con-rods, a heavier crankshaft, and dry-sump lubrication.
At the other end of the bare gear-lever are four close-spaced ratios, but no synchro slick, silent changes are up to the skill of the driver. The track was increased to 4ft 6 1/2in and large Lockheed hydraulic brakes with alloy drums filled the wheels.
These expensive brakes helped push the list price up to a startling £775 upon launch in 1937, £200 more than the tourer. Sales, meanwhile, centred on the 1598cc model which, being a rather less peaky and specialised device found more general acceptance. By 1939 slack demand caused the price of Speed Models to be slashed to £495.
To qualify for Le Mans, 25 Speed chassis had to be laid down but the 1936 French classic was cancelled due to strike action, and the bulkier Speed Models were slow to prove Speed Models were slow to prove themselves, despite Richard Seaman’s promising start in the 1936 Ulster TT. With the Bertelli 2/4-seater body, the more powerful 2-litre car would only reach 80 or 85mph; a lowered final drive hauled it up to around 90bhp but clearly the problem was considerable air drag. It was only with Jock Horsfall’s slimmer Ulster-bodied racer that the potential of the chassis was unlocked, so Sutherland and Hill determined to create a slippery tear-drop shape for it.
Claude Hill, having been with the company since before the Feltham days, had taken over from Bertelli as chief engineer when the latter left in 1936. His forward thinking included metalframed body construction, in which he took out a patent, and the lessons learned with his later experimental saloon “Donald Duck” and the lightweight Atom influenced the post-war Astons.
With streamlining breaking out all over, the 2-litre scheme had some distinct advantages. It would update Aston’s old, traditional cyclewinged image, and if a new suit of clothes also turned the slow-selling Speed Model chassis into a more attractive commodity, all the better. The first aero-bodied car (part-yellow, and inevitably dubbed “The Flying Banana”) appeared at the 1938 Earls Court show; with its slatted upright grille and separate headlamps it was still no revolution, but it could reach 100mph. However, while it created interest and shock in equal measure, there were only a few buyers over the next two years. Thus Speed chassis built in 1938 only gained bodies as late as 1940, while Aston was switching to aircraft component work. As a final works outing, Sutherland was one of the last people to drive on the Brooklands Outer circuit in September 1939, testing a single-seater 2-litre for the forthcoming TT, a race which never happened.
Aero-body construction comprised a square-section tube frame attached to the unaltered 2-litre chassis, over which the new panels draped to give the traditional car a startling new form. Bulbous but smooth, neatly fairing wings, suspension and axles into the shape, the result looked like a throughly scientific product of the newly recognised science of streamlining. In fact it was all done by eye, but it was reasonably effective for all that. There was a marked reduction in drag, enough to ease top speed up to some 110mph once the projecting headlamps of the prototype had found a new home behind the grille.
The trade-off was in weight: the considerable increase in skin surface required a lot more framing than a simple narrow body and skimpy wings. Even though the new frame was in aluminium alloy, much of the panelling on the car featured here – the front cowl and all four wings was in steel, which was only partly offset by the use of alloys for the main tub, the tail and the bonnet. Completed, the Type C weighed 300Ibs more than a conventional 2-litre; so while the maximum rate of knots might have been more impressive, it was going to take longer to get there.
It was seven years ago that Derrick Edwards came across this car in Chicago. It was complete but Edwards considered it a prime candidate for rebuilding into a nice 2-litre Type B Speed Model with two-seater Ulster-type body, the car everyone wanted at the the time. So the body was removed and the running gear shipped back to the UK; but the project didn’t get going, and the disconnected remains were part of the package Andy Bell inherited when he took over Bertelli. It was then, in 1992, that Richard Harwood came across the kit of parts, and decided he would follow Edwards’ original plan until he saw Simon Draper’s Type C being resurrected, also by Bertelli.
The appearance of Draper’s C was the first chance most of us had had of seeing the wind cheating curves of a Type C, and Harwood was taken with it; knowing his chassis had been a similar car, he determined to follow the aerodynamic route. He and Andy Bell were plotting the complex reconstruction of the body when fellow AMOC member, David Taylor produced the electrifying news that he thought the original Type C body still survived. But it was only six months later that a name popped into the frame, and when Harwood rang up to sound him out, the response was not what he had hoped for. Toby Bergin of Atlanta had bought the body, separated from its chassis, some years before, and when Harwood asked if this was true and confirmed that he had a chassis, Berglin’s response was “How much do you want for it?”
There followed a degree of to-ing and fro-ing: Andy Bell flew to Atlanta and reported back that not only was the body complete and sound but it retained many of the small fittings which would be difficult to reproduce. Further clues suggesting that the body and chassis were indeed those which belonged to each other intensified negotiations, until finally Bergin was eventually persuaded that reassembly would be a complex job requiring a comprehensive workshop (which proved quite true) and agreed to sell.
Before long, several large beautifully packed crates arrived at Bertelli, and disgorged not only body panels, but such invaluable details as the unique boot hinges and bonnet catches (which otherwise would have had to have been cast using patterns from one of the surviving Cs) and the windscreen and supports, neither of which was as simple to fabricate as they looked.
Another lucky survival was the instrument panel, complete with its dials, and even the seats were intact. A new hood was constructed from works drawings (it looks more like a veteran hangover than part of an advanced aerodynamic experiment), which dismantles to store in the tail. Behind the seats is a slot for a spare wheel, and below that a pair of fuel tanks straddle the prop-shaft.
As to the panels,the nose had clearly been biffed at some point, and was larded with filler, while the wings contained a great deal of lead, presumably from the original assembly. In the end the repaired nose with its painted wire-mesh grille was too brittle to use, and became the only panel which required replacement.
Offering up body to chassis proved that the mountings matched, but did not provide a perfect result. The front wings were visibly different, and apparently always were; it required considerable reshaping to make them fit and look symmetrical. Bell and Harwood had hoped that the car would be ready and running for the AMOC Jubilee in 1995 but fixing the wings extended the process. Instead, the C made its debut at the Louis Vuitton concours at London’s Hurlingham Club in June last year, before being rushed to Silverstone the next day for the St John Horsfall meeting.
For most onlookers, the Type C remains a mysterious beast. Simon Draper’s C has been around for a couple of years, but the only two other complete cars live in Germany and California. Two further Type Cs exist in pieces, one with, one without, a body and Jim Young, Pre-war Archivist for the AMOC, recalls breaking one up in the Fifties, which had a much lower body. That would bring the total to seven Type Cs, although some sources list only six.
According to the chassis number code, Harwood’s car was finished in July 1940, which appears to make it the last Aston-Martin to be bodied before the war, though another Type C was going to be delivered that Christmas Eve.
Many find the Type C shape a bit clumsy, and even Richard Harwood worried at first that he wouldn’t like it once the car was reassembled. Now it’s completed however, he approves. The final shape is actually slightly different to Simon Draper’s, the body of which was copied by Bertelli’s craftsmen from the German car, lured to Buckinghamshire by the offer of a free overhaul.
Painted in Harwood’s personal green to match his other Astons, the Type C drives very nicely, the ride benefiting from the extra body weight, controlled by Hartford dampers, and easily keeps up with traffic at 70-80mph. Once run in, the ton should be a breeze.
A coil system replaces the magneto ignition, but the spec is otherwise as it should be. Since our photographs were taken Harwood has fitted a luggage rack, making the car more practical on a journey, as the folded hood virtually fills the narrow tail locker. Hood up, the machine looks ungainly, but once the supports have been unplugged and stowed and the black double-duck rolled up and hidden, the tear-drop profile is remarkably pure. It may not have set the world on fire, but the embers from the Type C concept surely helped to re-spark post-war Aston Martin production.