"We didn't just talk about doing Le Mans, we actually did it"

Robin Hamilton took Aston Martin back to La Sarthe in the 1970s and ’80s, but works support ultimately worked against him…
By Richard Heseltine

The rolling Derbyshire countryside before us stretches as far as the eye can strain, the murky months of spring doing nothing to dampen our host’s enthusiasm. Robin Hamilton is outlining his most recent endeavour: a house build on this very plot. Even in its embryonic stages you have to marvel at the sheer bravery of his scheme, much of the thinking behind its construction being highly original. No wonder, then, that it will ultimately be immortalised on the small screen in Grand Designs. It may be a world away from motor sport, yet this project is very much in keeping with his apparent go-it-alone ethos. First and foremost, this former racer knows his own mind.

“You either have the balls to do something or you don’t,” he quietly intones. “Having said that, I look back on our first attempt at Le Mans
in 1977 with a range of emotions, including horror. I don’t know how we did it with what we had; so much could have gone wrong.” That year, Hamilton’s plucky equipe claimed 17th place overall with a car that began life in 1969 as an Aston Martin DBS V8. ‘Le Petit Camion’,
as the locals dubbed it, was an unlikely racer, but it made perfect sense to Hamilton: making the improbable probable was a central theme in his competition career. That initial bid followed a raft of equally left-field projects and would also lead to him becoming a constructor in his own right. Hamilton was following a long-term plan and anticipated the road ahead would be cratered with potholes.

“As a child I played with Meccano and blew myself up with chemistry sets,” he smiles. “Then I discovered motorcycles. At 16 I was dealing in them, but what started me off was an Ariel Red Hunter. It was crude but I had this idea to develop and race it. I wanted to take something unsuited for a purpose and make it suitable. By the time I’d finished it could hold off a Manx Norton at Brands Hatch.”

Fast-forward to the dawn of the ’70s and Hamilton was facing an unsure future: “After school I did an engineering apprenticeship with the Rolls-Royce aero division and became a service engineer. Then in 1971 Rolls-Royce went bust. I’d built up a side business dealing in sports cars – many of them Astons – so I began concentrating on them. I became an official service dealer three years later and a distributor in 1977. Our place just outside Burton-on-Trent was a real Aston emporium but there was no swank. We just struck a chord with people who liked what we were about.

“From the outset I wanted to do more than buy and sell, so I developed my own DB4GT for club racing. It was a great way of promoting the business but it gradually became more serious so we decided to race something else.” Robin Hamilton Motors’ weapon of choice was the DBS. “Even though it was unsuited to being thrown around it had an engine we knew intimately, so we set about developing that and
the rest of the car.” Bolstered by decent results in clubbies, Hamilton naturally set his sights on Le Mans. Unfortunately, Aston was undergoing one of its periodical downturns so factory involvement was mostly encouragement-based. “They took a lot of interest in our aerodynamic studies at MIRA. I remember saying they should do a special high-performance ‘Le Mans replica’, but it fell on deaf ears. Then the Vantage appeared, which was the double of our car!

“It went through a number of physical
reiterations, too, some of which were ghastly,
but we were learning. I remember one phase
where it had huge downdraught carbs jutting
through the bonnet and spectators loved it.
Ours wasn’t a big company and when you
develop a car in public they will see all sorts of
things. We knew that in some quarters we’d be
slated, but I had already begun formulating a
plan for a purpose-built racing car.”

Hamilton hoped to compete in
the 1976 24 Hours, only to be
scuppered by a budget shortfall,
although he persuaded SAS (a
manufacturer of riot gear) to back his bid for
’77. Now bearing the chassis number RHAM1
(Robin Hamilton Aston Martin), ‘The Muncher’
(its internal moniker, coined because of its
appetite for brake discs) made its international
debut at the Silverstone Six Hours in May ’77.
Sharing the car with Hamilton was former
autocross star Dave Preece, who spun it into the
catch fencing at Becketts during practice. Still,
they were running in the top 10 during the first
two hours of the race before the diff overheated
and flambéed the oil seals. Then came Le Mans.

“We arrived a few days early and
completed building it in the paddock. The
French thought we were crazy but they
loved the Britishness of it all. The organisers,
the ACO, may have turned a blind eye to a
few indiscretions as the name Aston Martin
still struck a chord with fans. We had all
sorts of dramas in qualifying and just
squeezed in, although the team was shattered
from all the night sessions before the race
began. The event itself went well. We ran
out of brake discs but Dave, Mike Salmon
and I adapted and the old car kept on going.
The engine never missed a beat.

“Afterwards there was genuine enthusiasm
for what we had done. The press had
written us off before we got to France so
the sense of achievement was amazing.
We were third in the GTP class but had
we run in Group 5 we would have been
second. We felt a sense of achievement
but it didn’t make us complacent – it
was just a step forward in our plan.
So-called experts said the car was too
heavy, which was obvious, but as Aston
specialists we couldn’t very well race a
Porsche. There were certain features
we couldn’t trim down while staying
within the rules. The only option was
more power, so turbocharging was the
way ahead. We set about it ourselves,
and at times we were getting 800bhp
or more, but the heat build-up was
immense. We couldn’t afford a proper intercooler
system so I knew we were on thin ice.

“We missed out 1978 and did the ’79 sixhour
race at Silverstone as a shakedown for
Le Mans. Derek Bell drove the car with Dave
Preece and myself. We were thrilled to have him
on board and Derek put in some good lap times.
He said it was the only car that could reel in the
Porsche 935s on the straight. We were getting
more experienced and I still think that when we
chopped down the roofline we made quite a
mean-looking car. It was done for aerodynamic
reasons although we found we then had too
much downforce at the front. It was hard work
to drive and not as fast as it could have been.
It overheated and melted a piston early on in
the 24 Hours, and that was that. We did one
more race [Bell joining Hamilton for the 1980
Silverstone Six Hours] but by then we were
concentrating on what became the Nimrod.”

Mention of which is freighted with mixed
emotions. “I’d badgered Eric Broadley at Lola
about working with us on a new car. He could
have taken one look at The Muncher and
laughed – it was a tank, but he could see we
wanted to do it properly and relented. He agreed
to produce the tub and suspension; we’d do the
bodywork, ancillaries and so on. The tub was
wider than normal as we saw the possibility of
a two-seater road-going version at some point. We took delivery of the first one as early
as 1979. We didn’t race it sooner because we
couldn’t afford to, but we developed a lot of
ideas on The Muncher.”

However, the lengthy gestation could have
derailed the scheme, as the premier sports car
class changed to Group C for 1982. “Actually it
didn’t affect us too much,” Hamilton counters.
“We had to redo a few things, but not a lot. It
wasn’t until early ’81 that the project really got
going again. A big catalyst was Victor Gauntlett,
a real Bulldog Drummond character who had
taken a 50 per cent stake in Aston Martin. I
approached Victor within seconds and he was
healthily questioning whether we could pull it
off. It was agreed that we’d run two cars in the
World Endurance Championship, and the US
distributor Peter Livanos also wanted in. The
biggest problem was coming up with a name for
the car. It took days before we arrived at Nimrod,
which is a mighty long-distance warrior.

“A condition to the agreement was that we
had to use engines from Aston Martin’s Tickford
subsidiary, which ultimately became a serious
issue for all parties. We had developed our own
bulletproof normally-aspirated engine; 500bhp
was enough to get started, and we knew how
to obtain 600bhp, but understandably Victor
wanted some works involvement. We tried to
drive the project forwards against real concern
over engine reliability – and we were paying for
the engines. At every stage, at every event or
test, we would encounter problems and it
sapped energy from our team.”

With Geoff Lees, Tiff Needell and Bob Evans
on the driving strength, the factory Nimrod
made its debut at the 1982 Silverstone Six
Hours. And retired when the camshaft top chain
tensioner came loose. At Le Mans, Needell was
running 10th when he suffered a massive crash
following a tyre blowout. Face was saved by a
privateer entry. Lord Downe had received the
first customer chassis (ultimately, five cars were
made), which was entrusted to Ray Mallock to
develop with Richard Williams acting as team
manager. Having risen as high as fourth by halfdistance,
it was seventh by the flag despite
running on five cylinders. “That was an amazing
achievement, although Richard ran his engines
at a more conservative level. We as a works team
used the performance envelope promised to us.”
The season ended as it began, with the factory
squad proving intermittently competitive. The
Downe equipe finished third overall in the title
chase and would repeat the feat a year on. “I
knew by autumn ’82 that we were in trouble.
Livanos had pulled out early in the programme
and poor old Victor was suffering financially.”

For 1983, Hamilton was forced to
go it alone and chose to chase the
Yankee dollar. “The European
season didn’t start until April so
there was no chance of showing what we could
do, but the Daytona 24 Hours was in February.
IMSA was keen to establish commonality
between the US and European sports car regs, so
I went over there and was fortunate to meet the
right people at the right time: we entered two
cars with backing from Pepsi-Cola. If we did
well, we were promised backing for the rest
of the year. Unfortunately, we were using our
last two Tickford engines and both ‘Pepsi
Challengers’ failed. In the lead car, we had the
tremendous pairing of A J Foyt and Darrell
Waltrip [the former also driving the winning
Porsche 935 K3] alongside Tiff [and Guillermo
Maldonado]. We were doing well until the baffle
wrapped itself around the crank: the dry sump
pan hadn’t been wire-locked and fell out [a
similar fate afflicted the sister car]. Pepsi then
dropped us, so I did a few more races on a
shoestring and we were fifth in that year’s
Sebring 12 Hours. Then my bank called in the
guarantees, resulting in me liquidating my
Aston and Citröen dealerships, both profitable
businesses, and Nimrod Racing Automobiles.”

With it died the all-carbon-fibre Nimrod C3.
“That was to have been the culmination of
all we’d learned since the mid-70s.” Hamilton
regrouped and moved away from exotica and
racing cars altogether, turning his attention to
all manner of environmentally-driven ventures.
Nor is he bitter that he didn’t make it further on
the race track. “There are two sides to every
story, but I wish I’d insisted we used our own
engines. A lot of things went on behind the
scenes politically, but I’m sure everyone went
into it with the best intentions. The circumstances
weren’t right and there’s no point dwelling on it.
I know the amount of effort that was invested
by myself and others, and that’s the important
thing. We didn’t just talk about doing Le Mans,
about building a car. We actually did it.”