Astons in the blood
A trip to Surrey uncovers a cache of Britain’s finest, and a man with a fund of knowledge
I’ve read about Aston expert Richard Williams over the years but hadn’t met him until a motoring friend took me along to the eponymous firm he runs in Cobham, tactfully camouflaged behind suburban bungalows. R S Williams has been tuning, restoring and improving Astons since the 1960s, but came to prominence in our world with the Nimrod and Proteus sports-racing projects, when the Aston wings appeared on the Group C circuit. Brave attempts both, but ultimately there just wasn’t enough in the kitty to defeat the likes of Porsche.
Williams was team manager for both, having gained race experience running Aston enthusiast Viscount Downe’s DBR1 and Project 212, and though there are no GpC machines in the workshop now, there is a 32-valve AMR-1 motor on a stand and plenty of pictures on the walls of those glorious times. Racing continues, though; the firm recently ran a GT4 AM V8 for Michael Mallock (“We’d love to run a GT3 programme”, says Richard) and regularly takes famous racing Astons to the big historic meets like Goodwood, while club and historic racing and even rally prep are a steady diet. RSW has prepared the same DB5 for two Peking-Paris rallies, and there’s a lovely model of it in the workshop. This elegant grand tourer may look out of place in the Mongolian desert, but it got to Paris without trouble. And it’s for sale here in the showroom.
With so many years fettling these cars the firm is proud of its upgrades: they do head modifications with their own flow tester and offer big-valve conversions. Capacity uplifts too: pistons for the 5.3-litre V8 aren’t made any more says Matt Farrant as he shows me a block on the bench, “so why wouldn’t you have the 5.7 upgrade? More power and mpg.”
Three people oversee each engine build, and owners get a dyno printout from the firm’s own test cell. Two Vantages are here for the 7-litre workover, which requires a lot of block reinforcing. “Ten welding rods go into each block,” Matt says. They’ve had Prince Charles’s V8 here too, changing its diet to green fuel, and there’s been a run of LPG conversions. “But it’s all bolt-on, so it can be removed. We try to do that with all our work.” The aim is that upgrades should not be apparent. Originality matters too, and the firm’s staff will rebuild rather than replace where they can. Mind you, they can build from scratch too – as well as being able to machine up unobtainable parts, RSW built the Sanction II DB4 Zagatos on behalf of Aston itself.
Passing a lovely DB3S coupé and a 4GT that has had a full restoration plus a 4.7 engine job (there’s a road/race car you could really enjoy), there’s a change of gear – a maroon Austin 12/4 tourer. Known as ‘Old Min’, it was Peter Sellers’ favourite vehicle, and Williams maintains it for the estate. After his apprenticeship with Aston – “I’m so glad my other application to AC didn’t come up!” – Richard worked for car-loving Sellers, living above the garage as he fettled the actor’s fast-churning fleet of Ferraris, Minis, Bristols and other exotica, and every year holds a Sellers lunch for employees and family. In 1968 the actor helped him found his business, originally in Brixton, so he has been dealing with these models – and often the same cars – since they were new. It was at Brixton that the racing kicked in, leading to the Nimrod and later the ambitious AMR project, through Hugh McCaig whose Ecurie Ecosse team was Aston’s partner.
“A great era,” says Williams, praising arch-enthusiasts Peter Livanos and Victor Gauntlett who kept Aston afloat, in racing and in the news. “Victor is sadly missed, an admirable man.” While Team Nimrod finished third in the ’82 WSC standings, a fourth place at Brands was the high point in AMR’s single fraught year, but links continued with RML and Ecosse – on the wall there’s a shot of a C2 Ecosse winning at Brands while Williams was team manager.
A quiet man who needs to be drawn on any subject, he was known for his unflappability in the pit lane.
Away from the engine departments there’s a DBS with its insides hanging out as an up-to-date sound system goes in (and will still look period). Electronics don’t scare the team – they even make new ECUs for Eighties models. Most of this, though, is out of sight behind a showroom that always has some prime Astons to tempt buyers. Having grown up with Bond I still see a DB5 or late cowled-lamp 4 (there’s a beauty here, ex-Gauntlett) as the ‘proper’ Aston, but as values soar even my fantasies must readjust. Looking inside a DB6 I realised how much more useable this longer four-seater is. And as the man said, why wouldn’t you have the bigger engine, the handling upgrades, the heftier brakes…
Never do the sums about your classic’s running costs – it’s rarely going to be cheerful news
Shock discovery: my Mk2 Jaguar costs 36.24p per mile to run. That’s fuel alone! I learn this from the results of Cirencester CC’s Corinium Run, part of the HRCR Scenic Tour series which keeps me occupied while I try to figure out how to calibrate my new tripmeter ready to tackle something a bit more challenging.
On top of the normal tulip route, the Corinium includes a sealed-tank consumption test and sends all entrants over a weighbridge to calculate a mysterious Efficiency Number, though in the end it hardly matters as there is no real competition element. (Grossly unfair, as I correctly estimated my terrible mpg to within 0.1 per cent – surely that’s worth a large gold cup…)
On another event I do, the Cotswold Economy Run organised by Lin Hon and Peter Baker (the indefatigable pair behind the Retro-speed.co.uk historic motor sport website – they seem to get to every event around Europe) the challenge, apart from staying on route over some fantastic hidden back roads, is to correctly predict your thirst. There are no prizes for actual frugality, otherwise a BlueMotion Polo would stomp all over even a modest Moggie 1000 driven with an eggshell throttle foot.
Both events are a long way from the Mobil Economy Runs which got a lot of press in the 1950s and ’60s, yet with oil reserves foremost in our thoughts it’s surprising we haven’t seen a high-profile equivalent. Astonishing mpg figures are racked up by slippery specials in the Shell Eco-Marathon, and there is a ‘hypermiling’ community who try for best road mileage, but I don’t know of any major road-car competitions.
Those Mobil events were big news in the US, where makers vied for a win, and were a popular challenge over here too. We reported them a lot, as they were often planned by WB’s friend Holly Birkett, and there were even drivers who specialised in this field. WB himself managed 83mpg in 1954, though that was in a 375cc Citroën 2CV with tyres pumped hard, carb leaned off and lots of coasting. But such competitions died away in the ’70s with repeatable laboratory mpg figures, which though far from realistic were at least standardised.
A couple of years ago, on a previous Corinium Run, I bumped into Stuart Turner, erstwhile head of BMC and Ford motor sport. Piloting a Zephyr from the Ford fleet, he was full of enthusiasm for resurrecting the economy run. In the ’60s he was often involved with them, and believes there’s room for a modern version – it might help improve the car’s moral standing.
But in the early Mobil runs top-gear crawling and engine-off coasting were winning techniques, with averages often way below 30mph, on the era’s less crowded roads. Later events banned these tricks, requiring on-board observers and routing cars over climbs like Shap and Wrynose Pass, which made things more life-like. Now, hybrids and eco-specials are so far removed from petrol cars, and roads so packed, that it’s hard to see how you could realistically compare current production vehicles – let alone greedy old Jaguars.
Faves in the wood
Traffic stops for classic cars in North London
If you’d like to mix shopping with cars, you could roll over to London’s St John’s Wood on June 22, when the High Street will be closed for the second Classic and Supercar pageant. You’ll be able to see some spectacular cars, including Moss’s 1961 TT-winning 250SWB Ferrari, a rare ex-Mille Miglia alloy 300SL, a Muira SV that once belonged to Rod Stewart and many other classics, while a funfair and Birds of Prey display should entertain the children. The event raises funds for two children’s charities.
On the subject of SWBs, Ross Brawn has recently purchased a famous Rob Walker example for a reported £7m-plus. Contrary to some reports, his is the 1960 TT winner no2119, not Clive Beecham’s ’61 victor no2735. Which I’m glad about, as having taken it up to Ullapool for a story and later had a blood-stirring passenger ride, I have proprietorial feelings towards 2735.
What we’d blow the budget on this month
Bentley 3/4 1/2
Almost as old as our magazine, this 1926 car unusually retains its original VdP body. A 41/2 engine was fitted in 1953; recent rewire and paint, now has overdrive and hydraulic brakes
Austin Mini Cooper S
A no-expense-spared inside-out restoration to original road spec with all correct parts. Big-valve engine, 98bhp at wheels. Invisible upgrades means it feels better than new
Ford Cosworth RS500
Now that touring cars are part of the historic racing scene, this is what you need to enter. Recommissioned in 2012 and refreshed last year, this ex-DTM example is ready to go