Aston Martin finally succeeded in winning the Le Mans 24-Hour Race, and the World Championship, in 1959, but to the huge disappointment of British fans David Brown immediately renounced sports-car racing in favour of Formula One, to develop the attractive DBR4 and DBR5 single-seaters which turned out to have already been rendered obsolete by the rear-engined Cooper-Climax. 1989 sees a double celebration, marking not only the thirtieth anniversary of Aston’s big day, a beacon which shines out in motoring history, but also the return of this famous marque to big-time sports-car racing and to the Sarthe.
The company has been through a number of financial crises since the glory days of the Fifties, several changes of management and a physical move from Feltham to Newport Pagnell, but enjoys greater stability today than at any time in its history. That is a tribute to the combined skills of Victor Gauntlett and his unusual Greek friends, George and Peter Livanos, who were prepared to spend whatever was necessary to keep the company alive in the early 1980s. Now Ford has a majority shareholding in Aston Martin Lagonda limited, but has adopted an enlightened “hands off” style of ownership. Gauntlett, a larger-than-life entrepreneurial businessman (but an Aston Martin enthusiast first) has kept the company afloat with his skills of leadership, and shipping-line owner George Livanos has actually agreed to underwrite Aston Martin’s return to big-time sports-car racing, a burning ambition of his son Peter.
The new AMR-1 was due to make its debut at Dijon on May 21 and will therefore race for only the second time at Le Mans on June 10-11 it is far too soon to expect any sort of meaningful result, of course, but whatever happens Gauntlett, Peter Livanos and friends will be celebrating in some style in the company-owned enclosure at Tertre Rouge.
The AMR-1 is powered by a V8 engine originally designed by Tadek Marek and raced for the first time in the Team Surtees Lola T70s in 1967, making it just about as old as the Cosworth DFV.
Aston Martin’s championship-winning straight-six had a very good pedigree too, having been designed by (or under the direction of) W Bentley, at Lagonda in the war years. It was a twin-camshaft design originally with a capacity of 2581cc (78mrn bore x 90mm stroke), yielding 125 bhp, and it was this engine which powered a pair of DB2 saloons to fifth and sixth places at Le Mans in 1950, and to third, fifth and seventh places the following year.
David Brown had bought Aston Martin in 1947 for the sum of £20,500, and a few months later he bought Lagonda as well, enabling him to combine the strengths and talents of both companies. Lagonda’s six-cylinder engine was clearly the principal asset, but Aston Martin had the edge in chassis design.
In 1950 John Wyer was invited to join the company to run the competitions programme, and German designer Eberan von Eberhorst was hired to develop a specific racing chassis for the DB3 model. It had a large-diameter tube construction, a de Dion rear suspension design which was rniles ahead of Jaguar’s live axle in the C and D-types, and inboard rear brakes.
These DB3S cars were light, nice to drive, and stopped extremely well when Girling disc brakes were adopted (at the front in 1954 and at the rear in 1955). Their main handicap, one which remained until the FIA imposed a capacity limit of 3-litres in 1958, was simply a lack of cubic inches. The Jaguars had 3.4-litre engines, and 3.8-litres by 1957, and the extra capacity was always a great advantage along the 31/2-mile Mulsanne Straight.
Aston’s engine was increased to 2922cc capacity (and 147 bhp) in 1952, and development, which included the design of a twin plug cylinder-head, raised the power to 240 bhp in 1955, but it was never quite enough to secure outright victories. Between 1957 and 1959 Marek produced racing versions of the new six cylinder production engine, first at 3670cc and latterly at 4164cc, when it gave 315 bhp; by then it was far too late for the Sports category racing cars, though ideal for the wonderful Zagato-bodied DB4 “Grand Touring” competitors. Success came, eventually, with the DBR1 sports-racing model, with a chassis designed by Ted Cutting in 1955. It differed from the DB3S in having more, smaller-diameter tubes for greater rigidity, and its gearbox was removed to the back axle to improve weight distribution. Two years later the 3.6-litre was installed in the DBR2, a distinctly different model with a backbone chassis designed for the V12 Lagonda-engined racing cars. The V12 was no good at all for racing, but the new generation of DBRs was taking Aston Martin right to the front rank.
By now John Wyer had been promoted to general manager of Aston Martin Lagonda Limited and in 1956 he appointed Reg Parnell (sometimes assisted by his son Tim) as team manager. In 1957 the DBR1 team made its mark in Germany by winning the ADAC’s 1000km of the Nurburgring with Tony Brooks and Noel Cunningham-Reid, and twelve months later Stirling Moss and Jack Brabham repeated the success; the marque followed up with a 1-2-3 victory in the Tourist Trophy at Goodwood. In 1958 Aston Martin finished second at Le Mans for the third time in four years …
An improved version, the DBR1/300, appeared for the 1959 season. Marek had increased the bore to 84mm (the stroke remained at 90mm, and the capacity went up to 2993cc); the cylinder-blocks were light alloy instead of iron, power went up to 260 bhp at 6000 rpm and five-speed gearboxes were used, made by David Brown’s transmission company. In fact the tractor magnate manufactured the racing cars almost in entirety, either at the Tickford works in Newport Pagnell or in his own factories in Yorkshire. It may surprise teams now competing in Group C to know that at Le Mans in 1959 the three DBRs were scrutineered at between 852kg and 861kg (1880-1900 lb) although they were constructed entirely in steel and aluminium, without modern composite materials. Soon, teams would reject the fashionable Borrani wheels because they weighed too much!
As expected, Ferrari’s 3-litre Testa Rossa (250 TR) sports-cars dominated at Sebring in 1959, finishing first and second, and Porsche pulled off its customary 1-2-3-4 victory in the Targa Florio. Aston Martin, though, was on a hat-trick at the Nurburgring, and Moss started the race well by leading the Ferraris. Jack Fairman, his co-driver, had the misfortune to drop the D8R1 into a ditch, and arrived at the pits several minutes late with a huge dent in the tail — caused by his exertions on the rump, — and a red face. But Moss then put in one of his storming drives to catch and overtake the Ferraris of Gendebien/Phil Hill and Brooks/Behra. The gauntlet had been thrown down for Le Mans, in no uncertain way.
Privately, Moss thought Ferrari would win the 24-Hour Race. He admired the trio of scarlet cars and the racing heritage that went into them, and most of all he feared the partnership of Gendebien, the quiet Belgian, and the American Phil Hill. Cliff Allison and da Silva Ramos handled the second Ferrari, Jean Behra and Dan Gurney the third, and there were a couple more Testa Rossas in private hands, too. Ferrari kept its practising to a minimum and all the drivers were in the 4min 02sec to 4min 05sec bracket, a little quicker than Aston Martin’s line-up which included Moss/Fairman, Roy Salvadori/ Carroll Shelby and Paul Frere Maurice Trintignant.
Incidentally the Ferrari V12 engines were revving to 8000 rpm and the cars were pulling 175 mph down the straight, whereas the Aston Martin drivers were allowed 6000 rpm, which represented 165 mph. Tonneau covers were found to give an extra 300 rpm (8 mph) and rear wheel spats 100 rpm (3 mph), these advantages included in the quoted maximum.
Moss was allowed to be the “hare”, and led for the first hour, running laps at about 4min 05sec while his team-mates were told to settle at around 4min 20sec. Behra went by and Moss was then challenged by Gendebien, who refused to be drawn into a race with his team-mate.
The lead battle went on for the best part of three hours without a break, for the teams had to run at least 30 laps without replenishments (fuel, oil or water) and in Aston Martin’s case the cars would run for 35-38 laps before stopping — up to 315 miles at an average of around 115 mph. The first fancied car to fall out was Allison’s Ferrari, the transmission having suffered unduly at his South American codriver’s hands, but before dusk the Moss/Fairman Aston was out too, with fluctuating pressure and power. The post mortem, back at the factory later revealed a chipped inlet valve, probably not caused by over revving, but in any case the Ferraris had been over-stretched and were not running at the pace expected of them.
At 10pm Norfolk driver Jim Russell went off the track at the White House in his Cooper, hit a parked Stanguellini and veered back to the centre of the track in a ball of flame. He baled out, but the track was virtually blocked. Salvadori and Behra made a dash for it and got through safely, and that was the only serious incident of the race. After midnight Behra’s car was in electrical difficulties, with the lights going out regularly, but the quick Frenchman went out to set a 3-litre lap record at 4min 00.9sec before retiring with a failed transmission. Gendebien and Hill were now safely in the lead, a lap ahead of Salvadori and Shelby with the sister-car of Trintignant and Frere tucked up close behind. A pair of Lister-Jaguars which needed watching had both retired with wrecked pistons, and in fact all the 3-litre Jaguar engines, including that of the Ecurie Ecosse D-type (Innes Ireland/Masten Gregory) proved fragile.
Aston Martin’s hopes took another dive when Salvadori heard a tapping noise at the back, and then felt a terrible vibration. He went to the pits, a torch was shone round and he was sent out again. Soon the vibration was unbearable and he stopped again, only to be sent on his way to complete the necessary 30 laps before the car could be fuelled.
He drove seven laps at an average of 61/2 minutes, losing four laps to the Gendebien/ Hill Ferrari, before the scheduled stop was due. And then Reg Pamell had another look and saw that the left rear tyre was in pieces, having thrown most of its tread! A piece of metal had worked its way into the tyre causing all the trouble, and today it seems inconceivable that all four tyres were not changed straight away; Avon had taken a huge supply of spare tyres, 150 altogether for the three cars, but expected to change them only twice in the whole race.
“Seldom in a motor race have I seen so many faces so sad as there were in the Aston Martin pit at 4.30am that Sunday morning,” wrote Stirling Moss in his book Le Mans ’59. “The only thing to do was to settle down and hope that, as two works Ferraris had blown up already, the third one would follow suit.”
Salvadori and Shelby were still second, but there seemed to be no chance at all that the leading Ferrari could be caught. Trintignant, a further lap behind, made an emergency stop with a burned foot, the floor-pan almost glowing from the heat of the exhaust, but, although a message was sent out for reserve driver Henry Taylor to report immediately, the Frenchman changed his mind and carried on with the race.
The Ferrari did crack up eventually, at 11am. Gendebien made an unscheduled stop, came in again a lap later and continued to circulate for another six laps, the Italians desperately hoping that he could reach his 30-lap mark to take on water. No chance though, as a cylinder head gasket had broken.
Now the two Aston Martins were securely in the lead, 200 miles ahead of the third-placed Ferrari 250 GTO of “Beurlys” and “Elde” (there were three more GTOs behind them, recompensing Enzo Ferrari for his defeat).
Trintignant and Frere were allowed to close up to finish on the same lap as Salvadori and Shelby (Trintignant, in fact, showed no sign of slowing down until given the sign “ne passez sal”). The ACO had a final trick to play on the jubilant British team: it failed to hang out the flag at 4pm, awaiting the Index of Performance-winning DB Panhard, and sending Shelby round again at 4.01! But this only served to extend the winners’ 3-litre distance record of 270 miles, at an average of 112.50 mph.
There remained one more race on the 1959 calendar, the Tourist Trophy at Goodwood (only the fifth endurance race of the season) in which the winner took all — Aston Martin, Ferrari or Porsche could have captured the World Championship in Sussex.
Just as Aston Martin won at the Nurburgring despite a nasty setback, so it did again at Goodwood. Moss’ car went up in wall of flame whilst being refuelled, singeing team director John Wyer and others, but the English ace was promptly put into the second car with Shelby and Fairman to win the race. Wolfgang von Trips and Jo Bonnier were second in a Porsche RSK, and the best Ferrari could manage was third place after a troubled race, for Brooks/Gendebien/Cabianca/Allison; Maurice Trintignant and Paul Frere were fourth, but nothing mattered beyond the victory.
After years of toil and trouble David Brown’s Aston Martins did eventually achieve his ambition to win at Le Mans, Victor Gauntlett and Peter Livanos are less ambitious, and hope no doubt that some decent results in the next two years will encourage the Ford Motor Company, or very big sponsor, to go with them into the 3-litre formula. It hardly seems likely that Ford will not have a highly competitive engine, and with the right backing Aston Martin could enter the 1991 season with as good a chance of success as Jaguar, Mercedes or any other manufacturer. MLC