Aston Martin Ulster
It left Feltham as a semi-works racer in 1935, made its debut on the Mille Miglia, finished eight at Le Mans, went back to Italy – CMC 614’s itinerary was packed one. It still is, as Gordon Cruickshank reports
After I drove all the way to Winchester to view this car, Fred Blakemore told me it wasn’t really his. Yes, the car lives there, but he says he doesn’t feel that it belongs to him so much as just being on loan from Ecurie Bertelli. That’s what having a significant history does for a car. Like a stately home which is part of a nation’s heritage, the object develops a sort of public importance, which has to be respected by its current guardian.
The car? Aston Martin Ulster CMC 614. Ecurie Bertelli? The top pre-war Aston Martin specialists. Fred Blakemore? Current guardian. The link? Derrick Edwards. To anyone in the Aston Martin world, Edwards was a legendary figure. Racer, tuner and generally one of those special characters we don’t seem to produce any more, Edwards was the man behind Aston Martin specialist Morntane Engineering, which begat Ecurie Bertelli, and for over 30 years he raced, tuned, raced, lightened and just kept on racing CMC 614.
In AMOC’s Register of Members’ Cars, an exhaustive listing of individual histories, 614’s race entries go on for page after page, by far the longest in the book. Most of that was with Edwards or his partner Judy Hogg at the wheel; but frankly the car hasn’t had much rest since its first event, the 1935 Mille Miglia.
It’s one of those cats which needs the right owner, so when the time came to sell six years ago, it wasn’t advertised; instead Andy Bell, the guru of Ecurie Bertelli, quietly rang up Blakemore and suggested it was his turn to become guardian. An Aston enthusiast, Fred couldn’t say no. “It was Derrick who got me into racing,” he recalls. “I had an Aston MkII which I took to him to sort, and as it was never quite ready, he would offer me his cars to race. He even let me drive CMC, and even then I thought it was a superb car to drive. It didn’t feel like a pre-war sportscar at all.”
That’s because of Edwards’ constant modifications. Over the years he sat it on small, wide wheels, as everyone was doing then, fitted a ‘bunch of bananas’ exhaust, stiffened the rear springs and dampers outrageously, and dumped the big 25-gallon fuel tank for a 10-lap sprint version, as well as removing every scrap of weight he could, including lights and dynamo, relying on the magneto for racing. The result was a machine which has beaten MG K3s, 4.5 Invictas and supercharged Alfas — not bad for a 1500cc road car.
Blakemore has refitted most of these parts, which Edwards had conscientiously stored, so that today CMC is pretty much as it was in the 1930s. More comfortable, but not so quick. “I can’t match Edwards’ times on the track,” admits Blakemore, “but as well as all the AMOC meets, sprints and hill-climbs, I’ve done two MM retros, and I don’t think I’d have lasted with the racket from that skimpy exhaust and the battering from the hard rear end.”
Those MM retros are especially appropriate for CMC 614, which began its career on that demanding Italian adventure in the hands of E R Hall. It’s one of 21 production Ulsters, built pretty closely to the same spec as the works team cars which had collected the team prize in 1934’s TT (hence the Ulster name), famous in their red livery and LM-series numbers. These lightweight variants of the MkIl Aston had dry-sump four-cylinder 1496cc engines and handsome aluminium bodies with low, mesh-filled radiator shells, and were guaranteed to do 100mph.
Impressive class performances on the TT and elsewhere made this purposeful new Aston an attractive proposition for private owners, which is where Eddie Hall comes in.
With his previous Aston experience, including driving works cars, and predilection for driving British sportscars, Hall must have looked a likely prospect to buy one of the production Ulsters, and the Feltham works prepared 614 for its first outing for him. Sadly, it expired at Siena with an oil leak after leading the class; but a month later 614 lined up for Le Mans with the three red team cars. The works entries were red because the Irish wife of designer AC ‘Bert’ Bertelli was superstitious about green, but the four works-supported private entries stuck with Britain’s racing hue, and it can’t have brought too much ill-luck as CMC, in the hands of Maurice Falkner and Tommy Clarke, finished eighth.
Hall then decided he would take 614 to the Targa Abruzzo, the 24-hour sportscar event through the mountains above Pescara. But when he got there he changed his mind. Count Lurani, due to be his co-driver, later recalled that he met Hall on the road, saying that he hated the hotel and hadn’t had the
welcome he expected, and so he was going home. After a tense three days tracking down Bertelli, on holiday ‘somewhere in Italy’, Lurani got permission to take the car over. He placed third overall on handicap.
That was the last of CMC’s works-backed exploits. Hall never did buy it, concentrating instead on his TT exploits in the unlikely Derby Bentley. Instead, it was sold in 1936 to someone called Ian Porter-Hargreaves, who tried to overcome the small capacity by fitting a Centric supercharger. It didn’t make too much difference; his race results for the next three years are not spectacular. But it did give the car a distinguishing feature: the bonnet bulge to clear the blower is still there, though the unit is long gone.
Just after WWII, Porter-Hargreaves sold the car to McNab-Meredith, another keen amateur who raced it often, including in AMOC’s newly instituted St John Horsfall Meeting commemorating the charismatic Aston racer who had recently been killed. At some point he removed the supercharger; certainly it was no longer blown by 1958. It was from him that Edwards bought CMC in 1963, and began a new and intense period in its track career. Edwards entered the car in any event it could qualify for — sprints, hillclimbs, sportscar races all over Britain, and latterly a range of continental events, which he especially enjoyed.
“He went out almost every weekend,” says Blakelock. “At first he would drive to the events, but as the car became more highly modified he began to trailer it The car even went round the world in a container. He sent it to Laguna Seca, got there with minutes to spare before qualifying, then couldn’t get it to start He repacked it in its container and it went on to complete the journey. His comment was ‘I hope it enjoyed its trip’ .”
Although he liked Ulsters generally — and this one in particular — over any other pre-war Aston, Edwards wasn’t reverential about his old car. Apart from all those speed mods, he also changed its green paint for the dark blue it still carries. Blakemore: “People keep asking me if I’ll repaint it the original green now that Denick is gone, but it’s been blue now longer than it was green, so perhaps it should stay.” Certainly the colour instantly identifies ‘the Edwards car’ now that it once more looks like the other Ulsters.
Once back in road form on 18in wheels, CMC needed little preparation before its new owner set off for Brescia, though Andy Bell remounted the body and tightened everything up. “It flew round didn’t miss a beat.” But then this car has a reputation for reliability. A couple of years ago when a loose wire shorted out the fuel pump, onlookers who knew the car were absolutely amazed: “But this car never breaks down…”
Remarkably, the neat single-cam engine with two SU carbs has not been taken apart for years. It was built up for Edwards by Eckhart Berg, and it just goes on and on.
“Every winter Andy checks the valve clearances,” says Fred, “and every year they’re the same.” Part of this longevity is due to shell bearings instead of white metal and replacing the duralumin rods with steel, letting the unit spin to a heady 5500rpm. In Feltham spec, output would have been an unspectacular 85bhp; Edwards reckoned to be nearing 120, but refitting the cast exhaust manifold will have cut this back notably. The four-speed non-synchro gearbox has a remote change to bring it closer to the driver, who sits almost over the rear axle.
There’s nothing especially advanced about the design for its time; it was merely soundly thought out and extremely well built. Almost the only departure from convention is the underslung tail of the chassis, which is why Midis look so low and purposeful Ulsters in particular, with that tapered lift-up tail sculpted around the horizontal spare wheel. Practical and beautiful.
A competition driver himself, Bertelli laboured to make the cockpits of his racing cars an efficient place to work. Just about every lamp on CMC has a separate switch, which not only boosts reliability but allows for some complex car-to-pits signalling who needs radio? Installments are few (no speedo at all); the throttle is in the middle (perfect for heel-and-toe). But just so you don’t relax, the gear pattern is back-to-front. A flickering ammeter shows that Fred has reverted to coilignition and refitted a dynamo, which lets him use the car on the road, while neatly and invisibly tucked under the seats are two oddment trays which Andy fitted for the MM which just about double the available luggage space. Two quirks: the gear lever is topped by the rubber pull from a lavatory chain, and the cockpit is edged by a split garden hose. But naturally it’s a pre-war hose, put there by Bertelli himself.
Edwards always said that the Ulster was the best-handling pre-war Aston Martin, and Blakemore agrees: “I put its success down to its excellent road-holding. It’s quite heavy Astons always were so it’s one of those cars you have to wind up and then rely on the grip not to give any speed away. But you can take your hands off the wheel at any speed and it keeps going straight.” He’s obviously got it sorted his window-sill carries a row of glass trophies for his successes, and a large silver cup for a class win at Coys towers over the spread of photo albums, books and magazines which chart this warhorse’s history. And there’s even a plastic kit: if any of you built the Airfix AM Ulster, well, it was CMC 614 you finished up with.
Next up are the Le Mans Classic and the British Empire Trophy. And Wiscombe. And St John Hon-fall… CMC may not be out every weekend nowadays, but there’s not much danger of it gathering dust in the garage.