Amateur dramatics

Richard Heseltine tells the unlikely story of a used Aston Martin, a car dealer and an attack on Le Mans that, against the odds, ended with a finish

As motor racing's backroom boffins push the technological envelope beyond the sphere of reason, the capital-intensive nature of international competition leaves little room for the smaller players. Backtrack three decades and it wasn't all that different. Just ask Robin Hamilton. With precious little in the way of factory support, this Derby motor trader took it upon himself to restore Aston Martin's presence at Le Mans. And, having stumped up most of the finance with which to build a car, he then oversaw its construction and, ably assisted by a dentist and a semi-retired professional driver, actually made the flag at the 1977 running of this round-the-clock classic.

Some achievement, but that's only part of the story. As Rolls-Royce's aero engine division faced closure in 1971, this former apprentice made the leap to Aston Martin specialist, campaigning a DB4 GT as a means of promoting his business. A year later Robin Hamilton Motors gained factory status as a service agent and soon thoughts turned to campaigning a 1969 DBS V8. Chassis number 10038— reworked to resemble the then-current 'V8' production model — was entered in Aston Martin Owners' Club events in '75 with success, but Hamilton's eye was on Le Mans. Unfortunately, Newport Pagnell's finest was in the middle of one of its customary downturns and wasn't overly receptive to the idea — although it did at least deign to help homologate the model.

"Factory involvement was erratic and patchy," Hamilton says. "There was the inevitable 'not invented here' syndrome from some, and many within the company wanted to be doing what we were doing. However, we had very good personal support from a few key staff members who did all they could either officially or unofficially to help. This was often in the form of suggestions rather than cash. My organisation developed our engine for the 1977 Le Mans race and, from memory, that was with little input from the works. It produced about 480 reliable bhp at 6500rpm and I can certainly remember us designing our own camshaft profiles, pistons, lubrication system etc. My team carried out virtually all our wind-tunnel work at MIRA— one of our major costs — but Aston Martin did join us for one session which it might have paid for."

Hamilton had hoped to compete in the 1976 24 Hours only to be scuppered by a lack of money, although he managed to persuade SAS, a manufacturer of riot gear, to back the project for the following year's event: "Getting sponsorship was very difficult. British industry didn't seem interested and it was mainly private, enthusiastic individuals who contributed towards our costs. With my team being a 'private entrant' I don't think we created a high enough profile and we were perceived as 'enthusiastic amateurs'. Contributions never exceeded probably more than 30 per cent of our costs, the balance coming from myself and my business."

Bearing the new chassis number RHAM1 (Robin Hamilton Aston Martin), 'The Muncher' (it had a healthy appetite for brake discs) made its international debut at the Silverstone Six Hours on May 15 1977, with keen AMOC types chipping in some cash in return for having their names on the rear wings. Sharing the car with Hamilton was dentist and ex-autocross star Dave Preece, who spun into the catch fencing at Becketts during practice. Forced into the Group Five category rather than the expected Group Four, the Aston was up against a militia of turbo Porsches but still put on a good show, circulating in the top 10 during the first two hours: then heat soak from the inboard rear disc brakes caused the diff oil seal to fail. Repairs were effected and the car made it to the finish, but it was too far behind to be officially placed. With modifications to aid cooling of the rear anchors in place, Hamilton was quietly confident for Le Mans. Nonetheless, on being bumped up into the GTP class, RHAM1 faced a tough challenge.

Recruited just a fortnight before the race, Le Mans veteran Mike Salmon was added to the driving strength on the grounds, according to Hamilton, that he "would provide experience and gravitas. This was all consistent with the project strategy and perception of what we were trying to create."

Salmon remembers the car with mixed emotions: "I had no idea what it was going to be like, having had no involvement up until that point. Of course I had raced Astons at Le Mans before — my own DB4 Zagato in 1962 and the Project 214 car a year later — so I was enthused about the idea in principle."

Abusing the scales at 1516kg, RHAM 1 was not exactly sylph-like and was the heaviest car in the race. Even so, after qualifying 56th the team had made up 23 places by six o'clock and, aside from a leaking diff oil tank and cracked front discs, the car's reliability wasn't in question. And it wasn't as slow as many would have suggested. Hamilton: "It regularly pulled 175-180mph down the Mulsanne — and more on one lap. I can remember driving at night and being sucked along by three Porsche 935s. We travelled in a cocoon of air with me at the rear, their turbos glowing. RHAM1's water temperature was soaring but we did reach 188mph."

Not that the drivers had it easy. "It was an incredibly physical car to drive," recalls Salmon. "The French called it 'Le Petit Camion' and, with the power-assist removed, the steering was hugely heavy. And it was very, very loud. The exhausts came out just ahead of one's bottom: it was deafening. I suppose it was one of those tortoise-and-the-hare situations. It just kept going. On the Saturday evening I went off and had a wonderful dinner and then sauntered back to the pits fully expecting it to have expired, but the car was still going round. I suppose one of my abiding memories of that race is the gauges filling up with water during a wet stint which I thought was hilarious — although I'm not entirely sure that Robin did."

At four o'clock on Sunday afternoon, Hamilton drove RHAM1 across the line in 17th place overall and third in class. "The sense of accomplishment was huge," he recalls. "It was a sound finish and we proved wrong all the experts who said we would never get such a large and heavy car to last."

Suitably fortified by this result, Hamilton went for broke for the following year's Le Mans, building a new 800bhp V8 with a brace of Garrett AiResearch turbochargers. Unfortunately, abysmal fuel consumption ruled out competing in 1978. RHAM1's next outing would be the '79 Silverstone Six Hours. By this time, efforts to move it through the air more efficiently had resulted in a three-inch 'roof chop' and a reprofiled nose, the rollcage now forming part of the chassis.

With Preece joined by Derek Bell — with only one Le Mans win to his name at this time — the Aston proved blisteringly fast if fragile. "Derek was a really good all-round guy," says Hamilton. "He brought experience to the table and that is why we were so pleased to have him with us, albeit for a very short time. He said it was the only 'saloon car' he had driven that reeled in 935s as if they were on elastic." After numerous visits to the pits and a small fire they came home 13th, Bell having earlier run in the top 10.

With Preece and Salmon paired up for Le Mans, RHAM1 had the speed but was still far from developed. "It was intended to have the essential air-to-air charge intercoolers but we never got round to it for all sorts of reasons," says Hamilton. "The engine therefore always ran hot and guzzled fuel so we were really up against it. A piston melted early in the race and that was that. Power was immense: we had 800bhp available, but used 650 at Le Mans, with 600lb ft of torque being developed."

Salmon, meanwhile, groans at the memory. "I remember testing it on the Silverstone GP circuit before we went to France and I was amazed at the power. I thought, 'You know, this might be good'. Then the side exhaust burned my ankle and I got a third-degree burn. That, I suppose, summed up my relationship with the car. After all the modifications I couldn't see out of it because of that giant bonnet bulge — you just sort of aimed it between the trees. I also recall the splines on the steering breaking and the glassfibre bonnet bursting into flames. It was pretty desperate really."

After one more outing in the following year's Silverstone Six Hours, in which Hamilton and Bell retired early on with rear-hub failure, the car was mothballed — but not before breaking the World Land Speed Record for towing caravans with a speed of 124.91mph (beating the previous mark of 108). A bizarre denouement, yet somehow fitting.

Last word goes to Hamilton: "The varying levels of support from Aston Martin, the press reaction, the public support and the technical challenges were far more demanding than just building a car and competing. A lot of interest was evident at the time and even now there remains a surprising amount. The story behind the RHAM1 and Nimrod projects (Hamilton's  next venture was the Aston-powered Group C cars) has never been told in its entirety. It's a book — ready for the making..."

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Brute farce -- the DB7 that stumbled in '95

The Aston Martin DB7 was never actually offered with a V8 engine, but just such a car was built for the 1995 running of the Le Mans 24 Hours.

French publishing magnate Michel Hommell, who had run a Bugatti EB110SS a year earlier, commissioned Le Mans-based Synergie to build the car after buying an AMR1 Group C engine from Victor Gauntlett that was reworked by Aston specialist Richard Williams to produce around 620bhp. Featuring a substantial amount of carbon-fibre, the car weighed in at 1330kg.

With journalist and veteran racer Jose Rosinski running the show, great things were expected. Unfortunately, despite the talents of '93 winner Eric Hélary, touring car veteran Alain Cudini and French up-and-corner Stéphan Gregoire on board, the hastily-prepared GT1 car failed to qualify. It now lives in Hommell's wonderful Manoir de l'Automobile museum in Lohéac.