Motor Sport visits a North London haven for pre-War Aston Martins
The sensation for A.C. Bertelli when he visited the North London premises of Morntane Engineering Ltd. last year must have been akin to travelling back in a Time Machine, to those sometimes fraught days at Aston Martin, Feltham, where his fertile brain produced that classic series of 1 1/2-litre overhead camshaft AMs between 1926 and 1935.
The Morntane premises at 1-8 College Yard, NW5 (01 -485 2376), entered from Highgate Road via an unprepossessing narrow alleyway just wide enough to take a trailer, are lined almost wall-to wall with Berteilli products of that bygone era. On that day last July, as Bertelli sat once again behind the big, four-spoke steering wheel of LM6, the Aston Martin International two-seater works team car, his mind must have traversed the mists of time to another day, forty six years before, when he and Harvey drove that self same car for twenty-four rigorous hours at the Sarthe, to finish sixth overall in the 1931 Le Mans race.
Here, in this quiet London backwater, not far from Kentish Town tube station, Derrick Edwards, well-known for his exploits over more than twenty years in an Aston Martin Ulster, administers to the needs of pre-War Astons, with particular emphasis on the 1 1/2-litre Bertelli cars. He is assisted by two mechanics and, on the administration side, by Judy Hogg, herself a good mechanic and capable competitor in Aston Martins.
The controlling interest in Morntane is that of Nick Mason, an Aston Martin fanatic who, with his wife Lindy, has made a successful impact in AMOC and VSCC events over the last couple of years. Mason’s quiet, unassuming character belies the fact that he is the guiding light and drummer in what more musically knowledgeable colleagues inform me is the World’s leading progressive rock group, Pink Floyd, formed when the members were up at Cambridge together. When not on tour, Mason splits most days between Morntane and his recording studios (he is a leading record producer and consultant too), for he is an active and enthusiastic participant in Morntane’s activities.
At this point I must dispel any impression that here a wealthy pop star star dabbling in motor cars for light relief. In Mason’s case the motoring enthusiasm definitely came first and the money earned from music became a fortunate means of satiating his appetite and love for motor cars. He grew up in a motoring atmosphere, for his father is VSCC member Bill Mason, the maker of those superb BP motoring films, who raced a 4 1/2-litre Bentley and a BMW 328 and made a classic film of the Mille Miglia from the co-driver’s seat of a Ferrari.
Mason avoids the pop star trappings of Rolls-Royces, Countachs and Boxers in favour of, to him, more esoteric motor cars. Heading his Aston Martin list are no less than three works team cars, LM6, the aforementioned International two-seater, LM 21, the Aston Martin Ulster which Rose-Richards drove to eleventh overall in the 1935 Ulster Tourist Trophy and which Motor Sport tested in the October 1935 issue (the photographs which accompanied the test of LM 21 Were of LM 19, the Martin car, which retired) and LM 18, the Penn-Hughes sister car, which finished fifth overall in the TT, 12th in the 1935 Le Mans race (Elwes/Morris-Goodall) and was recently rescued from France. He has retained his first Aston, a 1930 International, bought for £150 when he was a student. Lindy Mason has an immaculate 1934 Le Mans, ALN 211, the car which Anthony drove to a fourth in class in the 1934 RAC Rally. Her husband has to look to his laurels since Cindy caught the Aston Martin bug: as well as numerous racing successes in her first season last year, she won outright both the VSCC Madrasfield and AMOC Knebworth concours with this active Le Mans.
The Mason enthusiasm does not end with Aston Martins. His Jaguar D-type, XKD 516, one of the production cars, is believed to be the lowest mileage, most original D-type in existence. There is Ferrari enthusiasm too: his coveting of a 250 GTO was satisfied recently by acquisition of the ex-Ecurie Francorchamps car, third at Le Mans in 1962 and registered “250GTO”; he has a lovely 275GTB 4-cam; and an ex-Jacky lckx Daytona road car. A Bugatti Type 35B is being rebuilt for him currently by Tula Engineering (who were also the source of his 35 C.C., Type 35 replica miniature Bugatti!). The light-blue of his ex-Johnny Claes, 2-litre A-type Connaught looks alien in the Morntane workshops, where it is being rebuilt by Connaught expert Edwards, hopefully in time for Mason to campaign it this season.
The arrival of the Connaught completed an uncanny parallel for Derrick Edwards, whose connections with motor racing began in 1950, preparing and racing Aston Martin team car LM 15 and an International for Leslie Marr, like Mason a former Cambridge student, and continued as mechanic on Marr’s F1 and F2 Connaughts as far afield as New Zealand and Australia. When Marc retired, Edwards joined Dick Gibson, firstly to prepare Connaughts and later his F1 and F2 Coopers. BRDC member Edwards raced the F2 Cooper in South Africa. Most of his racing, however, has been over more than twenty years in his famous Aston Martin Ulster war-horse, CMC 614. This car was built for the 1935 Le Mans race, in which Falkner/Clark took it to eighth overall. It retired in the Mille Miglia (Hall/Marsden), but won its class in the Targa Abruzzo, Pescara, that year, driven by Lurani/Strazza.
Mason and Edwards first met five or six years ago when Mason asked Edwards to rebuild his first Aston Martin International. The business and rapport between them grew to the point where Edwards sold his own garage and dealership to help form the specialist Morntane Engineering nearly two years ago.
The decision coincided with revived interest among enthusiasts for pre-War Aston Martins, underrated for a long time, according to Mason. At last people are realising that Aston Martins are worth money and are beginning to renovate them properly. But as fast as the cars are appreciating, the cost of engineering and obtaining parts for them is-shooting up too, by no means a syndrome unique to Astons. Understandably, the car most in demand is the marvellous Ulster, but as only 18 of the original 21 survive, they are more than a little difficult to obtain, and very expensive. Thus the demand shifted to the other desirable Bertelli 1 1/2s, the Le Mans, the International, even the heavier Mk II, with resultant price escalation and increasing scarcity of these models on the market. With their non-availability, demand is shifting to the 2-litre cars, which Edwards assures me can be made to go quite fast. This increasing interest in 2-litres has brought with it a greater need for spares, and Edwards and Mason are extending their spares stock of original and newly-manufactured parts to eater for these models.
No restoration and overhaul concern can hope to succeed if spares aren’t available. To look after their own workshop needs as well as to offer an off-the-shelf service for other customers, Edwards and Mason have amassed a large stock of Aston spares, mostly for the Bertelli cars. Sources of most original spares have dried up, so the alternative has been to manufacture new parts, mostly in association with Bill Elwell-Smith, of Ruislip. Their perhaps optimistic aim is for complete availability of all parts. One thing for sure is that demand for spares will continue: like Rolls-Royces, old Astons have found it very hard to die and most of them survive, including a couple of hundred or more Internationals. Fortunately, the AMOC acquired most of the old patterns and gave them to Elwell-Smith, which has saved considerable problems.
New castings manufactured include cam covers, flywheel housings (until 1932, the gearboxes were separated from the engines) and finned alloy sumps with gauze plates for the dry-sump engines. Cylinder blocks are not available though the possibility of making them is being explored, and some of the other larger castings are unavailable too. Instruments present another difficulty, though most can be renovated. Reciprocating engine parts are not such a problem: new crankshafts, con-rods and pistons are available. Although four oversizes of pistons are stocked, Edwards prefers to fit standard-size in conjunction with new stepped liners, which seal better and stiffen the block. Various modifications were made to the reciprocating parts during the production life of the 1 1/2 litre Bertelli engines: the Morntane parts are designed to be interchangeable between all the engine types. All the pistons are high compression, so customers rebuilding low compression engines obtain a power bonus. Other essential engine bits and pieces stocked include valves, rocker arms and timing gears. Fortunately for owners of 2-litres, the timing gears are suitable for their engines too. Crankshafts, pistons, rods, valves,springs, guides and camshafts are also available for 2-litres.
Obscure parts stocked, which owners restoring Astons in detail will appreciate, include knurled knobs, flip-top radiator caps, brake gear and cables, wing nuts, mudguards and stays.
Although the aim had been to restrict renovations to Bertelli cars, Morntane have not drawn a strict line. A DB 1 from Switzerland was a recent interloper and provoked Mason to remark ruefully that Morntane have acquired some 2,000 gaskets for DB 15 and only 15 production cars were built! Cars for renovation have come from far afield and include a Le Mans and an International fromJapan. On a reverse theme of distance, Morntane trail cars to Scotland for re-trimming.
Edwards’ most interesting curent project is the reconstruction of a 1922/23 Aston Martin Grand Prix car, the third he will have rebuilt out of the six in existence. The other two he rejuvenated are the only GP Astons active in events. Of the remainder, Razor Blade is in the Harrah Collection,.another resides in the National Motor Museum and one disappeared into Switzerland some time ago. A remarkable story lies behind the Morntane GP car: they acquired the lovely twin-cam engine in the chassis of the Halford Special, clothed with a monstrous two-seater body. Meanwhile, another enthusiast had a GP Aston chassis fitted with the Halford engine and he wished to rebuild the Halford Special. A mutual exchange of bits was arranged! Edwards had previously built two GP bodies for eventualities, so the “kit” was thus complete. He is quick to point out that the result will not be an historic car, but a collection of genuine mechanical parts, all of which were raced in different GP Astons.
Morntane Engineering Ltd. is something of an anachronism, a unique specialist Aston Martin enterprise born out of the unlikely world of modern music. Thanks to rock music and Nick Mason’s motoring enthusiasm owners of pre-War Astons can be assured of keeping thcir wheels turning indefinitely. —C.R.