The 1931 Aston Martin team cars

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The Deputy Editor reunites LM6 with LM7 

In 1931 Britain was in the midst of the Great Depression. The motor industry was hard hit, not least the tiny firm of Aston Martin Ltd., at Feltham, Middlesex, whose order book for its expensive, small sports cars was practically empty, the works at a virtual standstill. Against this depressing background, the management of Aston Martin, led by A. C. Bertelli, took a calculated gamble to re-establish solvency; they would build a team of three brand new cars to contest the three major long distance international sports car races in 1931, the J.C.C. Double-Twelve at Brooklands, The Grand Prix D’Endurance at Le Mans, and the Ulster Tourist Trophy at Ards. The cars were to be the ultimate development of the International sports model and, in accordance with Bertelli’s scheme of things, were given chassis numbers LM5, LM6 and LM7, registered HX 4321, HX 4322 and HX 4323 — a Middlesex prefix — respectively. The prefix LM was used on all the 22 1½-litre and 2-litre works racing cars built between 1928 and 1936, the number 13 being studiously omitted. 

All three 1931 cars survive today, a tribute to the durability of those relatively heavy (17 cwt.) works racing cars, whose competitiveness was intended to result from endurance rather than sheer speed. LM5 is in Canada, replete with 2/4 seater body fitted before Crosthwaite used it in the 1933 RAC Hastings Rally. The other two, still with spartan two-seater bodies, reside in England and one sunny day early last month I drove LM7 from its North London haunt to meet up with LM6 at its country home in Huntingdonshire. 

I have Derrick Edwards and Judy Hogg of Morntane Engineering Ltd., Highgate, to thank for organising this delightful brush with Aston Martin history. They pointed me northwards in LM7 armed only with a Nikkormat, notebook, moveable spanner and spare set of plugs. LM7 has belonged to Ted Inman Hunter, ex-Feltham apprentice and redoubtable Aston Historian, since 1959; Morntane store and maintain it. LM6, on the other hand, is in the joint ownership of Morntane and Air Vice-Marshal John Rogers, Air Officer Commanding RAF Training Units, into whose hands it will probably pass permanently at the end of the year. I had hoped to drive LM6 as well, but its Lucas dynamo and magneto, the latter driven off the back of the former by a Simms Vernier coupling, were in transit from Huddersfield, following an overhaul, and manpower had to be used to bring LM6 face to face with LM7 for photography and detail comparison. LM6 shares a garage in Brampton with another illustrious racing Aston Martin, John Rogers’ 1933 Le Mans, which C. M. Anthony drove for the Winter Garden Garage in some 50 national events in the ’30s. 

These racing Internationals related directly to the design for the first post-Bamford and Martin Aston Martin introduced on the eve of the 1927 Olympia Motor Show by the team of Renwick and Bertelli. That is to say they used the R & B 1½-litre, four-cylinder engined allied to a separate, four speed gearbox, connected to the underslung, worm drive rear axle by a torque tube. They were the last works cars to use this layout, being superseded in 1932 by the Le Mans model, with gearbox in unit and an ENV bevel gear axle. Bertelli’s remarkable 1½-litre engine reached its zenith of development in the magnificent Ulster model in 1935. 

These engines had dimensions of 69.25 mm. x 99 mm. and a capacity of 1,493 c.c. in a one-piece cylinder block and crankcase. The eight valves were overhead in a cast-iron, detachable cylinder head and operated by a single overhead camshaft and eccentric rockers. A Fabroil pinion (steel in the later racing cars) drove a jackshaft at half engine speed, which in turn drove the camshaft via a Weller-tensioned, inverted tooth chain. R & B patented the valve layout, in which the valves operated parallel to each other, but at an angle to the vertical, in a Ricardo-style, wedge-shaped combustion chamber, in 1926. The Nitralloy crankshaft ran in three white metal bearings and carried H-section, duralumin connecting rods. 

Bertelli designed a racing version of his 1½-litre road car for the 1928 season. A major difference on the two team cars, LM1 and LM2, was the adoption of dry-sump lubrication, which became a standard feature on production 1½-litre cars with the introduction of the International model in 1929. The engine oil was contained in a tank mounted between the dumb irons, gear type feed and scavenge pumps being mounted in tandem on the front of the timing cover and driven off the jackshaft. One of the low-slung Aston team cars took the Rudge-Whitworth 1,000 franc prize in the Le Mans 24 hour race for being the fastest 1½-litre car in the first 20 laps. Neither car finished. Le Mans was eschewed in favour of the Brooklands Double-Twelve in 1929. Bertelli, designer, constructor and driver, finished fifth overall with Jack Bezzant in a new car, LM3, and the same team finished ninth in the Irish GP at Phoenix Park a few weeks later. LM3 was joined by LM4 for 1930. Both cars were entered for the Double-Twelve. Bertelli/Holder finished fourth overall and second in class with LM4. LM3 retired. Davis was seventh and won the 1½-litre class in the Irish GP with LM4. 

So the 1931 season approached and the decision was made to run a three car team developed from the production Internationals, this at a time when the company was receiving financial help from H. J. Aldington of Frazer Nash, who had been appointed exclusive distributor for Aston Martin through AFN Ltd. These identical cars, LM5, 6 and 7, had spartan, narrow, two-seater, doorless bodies, radiators 2½ in. lower than standard and protected by stoneguards, prominent cowls on the scuttle and long, rounded tails. Their engines were tuned to develop 70 b.h.p. at 5,000 r.p.m. on a 9:1 compression ratio. The suspect Fabroil pinions in the timing gears were replaced by steel. Close ratio gears were fitted with ratios of 12.18 on 1st, 7.57 on second, 5.56 on third and 4.75 on top. The aluminium sleeved, worm drive rear axles, always a troublesome point, were strengthened with steel sleeves. Wider brake drums, of 14 in. diameter, were adopted, with shoes mounted on individual fulcrums. All up weight was just under 17 cwt., helped by extensive use of alloys. 

All three cars were readied for the third Brooklands Double-Twelve, a race swamped with 14 of the new and favourably handicapped MG Midgets. Bertelli and Bezzant, probably in LM6, though there remains some doubt as to who drove which car, of which more later, finished sixth overall and first in class behind five of the little Midgets, covering 1,791. 7 miles at an average speed of 74.65 m.p.h. This was in spite of a broken rocker, “And the accessibility of the valve gear is well shown by the fact that he (Bertelli) was away with a new rocker in place in five minutes”, said the Motor Sport report at the time. Cushman and Gallop, who had replaced Campbell at the last minute, took second in class and 16th overall (1,773.1 miles, 73.88 m.p.h.), but poor LM7 — or was it? — driven by Benjafield and Cook retired in the second 12 hours with piston trouble originated by a broken valve. Nevertheless, it had been a good showing, of vital importance to Aston Martin’s survival, and augured well for the three new team cars at Le Mans. The winners on handicap, incidentally, had been the Earl of March and Chris Staniland, whose Midget covered 1,547.9 miles at 65.62 m.p.h. 

Pairings for Le Mans were Bertelli/Harvey (No. 24), Bezzant/Cook (No. 25) and Newsome/Peacock (No. 26). As a question mark hangs over who drove which chassis number, I will ignore that for the moment. The race started well for the Astons which were in sixth (25), seventh (26) and ninth (24) places after four hours. But as darkness came down, so the troubles began for the Feltham team as the stays for the cycle front wings began to break up and the bolts holding the big Zeiss headlamps, specially fitted for the race, sheared, sending the beams skywards. Bertelli evolved a complex system of knotted ropes, clearly shown in some of our archive photographs, to hold things together. But this was not enough to save Bezzant/Cook, who lost a wing late on Sunday morning and, unable to replace it, were forced to retire under the regulations. With only 1½ hours left to go Newsome and Peacock were forced out too, but the valiant No. 24, driven by Bertelli and Harvey, soldiered on to fifth place overall and first in class, having covered 2,286.393 km. at an average speed of 95.679 k.p.h. 

Next came the Ulster Tourist Trophy at Ards, in which the three team cars boasted power bulges in their louvred bonnet sides to accommodate larger SU carburetters, and fixed front wings and headlamps supported on strong cross tubes. Harvey won the class and finished fourteenth overall at 68.49 m.p.h. with LM5, Bertelli took second in class and 18th overall with LM6 at 66.42 m.p.h., but Cook, in LM7, had persistent carburetter problems, a manifestation of practice troubles which it had been possible to cure on the other cars, but not on his, and had to retire. 

Though it was not the most successful of Aston Martin’s racing seasons, 1931 at least netted three class wins, that of Bertelli at Le Mans qualifying him for the final of the Biennial Cup in 1932, which he consequently won, to the great benefit of Aston Martin prestige. At the end of the 1931 season LM5 was sold off to a private owner, LM6 was used briefly for Villiers supercharger experiments by Henry Birkin and Couper Ltd., was borrowed by Widengren to run in the Swedish Winter GP, fitted with spikes, early in 1932 and was then sold to Mr. and Mrs. White for use in amateur events. LM7 was bought by “Mort” Morris Goodall to begin a new and busy competition life. But first of all it was borrowed by Motor Sport and road tested in the December 1931 issue, the writer being impressed by the car’s balance, braking and acceleration. He saw 86 m.p.h. at 4.600 r.p.m. in top and recalled that the team cars had been timed at 90 m.p.h. on the Newtownards straight in Ulster.

Morris Goodall used LM7 in the major trials over the 1931/32 winter, winning Silver medals in the Exeter, Land’s End and Edinburgh Trials, He and LM7 were left to uphold Aston Martin honour, with works support, in the 1932 JCC 1,000 miles race at Brooklands, when the new works team cars had to be scratched because of a lack of preparation. Alas, they weren’t fast enough to be placed, being flagged off at the end with 388 laps to their credit. LM7 found itself co-opted back into the works team in a shoestring attack on the 1933 Le Mans race, alongside two 1932 team cars, but drivers Morris Goodall and Elsie Wisdom had to retire.

After Morris Goodall disposed of LM7 it passed through a myriad hands, including a new RAF owner practically every couple of months, for sadly obvious reasons, at almost every airfield in southern England during the War. Finally it found appropriate sanctuary in 1959, when Ted Inman Hunter, who had worked on the 1931 team cars as an apprentice at Aston Martin, acquired LM7 from Maurice Rickard and began the long process of meticulous, chassis-upwards restoration. 

LM6 too passed through many hands until Roy Dudley bought and restored it. He raced it frequently. Morntane director Nick Mason acquired it in the mid ’70s and since then LM6 has been campaigned more often than not by Judy Hogg. 

But what of the mystery of which car did what? For many years the AMOC Register attributed LM6 with having finished fifth in the hands of Bertelli/Harvey in the 1931 Le Mans race and LM7 as having been the Cook/Bezzant car which retired. In later years A. C. Bertelli and Humphrey Cook voiced conflicting opinions, which set Inman Hunter to dig deeper. Much cross checking has convinced him that LM7 was in fact the fifth placed Bertelli car. Evidence includes a tag taken from the axle of LM6, which describes it as having been No. 25 at Le Mans, whereas Bertelli was 24. A photograph taken by The Autocar of the three team cars just before the TT, shows the outlines of 24 on the radiator of HX 4323, LM7, and 25 on HX 4322, LM6 (number plates were removed for racing, and while it may be possible that the plates were sometimes appropriated to the wrong car, it seems unlikely). My own studies using the Motor Sport archives, with the photographs of HX 4323, known to be LM7, when tested after the TT, as a base point, tend to confirm Inman Hunter’s findings, a further pointer to come to light being that LM7’s horn push was slightly further up the outside of the scuttle than those of the other two team cars. But doubt still remains as to who drove which in the 1931 Double-Twelve and so far I have been unable to trace Motor Sport‘s photographs of the event to give a clue. 

Inman Hunter’s tag from LM6 also described it as having been no. 30 in the Double-Twelve, which makes it Bertelli’s class winning car, but there are no such pointers to appropriate LM5 and LM6. Whatever, John Rogers and I, on this April day, were confident that between us we had the winner(s) of those two class awards which were so important to the future of Aston Martin forty-nine years ago. 

Begoggled behind the little aero-screen and scuttle cowl, I pointed LM7 north out of London and up the A1, acclimatising myself to the precise, 1½ turns l. t l. Bishop-type steering via the huge, four-spoke wheel with the advance and retard lever dominating its boss. The gearbox has a splendid alloy gate, with reverse stop catch, and a stubby lever surmounted when new, it is said, by a rubber knob more familiar in domestic circumstances. A clutch stop is fitted. The gears are in conventional H-pattern, but rather more difficult to master than the precision gate suggests. Judy Hogg advised semi-double declutching (without blipping the throttle) on the way up and normal double declutching on the way down. Downwards was fine and so was the first to second, but I found the cleanest changes into third and top were made by shifting the lever straight through, without releasing the clutch in neutral. The well worn AM pedals have their accelerator in the centre and heel and toeing is easy. These sporting Astons were always renowned for the excellence of their mechanical brakes and even today their performance and stability is not out of place. Indeed, LM7 felt to have one of the nicest pre-War chassis I have driven, with stable and predictable handling, albeit a bit nose heavy, and commendable stiffness in the chassis. Alas, I could not test fully the reputation of the Bertelli engine, for a misfire caused by a replacement magneto began to interrupt the bark from the Brooklands fish-tail and the tachometer had packed up, but we cruised along happily at 60 m.p.h., imagining the Mulsanne straight unwinding beyond the superbly louvred bonnet and hefty straps. 

John Rogers had hurried back from an official inspection of the Red Arrows to greet us, his eyes lit with enthusiasm as the two famous cars came together for an interesting comparison of how their once identical specifications had varied with time and rebuilds. One major point we knew already: while LM6’s worm-drive axle has survived, LM7’s power is fed through a Le Mans type spiral bevel axle with which Inman Hunter replaced the wide track Lancia Lambda axle fitted when he bought the car. LM6 has been rebuilt to 1931 Le Mans specification with moving front wings and big Zeiss headlamps, but LM7 has the TT -type crosstube, fixed wings and smaller headlights. Both rounded tail sections and 22 gallon tanks with twin fillers seem to be original, but whereas LM6 has the correct large aperture in its top, covered now with an aluminium panel instead of canvas, LM7 retains the little, hinged locker which “Mort” Morris-Goodall fitted for his honeymoon, for LM7 doubled as his road car. At some stage, probably when Rickard had it, a split has been made in the tail to facilitate access to the axle. Inman Hunter paid great attention to accurate detail in his rebuild, right down to tracing a correct Bosch horn in Australia to complete the pairing on top of the 2½ gall. oil tank between the dumb irons, and padding the cockpit sides with split hosepipe. Both have the right dinner plate size speedometer and tachometer, but the facias themselves seem to have been chopped about a little and LM6’s is wrongly positioned almost flush with the cowls. LM7’s pièces de résistance are the original pit signalling code and Bertelli name plate, which Inman Hunter was told to unscrew and throw away when Morris-Goodall bought the car at the end of 1931. The apprentice magpie kept them, to reunite them with LM7 when, by a kind twist of fate, he realised his life’s ambition and bought this famous car so many years later. 

LM6’s engine is reputed to be by far the quicker of the two, in spite of a tell-tale plate welded on the side of the block, having been raced more actively in recent times, while LM7’s is overdue for a rebuild and fine tuning. John Rogers and one of his sons intend to give LM6 a full season of racing in 1980 and Inman Hunter will air LM7 on occasions, to continue the worthy competition careers of these two cars which helped preserve Aston Martin and set them on a path of fluctuating fortunes, to reach a “high” this month with the announcement of the incredible, mid-engined Bulldog. — C.R.