Ecurie Bertelli

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First there was Ecurie Oppidans, then Morntane Engineering, and now Ecurie Bertelli, the latter being the name by which this long running concern dealing exclusively in pre-war Aston Martins is now known. Run by Derek Edwards and Judy Hogg, Ecurie Bertelli is now established as the most widely known company in its field, but its history has been as complicated and as uncertain as that of Aston Martin itself. Parallels could also be drawn in other ways; the move from London to Olney, close to Newport Pagnell, and the fact that the beginning of the company came about primarily through an involvement in racing. I visited the Ecurie Bertelli works at Olney in Buckinghamshire, to talk to Derek Edwards about the history of the company under its various guises, about the sort of work they specialise in and about one or two interesting projects in progress at the moment.

The seeds for what exists today were first sown in 1950 when Derek was running what he describes as “a normal garage, doing normal jobs”. But one customer, a chap by the name of Leslie Marr, had an Aston-Martin International which Derek used to service. One day Leslie brought the car in for a special service to prepare it for the St John Horsfall race at Silverstone. “I suggested to him that I could accompany him to the race and, without pay, act as mechanic for the experience and fun of it. We did this but little did I know that that little speech of mine was to change my life, because at the end of the day Leslie confided in me that he wanted to buy an Ulster. Now he was far too nice a man to drive a hard bargain with a dealer and so I bought the car for him, and got £75 knocked off the asking price of £400.” By way of thanks Leslie offered Derek a ride in his International at a Snefterton race meeting, and gradually an arrangement was formed whereby Derek would work on the two Astons, Leslie would supply the parts, and they would both race them, Derek in the International and Leslie in the Ulster.

They both went on to compete in F1, with Derek as mechanic, and with Leslie driving a Connaught, but at the same time Derek had started to work on one or two Astons for other people. In 1955 Leslie stopped racing, but Derek continued to work for Dick Gibson in F1 and for the Fitzwilliam racing team, running a team of MG A cars. But all this time he would continue working, albeit slowly, on Aston Martin rebuilds, by this time with Judy Hogg, so that when he went into full time garage work with a BMC agency he kept one part of the garage free for Aston work. And thus he established Ecurie Oppidans.

The next step in the evolution of the firm came when Nick Mason, whose Aston Derek had rebuilt, offered the financial support necessary to start a company dealing entirely in pre-war Aston-Martins, and so Morntane Engineering was established. “Judy and myself, and another couple of people who had joined us, concentrated solely on pre-war Astons, making a few spares at first, not very many, but enough to keep us going. The business expanded and became very well known, but eventually Nick was forced to pull out because of other commitments and reluctantly he sold the business to the Japanese. This proved to be a disaster as far as we were concerned, in that Judy and myself could not work the way the Japanese wanted us to work, and it came to a parting of the ways.” By this time the business and all the staff had moved up to Milton Keynes, and so Derek and Judy and all the staff started from scratch, with a loan from the bank. Temporary accomodation was found in Northampton before the company moved in June 1989 to its present premises in Olney.

For all this dramatic and uncertain history one would not suspect that Ecurie Bertelli was so recently established. There is an air of traditional professionalism about the company. The ground floor at the front has a small show room housing about four immaculately turned out cars, and a beautiful twin-cam 16 valve Bamford and Martin engine. The vast workshop floorspace contains some sixteen cars in various stages of assembly and disassembly, but with all loose parts laid out carefully and neatly or stored away on shelves.

The business has expanded significantly in the last year. There are now nine staff plus a driver. They have just added a paint shop, and soon to be completed is an engine test bed, where final tuning and checking will be carried out on all rebuilt engines. It is a company policy during a car rebuild to use as many of the original parts of the car as possible. But if components are simply too worn or damaged they are replaced from the huge stock of spares. “We carry virtually every spare part one could want for a pre-war Aston. We make our own cylinder blocks, cylinder heads, gears, crankshafts, pistons and valves. We carry as spares body parts, chassis parts, braking parts, engine and gearbox parts. If a customer comes to us desiring a crankshaft we can simply take it off the shelf. If a customer wants a cylinder head he has only to give us the correct specification and we will have it machined up for him.” Of course if all this work was done in house it would be prohibitively expensive. The machining is done by a local firm, and the bodies are mostly made by Rodd Jolly. The machining is done from original works drawings, and production is done to a volume that means that the parts are comparatively well priced. A crankshaft will set you back £2000, a set of pistons, or con-rods £300, a cylinder head £1700 and a block £3500.

The type of work undertaken obviously varies according to a customer’s demands and the finance available. Not everyone can afford the £40,000 necessary for a complete rebuild, and so work on a car is often done in parts; the engine one year, the running gear the next. It is the complete rebuilds that the staff most enjoy undertaking, according to the foreman Andy Bell, and looking at the two litre project he was referring to I could understand why. The machine was stripped down to its last nut and bolt, and was in the process of being carefully put back together in best painstaking Aston-Martin tradition. With that sort of work you can really appreciate the fruits of your labour

Andy was insistent that every possible effort was made to retain the originality of the cars. “We are not in the business of producing replicas.” Referring to a sidevalve in the early stages of a complete rebuild he pointed out that all usable parts were being retained, with the ball joints on the track rods and the drag links being the only significant new parts so far. The majority of the work consisted of cleaning, painting and carefully putting back together. The engine for this car was neatly laid out in its component parts on a clean sheet of paper on a work bench next to the car. It is actually being assembled from two engines, but will be a genuine Bamford and Martin unit at the end of the process. It was in surprisingly good condition when the car, which had stood for thirty years, was brought in. As well as the side-valve they are also working on a pair of C types which were acquired last year. Both were bought without bodywork but with all major components present, and they are now being rebuilt. Andy Bell spoke of how complicated a job the making of the bodywork would be, because the C type was such a complicated three dimensional shape.

There is also tucked away in the corner of the garage a twin-cam Bamford and Martin, chassis number 1964, but now with a 16 valve instead of the original eight valve engine. Derek spoke of this machine with particular affection. “It was one of the first cars I raced back in 1950 and it was wonderful. The balance was so extraordinary you could drive it on the throttle alone. You had to, because with an outside brake and one brake cable running around the car, it was an experience in itself to hammer down the straight, come into Woodcote, and put the handbrake on. The most peculiar things would happen that would frighten the life out of you and your competitors. But that car would go around any corner, and you’d say to yourself ‘I’ve overdone it here’, and it would still come out facing the right way. It was a wonderful motor car and that has gone right through the breed. I’ve had a lot of success with Aston-Martins and not because I’m a particularly good driver, but because Aston-Martins are such good cars.” CSR-W

I crossed the Goodwood pits straight, glancing to my right towards the chicane to check that the track was clear. An Aston Martin Lagonda sign stood beside a loudspeaker on top of the corrugated iron roof of the pits building, an unglamorous transporter stood under a tree in the car park, and a pair of legs poked out from beneath the rear of an Aston Matin DB4 GT Zagato. I walked a little further . . . a second pair could be seen from the waist downwards as their owner leaned under the bonnet and peered anxiously at the engine. There was a murmur of conversation; five yards away Roy Salvadori was chatting to a man in a suit. There was a Ferrari behind him. I stepped forward, half expecting myself to ask what his chances were against the GTO that afternoon. Only it wasn’t a GTO, it was a Testarossa, and that ‘plane landing in the background looked decidely modern. That was the thin end of the wedge, a whole host of annoying details now crowded in on me, conspiring to rock me rudely back to 1990: a Peugeot 205, a row of Formula Fords, and even my own camera.

But perhaps things were not so bad. Amidst all this temporal confusion I had noticed one unmistakable detail, about which I remarked as the car was let off its stands and wheeled towards the pits. The Aston had a passenger seat. Sixty seconds later I was squeezed into it, locked into the small space between the dashboard and the battery. Roy got in next to me as the first few drops of rain began to settle on the windscreen. The engine fired immediately, emitting a deep, awe inspiring, straight six growl, the sort of noise that makes your heart beat slightly quicker. The hiss of the Webers, the boom of the exhaust, and the jolts from the firm suspension as we rolled out onto the straight, all slightly numbed my senses until Roy asked me to keep an eye out behind in case any of the other cars on the track caught us up. By now we were close to Madgwick and Roy gave a quick stab on the throttle before lifting off to take the corner. Once safely around, and still with no one behind us, she was opened up again; the bonnet lifted, a tremendous growl came from the engine, and then into fourth. She was, after all, still cold.

And so the first couple of laps went; me looking anxiously behind, Roy accelerating more and more eagerly, but braking early and tiptoeing around the corners. He explained to me that he preferred driving the cars when they were worth a lot less money. This Aston is to be a star of the show at the forthcoming Christies auction at Monaco on May 22nd, and it would not have been wise to dent a corner. But try giving a small boy an ice cream, and tell him not to eat it; the same a racing driver and a racing car. These machines do not make sense unless they are being driven quickly, and Roy was warming up to his task. The braking was left just that little bit later each time around, the engine taken a little higher in each gear, the careful cornering at very safe speeds turned into carefully judged slides and determined acceleration onto the straight. Roy was also becoming more animated; “the great thing with this corner,” he said as we sped over the brow of Fordwater, “was to get the wheel into the dirt on the right hand side, that would hold you in until you drifted across to the far side here,” as he turned the wheel, “for the entry to St Mary’s.” And then, “the brakes are superb on the Aston, you could really leave the braking incredibly late, as late as here sometimes!”. I was sure he had only just put them on.

The conversation died away again. The engine noise had drowned out anything other than shouting, and I had become too involved in the wonderful experience of lapping Goodwood in this superb Aston. We were really beginning to motor now. The engine between 3000 and 6000 rpm had so much torque; I was back in my seat at one moment and bracing myself against the dashboard the next. The handling was superb, especially in a controlled power slide. I particularly remember Levant on one of the last laps with the tail sliding out after the first apex, drifting over to the left and then back across again, lining up the white dot on the tarmac on the second apex, and then the stunning acceleration onto the back straight, all the way up to top revs in fourth, flashing past the slight left kink and then hard on the brakes for the right hander before the chicane.

Madgwick, the long corner after the pits straight was always the best for the Aston. Roy felt that even the GTO Ferraris were not as quick at this point on the circuit. “It was a dream here if you got the car floating sideways with your foot hard down, and then you would correct and re-correct all the way round. You could lift if you were getting any wheelspin, and you could put your foot down harder if there was understeer.” At the exit here the car would drift over to the left under hard acceleration, the wheels would spin, and the engine note rise sharply as the car skipped over a bump in the track, and then we’d be lining up for the blind brow of Fordwater. “The important thing was the engine speed on the way out of Madgwick, so that you could take Fordwater fiat, and then drift way out to the left for St Mary’s where the car was also very good. The first part was very quick but the second half with the left hand turn was tricky because of the awkward camber. It was important to keep to the left and also to back off, for if you tried to go too quickly you ended up being slower. Suddenly you would dart over trying to miss the badly cambered part, and you’d come into Levant where you needed third. Here you’d get the front wheel off the tarmac, and get the back end moving, being careful not to hold it too long or you would lose it. Coming out you would lift off to stop the wheelspin, get the revs down to road speed, and when everything was just right you’d floor it.” With a final and consequently more determined surge of acceleration we rocketed to top speed along the back straight, the track and landscape melting into one greygreen blur of speed, the only point of focus being the arrow of track in the fast approaching distance. We braked for the right hander, accelerated hard for the chicane, braked again, and then with the calm progress that is only possible after the satisfaction of high speed we drifted into the pits.

The Zagato was essentially the same car as the GT that had preceeded it, but whilst the GT had the edge over its main,rival, the 250 swb Ferrari, by the time the Zagato arrived so had the GTO and little could be done to bridge the gap in performance. For all that, Roy feels that the Zagato was an excellent car to drive. “The satisfaction one would get out of driving the Aston was the fact that you could throw the car around and still keep out of trouble. It was a very good car with excellent brakes and superb roadholding. You had to drive it hard and it wanted to be driven hard. You really had to wrestle with the Aston, throw it around and corner with the back end breaking away. Really it just needed more development. We then had the 3.7 engine, but with the engine I had in the project car at Monza which developed more power and torque I think we would have been able to beat the GTO’s.” CSR-W