75th Anniversary

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While I was busy thinking of an excuse to bring together and write about an interesting collection of Aston Martins, a certain date passed me by without my thinking it in the least significant. That date was Friday March 16th, and it wasn’t until nearly a week later that Alan Archer, Chairman of the Aston Martin Owners Club, pointed out that it had been the 75th anniversary of the first registration of an Aston Martin on the road. This car was the famous Coal Scuttle, first registered on March 16th 1915, the start of one of the greatest traditions in English sporting cars.

The history of Aston Martin has been documented many times before and it is not MOTOR SPORT’s intention to repeat what has been so well written in so many books on the subject. Instead, considering it is the anniversary of that very first Aston Martin, we thought that it would be interesting to look at aspects of the evolution of the marque, in the light of Lionel Martin’s stated philosophy on the requirements of a high quality sports car. He realised that there was a gap in the English sports car market for a well-made machine that was quick not by virtue of being massive, but by virtue of being light, nimble and meticulously put together.

The Aston Martin was born as a car intended to fill this gap. It was always Martin’s intention to be at the forefront of technology, and in this regard he was in no doubt as to the usefulness of competition. “In the evolution of the sports car of today I have no hesitation in stating that the sporting owner who indulges in public competition work has conferred immense benefits on the manufacturer and designer alike. It is often said, with a fair degree of truth, that the designer produces drawings for cars which can only be handled to the best effect by experts, and that manufacturers sometimes lose sight of the many little problems confronting the owner driver.

“During the course of a single competition an owner driver may gain more experience than would come his way in a year of ordinary motoring; and, therefore I find the policy of keeping closely in touch with all competition events of the greatest importance in our endeavours to keep apace with, if not ahead of, normal progress.” Yet he was well aware that there was more to a successful road-going sports car than out and out speed: “Whereas the racing car has speed as its raison d’etre, many other qualities are called for in the genuine sporting machine . . . speed alone will not bring success to any make of car. Technically there is no reason why sporting cars could not be sold with a guarantee of 150 miles per hour, but no one would be so sanguine as to suggest it could be held on a road at such a speed, or that it could be stopped within a reasonable distance of a crossroad! What is essential, however, on a sports car, is a high average speed, ultra-rapid acceleration, road-holding qualities, and efficient braking. A well-designed sports car with a maximum speed of 75 mph can more than hold its own with a faster machine, which is difficult to hold on corners and hard to retard when travelling all out.”

It was also clear that Lionel Martin intended his cars to hold their own with the very best in terms of quality. Referring to the second prototype he said, “secretly this ‘second edition’ of the Aston Martin was intended to put Great Britain right in the very front as regards light cars and at the time the only challenger was Bugatti.”

It is not often that a marque manages to survive for three quarters of a century and even less often that we have such revealing comments on the concepts behind the car from the original founder. There seemed little left for MOTOR SPORT to do other than to organise a small gathering of Aston Martins representing stages in the evolution of the marque, and in this the Aston Martin Owners Club proved invaluable. At very short notice we managed to gather six cars together, and at what better place than Aston Hill, the hillclimb venue after which the cars were named? (Although many believe that it was Aston Clinton, Alan Archer insists that it was Aston Hill.) The hill itself, lies between Wendover and Tring, and cars that used to compete would line up at the side of the main road between the two towns, before turning left for the short blast up the hill to the finish line. Our convoy of Aston Martins, including the two side-valves present, managed to cope admirably with the quick ascent leaving behind them that wonderful smell of Castro! R, which a trio of motorcyclists coming in the opposite direction wafted eagerly into their helmets. All the cars lined up in order of age in staggered formation in the small lay-by at the top of the hill. They made a fine sight opposite the old finishing line with the Vale of Aylesbury falling away in the background.

We had initially been counting on only one Bamford and Martin side-valve being present, chassis number 1917, and so it was an enjoyable surprise to hear the distinctive gearbox whine of a second side-valver as Neil Murray rolled up in the famous Green Pea. Of course the history of Green Pea, one of the Strasbourg Grand Prix cars, is well known and has been written about in MOTOR SPORT in the not too distant past. The history of chassis number 1917 built a year after Green Pea in 1923 is not so well documented. The car is supposed to have been used for dirt track racing by Victor Gillow, who also drove for and was mechanic to George Eyston who campaigned one of the Strasbourg Grand Prix cars throughout 1923. The engine is number 1924, but it is known that the chassis used to house engine number 1916, which is now in Green Pea. Neil Murray told me that the state of the engine when he bought it certainly indicated that the car had been used for racing. This would also seem to be backed up by the fact that the car was not registered for road use until 1930. It is a short chassis car with the narrow type radiator, and has been mechanically rebuilt by Lt-Col Alfred Archdale with a careful copy of a Strasbourg racer body by Nick Jarvis.

There was little that was unusual in the layout of these early cars, but what was striking and what also impressed contemporary reviewers of the car was the attention to detail, and the fact that so much engineering had gone into a comparatively small machine. Typical of the refinements made were the fore and aft adjustment provided for the pedals, and the fact that the brake and gear levers were splined at their bottom end so that adjustment was possible for each individual driver.

The combination of chassis and suspension meant that the car handled extremely well, and even today it is noticeable how quick it is around corners. It is quite stiffly sprung and has precise steering giving a great sense of confidence in long fast curves. The Motor wrote in a review of the first side-valve in 1921 that it “steers around corners in a compass drawn curve, without any of that tail wag or roll which is occasionally met on other light cars.”

The engine was a four-cylinder sidevalve unit with a capacity of 1,486 cc. It had a balanced hollow crankshaft, drilled connecting rods and Zephyr steel hour glass type pistons. Carburation was provided by SU, Solex, or Zenith. The four-speed, plus reverse, gearbox was a beautiful piece of engineering with a back to front movement like that of a Bugatti. It has been said that the gearbox was based on a Bugatti design. This may be true, but there are many who argue that it is in many ways a superior unit. Even with its long gear lever it is astonishingly quick and smooth. Indeed the faster you move the lever the better the change.

The brakes were Perrot, which Lionel Martin gained the right to manufacture after December 1923. The level of engineering in the gearchange and braking components is typical of that throughout the car, the engine lubrication system being another instance of this. The filler cap is excellently situated, and also very beautiful, and the engine can be very easily drained. In addition opening the oil filler automatically opens the sump overflow tap so that it is impossible to overfill the sump. It was more an accumulation of all these features, rather than a fantastically powerful engine, that made these Aston Martins such excellent and also competitive cars. The side-valve engine produced 45 bhp in sporting tune giving a figure of 54 bhp per ton. The twin overhead camshaft produced 55 bhp. These are not bad figures at all, especially from a 1.5-litre engine and Aston Martins could hold their own against cars of much larger capacity, but they could hold their own because of a combination of virtues. They were exceptionally well made and designed; they were light, and handled well; they had an excellent gearbox and a reliable engine and were pleasing enough to drive to attract some of the best drivers of the day.

The third car present at our anniversary gathering was built a decade after Green Pea. Two contemporary road tests, one in MOTOR SPORT, the other in The Autocar, praised virtually every aspect of the Aston Martin Le Mans. “The Le Mans model embraces in a high degree the features of high mechanical efficiency, roadworthiness and ability to stand long periods of full throttle; all this with a silence and refinement of handling which makes it an ideal dual purpose car.”

The engine was once again a fourcylinder unit and of very similar capacity, 1493 cc. Aston Martin no longer used side-valves, and this unit used a single overhead camshaft, with two valves per cylinder. It developed 70 bhp at 4750 rpm, and the car weighed almost exactly one ton, giving a bhp per ton increase of 16 over the side-valve.

Once again the lubrication system was excellent, contributing to the reliability of the engine. The Le Mans used a dry sump system, the supply being carried in a tank between the front dumb irons. This ensured a more than adequate supply of oil, at a reasonable temperature, which was supplied to the engine through a pressure filter that stretched the entire length of the cylinder block.

The stiff chassis and flat underslung semi-elliptic rear springs resulted in excellent road-holding, and combined with the excellent steering and braking ensured that the performance of the car could be used to the full, and bore out Lionel Martin’s opinions on the subject almost ten years previously. The level of refinement and the care with which the car was put together had lost nothing over the first Aston Martins, and was also very much in keeping with Lionel Martin’s ideas on the virtues of a sports car. It was hand assembled to very fine standards, down to such details as polishing the tubular ends of the front axle, and parts supplied by outside manufacturers were stripped and carefully reassembled.

In terms of styling the Le Mans was a change in so far as it was a move with the times. It had a lower and more compact look than its side-valve predecessors. It was also more angular, and its 18″ wheels gave it a less spidery look. Of course ‘styling’ as such was not really an issue with these cars it being more a process of form following function.

For our meeting at Aston Hill Jim Young was kind enough to bring his 1932 competition two-seater Le Mans. This car is chassis number D2/203 and was the third chassis of the second series of Bertelli cars. The first owner of the car was R Shuttleworth. It was fitted with LM8’s discarded body (LM8 was a works racer) and was raced in the 1932 TT from which it retired. (Coincidentally Green Pea had also been built as a TT car ten years previously, although she never got as far as competing.) It competed pre-war at Brooklands, Donington and at various speed events, and also in the 1936 RAC rally driven by Cyril Mann.lt is now driven by Jim Young and his son.

Our anniversary line up now takes something of a quantum leap to 1959 and the very last of the DB MkIll cars. This DB MkIII drophead is owned by Andrew Hodge, and was the last MkIII built. It is chassis number AM/300/3/1850. It has a DBD competition specification engine, and it holds the lap record in class for a standard Feltham car at Curborough.

The period between 1947 and 1959 is seen by many as the heyday of Aston Martin. Certainly the first post-war cars retained all that was traditionally good about the Aston Martin marque; they were small, fast and unpretentious. In addition Aston Martin still saw it as necessary to develop its cars for competition, and placed as much importance on this aspect of their activities as Lionel Martin had done in the Twenties. Most of the great sports car races fell to Aston Martin at some time during these years, most notably Le Mans in 1959 when Salvadori and Shelby drove to victory.

The DB MkIII introduced in 1957 represented a change in styling from the DB 2/4 MkII that had preceded it, and a return to the smoother lines of the early DB 2. Of course styling had changed dramatically from the cars of the Thirties, but the DB MkIII also maintained the clean lines that had always been characteristic of Aston Martin.

Mechanically the DB MkIII represents an equivalent change from the pre-war cars. There were significant differences, but the Aston Martin was still what it had always been intended to be; representative of the very best in engineering and standards of manufacture. After the war Aston Martin had moved away from the four-cylinder engine configuration. The DB MkIII engine was a development of W O Bentley’s six-cylinder twin overhead camshaft Lagonda unit, and it produced 162 bhp at 5500 rpm. This engine was further developed for a limited number of cars, of which the DB MkIll drophead present at Aston Hill was an example, and this special series fitted with triple Weber or SU 1 3/4 carburettors produced 195 bhp. Since the DB MkIll weighed 25 cwt this gave a bhp per ton figure of 129.

The partial marriage of Aston Martin with Lagonda had perhaps given rise to slightly increased emphasis on luxury in the line of David Brown cars. Certainly the DB MkIll was a luxurious machine compared with its pre-war ancestors, but even so it had not unduly compromised its essentially sporting character. It was still a very taut machine.

When Aston Martin introduced the DB MkIII they had already started work on a car that was to succeed it, and by 1958 the company had produced a prototype of the DB4 for the London Motor Show. It was a very different machine from the MkIII and was symbolic of a fundamental turning point: the works moved to Newport Pagnell, and the engine for the DB4 was the work of Tadek Marek, the company’s new chief designer. While both the engine and chassis were developed along traditional Aston Martin lines, the change was in the move away from what was primarily a sports car, even in the MkIII, to a luxury sports machine. Opinions will always differ as to the exact significance of this change, but it is probably best seen as a development in the manner that Aston Martin had always developed; it was a considered and subtle move with the times. After all the company’s aim was to stay at the top of its particular sphere of the motoring industry.

The chassis, designed by Harold Beach, was a steel platform, and the bodywork designed by Touring of Milan was built to Superleggara principles with the aluminium panels built over a framework of steel tubes. The engine was a light alloy unit of 3670 cc, with twin overhead camshafts, and two 2″ SU carburettors. It produced 240 bhp at 5500 rpm and so the car had a bhp per ton of 179. The increase in power demanded a new clutch and transmission and the gearbox featured many heavy duty features such as extra wide teeth and anti-friction bearings.

The race-developed suspension consisted at the front of wishbone, coil spring and anti-roll bar. The rear consisted of live axle with trailing arms and Watts linkage. Beach had initially wanted his new chassis to incorporate a de Dion rear axle, but this idea wasn’t introduced until the DBS. Even so, the suspension as it was endowed the DB4 with excellent road holding abilities. The brakes were disc front and rear and were servo assisted.

Aston Martin was maintaining its tradition of building a high quality sports car, although the finished product was by now quite far removed from the side-valve cars of the Twenties. It was removed in the sense that the DB4 could not really be said to be an equivalent of the nimble and uncompromisingly sporty machine that Lionel Martin had first envisaged. And yet the more one ponders the difference the less significant it seems to be. Lionel Martin, after all, was catering for the market demands of the early Twenties, in just the same way as the DB4 did for those of the sophisticated Sixties. The cars still continued to live up to Lionel Martin’s desire for there to be a British sports car that was a good performer in the all-round sense, and he also stated quite clearly that the demands of a road-going car were often different to those of a racer. Indeed, a significant number of side-valve tourers were built, and conversely the DB4 did make a racing car to be reckoned with in the form of the DB4GT. The DB4 was also as beautiful and well made as Aston Martins had always been.

Jeffery Archer’s superb DB4 was the second six-cylinder representative at our Aston Hill meeting but we were still short of a V8. Aston Martin themselves kindly relieved the situation by offering to bring along a Virage, and so we were delighted to bring our line of machines right up to date. In fact the cars at Aston Hill really were representative of first to last because Green Pea is the oldest surviving Aston, and those six machines spanned some 68 years of motoring development.

The Virage is the first all new Aston Martin since the late Sixties, and as such is a very significant step in the evolution of the company. Victor Gauntlett himself stated that it was important for the car to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and it was intended to be a logical development of the tradition created in the DB4. Certainly it reflects Lionel Martin’s concept in the same way that the DB4 did. It is not small, and at 35 1/4cwt weighs over twice as much as the side-valves at 16 cwt. On the other hand it is an example of the best in its sphere, in the same way that the side-valve was. Moreover Lionel Martin was a man interested in development, and as such I’m sure he would have been fascinated and not a little surprised by the Virage, for without being at all sanguine one can suggest that it is possible for a vehicle to travel at 150 mph and stay on the road. The engine is a 5.4-litre all-alloy fuel injected twin overhead camshaft V8, and it produces 330 bhp. This is some 90 bhp more than the DB4, but the bhp per ton is only slightly more at 187.

The brakes are disc all round, with aluminium calipers. The front are ventilated while those at the rear are outboard to improve cooling. Front suspension is with upper and lower wishbones, and co-axial spring/damper units and anti-roll bar. Rear suspension is de Dion located by triangulated radius arms, and Watts linkage, with damper units and dual rate springs. Stylistically it is a return to the clean lines of the DB4, and as such lies firmly in the tradition of Aston Martin styling. The radiator intake, swoop of the bonnet, and elliptical shape of the cockpit are all reminiscent of previous Aston Martin designs.

The brakes, suspension, transmission styling and interior all combine to put the Virage alongside the best in the luxury sports car sector of the market. It is a machine compliant with radical Aston Martin philosophy in most important respects. It is a machine of extremely high quality that has been hand assembled with meticulous precision. It is fast, has superb brakes and road-holding abilities. Yet it is also a move away from the original concept of the Aston Martin along the lines of development that were established with the DB4. As I have said, the market has changed since Lionel Martin conceived his high quality sports car that was to put Great Britain at the forefront as regards light cars, and manufacturers as well as following tradition have to adapt in consideration of that market. The fact that every Virage to be made up until 1994 has already been sold would seem to suggest that Aston Martin has adapted wisely.

However there is always room for conjecture, and with the ever increasing prices of machines in the supercar bracket I suspect that there are many around who might welcome the appearance of a light sports car built to the standards that we are used to from Aston Martin. A two-litre, front engined, rear-wheel drive, hand made, British Racing Green sports car . . . I think that it would be welcomed like a breath of fresh air. CSR-W MOTOR SPORT would like to thank Aston Martin and all those who were kind enough to bring their cars along to Aston Hill.

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