A life well lived

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First raced in 1936 by Dick Seaman, this Aston Martin has a sumptuous pedigree and continues to compete with distinction

It’s not red, can’t fly and doesn’t breathe fire, but ever since one-time owner and proud Welshman Dudley Folland slapped one of his country’s national emblems on the side, ‘Red Dragon’ it has remained. It is one of the most important of all pre-war Aston Martins, the ultimate development of a design whose origins date back to the vintage era. It is also one of the most widely raced cars in the world.

The story of Red Dragon starts in 1936, more than a decade before Folland bought, renamed and reshaped this distinctive old Aston. Then it was simply one of the first of a new breed of Aston Martin, born from the knowledge that the old order of Internationals, Le Mans, MkIIs and Ulsters had had their day. Given that this was the year in which the comparatively space-age, super light and slippery BMW 328 also made its debut, the new car came not one instant too soon.

By comparison to its new German rival, the Speed Model Aston Martin was a purely evolutionary model, different in both engine and chassis from those it succeeded but still very similar in concept. At the full two litres rather than 1.5, the engine was bigger and the chassis beefed up to take it, but the suspension was still staunchly semi-elliptic at each end, the gearbox resolutely free from any kind of syncromesh and the body designed with no more than passing interest as to how its progress through the air might impede
its performance.

The factory built the car later known as Red Dragon to contest the 1936 TT at Ards, with none other than Dick Seaman scheduled to drive. Although not quite the household name he would become when he signed to drive for the Mercedes-Benz team, at 23 years old he was at the time unquestionably Britain’s brightest racing prospect.

Despite the presence of no fewer than three of the dreaded 328s, one driven by Prince Bira, Seaman dropped them all and every other class competitor, storming around the fast and dangerous lap in an unchallenged lead for the first dozen tours of the 14-mile circuit. But then, for the first but by no means last time, engine failure spoiled all chance of the Aston recording the result its pace deserved. Nor was Seaman able to try again the following year: not only would his Mercedes contract have precluded it, but on lap 17 Jack Chambers had lost control of his Riley, piling into the crowd, killing eight and injuring dozens more. The TT would never come to Ards again. Seaman was also to have raced it at Le Mans that year, but strike action in France meant the race was cancelled. Instead the Aston with the catchy chassis number H6/711/U was sold.

In its new life with Dutchman Eddy Hertzberger, the car raced first in the 1937 Mille Miglia and finished second in its class, despite some more engine trouble. Next up came Le Mans, where it retired with another blown motor, while its second Mille Miglia in 1938 ended less happily than the first with, this time, terminal engine failure. It returned to the UK to while away the war in a Glasgow shed before finding its way to the aforementioned Folland, who in turn entrusted it to Monaco Motors to prepare for the 1948 Spa 24 hours.

The name of Monaco Motors might not be familiar, but that of the man who ran it undoubtedly will be. Although John Wyer would go on to be probably the greatest team manager in the history of sports car racing, back in 1948 the Monaco Motors payroll comprised Folland and his wife Joy, Ian Connell (who would co-drive with Folland in the race), Wyer and his wife Tottie. Such were the traditions of the times that the ladies were responsible for cooking and timekeeping, Wyer was team manager and first mechanic with Connell as second driver and second mechanic. As first driver, Folland alone had but one task, which Wyer considered fair enough on account of him being the owner.

In the 2-litre class two opponents were more noteworthy than others. First was a brand-new works Aston Martin in a team run by John Eason-Gibson (whose job Wyer would soon inherit and in time bring Aston the World Sports Car Championship and outright Le Mans win it so craved). This first post-war Aston was a pure prototype, the first car conceived under David Brown’s patronage and the first of a line that would only retrospectively come to be known as the DB1. It had a unique body and St John Horsfall and Leslie Johnson at its wheel. The other car was Luigi Chinetti’s 2-litre Ferrari 166 V12, which not only looked and sounded amazing but would set fastest lap before retiring. Folland was much taken with it.

At first the race went brilliantly for what can now be referred to as Red Dragon. Wyer’s policy of determining the precise speed at which the Aston could safely be driven and ignoring everything and everyone else soon paid dividends as, in typically filthy Spa weather, the car climbed the leaderboard throughout the night, its vast fuel tank allowing it to run four hours between fills. But the works Aston was doing similarly well, too. As the last changes approached, Eason-Gibson suggested the two Astons did not fight each other but worked together to ensure a one-two finish with, of course, the factory car coming first. Folland and Wyer reluctantly agreed, only to see the works car increase its pace to extend its lead. Wyer protested; Eason-Gibson pleaded ignorance. But Wyer reckoned his car was quicker and knew it would not need another fill, the two advantages being enough to cancel out the works car’s half-lap lead.

In the end, however, as Connell pulled away for the last time, the vast fuel tank split, pouring petrol over the rear tyres and causing the car to spin at Eau Rouge, off the track and down a bank into an unrecoverable position. The race was lost, but under the circumstances Connell had good reason to be thankful not to suffer an ending far less happy than this. Two months later the duo took Red Dragon to third at the Montlhéry 12 Hours. The following year Folland was joined by Anthony Heal to race Red Dragon at Le Mans, a dozen years after its debut there, but once more engine failure thwarted the team.

If you look at Red Dragon now and compare it to images taken in its heyday you’ll not struggle to spot that it appears today in somewhat different form. In fact it looks rather more like an early Ferrari than a late pre-war Aston Martin. This is not a coincidence. Chinetti’s performance in the Ferrari 166 at Spa in 1948 had not gone unnoticed and Folland became determined to have one of his own. In January 1949 Wyer and Folland travelled to Italy, met Mr Ferrari and Ingegnere Lampredi and negotiated the purchase of the 166 Spyder Corsa raced by Nuvolari in the previous year’s Mille Miglia. Sprayed green and wearing Welsh dragons, the Ferrari took victory in the Lavant Cup at Goodwood first time out with Folland driving, and he then modified the original Red Dragon’s bodywork into the 166-mimicking form it carries to this day.

We’re at Goodwood today, a place Red Dragon raced in the 1950s, notably winning in the hands of Jack Fairman in March 1952, a somewhat extraordinary 16 years after Dick Seaman first climbed behind its large four- spoked Bakelite wheel.

It’s not as beautiful a car as the Ulster it succeeded, even with Folland’s much improved nose. But it is handsome from most angles, that raked-back radiator giving the car a sense of sleekness and purpose I rather like.

Happily Red Dragon still competes regularly and is maintained in ready-to-race form, so while I need to observe all the usual imperatives about bringing it back in the same number of pieces as I found it, no one is saying only this many revs or that many laps. The owner’s sole stipulation is that no one else is on the track at the same time, which suits me just fine.

It would have been odd to race this car here in the 1950s, among the brand-new XK120 Jaguars and DB2 Astons because, just sitting in the car, it feels even older than it is. The milled aluminium dash, the haphazard spray of Jaeger chronometric dials and vast steering wheel with its manual advance and retard lever would all have been very familiar to those racing in the 1920s. Its base specification seems vintage, too: a simple ladder chassis with semi-elliptic springs at each corner and a simple beam axle at the front.

But signs of progress can be found. The dampers are hydraulic, not lever arm, the pedal layout is conventional, eschewing the centre-throttle design of earlier Astons, and while there is still no syncromesh on the four-speed gearbox, at least the layout is conventional and not backwards like those of its forebears.

Notable too is the amount of space in Red Dragon. I drove an Ulster recently and, while I just about managed to fit, it was cosy to say the least. The Speed Model chassis seems slightly but significantly bigger in every direction.

There’s a bank of switches off to the left: one arms the magneto, two turn on the fuel pumps and the rest deal with the lights and engine fan we will not be needing today. So a couple of flicks and a press of a button later, the Dragon barks its first noises of the day. It’s not a pretty sound, a typical old, mechanical four-cylinder thrash, but it exudes purpose.

It seems silly to say so, but the fact Red Dragon has conventional pedal and gear layouts actually make it harder to drive. My brain has such cars permanently logged into the ‘awkward but interesting’ category for hand and foot operation, so convincing it that this really is no different in configuration from a Ford Fiesta is less easy than you might expect. Every time I have to change a gear or press a pedal I have to remind myself which way to push or pull.

But I have Goodwood to myself, a fairly rare privilege in its own right, and there is time to learn at my own pace. The Dragon is rather vocal, sufficiently so for me to fear it might fling Goodwood’s noise meters into the red, but no one’s waving any flags, so we’ll press on.

The red line on the tachometer says 5000rpm, which sounds conservative to me for a freshly built race engine, but this motor was the primary source of most of the car’s retirements in period. While I am sure all such issues have long since been developed out of it, I’m equally sure that straying beyond this mark comes under the category of ‘unnecessary risk’.

I don’t know how much power it has: I believe it would have been around the 110bhp mark in period, so is probably up to about 140bhp now. It feels pleasantly rapid but the joy of driving the Red Dragon in a straight line come primarily from the gearbox, whose lever flicks around its gate with Swiss-watch precision. Time it right and you don’t even need to double-declutch, but the fun way is to jab the clutch twice while moving your hand as fast as you can. So close are the ratios and so light is the flywheel that changing down requires only the slightest kick of the throttle between gears. It’s a very easy and joyous way of passing time.

But that’s not what’s interesting me most. The faster I drive, the more at home the car feels in its environment. In itself this would not be particularly noteworthy, because most thoroughbred racing cars respond in a similar way, but the Aston’s appetite for corners is unusual, particularly for a conservatively configured pre-war machine.

At first you notice simply enormous reserves of grip. At Goodwood the Fordwater kink is not a corner of any great consideration, the right-hand flick into St Mary’s easy to take flat. I suspect even Madgwick could be tackled without a lift by someone who knew the car well. I’ve raced a direct contemporary here, an MG K3, and it felt like a duck on a frozen lake by comparison. Why? Two reasons, I suspect. First, the car was simply not reaching sufficient speed on the straights to challenge the chassis in the corners – and for that I blame the fact that every pre-war Aston I’ve driven has always felt like it could handle more power, though I also suspect this issue would be dramatically mitigated if I’d used the 6000rpm I’m sure the engine would handle with ease.

Secondly, however, this car handles beautifully. It angles into each apex with an accuracy that belies entirely its age and specification. It appears immune to Goodwood’s humps and bumps and, when you do find yourself in a corner where you can challenge its grip, you find a car that understeers hardly at all, guiding you from the rear in a delightfully, smooth, gentle and easy fashion. I imagine that in the wet, robbed of some of its excess grip, the Red Dragon would not only be fantastic to drive, but also exceedingly quick.

There are few pre-war cars still racing today with as full and interesting a history as this: Le Mans, the Mille Miglia, the TT and Spa 24 Hours: it did them all. Cars raced by Dick Seaman in major events aren’t exactly thick on the ground, either.

A Speed Model Aston Martin doesn’t have quite the same cachet as a works Ulster, nor does it have the same stunning good looks, but to me the back story of Red Dragon, its adventures and the fact its career was so long it was book-ended by Seaman and Jack Fairman – 16 years and one world war apart – makes up the difference. This is a rare and special machine with more tales to tell than entire grids of less illustrious racing cars. Soon it will find itself a new owner and a new chapter to its extraordinary life: let’s just hope it remains as visible and regularly raced in the future as it has in the past. For what it is like to drive now and for those who drove it when new, it deserves nothing less.

Many thanks to Bonhams and John Polson for helping to arrange this test. Red Dragon will be sold at its Goodwood Revival auction on September 10. The guide price is £1.6-2m