There is a lovably oddball character to the British motor industry that is epitomized by Aston Martin. While their American cousins quickly produced automobiles in mass manufacture, starting with Ransom E. Olds before the turn of the last century, the British seemed perfectly satisfied to approach car building as a cottage industry. Hammer out a few here, put together a few there, and perhaps build a little bit of earnings into the enterprise. This was the ourlin for many British car builders, from Morgan to Jaguar to MG to Triumph to Aston Martin.
Marking its name
The original Aston Martin partners, Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford, completed the first car in 1914, didn’t register it with the British government until 1915 and didn’t assemble a second car until 1920. Bamford was an engineer and Martin was a driving enthusiast, and both men competed fairly triumphantly in hill climbs, including a famous event at Aston Clinton, which would ultimately give the marque half its name. After campaigning Singers, Bamford & Martin Ltd, as their leisurely automotive enterprise was called, decided to build its own car to race with the best of the breed. As Martin described it, what he wanted to build was “a quality car of good appearance and performance, a car for the discerning owner-driver with fast touring in mind.”
The first car, named unceremoniously “Coal Scuttle,” was produced on a modified Isotta-Fraschini chassis and was powered by a 1400cc Coventry Simplex engine hooked up to a four-speed gearbox. The multi-speed gearing, stout engine, and lightweight of the design helped it achieve a top speed of about 70 mph and, more to the point, an fortunate record in competition. World War I interfered and Bamford & Martin didn’t build another car until Bamford retired. The company was then restructured; Martin assumed control and renamed the company to Aston Martin.
The fights of Aston Martin
In the 1920’s, Aston Martin continued in idiosyncratic ways, manufacturing a few dual overhead cam four-cylinder racing cars that garnered attention in Britain and on the Continent. One model, called with the manly name of “Bunny,” made a 16-and-a-half hour endurance run at Brooklands, setting a global record with an average speed of 76.2 miles per hour.
Though, despite these successes, the company was passed around like a bad cold in the Twenties and Thirties. A.C. Bertelli took over the marque in the middle of the bathtub gin decade, had some racing victories and then passed along ownership to R.G. Sutherland in 1932. More racing wins ensued, but as a commercial enterprise Aston Martin’s progress was mixed at best.
In 1939, Aston Martin developed a prototype that highlighted an independent front suspension and a Cotal electric pre-selector gearbox. But World War II interfered and when hostilities ended, Aston instead produced a less sophisticated version as it wallowed near receivership. Then David Brown became the company’s most financial redeemer. Under Brown’s leadership, an Aston Martin Two-Litre based on the Atom prototype won the Spa 24-Hour Endurance race in 1948, reviving the car’s image. Teamed with another David Brown acquisition, Lagonda, Aston Martin gained new life as the Fifties started.
With production from the two companies newly consolidated in Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire, Aston Martin brass decided to use the 2.6-liter six-cylinder Lagonda engine, which had been designed by the fabled W.O. Bentley, in a revised Two-Litre chassis. The car was dubbed the DB2 and launched to the public in 1950.
The original DB2 was a pure two-seater sports car, but over the years, as the company chased more quantity, it was built as a 2+2 “fixed head” (coupe) version as well. Through the Fifties, the DB2 was continually undergoing tweaks, modifications, and mild re-modeling exercises, becoming the essence of the comparatively new Grand Touring (GT) style of automobile, a car with sports car handling and feel but with a closed body.
By 1958, Aston Martin showed the world what some would call the perfect all-around GT car of its period, the DB4. With a hand-made, all-aluminum body designed by Touring of Milan, the coupe was a lesson in stylish tailoring. Its front end was controlled by a fender-to-fender grille flanked by two round headlights, and its understated version bespoke of sophistication and what we in the U.S. call “class.”
The DB4 was the handiwork of Aston Martin General Manager John Wyer, Engine Designer Tadek Marek, and Chassis Engineer Harold Beach. In keeping with its high-performance profile, the DB4’s bodywork was as functional as it was stunning, built in the “superleggera” manner (Italian for super-light). Fitted on a rigid steel tube frame, the lightweight panels allowed its inventors to keep the car’s weight at a svelte 2800 pounds.
Carrying around that 2800 pounds was a state-of-the-art in-line six-cylinder engine displacing 3670 cubic centimeters (224 cubic inches). The Marek-designed power plant supplied 263 horsepower at a heady 5700 rpm. Peak torque of 245 pound-feet was attained at 4000 rpm. Even though the car’s upright grille gave it the aerodynamics of a shoebox, it still had a zenith speed of some 140 miles per hour. The sprint from zero to 60 miles per hour took some 8.5 seconds, not stellar in today’s terms, but exceptional for a long-legged tourer circa 1959.
As was the norm with Aston Martin, the Aston Martin DB4 underwent regular evolution. Grille and bumpers grew more pronounced. A lighter, shorter, GT version of the original car was introduced, and then the chassis was farmed out to Italian design house Zagato for a complete re-skin in an effort to make the car more competitive on the track. That attempt was largely a failure, but the Zagato-bodied DB4 (of which only 19 were built) is considered by many the most attractive of all the DB series.
In 1964, with the substitution of a 4-liter model of the Marek engine, the car became the DB5. Soon that version was made famous as James Bond’s personal chariot in the movies “Thunderball” and “Goldfinger” . Two years later, the model morphed into the DB6 with a heavily revised Kamm-style rear-end treatment that proposed better rear-seat accommodations. Production of six-cylinder Aston Martins ended in 1973, taken over by the V-8-powered cars.
Through it all, Aston Martin has out-lived practically all of its many owners and prospers today as the ultra-luxury brand owned by Ford Motor Company.
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