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Pre-war Aston Martin, 1935 - 1938

The Sutherland Era (Part 1)

This period, during which the Sutherland family gradually increased their influence on the company, and the Bertelli brothers correspondingly reduced their input, is known as the Sutherland era. Gordon Sutherland, under some pressure from his father, had instigated a fairly radical review of the structure of the company and how it made the cars. Bertelli had been very proud of the fact that he had designed nearly every component of his Aston Martins (even specifying materials for the few bought in components) but this process had been very expensive. As a result, the cars could never be sold at a price which gave a sufficiently good profit margin over production costs. The Sutherlands understood this completely and were keen for the new model to have many more bought in components and to be far more cost efficient.

One unfortunate consequence of this policy was to affect Harry Bertelli particularly badly. The original concept of the new car was to produce a good quality saloon which would appeal to a much larger market, and E. Bertelli Ltd was given the contract to make the planned for 100 saloons and 25 tourers. However, engineering difficulties (the first saloon was very noisy and had a terrible vibration problem and was almost undriveable) meant that fairly early on, the emphasis had returned more towards open touring cars rather than saloons. A decision by Gordon Sutherland to subcontract out much of the future bodywork was to significantly reduce the order for work to E. Bertelli Ltd, Aston Martin’s in house coach builder. This was bound to affect Harry’s business and although Bert was not directly involved in E. Bertelli Ltd, his wife Vera was a co-director of the company, and Bert decided that he could no longer continue in his position at Aston Martin Ltd and in February 1937 Bertelli resigned.

Without the founder of the company and its chief designer, Aston Martin could have foundered very quickly but for one man, Claude Hill. He had been with the company from a very early stage and his signature can be seen first on the works drawings in the very early 1930s as ‘drawn by’ and later ‘checked by’, so he knew the cars, how they were designed and how they were put together, intimately. He was also a very talented designer and engineer in his own right, and his skills were to be severely tested at a very early stage in the development of the 2 litre cars.

During 1935 he had been designing the 2 litre engine. Funded by a £10,000 injection of capital by Sir Arthur Sutherland, this was not a simple and further stretch of the 1½ litre patterns and tooling, but a completely new cylinder block. It was designed with squarer bore and stroke dimensions, revised water ways and all new ancillaries including cylinder head. Only a very few parts in a 2 litre engine came straight from the 1½ litre ‘Mark II’, amongst them the timing gears and chain, Weller spring, timing chain tensioner and the sump gasket, but precious little else. However when the new engine was fitted to one of the new saloons it quickly became apparent that there were severe vibration period problems between the engine and the chassis. This was probably caused by the type of semi-rigid engine mountings used in what was a long and relatively flexible chassis. Major efforts were required to improve the problem sufficiently to even think about putting the cars on sale. Even then, the saloon was certainly not the quietest and most comfortable car on the market and it was only much later that the problem was completely understood and rectified. The successful modifications appeared on the last few Speed Models just prior to the war in 1939.

The new engine gave 100 bhp after a little development, which was a significant improvement on the 85 bhp of a good Ulster engine at similar revs. It was therefore decided, at relatively short notice, to build two further works racers, to be called the ‘Aston Martin Speed Model’. They were quickly assembled and uncharacteristically, the Le Mans authorities turned a blind eye to the fact that another twenty two examples of a Speed Model, the necessary number to qualify, had yet to be built. However Bertelli had been competing there since 1928 and was internationally renowned, so he clearly did have some influence. In time, the full complement were produced, and the twenty three built eventually included the one off ‘Brooklands Single Seater’ racing car, in effect a narrowed Speed Model.

Unfortunately, the 1936 Le Mans race did not take place, the event being cancelled at the last minute due to industrial action by French workers. Both cars were quickly sold off, one of them to ‘Mort’ Goodall who was to use it very enthusiastically, as intended by the works, both at Le Mans and on the Mille Miglia. Other notably successful Speed Models were campaigned in the hands of ‘Jock’ Horsfall, Eddy Hertzberger, Paul Stallybrass and H. I. Bond-Williams. The Speed Model was a true ‘competition car for the road’ very much in the style of the 1½ litre Ulster, but with a much higher specification chassis, with hydraulic brakes and much more powerful engine.

True to Gordon Sutherland’s direction, a significant number of parts on the new production version touring car, the ‘15/98’, were sourced from outside the works in order to try to reduce costs. The front axle, from Alford and Alder, and the Girling brake assembly were bought in, as was the Moss gearbox. Furthermore, the bodywork for most of the two seater tourers was built by Abbey Coachworks and for the Drop Head Coupe by E. D. Abbot. However, E. Bertelli did build the coachwork for most of the twenty-five long chassis cars including the saloons. There is no doubt that the quality of work on the sub contracted bodies was not quite up to Harry Bertelli’s high (and more expensive) standards, but the cost saving must have been considerable.

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