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Aston Martin Company History

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Pre-war Aston Martin, Birth to 1932

Aston Martin Motors Ltd. (part1)

Having designed and built the new engine as a commercial enterprise to sell to other car manufacturers, some effort was made to develop and improve the new overhead cam eight valve unit. In order to do this it was installed into an Enfield Allday chassis and was badged as an ‘R&B’. Only the one car was produced and was known as ‘Buzzbox’. It covered many thousands of miles testing and survives to this day, the only remaining ‘10/20’ Enfield Allday chassis known to exist.

Coincidentally, Bertelli had been to see the old Bamford and Martin works which were for sale, and which produced the Aston Martin car. He quickly realized that rather than further developing the R&B, or start from scratch with a completely new design with a new name, if he and Renwick bought the Aston Martin name it could give them a considerable advantage. Furthermore, along with what was left of the Bamford and Martin works, they could make good use of the high reputation and considerable competition successes the Aston Martin had been associated with in its relatively short period of production. Lionel Martin had been very good at promoting his Aston Martins and had positioned the car in the market as a top quality ‘gentleman’s sports car’. With a good national and international competition history and some records to its credit, the Aston Martin name had real value.

In October 1926 Renwick and Bertelli duly bought Bamford and Martin Ltd for £10,000 and Aston Martin Motors Ltd was formed to carry on the production of the Aston Martin car. The initial concept was to continue with Renwick‘s idea of producing a high quality touring car and so a completely new motor car was designed from scratch; the ‘T type’.

Produced in small numbers in 1928 and very early in 1929 the ‘T type’, although a very high quality touring car, was not a great success and more effort was put into developing a sports car. The first short chassis ‘Sports’ model was shown on the 1927 Motor Show stand, but was not a completed car. It was constructed from parts from the stores and a prototype twin plug engine assembled on a crudely modified chassis. However, it was dry-sumped, the chassis was under slung at the rear and it had helmet type wings directly attached to the brake back plates; all features that were to be associated with sporting Aston Martins for the next decade. Initially called the ‘Sports Model’, it was later, with slight chassis and running gear modifications, to become known as the ‘International’ and was produced between 1929 and early 1932. By this time Renwick had left Aston Martin to work with Cecil Kimber at MG and then on to Daimler, leaving A. C. Bertelli as the sole designer and taking full responsibility for the whole company. In the September of 1929, Renwick & Bertelli Ltd was sold to Sidney Whitehouse, a wealthy enthusiast. At this time he also invested £2000 in Aston Martin Motors Ltd and a new company, Aston Martin Ltd was formed, with Whitehouse as chairman and majority shareholder. Later in 1931, Lance Prideaux-Brune, owner of the Winter Garden Garages, invested £8000 in Aston Martin Ltd giving the company considerably more financial security. Funding was therefore available to build seven works racing cars between 1928 and 1931. They were campaigned at all the major international events, their success helping to promote sales through the most difficult of economic circumstance; the ‘Great Depression’.

However, through sheer hard work and determination, and with help from his motor industry friends (not least Lady Dorothea Charnwood, Sidney Whitehouse, Lance Prideaux-Brune and later H.D. Aldington of Frazer Nash), the company produced a total of 132 first series cars between 1927 and 1932. The model range included the ‘T type’, the ‘Sports Model’, the short chassis ‘International’, the ‘Coupe’ , the ’Sportsman Coupe’, and a number of long chassis tourers and saloons based on a lengthened ‘International’ chassis.

Most Aston Martins in this period, indeed right up to 1936, sported coachwork by E. Bertelli Ltd. This was the business of Enrico Bertelli, brother of A. C. Bertelli and known as ‘Harry’. He was a talented designer and a marvelous craftsman. He worked out of premises next to the factory in Feltham, but had in fact been working with Bert at Enfield Alldays and was responsible for some delightful bodies on these cars, including some of the earliest closed saloon bodies on light cars. Harry Bertelli had a very good eye for sporting coachwork, and his designs complimented Bert’s mechanical ingenuity to produce what were some of the archetype sports cars of the 1930s. However, a few short chassis escaped to other coach builders, notably Webb, Harrison, James Young and Barker, a couple of which were bodied very similarly to Harry Bertelli’s ‘Coupe’. Of the 132 cars produced, well over 100 are known to exist today, including all of the seven team cars, LM1-LM7.

By 1932, the ‘International’, though a success in many ways, was beginning to show its age. It had largely been designed in the mid 1920s, and with its remote gearbox and worm drive axle, Perrot shaft operated rod brakes, and not least its rather limited cylinder head design, it was clearly lagging behind its competitors.

Sidney Whitehouse, still very much involved in the company (and not always to Bertelli’s approval), insisted that if they were to build a new model it should be easier to make and should include a proprietary rear axle instead of the worm drive unit, and a bought in gearbox in order to at least attempt to reduce costs.

The new car, to be known as the ‘New International’, looked very much like the old model with the rather perpendicular 2/4 seater body, but was an almost completely new car. Claude Hill designed a new and simplified chassis; the brakes were now operated by enclosed cables which could be bolted straight onto the front backplates (negating the costly Perrot shafts), with the handbrake now attached to the off side of the brake cross shaft to the right of the driver. There was a bought in Laycock gearbox, in unit with the engine. True to Whitehouse's instructions, in place of the heavy and expensive worm drive axle, a bought in ENV rear axle with screw cut bevel gears was fitted. The new car was numbered B2/200, a new number to start the new second series of cars. A few of the old style ‘Internationals’ were however still being made and sold in 1932, but compared to the new cars, they were clearly out of date. However, at the same time, a few more sporting cars with low pointed tail bodywork were being developed. Known at first as the ‘Le Mans 2 seater’, and later the ‘Competition 2 seater’, they served as prototypes for a batch of new works’ racing cars, LM8, 9 and 10, which were largely financed by Lance Prideaux-Brune. The new LM team were fitted with an Aston Martin designed gearbox, very similar to the ‘International’ box with sliding dogs and straight cut gears (much easier to modify ratios), fitted in unit with the engine. The Laycock box was very simple to use with easy gear selection, but it was difficult to modify for racing and was never going to be suitable for competition work. More importantly they were also fitted with a new cylinder head and inlet manifold which alone increased power by at least 5 bhp. Electron was used as much as possible in place of aluminium to reduce weight. The new team cars were fast and handled extremely well and were immediately competitive.

A third model was also introduced for the 1932 Motor Show, a 2/4 seater, lower than the ‘New International’, and with the humped scuttle and outside fuel tank of the 2/4 seater ‘International Le Mans’. Built on the new chassis and with the Feltham designed gearbox and uprated cylinder head, this was to become one of the best cars Aston Martin made, and was known simply as the ‘Le Mans’.

In addition, built on a ten feet wheelbase version of the new chassis was a ‘long’ variant of the ‘New International. Marketed as the ‘12/50’ and sold as an open two door tourer or a saloon, it was fitted with the Laycock gearbox and the ‘International’ cylinder head in order to use up old stock. They were ponderously slow and did not sell well. Only twenty seven were made and were not very attractive cars, with the exception of one closed coupe. Built on a long chassis it had the appearance of a stretched version of the ‘International’ coupe specially built for Mr. W. Headlam. With similar low roofline and with the same elegant chrome mouldings, but with helmet wings at the front, it was very much a one off Harry Bertelli design.

The ‘Le Mans’ model first appeared at the 1932 Olympia Motor Show, and represented a hugely important development for Aston Martin. However, Lance Prideaux-Brune a long standing supporter of the firm and who had a considerable financial stake in the company, let it be known that unless substantial orders were taken for the new car, he could no longer justify his continued involvement. Such a withdrawal would no doubt have pitched Aston Martin into yet another funding crisis.

However, rescue was at hand from the Sutherlands, a wealthy family from the north of England involved in the shipping industry amongst other interests. Gordon Sutherland, son of Sir Arthur Sutherland, not only had some college training in automobile engineering, but also had some direct experience running a couple of Aston Martins and had visited the works to have one of them serviced. At the Motor Show he had heard that Aston Martin was still in financial difficulty and went to meet Bertelli at the Feltham works. The result was that in March 1933 Sir Arthur Sutherland bought out Prideaux-Brune for the sum of £10,000 and became the chairman of the company. Gordon Sutherland, still only 22 years old, became joint managing director alongside Bertelli, with particular responsibility for the business side of the company. Bertelli remained in charge of all the engineering development and racing with the help of Claude Hill.

The Sutherlands kept a very close eye on the financial affairs of the company with Sir Arthur attending the monthly board meetings. It was quickly apparent to them that although Aston Martin had an excellent reputation, had achieved considerable competition success, and had already produced the well respected first series cars, at that time production for the replacement of the ‘International’ was almost non-existent. Worse still they had precious little to sell to make any income for the company. It was therefore a very brave decision by the Sutherlands to order 100 of the new second series chassis. At the same time Gordon Sutherland put a lot of effort into finding suitable sales outlets with the required salesmanship for the new production and embarked on an increase in advertising throughout the national and motoring press. Bertelli was also allowed to enter a team of cars for the 1933 Le Mans 24 Hours race, but constraints on time and budget meant that he had to enter two of the 1932 cars, LM9 and 10, and use one of the International team cars, LM7, now owned by Mort Goodall.

The short chassis ‘Le Mans ‘ was to be produced throughout 1933, and with its archetype humped scuttle, outside chromed exhaust pipe and ‘slab’ fuel tank was one of the prettiest cars available at the time and the epitome of a medium sized English sports car.

Later in the year, the company produced the ‘Le Mans Special 4 Seater’, a full four seat version of the Le Mans on a ten foot wheel base chassis. This was a high specification motorcar, a genuine four seater sports car that could seat four adults in comfort and cruise at 70 mph with ease, having an 80 mph plus top speed. Instruments were by Jaeger, and the clever windscreen, never available on the short Le Mans, had side screens which could be detached to use as aero screens when the main glass was folded flat. The whole car had very elegant proportions and was well received.

Between the beginning of 1932, and the end of 1933 a total of five new models had emerged from the Feltham works, and production had doubled that attained between 1928 and 1932. At last the company was looking towards a more secure future rather than a financial abyss that had been the case for most of the history of the business.

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