Good Engineering, Shaky Economics
The story of Aston Martin is that of a company that had always been good at engineering, but shaky on economics. They'd never gone in for limousines or family cars or even cheap middle-class sports cars. Instead, they stuck to the original Bentley
ideal of a fast, powerful, comfortable, beautifully-made touring car. They were obsessed with excellence and any obsession is a weakness. We all know that Aston Martin were obsessed with excellence at high speed. They competed at Le Mans in five decades, in more years than any other British make. They won once, at the tail end of the true sports car era.
Racing At Le Mans
ran a works team for a few years to publicise quality sports cars and sedans. MG
ran a team from time to time to publicise their light sports cars. Bentley and Aston Martin appeared to race at Le Mans for other reasons. Partly for publicity, but also partly because, when you made fine fast cars, this was what you did with them, a kind of reflex action. Aston Martin can be compared with Morgan
too. Both companies became fixed in the mental attitudes of the 1920s. Morgan made few technical advances. They came late to the idea of the pure and simple light sports car, took it over and never changed it. They held the ground everybody else moved on from. Like the French kings, they learned nothing and forgot nothing. They made it work that way.
stuck in the past, technically, and Aston Martin stuck there philosophically. They used sophisticated engines and mechanicals and modern body styles but only to produce slight variations on their chosen theme. They built whatever fast cars the age demanded. They built cars to standards like Rolls-Royce, putting quality first and then setting a price to cover it. Generally the price just failed to cover it. They started at the same time as Bentley and met the same trouble. Both companies were short of capital, building cars with a high unit cost, aiming at a market too small to expand in very far. Aston Martin were luckier than Bentley. Bentley passed their first crisis by enlisting the Barnato millions and driving skill, but when Barnato withdrew it was the end of the line for the true sports racers.
Crisis what Crisis
But the Aston Martin company ran on through crisis after crisis, bloody but unbowed, dodging doom like the hero of a Saturday matinee serial. It's the one car company whose business history makes more fascinating reading than its technical and racing story. The first crisis was World War 1. In 1913 Robert Bamford and Lionel Martin formed a small company to convert the current 10 hp Singer to a car for hill climbs and speed trials. The Singers were a success and Lionel Martin decided to build a car of his own from scratch. Martin's ideal, even then, was a fast tourer which could also be run in competitions. Parts would be specially made and assembled in the Bamford and Martin Ltd works at South Kensington.
Martin made a prototype with a new Coventry-Simplex engine in a small Isotta-Frascini chassis, as a publicity racer. The car was called the Aston Martin, after the Aston Clinton hillclimb where the modified Singers had done well, and nicknamed The Hybrid. It ran in trials in the next few months and won a silver medal at Brighton, but then current events overtook it. Aston Martin plans were frozen for nearly five years. But in 1919 Martin made a second prototype with a similar engine but the planned Aston Martin chassis and body. Both prototypes covered a lot of ground in test runs and races.
Robert Bamford left the company and Martin's wife became his co-director. The factory was moved to West Kensington and two new cars were built to an updated specification, with 1486 cm3 engines to compete in the 11/2-litre class. At the 1920 Brooklands spring meeting, Aston Martins took two second places. Martin went ahead with plans for full production. But race results showed the new prototypes' side-valve engines were getting out of date, and a new engine was designed with a single overhead camshaft and four valves per cylinder.
Count Louis Zborowski
This engine lacked power too. Martin still wasn't selling cars, and he was running short of money. The company was rescued by Count Louis Zborowski
, who paid for a new racing engine design. This was based on half a straight-eight Ballot engine with a 16-valve twin overhead camshaft head, and produced 55 hp and 95 mph in the car. This became the standard Aston Martin engine. It combined high revs with high-speed reliability, using light pistons and con-rods and a stiff crankshaft, all well lubricated. It ran very smoothly and sweetly. The early production cars were pretty, lively, held the road well and handled neatly.
But they cost more than £700 each, when a Morris Cowley two-seater cost £225. The racing team, running on a shoestring, was plagued by minor troubles. It often won in its class or in handicap events, but it never won a major race outright. Martin stuck to his standards and sold about 50 cars before he gave in. In 1924 the Charnwood family bought Aston Martin, and the Hon. John Benson, later Lord Charnwood, designed a new eight-valve engine. The new management made a good show at Olympia in 1925, then decided costs were too high and pulled out.
John Benson, W.S. Renwick and A.C. Bertelli
A receiver was appointed but the company was revived next year by John Benson, W.S. Renwick and A.C. Bertelli. They opened a new factory at Feltham in Middlesex and produced a new car for the 1927 Olympia show. The four-door tourer cost £550 and the saloon cost £675. The prices were still very high, but like the first Aston Martins the cars were meticulously made and finely finished for a discriminating public. They were a little heavy and only about 15 were built. Two works racers were built for the more important sports car events in 1928. Experience with these led to the faster and handier two and four-seater International model. They made 15 cars in 1929 and more than 60 in 1930, before the Depression hit.
The Aston Martin Le Mans
In the early 1930s the company wisely redesigned the International to use outside proprietary components and cut costs. The price dropped to £475 and after one ran fifth in the 1931 Le Mans
race a new body was fitted with a lower radiator and slab tank. This became the Le Mans model. These were classic medium sports cars, square and handsome with long bonnets, folding screens and cycle guards, the front guards turning with the wheels. Two and four-seaters were offered, along with long wheelbase saloons. An Aston Martin won the Biennial Cup at Le Mans in 1932.
Finance was still a problem. In 1933 R.G. Sutherland took over the company from Bertelli and his partners. He brought out the Le Mans Mark II models, and sold two-seater replicas of the works team cars as the Ulster model. The price of the four-seater tourer had crept back up to £640, and the Ulsters went for £750. But like all Aston Martin's previous owners, Sutherland decided it wasn't time yet to lower standards. He decided the company needed to be put on a sound economic basis, and the way to do it was to build a sporting tourer rather than an out-and-out high performance car.
But the first new car under his ownership turned out to be another sports racer, bigger and faster, the two-litre Speed Model entered for Le Mans in 1936.
Le Mans was cancelled, and the Speed Model was developed, or undeveloped, into the detuned 15/98 with the usual range of coachwork. Variations on the two-litre theme lasted up to World War 2. Production got off to another slow start after the war. In 1947 David Brown bought the company before any post-war models appeared. The first of these was a space-frame model powered by a two-litre push-rod engine, which won the Spa 24-hour race outright and was marketed as the Spa Replica in 1948. A version with drophead coupe bodywork
came to be known as the DB1.
Aston DB1s ran seventh and 11th at the first post-war Le Mans race in 1949. Meanwhile, David Brown had taken over the Lagonda company, another veteran of Le Mans in the golden age. A Lagonda had won Le Mans in 1935
when an Aston Martin ran third. The same year the company had been rescued from a threatened Rolls-Royce takeover, and had acquired W.O. Bentley
as chief designer. Bentley had mounted a brisk attack on the fast luxury car market for the next three years. Two Lagondas finished third and fourth at Le Mans in 1939, but the outbreak of war prevented a probable second string of victories for Bentley-designed cars. The David Brown takeover gave Lagonda the chance to produce Bentley's last design, the 2.6-litre car of 1949.
It also gave Aston Martin the chance to put the Bentley-designed twin overhead camshaft, six-cylinder engine in a car of their own. This was the DB2
, which ran fifth and sixth at Le Mans
that year and won the Index of Performance prize. These cars started Aston Martin on a decade of dogged pursuit of racing victories. They won their class in the 1951 Mille Miglia and led to the sports racing DB3 later that year. Three DBS wins in the Goodwood nine-hour sports car race, second place at Sebring and fifth in the Mille Miglia
and second places at Le Mans in 1955
and 1956 made Aston Martin a racing name to be reckoned with.
went through a long development cycle through the 1950s, and the DBR sports racers took over from the DB3s on the tracks. The main target was still a Le Mans win. In 1958
a DBR ran second to a Jaguar, keeping up the tradition of the 1955
DB3s. Aston Martin fielded a works team of three cars for the 1959
race. This time the fastest cars were expected to be the V-12 three-litre Ferraris, with three works cars supported by eight private Ferrari entries. Jaguars made up the rest of the three-litre class, with a private DBR and DB4.
led early in a works DBR, while the other team cars lay back at a steady speed. The private Aston Martins fell out early, a Ferrari took the lead narrowly, and Fairman in the Moss car retired with valve failure. A D-type Jaguar reached second place. Late at night the picture changed. The D-type dropped out with a broken con-rod, one Ferrari burst its engine and the leading Ferrari slowed and let the Salvadori-Shelby works Aston Martin into the lead. The second team car closed up behind it. In the morning a Ferrari took the lead again, with the surviving DBRs second and third and GT Ferraris following. The first Ferrari was building a lead through the morning and looked set for a clear run to the finish. Then its engine overheated, its speed dropped, the pit crew couldn't help, and two laps later it was off the track.
The last two Aston Martins were left safe winners, 25 laps ahead of the next Ferrari. They slowed down to stay the distance and take first and second places. This was the prize David Brown had chased for 10 years. That year Aston Martin went on to win the Sports Car Constructors' Championship, the only British makers to do so. David Brown withdrew from international racing for two years, returned to Le Mans in 1962
with one experimental prototype which dropped out, ran another unsuccessful prototype the year after and then quit racing for good. Team cars were sold and raced privately.
a stroke of luck brought publicity probably as valuable as that from all the Le Mans racers. The directors of the James Bond movie Goldfinger asked Aston Martin to build a specially-fitted car for their hero. Aston Martin took a new DB5 and gave it a retractable "bullet-proof" screen behind the rear window, hydraulic ram overriders fore and aft, rotating number plates, a smokescreen discharging from the exhaust
pipe, swivelling rear lights releasing oil and three-point nails on the road, machine-guns behind the front parking lights, chariot scythes on the wheel hubs and an ejector passenger seat.
The James Bond car eventually weighed 136 kg more than standard, but it would still do 233 km/h. It performed faultlessly during filming, and when Goldfinger was shown Aston Martin was hit by a sudden wave of publicity. Just then the company could have sold 50 a week, but production was limited to 11 a week and most of the benefit passed them by. The four-litre DB5 led to the DB6 with the same engine, then the DBS V8 with a 5.3-litre engine in its later version. In the middle '60s production reached 18 cars a week, efficiency was high and profits started to wipe out some of the overheads.
But then the Chancellor of the Exchequer brought in a new tax hitting company-owned cars. A great proportion of Aston Martins were bought by companies. The order book shrank suddenly and production had to be cut back at once. Aston Martin never recovered. They pressed on with the DB6 and DBS, steadily losing money. A new two-seater shown in 1966
was abandoned after two prototypes were finished. Plans for a Hillman
-based small car, a mid-engined car and a gullwing coupe were considered and dismissed.
David Brown Exits
the company made a loss of £1.2 million on a turnover of only £3.2 million. Sir David Brown's bankers persuaded him his tractors had been subsidising his sports coupes for long enough. He sold out to an investment group, Company Developments, for a reputed £250,000. Company Developments couldn't develop Aston Martin enough. Two years later they were also looking for more cash. At the end of 1974 they looked for a buyer, couldn't find one, and threw in the towel. A line of 80 DBS V8s stood in the silent factory, unfinished and unpainted.
As it turned out, this wasn't the end, or even the beginning of the end. It was just another chapter in the cliff-hanger. Millionaire enthusiasts were rumored to be planning the company's revival. Members of the Aston Martin Owners Club banded in a consortium to save it. An investment group representing Middle East oil interests, busy buying up the rest of England, was reported to be interested. The cars waited in the factory while the financiers wheeled and dealed. Finally a consortium of an American, Peter Sprague, an Englishman, Jeremy Turner, and a Canadian, George Minden, offered the creditors £1.05 million. The deal went through and the production line rolled again.
"I didn't really mean to buy Aston Martin, but I got trapped by the press," Sprague said later. "I couldn't just go home again, so I stayed around to see if it could be done. I couldn't find a rational explanation why the thing couldn't be done." Spraque and his associates, like all Aston Martin's rescuers in the past, immediately decided there would be no drop in quality. They showed this in October, 1976
when they showed the prototype Aston Martin Lagonda
, with computerised gas-plasma digital instruments, a space-age cabin and the standard Aston Martin 240 km/h performance.
Also see: The History of Aston Martin