Aston Martin is 100 years old this year and the celebrations have been going on since January. In the UK, anyone reaching three figures gets a message from Her Majesty, The Queen - so I expect the postman has been busy in the Gaydon area. Birthdays call for a party, which means invites, and that is how I came to be in Central London early on Sunday Morning. The venue was Kensington Palace, a royal residence since the 17th Century, a very agreeable place. It provided a most suitable backdrop for the Aston Martin Centenary Concours.
What was on display? The main collection featured 100 Aston Martins - drawn together through the efforts of the factory, the Aston Martin Owners Club and the Aston Martin Heritage Trust. In addition to this fine effort there were other collections - looking at the marques sporting past, the current model range, significant cars and inevitably the association with 007. Even better, with the exception of the Park Privé enclosure, the show was open to all for free. This made some of London's tourists very happy. Here, I hope, is a flavour of the event....
So where to begin with all of this automotive gold? The answer is obvious, begin at the beginning! Two friends, Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford, took over the workshop of an automotive and marine engineering business, incorporating as Bamford & Martin Limited on 15th January 1913. The location of this fledgling business was, appropriately enough, Kensington. The first actual Aston Martin was produced in 1915, taking the first part of the name from the local hill climb at Aston Clinton, where Mr. Martin had enjoyed some success. The Great War put an end to building any more vehicles until 1920.
The oldest surviving example of the marque is A3 - which was one of three cars built in 1922. This was acquired by the Aston Martin Heritage Trust in 2002 and restored to original condition.
Right from the outset Aston Martins were built with competition in mind. This example, first racing during August 1923, could have no other aim. Razor Blade had a streamlined aluminium body made by the aircraft constructors De Havilland - it lapped the Brooklands circuit at an average speed of over 98 mph! The beginnings of the legend were being written. But…I am not qualified to write a full history of Aston Martin (there are plenty of books on that), this piece is about the cars that caught my eye at the Aston Martin Centenary Concours.
One car that changed the course of Aston Martin arguably more than any other, never even made it to production. The Aston Martin Atom was completed in 1940, but with World War Two intervening and the company switching to war work from 1938, the car remained a prototype. Legend has it that after driving the Atom, Sir David Brown decided to buy Aston Martin and the resources that he put into the company guaranteed its future survival. The Atom is the car on the left, on the right is another significant prototype…the DB2. It was the DB2 that relaunched the brand during the post-war period, and this was also the personal car of the Chairman.
That David Brown was serious about making Aston Martin a success was demonstrated by his acquisition of Lagonda, principally for its state of the art 2.6 litre DOHC engine developed by none other than W.O. Bentley. This now gave the outfit the right powerplant to exploit the excellent chassis that Aston Martin were producing. This special lightweight DB2 was one of five examples entered at Le Mans in 1952. All finished, this one 7th overall in the hands of Reg Parnell and David Hampshire. The three factory DB2s monopolised the podium in the 3 Litre class. The radiator, grill, and lights were colour coded to aid identification - typical of the attention to detail shown by the John Wyer-run race team.
The Lagonda name was still kept alive and produced limited numbers of elegant motor cars, such as this 3 Litre Drophead Coupé.
This pair of DB Mk III one a Drophead, the other a Fixed Head, caught my eye. Their understated elegance just oozes class. This Aston Martin model was the first to have an association with James Bond as author Ian Fleming had the fictional agent drive one in his thriller "Moonraker". It was the beginning of an association that would prove profitable for both parties.
Moving into the modern era is this fabulous DB4 Series 1. Aston Martin enlisted help from Italy to get the styling right, Touring of Milan coming up with the 'Superleggera' alloy body panels.
The Italian influence on Aston Martin would extend with the association of Carrozzeria Zagato of Milan producing this motoring legend, the DB4 GT Zagato. Seen here with another rarity, the DB4 GT, the Zagato is automotive art of the highest order. The bodywork was the design of a 23 year old, Ercole Spada, and only 19 were made at the time.
Two special lightweight versions of the DB4 GT Zagato were built for John Ogier's Essex Racing Stable. The impossible had been achieved, the cars looked even better than the original.
Registered for the road as 1 VEV and 2 VEV the pair have become some of the most popular and well known GTs around.
As we shall see the relationship with Zagato has continued to this day.
The success of the DB2 fleet at Le Mans whetted the appetite of David Brown for achieving outright victory at Les Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans, so he put his hand in his pocket and commissioned the building of a prototype racer capable of taking on Ferrari and Jaguar. The result was the under-powered DB3.
The lessons learnt were incorporated into its successor, the DB3S. This car turned Aston Martin into a serious contender for victory wherever they raced. Second place overall at Le Mans on three occasions, '55, '56 and '58, showed how far the small and thoroughly British sportscar marque had come.
After so many near misses David Brown, John Wyer and Aston Martin enjoyed an Annus Mirabilis in 1959. A one-two at Le Mans was supported by wins at Nürburgring and Goodwood to bring the World Championship for Sports Car Manufacturers to Aston Martin - mission achieved!
So Aston Martin's triumph in France ended their involvement with the Great Race. Well not quite, as three specials were built to race in the GT class - the Project Cars DP212, DP214 and DP215.
Elegant and fast, the results did match the appearance, so Aston Martin bowed out of serious competition for almost 40 years.
It turns out I can't help but share some history (at least where racing is concerned)! We'll continue this story in the next installment...
Get moregreat racing history in John's four-part series on McLaren.