The English village of Aston Clinton is best known for a couple of local hills, one with a “magnetic force” that appears to draw cars up its slope, and another that exerts a very real automotive attraction.
A hundred years ago, its name was incorporated into what has become one of world’s best recognized marque badges – Aston Martin.
Beside the roadway climbing Aston Hill, once on the estate of early motoring enthusiast Lord Rothschild, and used for hill climbs from 1904 until the mid-1920s, is a stone plinth bearing a plaque, erected by pilgrims from the Aston Martin Owners Club and Aston Martin Lagonda Limited.
It reads: “Lionel Martin made his first accent of this hill in a tuned Singer car on the 4th of April, 1914. Shortly afterwards, on the 16th of May, at the Herts County Automobile & Aero Club meeting, he was so successful that the sporting light car first registered in his name in March of 1915 was called an ‘Aston-Martin’.”
Martin, and partner Robert Bamford, had launched the Bamford & Martin Singer agency in London in 1913, and Martin drove a “tuned” 1.1-litre, flathead-engined Singer in rallies and hill climbs.
They then decided to create a car of their own, that would be more suitable for competition, and potential sale, but first built a “special” by dropping a 1.4-litre, Coventry-Simplex, four-cylinder engine into a 1908 Isotta Fraschini voiturette chassis.
It was this car, dubbed the “Coal Scuttle,” that became the first “Aston-Martin.” And ultimately, after a delay while the First World War was fought to its bloody conclusion, led to the creation of what would become one of the world’s great, and despite all odds, still-surviving marques.
Bamford departed after the war, but Martin went on to develop the first of a series of prototypes. The first three were broken up, making the A3 of 1921 – purchased and restored by the Aston Martin Heritage Trust – the oldest surviving Aston Martin. It went into production a year later.
Aston Martin, now without the hyphen, had also made a return to competition, and a short-wheelbase version called “Bunny” set speed records at the Brooklands circuit. A pair of Grand Prix racers, one called “Green Pea,” were then built for Polish Count Louis Zborowski, notorious for his “Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang” racers, one powered by an 18.8-litre Mercedes-Benz aero-engine.
By 1925, Martin had sunk a considerable amount of his fortune – the family quarried granite – into Aston Martin's racing and production cars, but managed to build only 50 or so. An injection of capital from Lady Dorothy Charnwood, which secured a place on the board for her son, kept the factory lights flickering, but bankruptcy soon followed.
The company was then restructured, attracting two more of what would become a lengthy list of enthusiastic, if not always farsighted, investors who drove the company from one fumbled fiscal gear-change to another – admittedly while generally enjoying themselves establishing its name as a motoring legend.
The first pair of investors were engineer William Somerville Renwick, who had a newly inherited family fortune at his disposal, and partner Augustus Cesare Bertelli, a successful racer and noted designer, who was Italian born but had grown up in Wales. The pair had teamed up to build a race-car called the “Buzz Bomb” and felt, as had Bamford and Martin before them, the Aston Martin name would give them a leg up as car makers. Bertelli would design every Aston Martin up to 1937.
A degree of financial stability arrived in 1932, according to historian Jonathan Wood, when shipping magnate Arthur Sutherland purchased Aston Martin for his son, R. Gordon Sutherland, who ran it through the 1930s and the war years.
During the late 1920s and the 1930s, Aston Martin established itself as one of Britain’s true sporting makes, competing with success at Le Mans – its 1.5-litre cars sweeping their class in 1933 – at Brooklands and other venues. Profitability remained elusive, however; even in its best year of the era, 1937, it produced just 140 cars.
Tractor-maker David Brown bought the firm for £20,000 in 1947 after reading a for-sale ad in The Times. He added another big name, Lagonda, a year later.
Brown had purchased an empty factory and a prototype saloon car called the Atom, but soon transformed this into the DB1 roadster of 1948, only a few of which were built. He then launched the DB2 in 1950, into a decade in which the Aston Martin name was a force in sports car racing – finally winning Le Mans in 1959, something it did again in 2007 – and even briefly in Formula One.
Always there to spoil the fun was that profitability thing. Brown stepped aside in 1972, and it needed rescuing again in 1975, with Toronto’s George Minden taking on the challenge, and once more in 1981. Then Ford stepped in in 1987, and bought all of it in 1993. In 2007, it was sold to a consortium headed by British motorsport company Prodrive.
After building fewer than 15,000 cars in its first 90 years, it has produced 45,000 since moving to new quarters in Gaydon in 2003. And things appear to be looking up again for this grand old marque, which recently introduced the million-pound-plus One-77 supercar, and last year, a new range-topping Vanquish.
Last fall, European investment firm InvestIndustrial ponied up £150-million for a 37.5 per cent stake, which will help Aston Martin realize plans to invest half a billion pounds in new products and technology in the next five years.
In Canada, Grand Touring Automobiles in Toronto and agencies in Calgary and Vancouver sell 70 or so a year, with prices starting at $130,000 for a V-8 Vantage, $195,000 for the recently upgraded DB9 and $295,000 for the by-order-only, new Vanquish.
|Back in 1913|
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