It was the sort of day that Herodotus would have written about in The Histories, possibly in a chapter called The Elephantine Rainspouts of Silverstone. Except this was Monday, June 10, the day the skies opened and stayed open; the day we tested a 1935 Aston Martin Ulster, chassis LM18.
“Works fine in the workshop and on the rolling road, and then this,” grumbles Ben de Chair, amiable motor engineer from Ten Tenths, the historic preparation specialist owned by Nick Mason, Pink Floyd’s head of syncopation.
This old red charger, an ex-works car, veteran of the 1935 Le Mans 24 Hours and the Ulster TT, had spluttered into life in the pits at Silverstone, only to fracture its oil pressure gauge pipe and pump out a fair slick from its dry-sump tank.
De Chair sets to, with spanners, water-pump pliers and a plastic takeaway curry box having a grand second life holding copper washers.
Fortunately it’s too wet even for the normal testing of modern Astons and the company’s chief engineer Matt Becker is holding a meeting in the dry.
You know it’s boring because when CML722’s cracking, rasping exhaust note rattles the pit doors, hardened testers raise their heads like gundogs pricking their ears at the crash of a 12-bore. (Heaven knows what these old cars do with petrol; they seem to tear it apart, noisily ravaging its hydrocarbon chains, leaving no bystander untainted or unthrilled.)
Robert Blakemore, MD of preparation specialist Ecurie Bertelli (which Mason, along with Derrick Edwards and Judy Hogg, founded as Morntane in 1976) explains the idiosyncratic controls: centre throttle, reversed H-gate for the exposed four-speed gearbox, dashboard spattered with tiny instruments whose meanings are not entirely clear - and there’s no speedo.
A railwayman’s lever on the steering wheel advances and retards the ignition (early engine management) and there used to be a quaint arrangement between the clutch pedal and the oil filter which jiggled the filter’s plates around when the clutch was depressed; these days the car has a proper full-flow system.
It also has a more reliable points and coil ignition, too, though still sports a magneto just as it would have done at Le Mans in 1935, where it was driven by Jim Elwes and Mortimer “Mort” Morris-Goodall into 12th place. Contemporary reports call this 58-entry classic 24 Hours “the race of the floods”, so there’s symmetry there.
The car had all sorts of little idiosyncrasies so it could be recognised through the murk from the signalling pits; the side lights are mounted on the narrow scuttle and the headlamps can be switched individually so the driver can signal back.
It was raced fairly consistently until the Second World War and a bit afterwards. Edwards found it semi-derelict in Normandy, France, and he and Mason bought it in 1977 and restored it. The only non-original panel is the coal scuttle-shaped rear panel, which hides the horizontally mounted spare wheel; the original panel was damaged in the 1935 Le Mans race. These days it’s owned and raced by Mason’s daughter Chloe, so it’s her we have to thank for the chance to drive it in such biblical weather.
It’s easy to dismiss these bicycle-winged, vintage noisemakers as old crocks, but there’s some really clever engineering in there. The chassis is underslung so the car sits low on its wheels; the cockpit is deep, again to reduce the centre of gravity. On this later car the bonnet slopes downward towards the front to reduce frontal area. Its Hartford friction dampers might not be the last word in absorbing shocks, but each has its own aerodynamic buttress behind.
The long-stroke engine is also more than just a side-valve plodder. Displacing 1,495cc, it has a chain-driven overhead camshaft mounted on an inclined wedge-shaped cylinder head with pocketed combustion chambers similar to the ideas of engine design genius Harry Ricardo. With twin Skinners Union carbs, customer cars produced 80bhp at 4,750rpm and about 80lb ft of torque. Blakemore says that competition-tuned Ulsters would rev up to 5,250rpm which would give 85bhp, enough to give a top speed in excess of 100mph.
Aston Martin was founded in 1913 by Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford, but they didn’t build a production car until the end of the First World War, hence the centenary this year. Known then as Bamford and Martin, the firm was (typically) in continual financial trouble and eventually, in 1925, Martin was forced to sell to Bill Renwick and Augustus “Bert” Bertelli, who had originally planned to sell Renwick’s clever four-cylinder engine to other car makers.
They renamed the company Aston Martin Motors, moved from Kensington in central London to Feltham in Middlesex and produced what became known as the “Bertelli” cars, a series of 1½-litre, four-cylinder sporting cars, most of them bodied by Bert’s brother Enrico.
Of these, which included the International, the T-type, the Le Mans and the Mark II, the Ulster model produced between 1934 and 1936 represents the zenith. Only 21 customer cars were built, of which 20 are known to survive, and there were seven works cars which carried the LM designation. These days, a genuine works LM Ulster will set you back anything between £2 and £3 million.
Down the pitlane, out into the atrocious conditions and you can feel the directness of the driveline; the shunt of the eager four-cylinder engine through the gearbox with its precise, machined gate. The clutch is light with a short travel, as is the centre throttle. There’s none of the gasping laggardness of more average Thirties cars, this feels like an oat-fuelled thoroughbred and it’s much happier travelling at the upper end of the rev counter.
Swing the huge, flexing steering wheel and the front follows with a pleasing alacrity that wouldn’t be out of place on a modern car. At slow speeds it feels like a large car, but that perception shrinks as you gain speed.
It rolls slightly on to its outside front tyre, but the chassis is surprisingly stable. It’s front-heavy of course, but the handling feels neutral rather than tail-happy, although on this day, with cold tyres, in a lake, the main handling trait is a sopping rear-end lurch followed by an ungainly reattainment of grip.
More speed and less water would have allowed the 5.5-inch wide Blockley tyres to heat and drift, but this isn’t the day. A previous track test in another Ulster on Dunlops proved these 900kg cars can be steered on the throttle along with the steering wheel, and the art is to effectively combine the two.
Considering the conditions the brakes are sensational, although the left-to-right dance as the large drums suddenly dry and generate friction is a little disconcerting.
I can barely see, with an emulsion of oil, water and grit spraying straight into my eyes, yet still the temptation is to stay out there, getting a bit faster each lap; relishing the engine’s rasp. In the end the prospects of a spin, speeding up across the grass and the crump of original panel against steel barrier is too embarrassing to think of and I hand it back. I’m soaked down to my underwear and my shoes squelch as I clamber out – I’m still smiling though.
Aston is celebrating its centenary by liverying a series of 60 cars in the style of six of its most important racing cars; this Ulster with its red panels (Bertelli thought British Racing Green was unlucky) is one of the inspirations.
The other models will be revealed on July 4 and will run, along with their original inspirations, up the hillclimb at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.
You probably need to be there; hopefully the weather will be a bit better...
1935 Aston Martin 1½-litre Ulster – facts and specifications
ENGINE1,495cc, four-cylinder naturally-aspirated
POWER/TORQUE 85bhp at 5,250rpm, 80lb ft
TRANSMISSION four-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive
TOP SPEED more than 100mph
WEIGHT 900kg (approx)
VALUE up to £3 million
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