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Pre-war Aston Martin, 1933 - 1935

Aston Martin Motors Ltd. (part 2)

During 1933 Bertelli and Claude Hill had been working on what was to become the third series cars, initially known as the ‘Mark II Le Mans’, but known at the factory simply as the ‘Mark II’. So, within two years of developing the ‘Le Mans’, Aston Martin was building yet another new model. Similar in many ways to the Le Mans, it was yet another completely new design on a new chassis, with a new cylinder block and cylinder head, modified brake gear and new radiator and coachwork. The only major interchangeable parts between the two models were the rear axle, the rear shock absorbers and the brake back plate assembly and shoes. Even the steering box, gearbox casing and front axle were different to the ‘Le Mans’. Design development in the motor industry was extremely rapid at this time. This, combined with the experience the company gained from racing and having its chief design engineer sitting in the racing cars and driving them, meant that the factory was particularly aware of what needed to be strengthened or improved with a very practical perspective.

The first ‘Mark II’ was assembled in January 1934, only a month after the last of the ‘Le Mans’ was completed. However by no means all the ‘Le Mans’ had been sold and dealers still held 30 or more cars in stock, including a few of the 1932 long chassis ‘Standard’ saloons. The production of a new and ‘improved’ model was therefore of considerable concern to them. A compromise was reached between the factory and the dealers and it was agreed that the announcement of the new model would be delayed until the mid-summer of 1934, though a few did escape the factory to favoured loyal customers. The new Aston Martin Mark II was finally announced by ‘Motor Sport’ in July.

As had been the case with the ‘International’ and the ‘Le Mans’, it was agreed with the Sutherlands that the factory should have a team of the new cars to go racing. One of Bertelli’s favorite sayings was that ‘racing improved the breed’ and he could well argue that looking back at the development and improvements of the cars he and Claude Hill had designed and built over the previous 10 years, this had certainly been so. Three cars were prepared for the 1934 Le Mans 24 Hours, LM11, 12 and 14, and ten weeks later three further cars, LM15, 16 and 17 were entered for the T.T. at Ards in Northern Ireland. Only one of the Le Mans entries completed the race, but having discovered why two of the cars failed and rectified the fault, considerably more success was achieved at the T.T. with the three cars not only finishing but winning the Team Prize. Henceforth, the two seater sports version of the Mark II, replicas of the team cars, were known as the ‘Ulster’ model. The ‘Ulster was the car that A. C. Bertelli was proud to call ‘the best car I ever made’.

Although Gordon Sutherland was to limit works entries further, a number of Astons competed both at a national and international level, including the Coppa d’Or, the Mille Miglia, the Belgian 10 Hour Race, the Alpine Trial, the RAC Rally and at club meetings at Brooklands and Donington. The Aston Martin was firmly on the competition scene. With success came an undoubted aid to publicity of the new model, and racing successes became a dominant feature of much of the company advertising.

The 1934 Olympia show saw all the versions of the ‘Mark II’ on the stand; the short chassis 2/4 seater, a long chassis four seater almost identical in shape to the ‘Le Mans Special 4 seater’, a saloon and a 2 seater, (yet to be called an ‘Ulster’). In 1934, Aston Martin had the most successful year to date, not only in competition but also in production and sales, with a total of 100 chassis completed and 95 sales which included the remainder of the Le Mans and seven other models.

Production continued through 1935, with the motoring magazines all keen to test the new car, with both ‘Motor Sport’ and the ‘The Autocar’ particularly singing its praises. The Motor Show at Olympia however was a quieter affair than the previous year with fewer orders taken. Though all three of the open cars on the stand were sold, a total of only 66 cars left the factory in 1935, 30% down on the previous year and furthermore, the year-end financial figures were also disappointing. By December 1935 both the works and the main agent, Winter Garden Garages, were left with stock and it was clear that demand for such an expensive medium sized sports car (second only in price to the ‘Squire’ at £995) had been met. Clearly, the next development at the works would need to be an effort to produce a car that had a greater potential market, and be considerably cheaper to produce.

However, 1935 was to see Aston Martin’s busiest competition year to date. At Le Mans, a team of seven cars were entered including three new works team cars, (LM 18, 19 and 20), with four works supported entries which together won the Rudge Cup and saw LM20 come in third overall. A full team of cars was also at the TT, and works supported cars at the Mille Miglia and Targa Abbruzzo. The T.T. was to be the last occasion the factory fielded a team of cars at a race meeting.

The ‘Mark II’ was a very competently designed car. Bertelli’s particular knack of producing simple yet elegant and effective solutions to engineering problems, combined with his previous seven years production experience, had produced a good quality motor car which worked well. However, it was heavier than a ‘Le Mans’ and did not handle quite so precisely. It was difficult not to conclude that the new ‘Mark II’ was ever so slightly more a touring car than an out and out sports car, and this trend would continue through to the next series of cars the factory produced, the ‘Sutherland’ 2 litre cars. One other notable event occurred in 1935; the formation of the Aston Martin Owners Club. Started from an informal gathering of owners who gravitated towards the Winter Garden Garage, where they had their cars serviced, it was started by ‘Mort’ Morris-Goodall and Sammy Davis. At this time many of the Members were already active competition drivers, so the Club had more of an emphasis on social gatherings unlike its post-war reincarnation which was heavily weighted towards competition. The inaugural meeting was held in May 1935 with Charles Jarrott as President, Sammy Davis as Vice President and Mort Goodall as Honorary Secretary. In 1935, the new Aston Martin Owners Club was to be one of the first one make clubs to hire a suite at Le Mans to support a Works’ team.

Up to 1935, A. C. Bertelli had been able to run the company pretty much as he pleased. With a lot of help from various figures in the motor industry the small company, making expensive high quality sports cars, had not only almost miraculously managed to survive the ‘Great Depression’, but had created a product which was universally admired and had a proven track record on the International motor racing scene. However, during 1935 tensions had started to be felt between Bertelli and the effective owners of the company, the Sutherland family. There was no doubt that Bertelli’s designs had been very successful, but there was an urgent need to move forward rather than sideways, which the gradual development of the 1½ litre series cars over an almost ten year period had represented.

A new car was desperately needed, and one which would appeal to a larger market and ideally actually earn money for the company. It was evident that the product had gradually become more touring car than sports car. This was highlighted by the obvious improvement in performance and the competition success of the high performance Ulster (and later the Speed Model) as an addition to the standard range. This emphasis was to accelerate with the development of the 2 litre 15/98 model.

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