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Aston Martin, 1938 - 1945

The Sutherland Era (Part 2)

By the middle of 1938 the entire planned production run of 150 chassis had been built and motor car production effectively stopped at Aston Martin Ltd, though service work was continued. The ‘15/98’ in its three guises were selling reasonably well and would continue to sell in 1938 and early in 1939, the stock slowly being used up with sales encouraged by price reductions.

This suddenly meant that Aston Martin Ltd was in effect no longer making motor cars and had very little to sell to earn any income. Yet another financial crisis seemed to be imminent. However, Europe was inevitably gearing up for war, and profitable work was found via the re-armament programme and the skilled Aston Martin workforce was put to good use, mainly making components for the aircraft industry. Harry Bertelli also kept his craftsmen usefully employed, making fire pumps, with only a few of his best men making motor car bodies, for the Lammas Graham.

Still the Aston Martin’s chief engineer and not over utilized, Claude Hill, was given free rein to develop some of his own ideas. The prototype saloon, still in stock, was re-bodied using square section tubing with the idea that the coachwork would eventually become a stressed member and the chassis could be eliminated. The result was a rather ‘home made’ looking car, known as ‘Donald Duck’, with rather perpendicular coachwork. However it was quiet and comfortable, more than can be said of the original ‘15/98’ saloon! Hill’s coachwork ideas were also put to good use on the remaining eight ‘Speed Model’ chassis and he designed what was truly radical aerodynamic shaped bodywork. This ‘Speed Model’ variant became known as the Type ‘C’. Definitely an acquired taste, they were faster than the cycle winged ‘Speed Models’ and the general design was referred to in the Autocar as ‘the suggestion of a car of the future’. The body work design was many years ahead of its time, and to a degree, the Type ‘C’ presaged the post war Jaguar XK120.

This coachwork experimentation was continued by Claude Hill in late 1939 and early 1940 on a completely new car, ‘The Atom’. Unlike anything seen before it was a genuine departure from normal production methods and design. Made almost entirely from square section tube, (necessitated from the scarcity of anything other than electrical square section conduit during wartime) the design was patented by Aston Martin and Claude Hill jointly, the strength of the frame being built according to the stresses that it would be under. Claude Hill also developed a new trailing arm independent suspension for the front, based on a Gordon Armstrong design. The car initially having an overhead cam 2 litre engine and electric Cotal gearbox, it was demonstrated to the motoring press with universal acclaim. Hill’s new design was once again being declared ‘The future in the present’ by ‘Autocar’ and by ‘Motor Sport’ as ‘second only to a Bugatti for sheer delight’; high praise indeed.

Contemporaneous with this development work on a future high performance saloon, Gordon Sutherland and Claude Hill were working on developing a new engine and a new racing car. Never having had the funds to develop a completely new engine, attempts were being made to get the best performance out of what they already had. One hoped for way of improving the 2 litre engine was by using a Cross rotary valve cylinder head.

The Cross Company had produced very efficient two stroke motorcycle engines fitted with their patent rotary valve cylinder heads. Gordon Sutherland persuaded the Cross Company to allow Aston Martin Ltd to develop a cylinder head for their production 2 litre engine. Designed by Claude Hill, and paid for by Cross Company shares, the rotary valve head was ultimately rather disappointing. Very complicated to make and using a lot of power (it took twenty-four volts through the starter to get the engine turning fast enough to start) in reality it produced little more performance for a great deal of effort. However, after the war Cross went into the aviation industry and the shares that had paid for the development (which were not part of the assets of Aston Martin Ltd sold to David Brown) proved to be more valuable than Aston Martin Ltd. Gordon Sutherland was a shrewd business man and the value of the Cross shares represented his profit on twelve years involvement with Aston Martin.

At the same time as the ‘new engine’ was being developed a one off racing car was being built, into which the rotary valve engine was to be fitted. Based on a narrowed Speed Model chassis the ‘Single Seater’ was to be raced at Brooklands and thereby produce valuable publicity for the new power unit. However, because of the difficulties of running the rotary valve engine, the overhead valve unit from the Seaman TT car of 1936 (which had seized) was rebuilt and fitted. Sadly the car was never raced by the works due to the outbreak of war, but it was tested there by Gordon Sutherland and Charles Brackenbury. At some 220 kilos lighter than a standard Speed Model it would have had great potential.

One of the features of the pre-war Aston Martin, equally true of both the Bamford and Martin cars and the later Bertelli and Sutherland cars, was the importance of motor sport both in terms of their engineering development and as promotion for sales. It is fitting therefore that this testing of the only purpose built single seater racing car built by the factory was one of the last acts of the pre-war Aston Martin company.

During the war, Aston Martin Ltd was in full time production, mostly making aircraft parts for the war effort. This was the most profitable period of the various Aston Martin companies to date. Nevertheless, both Claude Hill and Gordon Sutherland had been thinking and planning for the expected post war demand for new motor cars, and these plans included a new sports car to be called the ‘Vintage Model’. Retaining many of the archetype features and the character of the successful 1½ litre and 2 litre cars, including the helmet type wings and a more refined version of the overhead cam 2 litre engine, no doubt it would have been welcomed. However, it was the ‘Atom’ that was still being run and tested that provided the basis for what was clearly going to be the Aston Martin of the future. In 1944, the Government gave Aston Martin the permission to build a new engine and a new car. As part of the new plan, the larger premises of Friary Motors Ltd at old Winsor were purchased. The engine was the Claude Hill pushrod 2 litre unit, which was subsequently fitted to the Atom, but the new car was never built. By late 1945, it had become apparent to Gordon Sutherland that he simply could not raise the capital to make a completely new car, and so he placed an advertisement in the Times newspaper on the first of October 1946 to sell a ‘High Class Motor Business’ for £30,000. After some tough negotiation, David Brown bought Aston Martin Ltd for the sum of £20,500 and a new era had begun.

Gordon Sutherland continued to look after the pre-war cars at Friary Motors, employing a few of the old staff who had worked on the cars before the war. They sold and maintained pre-war cars and produced spare parts from the original tooling and patterns which Sutherland had retained. These patterns, the tooling and the works records (including the vast majority of engineering drawings), were later given to the Aston Martin Owners Club when Friary Motors ceased trading in 1962. Much of this archive is now kept at the Aston Martin Heritage Trust and continues to be used, in the spirit in which it was given, to provide for the continued use and enjoyment of the pre war cars by their present lucky custodians.

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