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London, Kensington Gardens, 21th of July

In the early 20th century the motorisation and the more and more popular motor racing led to the foundation of countless motor car companies all over the world. Many of them stayed ambitious projects of individuals that never made it into production, others had a short heyday but closed during the great depression or did not reappear after the war but a few ones have built a reputation that kept them alive to the present day. Now in the early 21th century almost every year is dedicated to the centenary of one of these marques with Alfa Romeo and Bugatti in recent years and the traditional British Sports Car Manufacturer Aston Martin in 2013. Few other companies can look back at such a chequered past with a lot of changes in the ownership, sporting successes and move of the production venues.

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Beside some special classes at the top concours of the world several centenary events by the Aston Martin Owners Club and the factory itself celebrate this long history including race meetings, rallies and the highlight, the centenary celebration in Kensington Garden just around the corner where Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford founded Bamford & Martin on January 15th in 1913.

A timeline with 100 of the most significant road and race cars plus special displays for Le Mans and the connection to the Bond movies were set up in the Royal Park on a sunny Sunday visited by tens of thousands of spectators.

Bamford & Martin started dealing and tuning Singer cars and after racing those with some success at the nearby Aston Clinton hill climb the idea was born to built own cars under the name Aston Martin. The first car was built in 1915 but with the first world war in full swing it took until 1920 to built a second prototype. With these two prototypes not longer in existence the oldest surviving Aston Martin is the third car (Chassis A3) that started the timeline in Kensington Gardens. Like most of the cars of this era it has a four cylinder 1.5 litre engine and was beside two grand prix cars built for the new financier of AM Count Zborowski (as Bamford already left) the only car built in 1922. Today this most important Aston is owned by the Aston Martin Heritage Trust and was restored in recent years back to the original specification by the leading marque experts.

Just next is one of the early race cars nicknamed “Razor Blade” and it is easy to see the origin of this name. With a body width of just about 18 inches this car powered by a 16 valve dual camshaft grand prix engine was intended for records at Brooklands. Brooklands was the centre of British motor sports between the wars and Aston Martin was very active both in racing or speed record attempts.

Another Brookland racer is chassis 1934 that is also fitted with the 16-valve twin-cam engine built for Captain George Eyston who raced this car alongside some Bugatti in the 1920s before later set several land speed records in his “Thunderbolt”.

Beside the factory race cars Aston Martin started to sell cars to customers in 1923, some of them were intended for racing as well but some were converted or built for road usage. No less than three of these boat tailed tourers were lined up, chassis 1925 is a converted factory racer with touring equipment and a very tasteful crème-brown colour combination and a wooden back. Just next to it is a body design that was named clover leaf as it features a third seat in the back, 3-seater where not uncommon these days as they allowed a tapered end and some sports car races were announced for cars with “more than 2 seats”. The third of these side valve models is one of the last cars built in 1925 and exhibited at the London Motor Show. Although these cars caused some interest the sales were not enough to cover the costs of the company and the finally the company was sold by the end of 1925 ending the Bamford & Martin era with just about 60 cars built. With 6 of about 2 dozen surviving cars of this era the display of these early years was worth alone travelling to London that Sunday and many of the visitors of the park have seen this part of the Aston history for the first time.

In 1926 the second chapter of Aston Martin started when Augustus Cesare “Bert” Bertelli and William Renwick took over the company and formed Aston Martin Motors with a new production in Feltham. This is also the first time the wings in the Aston Martin badge appear as the old circular AM-badge was replaced marking the new start. Bertelli and Renwick had a 1492cc overhead camshaft engine that should be the base for all the following International series. With a serial production in mind right from the beginning the “International” was available in different configurations and body styles built by Bert's brother Enrico Bertelli. Beside the sportive short chassis (chassis number starting with S) there is also a longer touring chassis available. The oldest of the cars in Kensington is one of these rare touring bodied cars and the 14th car built.

Most of the International were bodied as 2/4 seater with the spare wheel on the back but a few more sportive 2-seater and 3-seater were built as well. In 1928 Aston Martin started its Le Mans history with the first works prepared racers (LM1 and LM2) and with the 3-seater sports on show (S16) these racers were also available for privateers, again the 3-seater concept was based on regulations.

The best looking of the first series cars might be the one-off Headlamp coupé (S44) named after its first owner and built by Enrico “Harry” Bertelli to his ideas. This car was one of the stars in Kensington and always surrounded by spectators and thousands of photos of it were taken that day.

At the end of 1931 about 130 International were sold, some of the last cars were replicas of the successful Le Mans entries when Aston Martin won its class. The car on display (L1/125) is one of these cars called “International Le Mans” with a low radiator and the curved dashboard that should become standard in some later Le Mans models. During the International period the system of the chassis numbers was changed as the first letter indicates the month (A=January, B=February...) and the year (O=1930, 1=1931...) that was kept for the following pre-war cars, so this car was the 125th of the series and built in December 1931.

Early in 1932 a new model was introduced named “New International”. Although it looked very similar to the previous “International” except a slightly V-shaped radiator the chassis was all new. To reduce the costs of the model the gearbox (Laycock) and the back axle (ENV) were bought from other companies to replace the own more expensive parts of the previous model. Especially the spiral-beaver rear axle was different from the worm drive of the first series that is a rare find in today´s market. In 1932 also a trio of Le Mans team cars were sent to La Sarthe for the 24 hours, two of them were displayed in Kensington with the green LM8 currently in restoration and the red LM10. LM10 won its class and in late 1932 the production was changed to the Le Mans model looking similar to LM8 with a lower radiator leaving the New International a short life with just about 20 cars built in 1932. The Le Mans featured the curved dashboard and a tuned engine with 70 instead of 57 hp of the predecessor. Today the Le Mans model is one of the most sought after as it is generally the only 1.5 Litre (beside the Ulster) that is eligible for the Mille Miglia Storico and not few of them are in Italy now. Beside the short chassis 2 and 2/4 seater a longer chassis (the 12/50) version was available with Saloon or Tourer coachwork, the longer version became the annex /L at the end of the chassis number instead of the /S for the short chassis. During this time also the enamelled winged badge was introduced.

In 1934 the Le Mans was reworked and the third series of the 1 ½ Litre was introduced with the MKII. The MKII is easy to differ from the previous models with its thermostatically chromed controlled radiator shutters and again available in two chassis length, most of the cars were again bodied as 2/4 seater (L4/523/L) but some with the long chassis tourer body (C4/412/L). Also available on the long chassis was the Sports Saloon (L4/524/L), a very elegant 2-door saloon.

During this time the most iconic pre-war Aston Martin was introduced with the Ulster. Like the Le Mans the Ulster was named after its success at the Ulster TT. When none of the team cars finished at Le Mans in 1934 the racing colour was changed from the “unlucky green” to the Italian racing red from Italian born Bertelli to win the team prize at the Ulster TT as seen on LM16 and LM21 in the Le Mans display

This model was also available as customer model as seen in the timeline with two examples, the normal 2-seater and a rare 4-seater version that belongs to the Heritage Trust as well, by the end of 1935 the 1 ½ Litre production ended.

Under the leadership of Gordon Sutherland the size of the engine was enlarged to 2 Litre for a new Le Mans entry in 1936 that was cancelled. The sporting version of this car was named Speed Model, the early one the Type A (K6/706/U). Beside the racing cars the two litre was used in the type 15/98 designed by Claude Hill, a fast touring version rather than the sportier 1 ½ Litre. When Bertelli left the company also a new coachbuilder was needed and the 15/98 were bodied by Abbey (G8/827/SO) and Abbott.

Although the racing program was ended due to financial pressure the last 2 Litre models were some of the sportiest cars built be the marque, the Speed Model C-Type with an aerodynamic body. The car in Kensington is the earliest of the C-Type with his headlights mounted on the front fenders, the later Speed Models had them installed behind the radiator grille.

The last car of the pre-war era is one of the most important in the Aston Martin History: the Atom.

With its 2 litre engine, an independent front suspension and a frame based on rectangular steel tubes this was a very innovative motorcar for its time, the fenders were fixed to the body.

Atom was used as test car during the war and many journalists were convinced that this is the future of the motor car.

Just after the war a new (and maybe the most important) chapter of Aston Martin started with the appearance of David Brown. David Brown made a fortune with the production of tractors and had the dream of winning Le Mans with a car bearing his own name. With limited financial background to build a production car out of Atom the company was announced for sale in The Times. David Brown saw the potential in the marque with the good name and this prototype and bought Aston Martin to lead it to its heydays in the 1950s. Brown also bought Lagonda at the same time especially to get hands on the 2.6 straight six cylinder engine designed under the supervision of W.O.Bentley but the first car, the two litre sport was very much an open version of the Atom designed by Frank Feeley. This car was later known as DB1 but just 16 were built. Although one of them was privately entered at Le Mans 1949 and finished 11th David Brown commissioned a new model both for racing and the road. The first DB2 were ready in 1949 for the Le Mans 24 hours, two of them with the 2 litre unit and one with the new 2.6 litre. The car in Kensington (LML/49/4) was the fourth car built and the factory prototype and David Brown´s personal car. It shares the 3-piece grill with the first production cars (LML/50/21) but the production cars were higher, wider and with lower ground clearance for the intended touring purposes. Later the grill was modified to a single piece unit that still is a styling element of today Astons (although in very different form).

For 1951 the Aston Martin works team led by John Wyer (who later became famous for the Gulf livered Porsche 917 entries) finished well in the top ten encouraging Brown for further developments on the way to his dream of the LM victory. The cars were indicated by different radiator colours, the car with the red radiator in Kensington (LML/50/50) was seventh.

In total 411 DB2 were built including 98 Drophead Coupé versions. During this time also the name Vantage appeared to name the higher specification engine version.

By 1953 the DB2/4 was announced as a 2/4 seater following the 2-seater version of the DB2. Instead of a small opening at the back to get the spare tire the DB2/4 introduced the hatchback with bigger rear opening to access the luggage compartment. The DB2/4 was again available as Saloon and Drophead Coupé (some might be confused when they see the designation “coupé” in the built sheet for the DHC) and later the Fixed Head Coupe with a fixed hardtop on the DHC lines.

Although a few DB2/4 were used for race and rally the intention of the new car was fast touring, at the same time the race program went to the open sports car racers with the goal of an overall win rather than class wins. Under the development of Eberan von Eberhorst (who designed the famous Auto Union D-Type before the war) the DB3 was built between 1951 and 1953 but the 10 cars were not very successful with the 2.6 litre unit.

Just at the same time when the DB2 was followed by the DB2/4 the new DB3S racer was introduced in 1953. After von Eberhorst left Aston after a short intermezzo the design was done by Frank Feeley with a lighter and aerodynamic more efficient body. The car was powered by a straight-six with 3 litre displacement. The DB3S was both built as factory team cars (chassis 1-11) and as a customer racer (chassis 101-120). In Kensington Gardens no less than 3 team cars were displayed, chassis DB3S/6, DB3S/9 and the last DB3S/11. The best LM results were second places in 1955, 1956 and again in 1958, in the first two the winning Jaguar D-Type had a larger engine, the 1958 was not a factory entry.

Although the DB2/4 was not intended for racing a few special versions were built for Wacky Arnolt by Bertone with lines slightly similar to the DB3S customer cars. Despite its very sportive look it is surprisingly made out of steel rather than aluminium loosing the weight advantage of the smaller body compared to the standard saloon. Whereas one of the sister cars is prepared for the concours circuit in the US the car in Kensington (LML/507) sold in Monterey 2009 is race prepared and used in style.

The mid 1950s brought some important changes in the Aston Martin history as the factory was moved in 1955 from the old Feltham premises to Newport Pagnell in Buckinghamshire. Shortly after the most successful race car was introduced with the DBR1. Following the DB3S this was the most serious attempt to achieve the overall victory at Le Mans as it was built to the latest prototype regulations. The DBR1 was very successful right from the beginning with a hat trick on the Nürburgring between 1957 and 1959 but it took until 1959 before the 3-litre version finally won Le Mans. The car in Kensington (DBR1/4) completed the good result with a second place to lay the ground for winning the world sportscar championship in that year as well. The DBR1 is without doubt one of the best looking race cars of this era and the Le Mans winning car is said to be sold just recently for more than 20 Million dollar making this the most expensive Aston Martin in existence. Some say that the final victory at Le Mans was the beginning of the end as David Brown started to lose interest in the racing program. After an excursion to the formula one with the unsuccessful DBR4 the company concentrated on the production of road cars.

After the final evolution of the DB2/4 into the 3 litre MKII a completely new car was introduced in 1959 with the DB4. The DB4 introduced the Tadek Marek designed 3.7 litre straight six cylinder engine in a wonderful body designed by Touring of Milan. After two prototypes the production was started in Newport Pagnell under the licence of Touring. Over the following years the DB4 was constantly developed in 5 series, the DB4 was both available as saloon or Convertible.

Although the later DB5 might be more famous (because of the James Bond Link) the DB4 is the most elegant of this era as it is the pure Touring design.

Although AM did not have a race program by that time many customers wanted to race Astons so the DB4 GT was introduced. On a slightly shortened wheelbase (losing the rear passenger seats) with a lightweight aluminium body with covered headlights and a highly tuned engine the GT was entered in GT races in the hands of Moss, Clark and others. Unfortunately the main rival of these days was the very sporty Ferrari 250 GT SWB so a even lighter version of the DB4 GT was needed to compete. Again the solution was found in Italy as Zagato built a small series of DB4 GT Zagato, for some the most beautiful Aston Martin of all time. In Kensington no less than 3 examples out of 19 built were shown, one in road trim (DB4GT/0187/L including bumpers) in the timeline and the two semi works racers in the Le Mans display. Without an official race program the works racing department supported the Essex Racing Stable of John Ogier as a “semi works team”. Two cars registered 1VEV (DB4GT/0182/R) and 2VEV (DB4GT/0183/R) were entered at Le Mans 1961 were they both failed to finish. Later 2VEV was entered in the hands of Lucian Bianchi of the Equipe National Belge at Spa were it was crashed. The car was sent back to the factory where it was officially repaired but as the car reappears just a few days later in a new lightweight specification it is almost sure that this is an entire new cars built to Ogier´s order using the same chassis number for tax reasons. The car went on racing in the hands of Jim Clark at Goodwood. The display of the two Essex Racing Stable Zagatos was certainly a highlight of the Le Mans Display.

The final DB4 GT again was clothed by an Italian coachbuilder, the Bertone Jet (DB4GT/0201/L) was joined by two modern versions from Bertone named Jet as well.

After the Zagato Aston Martin built their own version of lightweight GT racers with the three Project cars DP212, DP214 and DP215 to compete with the Ferrari 250 GTO in Le Mans. All of them were extremely fast and set the pace in the race but none of them finished the race in the year of their entry. Nevertheless they are an important part of the racing history and rarely seen all together.

The next road car is the synonym for the David Brown era, the famous DB5. Following the DB4 the reworked DB5 became famous when used by James Bond in the movie Goldfinger. With all the gadgets including guns, catapult seat or smoke launcher this car was in every boys fantasy and brought Aston Martin to a wider public. The Bond Theme was also present in Kensington Gardens with an own display although the cars represented the later movies including the DB5 from Skyfall, the DBS in various state of destruction as seen in Casino Royale and Quantum Solance.

The last version of the DB4/5/6 era on display is a late DB6 MKII Volante (DB6MK2VC/3785/R). This particular car was donated by Queen Elizabeth to Prince Charles when new and was last seen during the wedding of Prince William and Kate in 2010. The car has a small Welsh Dragon on the bonnet for the Prince of Wales.

Following the round Italian design of the DB4/5/6 the late 1960s saw the introduction of the DBS. Whereas the first version still had the straight-six from the DB6 the car finally got the new V8 that was base for the years to come. One need to mention the DBS from the TV series “The Persuaders” driven by Roger Moore as Lord Brett Sinclair (registered BS1). This is one of the early straight six version that was optically converted to the V8 specification to feature in the TV Series.

In 1972 the era of David Brown ended and the AM V8 became the model for the next years, the V8 engine was also used in a Lola Chassis. Countless variations of the V8 were built over the years including versions by Zagato as the company changed hands several times without the support of a large manufacturer or a big financial background. Finally the company was owned by Victor Gauntlett, who was also responsible for the Le Mans entry of the Nimrod cars with V8 Aston engines again in a Lola Chassis. Partnered by Peter Linvanos Gauntlett finally sold Aston Martin to the Ford concern and for a while Aston Martin shipped in shallow water as the global player had the background to put Aston Martin back on the market. New models were introduced with the DB7 and even a Group C car was entered with the AMR-1 in Le Mans 1989. Over the next years Ford built a completely new factory and enlarged the model palette with the Vanquish, DBS, AMV8 and DB9. But as Ford went into financial trouble during the crises a few years ago Aston Martin was sold to investors and so the company goes into its second century again as an independent manufacturer.

The first hundred years were rich in variety and the display in Kensington Garden was a great summary of the different eras. Some of the cars even came all the way from the US or China to be displayed in the timeline spanning the entire history including rare one-offs or cars with special history. The event was also used for the world premiere of a duo of Zagato bodied DB9 Convertible and DBS special commissioned by two enthusiasts taking the partnership of Aston Martin and Zagato into the next century. All those who visited the gardens that Sunday agreed that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see these cars in one line-up, for all those who did not have the opportunity to visit we hope our galleries are a small compensation.

Report & images ... Peter Singhof www.ClassicCarPhotography.de