Long before Hollywood typecast it as a gentrified assault vehicle, Aston Martin had starring roles in motor racing history. Unfortunately, the company has not engaged in any recent competition projects, a sad situation, because if you trace Aston Martin's roots back 90 years, you find that the very first car to bear the Aston Martin name was a race car.

Robert Bamford and Lionel Martin, partners in a garage in Kensington, England, that specialized in Singer automobiles, built it as a racing special in 1913. Under the trade name of B&M, the pair had turned out sport-tuned versions of the Singer that were formidable competitors at speed events like the nearby Aston Clinton hillclimb. When they decided to build a purpose-built race car by mounting a four-cylinder 1398cc Coventry-Simplex engine in an Isotta-Fraschini racing chassis, it became known as the Aston Martin.

World War I intervened before the production of a series of Aston Martin cars could be undertaken. By then, Robert Bamford had retired and Count Zborowski of Poland, an early patron of motorsports in the UK, had come on board as an investor. The first Aston Martin production cars went on sale in 1921, powered by four-cylinder dohc engines capable of reaching 70 mph. They enjoyed racing success throughout Europe. In 1922, an Aston Martin named "Bunny" set world speed records at Brooklands, averaging over 76 mph in 16.5 hours of non-stop running. That same year, Zborowski built two Aston Martins to race in the French Grand Prix. Six years later, in 1928, Aston Martin made its debut at Le Mans.

The company, however, was unable to capitalize on its racing success, and when Count Zborowski was killed in a racing accident at Monza while driving a Mercedes, the company fell into bankruptcy. Unfortunately, insolvency would become as much a part of the Aston Martin legacy as its racing exploits. Between 1924 and 1947, the company passed through a succession of owners with similar results-a winner on the track and a loser in the showroom.

Augustus Cesare Bertelli, who took over Aston Martin in 1926, worked with his partner William Somerville Renick in laying down the design for what would evolve into the most famous series of all the pre-war Aston Martin racing machines-the Ulster. The Ulster was powered by Bertelli's 1.5-liter four-cylinder sohc engine with twin SU carburetors that put out 85 hp at 5250 rpm. A noteworthy feature of this engine, which Bertelli introduced to all the production Aston Martins, was the dry-sump lubrication system. An Ulster placed third overall at Le Mans in 1935, setting a 1.5-liter class distance record of 1,805.43 miles that would last for 15 years.

World War II put an end to whatever momentum the Ulsters of 1934-36 had generated toward Aston Martin's financial future. In 1947, the man who would become Aston Martin's most famous owner acquired the company by answering a blind advertisement in the London Times offering a sports car company for sale.

By Patrick C. Paternie
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