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.

David Brown, a wealthy British industrialist (primarily tractors and agricultural equipment) who had never owned or driven an Aston Martin, forked out 20,000 British pounds because he thought it would be fun to own a sports car company. A few months later he also purchased the remains of Lagonda. Brown funded the development of Aston Martin's most historically prominent line of production cars, the DB (for David Brown) series, as well as its greatest racing moments, including the overall victory at the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans.

What David Brown got for his initial investment in Aston Martin was a 2.0-liter four-cylinder prototype, the Atom, designed in 1939 and featuring an independent front suspension and a rudimentary space-frame chassis. The Atom became the basis for the 1948 DB1. Only 15 DB1 models were made. Brown felt that the 2.0-liter (1970cc) pushrod four was not powerful enough (95 bhp at 4750 rpm), although he was enticed by Claude Hill, the designer of the Atom, and test driver Jock Horsfall to enter a DB1 in the 1948 Spa 24 Hours race. Hill and Horsfall rewarded Brown's leap of faith with a first overall.

The race at Spa would have a long-term effect on Aston Martin racing during David Brown's tenure, not so much because of Brown's visit to victory lane as much as his visit to the pit lane. For it was there that Brown was so impressed with the way that John Wyer managed a privateer Aston Martin effort that he invited him to become the company's race-team manager. Wyer is perhaps more famous for his accomplishments after leaving Aston Martin in 1963 to join the Ford GT-40 program. Wyer directed the success of the Gulf-sponsored Ford GT-40 and followed that with the Gulf Porsche 917. At Aston Martin, starting in 1950, he would spend 13 years making it a force to be reckoned with by the premier teams, notably Jaguar and Ferrari, in world sports car racing.

The year before Wyer came on board, the 2.6-liter dohc six-cylinder engine designed by W.O. Bentley for Lagonda-and acquired in Brown's purchase of the venerable British automaker-was installed in an updated DB1 chassis to create the DB2 fastback coupe.

Wyer entered three six-cylinder DB2s in the 1950 24 Hours of Le Mans, each putting out 125 bhp at 5000 rpm thanks to dual exhausts and slightly higher compression. Other than the above changes, the cars were stock production models minus some interior trim. Driven by George Abecassis and Reg Parnell, two of the three finished fifth and sixth overall. They also were first and second in the 3-liter class.

In November 1950, Professor Robert Eberan von Eberhorst, the man who had worked with Ferdinand Porsche in designing the pre-war Auto Union Silver Arrows racers, was brought in to design a lightweight open-top car that would be the DB3. In the interim, Wyer found ways to remove 450 lb from the production DB2 for the 1951 race season. His reward was a third, fifth, and seventh overall finish at Le Mans plus a sweep of the top three positions in the 3-liter class. Aston Martin looked forward to the DB3 to deliver bigger and better things during the 1952 season.

The factory entered the DB3 in seven races during 1952, including Le Mans. Peter Collins had joined the team, but the DB3 turned out to be a disappointment. It was too big and too heavy. It failed to finish at Le Mans, and its only win came at the season's last race, the Goodwood 9-Hours.

Willie Watson, a senior design engineer who had worked for W.O. Bentley, had joined Aston Martin in 1952. He came to John Wyer with some ideas as to make the DB3 more competitive. The result was the streamlined DB3S that featured a new, lighter weight chassis (by 167 lb), shorter wheelbase and a revised rear suspension. Although it failed to finish Le Mans, the DB3S went on to win five races in 1953.

For 1954, the Aston Martin race team added drivers Paul Frre and Carroll Shelby. Roy Salvadori had come aboard the previous year. Despite the all-star cast of drivers, none of the four DB3S cars entered at Le Mans finished, but the team did sweep the top three places at Silverstone. Frre and Collins would drive a DB3S to second overall at Le Mans in 1955. The turning point in Aston Martin racing success would come in 1956, when Stirling Moss, after Mercedes-Benz's withdrawal from racing, joined the team. Later that year, the DBR1 hit the track.

While the DB3S won half a dozen races in 1955 and three more in 1956, it was not quite enough car to meet David Brown's ultimate goal, wining Le Mans. Aston Martin had been competing at Le Mans since 1931, and finishing second only whetted Brown's appetite for victory. The DBR1 was designed to be Aston Martin's ultimate Le Mans winner.

The DBR1 featured a tubular space frame chassis as opposed to the ladder frame construction of the DB3S. Fitted with an aluminum body, it tipped the scales at a svelte 1,760 lb. It also had a five-speed gearbox. Power came from a 3.0-liter (2992cc) dohc twin-plug six cylinder that eventually developed 255 hp at 6000 rpm.

Ironically, the DBR1 debut at the 1956 24 Hours of Le Mans ended in retirement, while a DB3S driven by Collins and Moss took second overall. The DBR1's first win came at Spa in May 1957, followed two weeks later by a convincing win at the grueling 1,000Km of the Nrburgring. The DBR1 would prove its mettle by repeating this win in 1958 and 1959.

This last victory was just prior to Le Mans and was not originally part of the team's plans for that year. John Wyer had been promoted to general manager of the Aston Martin-Lagonda operations at the end of 1956. Reg Parnell had retired as a driver to take his place as team manager. They had made a decision in 1959 to concentrate only on entering Le Mans. Then the Sebring promoters prevailed on Parnell to enter a car. Wyer okayed a car to be prepared for Salvadori and Shelby only if Sebring would cover all expenses including transportation. They did, and the car was sent to Florida, where it retired early.

Next up was the Nrburgring, where Moss also offered to dip into his own pocket to enter a car. Wyer again relented, and Moss repaid him with a record-setting win. At Le Mans, three cars were entered. Moss' car had a slightly more powerful engine that he used to pressure most of the Ferraris into self-destructing. Unfor-tunately, Moss blew up in the process. Shelby and Salvadori drove a strong race-outlasting Phil Hill and Olivier Gendebien's Ferrari-for Aston Martin's first and only Le Mans win. A victory at Goodwood's Tourist Trophy 6-Hour race in September completed an almost perfect season, giving Aston Martin the World Sports Car Championship.

That was to be the zenith and conclusion of Aston Martin's factory racing program. The company entered a single-seater spinoff of the DBR1 in a few grands prix during 1959 and 1960, but the front-engine car was too little (actually too heavy), too late-the rear-engine revolution had begun.

Acquiescing to its French distributor, Aston Martin returned to Le Mans in 1962 and 1963 with a series of swoopy prototypes that were known as the "Project Cars." Graham Hill and Richie Ginther drove a DP 212 in 1962. It actually led a lap before retiring. In 1963, two DP 214s and a DP215 were entered. The DP215 had a more powerful engine, a 4.0-liter, 345-hp six cylinder that enabled Phil Hill to hit 197 mph on the Mulsanne. These cars failed to finish. In a parting shot, Salvadori drove a DB4GT to victory at Monza in August 1963

You might say that Aston Martin's racing career did have a Hollywood ending, because the next year, Sean Connery fired up 007's DB5 to take the battle from the track to the silver screen.

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By Patrick C. Paternie
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