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AM Review (Issue 4)

Reproduced from AM REVIEW, Issue 4

Anniversaries and Anecdotes

No Quarter

The idea was straightforward enough, AM Review ’97 should contain a list of the quarter mile standing start times of a standard and a modified Aston Martin from each era of the company. Faced with the prospect of flogging through old copies of motoring magazines to compile a list that would be dubious at best, I opted to organise a sprint instead.

A list compiled from articles in motoring journals over the last 75 years I felt would be less than satisfactory for several reasons. There was the lack of control over the conditions when the times were taken, the axes the journalists were grinding at the time and improvements in their skills over the years at extracting good times from the cars, either scientifically or brutally. Additionally, the early cars came from a time before accurate quarter mile times, or even accurate speeds, were included in road test reports as a matter of course. Judgements on handling, performance and roadholding, familiar to us in current road tests, would at one time have been gauged by the driver’s ability to control the car with a rug over his knees, how far up hill the car would climb in top gear and whether or not a U-turn could be executed in the Edgeware Road. Certainly there were no useful times for the Bamford and Martin cars that I could find. So, with help from Harry Calton and Aston Martin and the assistance of Ford Motorsport at Boreham in Essex, we went drag racing with some fine motor cars.

In an effort to ensure that examples of the rarer cars would be present Neil Murray, who gave me an inordinate amount of help, and I approached a good many owners. At one point I thought we were going to have four B&Ms to compare but, in the end, with one sick, one on the high seas and one whose owner was on holiday, it fell to dear old Green Pea to uphold the honour of the 1920s cars.

One of the two 1922 Grand Prix cars, chassis 1914, Green Pea ran in modified form with the Benson twin-cam engine and gave very good account of herself. The B&M unmodified times shown on the graph, the only ones we did not record on the day, are of Green Pea running with a side valve engine. Neil told me that, in genera, Pea’s quarter mile times with the side valve engine vary between 23 and 24 seconds but she had on one occasion returned 20.44 with a tail wind estimated at gale force. In view of this I decided 24 seconds would best represent the unmodified side valve Bamford and Martin Astons.

The Bertellis Astons were Richard White’s Le Mans L3/326/S and 1932 Team Car LM10 belonging to Rob Davies. The David Brown era was divided into the DB2 and DB4 series. The DB2s were represented by David Holland’s DB2/4, LML/675, and Jon Gross’s works-modified MkIII, AM300/3A/1317. Peter Gwynn’s DB4 Convertible, DB4C/1072/R, ran against Stratton Motor’s replica DB4GT Zagato, DB4/992/R.. The V8s appeared in the form of Tony Palmer’s standard Series 2, V8/10502/RCA and the V8 Zagato 7-litre, 30036, brought by Richard Williams. The “V” cars were Keith and Avril Piper’s Virage 50085A, pitted against John Hall’s 6.3 litre Virage Volante, 60064. For the current cars, the Vantage brought by Roger Bennington and HWM’s DB7 demonstrator, DB7/101458, brought by Paul Spires, ran as unchallenged standard cars. If the test is run again in years to come, modified DB7s and Vantages might be more common than they are at the moment.

In contrast to thinking we would have more than our fair share of Bamford & Martin Astons, I was afraid we would have nothing to set an interesting target time. Negotiations with Ford Boreham about the possibility of having a works Escort Cosworth Rally car appeared to be faltering. At short notice, John Dennehy, who planned to race his Nimrod on the following Saturday at Oulton Park, flew in from France a few days early to provide our bogey time. On the day Gwyndaf Evans took ten minutes out of his testing schedule at Boreham to run the quarter for us as well.

In conversation with John Martin some time ago I mentioned Wendy’s Peugeot 205 GTI and John told me it was a car his father would have loved, a light, powerful, agile and altogether competent package. I was then intrigued to have the same conversation with Bill Bertelli, almost word for word. So to establish bands of time for comparison purposes, I had no doubts about running the car and Wendy agreed (“No, I didn’t, you just took it!”). An overheard remark from the guest of a guest about the Peugeot’s presence at the event was soon tidied away when Wendy observed that at that point in proceedings her little car had blown the doors off everything up to and including the V8 in the standard cars and everything up to the MkIII in the modified. She may also have added that I missed the first gear change on the very first run of the day and still returned a time of less than 17 seconds.

Most cars improved their times during the day with the V8, in the hands of Tony Palmer and Rikki Cann, improving dramatically until, as you see in the graph, it finished up three quarters of a second faster than the Peugeot. This brings us to another point of interest. Once the times of the first runs had been tabulated and comparisons made, drivers went round again –and again – to pare off seconds, tenths of second and, in the end, hundredths of seconds from their runs. So much for science, let’s improve, let’s go faster, let’s beat someone else’s time. No quarter was either sought or given.

To give some measure of how significant the parts of a second are, the spread of speedometer readings at the quarter mile marker varied between 70 and 130mph. At 100 mph you cover 146 feet (45 metres) in a second, roughly eight car’s lengths. So if someone is a second slower than you over a quarter mile, they are a long way behind.

When Gwyndaf Evans arrived with the works Escort Cosworth rally car there was a lot of interest. A quick introduction, the car lined up, the light went green and he was gone. The Cosworth is turbo charged, four-wheel drive and has traction control and a six-speed sequential gearbox. The gearbox did more than anything to make the car sound quite different to any other there. Gear changes were marked not by the familiar pause and drop in revs but by an instantaneous change in tone of the engine. By my reckoning, Evans changed gear every second, so half way along his 12.12 second run he had run out of gears. With taller gearing he may have been quicker still. He gave two almost identical runs and was gone as quickly as he had come. Evans driving his car with no crash helmet persuaded others to dispense with theirs, explaining why crash hats appear in some photos and not others.

The six cylinder cars, with their lovely distinctive exhaust notes, put up some very respectable times. As there was time, the other visiting Astons also had a run or two with interesting results which are shown in the second graph. Compare the MkIII’s of John Gross’s factory-modified car with that of David Holland’s standard DBD engined drop head and Peter Gwynn’s DB4 with Stuart Bailey’s DB6.

Astons, traditionally having either live back axles or De Dion rear suspension, are able to keep their rear wheels in line with one another and square to the road. The DB7s, with their independent rear suspension, launching themselves down the quarter mile with tyres smoking, were squatting under full load and had their rear wheels moving rapidly up and down in an arc centred on the differential. This gave an add optical illusion which made it look as if the wheels were buckled. It was over in an instant, but rather strange to see. Irrespective of this, the times recorded by the cars, particularly the manual at 14.42 seconds, were very quick indeed and not disgraced in company with the Vantage. Note the comparison between the times of HWM’s manual and John Dennehy’s automatic transmission car.

John’s Nimrod ran a straightforward and repeatable 12.5 seconds and would no doubt have benefited from a couple of laps of a fast circuit to put some heat in the tyres. After Gweyndaf Evan’s 12.12 second run, he decided to try once more. With the expression ‘getting out of shape’ hanging in the air Nimrod wagged its tail away from the line AND on the change into second gear as John blasted to the best time of the day at 12.02. You could still see the heat haze coming from the car when it was 200 metres away. John parried requests to beat 12 seconds by saying he wanted a clutch for Oulton Park on Saturday.

There were some good lines overheard during the day. Peter Davies watching Rob Davies in LM10 remarked, “You could have timed it on a calendar”, and several people, bemused by the repeated runs of the faster cars, were heard to remark that this was not rocket science. Casual observers might be tempted to think that, “Give it 6000 revs and drop the clutch”, was all that was needed, but there are techniques to learn and tricks to acquire. One of Richard Williams’s solutions was to leave the airfield and fill the V8 Zagato up with fuel. The extra traction with what someone described as the “bag of cement in the boot” cut half a second from his time, beating John Hall’s then best time by a tenth of a second. The two modified V8s repeatedly traded best times during the morning.

In the afternoon, when the plateau of times had apparently been reached and it seemed that no more could be wrung out of the cars there wee some lengthy debates between the front runners and Rob Davies’ guest, Steve Worsdall. By coincidence, Steve is a rocket scientist who, because of a downturn in interest in missiles, is earning his living producing high tech parts for Formula One cars. More importantly on the day though was his interest in drag racing. Reduce the pressure in the back tyres was his advice. I, for one, had always thought that reducing the effective diameter of the wheels made no difference to the gearing as the circumference of the tyre remains the same. Apparently the secret is in the extra leverage offered by the reduction in radius. If you watch slow motion film of dragsters leaving the start line you see how the tyres squash down, reducing the radius and giving increased footprint and less likelihood of spinning. As the cars gather speed the tyres are thrown out to their full diameter with centrifugal force effectively giving extra gearing.

Meanwhile, Keith Piper in the automatic Virage was conducting his own experiments. He tried numerous variations on the theme of pulling away. First, he tried running normally in automatic; then manually holding the car in the gears to 6000 rpm; then winding up the torque converter before releasing the foot brake and so on. His slowest time was holding the car in gear and using the air conditioning. His fastest time was his first run, in automatic and after the tyres and oil had cooled after standing for some time, which is a great complement to the engineer at Aston Martin for giving their automatic transmission customers the ideal set up.

On one of his runs, Keith was well under way when, like a scene from a James Bond film, a helicopter loomed up from nowhere and flew straight down the runway towards him about 20 feet from the ground. Aston owners are made of stern stuff and Keith took it in his stride and did not back off. The Essex Police helicopters are based at Boreham and have a good command of the county from there. The pilot and crew joined us later and said how pleased they were to see the airfield being used for something other than Fords for the day and presented the Club with a short video of proceedings including the two fastest road cars running down the quarter mile. Later we were invited to join them at their control tower which is the original USAAF building dating from the airfield’s operational life during the war.

In preparation for the D-Day landings Boreham Airfield was built by the Americans between 1943 and 1944 on land which had been farm and orchard. The 394th USAAF Bomber Group flew 96 missions in B-26 Martin Marauders from Boreham before moving to Bournemouth. After the war the buildings were used as temporary accommodation for local people who lost their homes during the war.

The control tower has memorabilia from the war around the walls including the Stars and Stripes and photographs and badges of the American and British Squadrons who flew from the airfield.

In the early 1950s Boreham became a motor racing circuit and in 1955 was taken over by Ford. In anticipation of their redevelopment of the circuit, Ford are quarrying the whole site and only about half the old circuit is still visible. The Aston base camp was at Railway Corner.

It used to be said that if you arrived by car your luggage should precede you by train. Time has moved on. Roger Bennington arrived by helicopter and his cars preceded him by transporter.

Roger’s Vantage gave the third quickest time of the road cars with his gorgeous DB4GT Zagato replica giving it a hard time just one tenth of a second slower.

Richard Williams took a great deal of trouble developing his times. Compared with John Hall’s 6.3 Virage, the 7 litre Zagato had more power, less weight over the driving wheels and narrower tyres, hence a lot less traction. He explained, “With the V8 Zagato it is extremely easy to take weight off the back and very hard to take it off the front, just as it is with the DB4. John made a very fast run on his first time out. Everyone else went out and found how much adhesion there was, how much wheelspin to have and this chap arrived and did a very good time on his first run. The rest of his runs were around the same sort of time. That made sense once I knew he had traction control and that was the eye opener of the day. I suspected the runs would be between the Vantage and myself, but it gives you an idea of how good modern technology is. John did runs without the traction control and, in fact, was quicker with it. How consistent he was with the traction control was brilliant.”

Amongst 45 minutes of taping on my dictaphone I was lucky enough to catch the discussion about Richard Williams’s last run with the rip-roaring sound of the 7 litre V8 engine hurling the Zagato down the track in the background. The debate about him looking quick but how his split time was slow gave way to spontaneous applause, cheering and laughter as he crossed the line in 13.44 seconds. On his return to the start line Richard stopped the car, looked at the timing display and them climbed out and shut the door saying simply, “That’s it.”

All in all it was a very successful day providing plenty of material for discussions at Club meetings. The thing I found most interesting was how close the main graph comes to describing the hyperbolic curve which experience tells you will accompany the diminishing returns of technical development.

There is plenty of scope for enlarging the range of cars covered in such a sprint. There were no 2-litre Astons, for example. Perhaps the works competition cars should be in a class on their own, and so on. Food for thought. Straight line quarter mile sprinting could become and annual event. Who knows?

Neil Murray, happy with the 20.9 second which he described as his “best ever”, was looking for even better later on. “You don’t come to an event like this if you don’t look for a little more.”

Richard White did not run the Le Mans repeatedly but was content to stop when he achieved the under 23 seconds time he wanted.

Was Rob Davies recalling his big bang at Blandford and holding LM10 back a bit? We will see at the Horsfall in 1998 when the car is perfectly run in.

David Holland put up some good times in his MkIII and then went home, returning a little later with his Cord which put up a 23.69 run.

Brian Joscelyne, driving David Holland’s DB2/4, told how his father had been an early devotee of the racing at Boreham and had installed himself as the motoring correspondent of the local paper on the strength of it.

Jon Gross had a fantastic throw-away line in answer to concern about a crack in the paintwork on the front wing of his MkIII. “It happened in a shunt at Sebring in ’58 and just comes through every so often.”

The MkIII belonged to Jon’s father and in 1982 Jon bought half of it. Campaigning the car as hard as we have come to expect, in 1984 Jon blew it up. By common consent it was agreed he’d blown up his father’s half!

In due course his father gave up his half.

Peter Gwynn told how he used 5000 revs compared with his usual 3000 in the DB4. Peter appeared recently on Murray Walker’s “This is Your Life” on television. The two are not only old friends but also business partners in the Vintage Carriage Company in Lingfield.

The standard V8 owned by Tony Palmer and driven both by him and Rikki Cann was the most understated performer of the more powerful cars. Despite being persuaded to go faster and faster during the day it never looked like becoming unruly pulling away. A very gentlemanly motor car.

Richard Williams said, “I was really pleased, we had two engines we were very involved with first and second.”

John Hall was keen to be at the sprint and rescheduled his week to fit it in. His business is demolition, a business sufficiently lucrative to provide him with one of the fastest convertibles in the world, a 6.3 litre Virage Volante. He usually visits his clients in his Mercedes, but when invited to inspect a disused airfield with a long runway he decided to take the Aston. Driving slowly round the site with his potential client he discussed terms while discretely registering the length of the runway at two miles. Business concluded, John announced he would just take one more drive down the runway. With hood and windows down and his unsuspecting passenger by his side, John blasted the car from one end of the runway to the other, managing 0 to 165 and back to 0 in 1¾ miles, even managing to change down to fifth and then back to sixth looking for more acceleration. At 150, his passenger’s papers had taken off and blown away.

Sadly, the potential client was not impressed. John has not heard from him since.

The spell check on my word processor did not like Boreham : Boredom was its best guess. How wrong can a machine be?

No Quarter

Interesting Comparisons

Many thanks go to Ford Motorsport particularly Marion Barnaby for organising the Boreham side of the day; to Harry Calton of Aston Martin for finding the venue and helping with the costs; to Francis Shortall and Colin Hutton of MM Timing Services; to Nick Mee and Judy Hogg for advice and suggestions; to Neil Murray for endless support and encouragement and for striding miles with a measuring wheel to set out the track. Extra special thanks to all the owners and drivers of the cars featured for being such good sports.