In this success story we are going to share the life story of Lionel Martin, who founded Aston Martin, a British car manufacturer of luxury sports’ cars. Enjoy reading a history of brilliant success, trials and errors and how a British car manufacturer won the hearts of motorists not only in the UK, but around the world.
The starting point of the Aston Martin history
The Aston Martin company was officially founded in 1914, but the beginning of its history starts in 1913, when Lionel Walker Birch Martin (1878 – 14 October, 1945), a Cornishman entrepreneur, was enthusiastically in love with cars. Once he took the first place in the Aston Clinton race, sitting behind the wheel of the Singer 10. In 1914, Lionel Martin started running a small shop in London’s Kensington district. Some time later he decided to self-assemble cars. By putting together his own surname Martin and a part of the name of that winning race Aston, he came up with the company. This is how the Aston Martin name was created.
Though, Lionel Martin had ambitious plans, he had a little money and it was difficult to start up a car manufacturing company without financial support of a partner. Lionel asked for the help from Robert Bamford, who funded manufacturing of the first Aston Martin. The 15th January 1913 marks the official incorporation of the company.
In 1914, they assembled their first Aston Martin. It was a 1.4-liter lightweight sports’ car with a Coventry-Simples engine, mounted on the chassis of the Italian car Isotta Fraschini. Unfortunately, the First World War temporarily prevented the work and delayed the release of new models until 1919 and their construction was restored only in 1920. Since 1920s new models were assembled in a new studio in Abingdon Road, London. Nevertheless, Robert Bamford was disappointed in the deal with Lionel Martin and discontinued investing in Aston Martin manufacturing. Lionel kept his head and came for help to the Count Louis Zborowski. He was also passionate about motorcars and racing, and therefore willingly undertook to help Aston Martin and help the company to take part in the competitions of the highest level, including Grand Prix motor racing.
It seemed that it was a chance for the British company to embark on the path of success and development. The rich patron Louis Zborowski was generous for investments and continued to invest in Aston Martin, but that paradise lasted only until 1924. A tragedy occurred with Count Zborowski. Being a racing driver and automobile engineer, he actively took part in car races. He joined the Mercedes team in 1924 and during the Grand Prix at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza in Italy he died, after hitting the tree. It was a tremendous loss for Aston Martin team. Lionel Martin even was ready to declare that his company went bankrupt. And it would have been so, yet Lady Charnwood saved the situation and purchased Aston Martin, appointing her son John Benson on the board. They renamed it to Aston Martin Motors. Lionel Martin became the Technical Director. But this tandem lasted for two years only. The company still was unprofitable and was sold again this time to engineer Bill Renwick and his partner Augustus (Bert) Bertelli, who immediately transferred car manufacturing to the town of Feltham, in Middlesex County. It was the end of Aston Martin history for Lionel Martin.
The history of Aston Martin without Lionel Martin
Renwick and Bertelli had their own R&D center, where engineers designed 1.5-liter engine with an overhead camshaft for Aston Martin. The unit has been so successful that it has been installed on all Aston Martin models for the next few years, including cars, prepared for the competition at Le Mans, Brooklands and Mille Miglia.
Perhaps the most famous Aston Martin model at the time was the International: two-seater sports’ car designed by Bertelli. And of course, it was driven by that 1.5-liter engine, which since 1928 was produced with a dry sump. Three years later Augustus Bertelli equipped the International with a new gearbox and the worm gear was replaced with hypo id bevel one. In 1933, the engine power was increased to 85 horsepower and this event marked the appearance of a new modification, called the Mk-II, which was produced until 1939.
It is worth mentioning the Aston Martin Atom, the incredible car prototype of those times. Designed by Claude Hill in 1939, it had an aluminum body, semi-automatic transmission and many other innovative technologies that were installed to the car. The Atom was an outstanding prototype car and was far ahead of its time and became a reference point for the whole European car industry. Because of the World War II, Aston Martin was forced to shift to the production of aircraft components. But in spite the Atom remained a car prototype it played a significant role in the Aston Martin history (I tell you a little bit later how this car saved the company from going bankrupt). This car currently belongs to Aston Martin enthusiast and collector Tom Rollason. He has owned it since 1985. All interested can see it at the Heritage Motor Centre, Gaydon.
Business did not went smoothly for Aston Martin in the 1930s and apparent success was delusive. Aston Martin was trying to find a stable way for growth and literally was fighting for survival. The lack of funds to cover the expenses drove Aston Martin to the frequent change of owners. In 1931, the company started working with British company Frazer-Nash, founded by Archibald Frazer-Nash in 1922. They produced sports’ cars sports’ with a unique multi-chain transmission. But their mutual cooperation lasted only for two years. Soon Aston Martin was bought by Gordon Sutherland.
Gordon Sutherland fell in love with the Atom so much, that personally traveled over 100,000 miles in the Atom. At the end of WWII, Aston Martin was on the verge of collapse. It was the Atom, that saved the company and help to find a new investor David Brown. He invested into the company just after making a trip in the Atom.
David Brown Era
David Brown was a quick-witted person. When he was 17 years old, he was in charge of the family business. They produced tractors and agricultural machinery.
The accumulated funds David invested in various types of business (e.g. stables, shipping industry, etc.) by building up a business empire with approximately 20 000 employees. In 1947, Brown decided to get involved into the car business and bought the Lagonda company, and after a few months – Aston Martin. The advent of David Brown turned the Aston Martin business into a true successful story.
The first car of the new era was the DB1. It was the car with an aerodynamic body and a 2-liter 6-cylinder engine with dual overhead camshafts, created by engineers from Bentley for Lagonda. Fifteen of those cars were produced altogether and then it was time to debut the DB2 with 2.6-liter engine and its modifications the Aston Martin DB2 / 4 and Aston Martin DB2/4 Mk II Touring. The latter was designed by the Italian company. And yet Italians played an important role in the fate of the landmark model DB4. Using his connections, David Brown made sure that the Aston Martin DB4 was approved as a vehicle of Secret Agent James Bond 007. Aston Martin made history not only in automotive industry, but also in cinema.
(Did you know that an abbreviation for DB (name of the Aston Martin DB) stands for the initials of David Brown, who saved the company from bankruptcy after the Second World War).
The Aston Martin DB4 was equipped with inline 6-cylinder engine with dual overhead camshafts and cylinder capacity of 3669 cc. The framework of the car was made with welded steel plates with spars amplifiers. The front wheels were suspended on the wishbone and springs and the rear bridge was sustained with longitudinal and short-wishbone coil springs. The ultralight body Superleggera, as we have said, was created by a Milanese atelier Touring. Production of the car was set up at the newly opened facility in Newport, Buckingham shire County.
In 1959, the sports’ modified Aston Martin DB4 GT is started to be assembled. It is worth underlining some of its specifications such as two carburetors Weber, dual ignition and a short wheelbase. At the same time, engineers made another sports’ version of the DB4 GTZ with engine capacity of 300 hp and a more streamlined body designed by Zagato studio. Top speed of that version was 155 mph/h (250 km/h). All in all, there was released 1185 cars of DB4 series.
At the same time, Aston Martin continued to act in car races. The most successful model of the company was the DB3R. In 1959, one of those cars won the 24 – hour race at Le Mans. Then the company tried to enter into the world of Grand Prix, but the Aston Martin Formula 1 cars turned to be not so successful and this project was closed.
In 1963, the company announced the debut of the DB5, that differed from its predecessor only by 4L engine with 282 hp. This car also became “the hero” in one of James Bond films. But its life was short, as in 1965, the premiere model DB6 was announced. It was similar in appearance with the previous Aston Martin, but a new one could accommodate four passengers and could compete with the most prestigious cars from other manufacturers.
Occupying a niche, Aston Martin, however, could not accept the fact that their cars did not cause such delight impression as Ferrari or Maserati. Therefore, the engineers and designers, were given a task to by all means develop similar impressive cars. After a while, they designed the Aston Martin DBS and Aston Martin DBS Vantage with a 6 – cylinder engine. Later, the cars were improved with new aluminum 5.3 liter V8 engine with 340 – 450 horsepower.
Calm Before the Storm
As it used to happen in the history of Aston Martin the period of rise sooner or later gave way to recession. By creating a range of great cars, the company was once again in debt.
In 1972, David and sold the Aston Martin and Lagonda companies. The new owners Company Development decided to put an end to the DB car series and put a lot of effort in order to overcome the effects of a severe economic crisis. But they could not tackle everything and in 1975, Aston Martin once again found itself on the brink for the next six years.
In the 70s, Aston Martin produced a range of small sports’ car with difficulties, which were named Vantage for coupe cars and Volante for convertibles. All the cars were offered in the most expensive versions with the same 5.3L V8 engine with 340 and 390 hp. They were equipped with the first direct injection system and American automatic transmissions.
The seventies also marked the launch of a series of very unusual luxury sedan class, that received the symbolic name Lagonda. Wealthy clients, particularly from the Middle East, immediately fell in love with the new Aston Martin Lagonda. The car was manually assembled, had a powerful V8 carbureted engine, and couple of innovations such as digital instrument panel, touch pad, and in fact the world’s first on-board computer. The Aston Martin Lagonda cost 33 000 GBP and was one of the most expensive premium sedans. It was a lot of money at that time. Considering manual assembly and exclusivity of the model there were produced only 645 of these cars. A contemporary version of this model became the Aston Martin Rapide.
In 1980s, financial future of Aston Martin became even more uncertain. During next seven years it was bought by British and American industrial and financial groups for several times, but this did not lead the company to significant changes. The relative stability occurred only in 1987, when Ford placed Aston Martin in the Premier Automotive Group and bought 75% of shares in the company. And it worked! Earlier Aston Martin sold around 100 cars each year, but in 1995, that amount increased to a record mark of 700 pieces. The Vantage, Volante and Virage, equipped with the upgraded V8 engine with 4 valves per cylinder and bulk blowers, brought profit. Best of all is that in 1993, Ford revived the DB series, presenting the sports’ DB7 with a 3.2-liter inline 6-cylinder Jaguar engine that had 335 hp. Along with the manual transmission, buyers were offered automatic transmission. The leather interior trim, lacquered wood panels and other elements of luxury trimmed the sports’ Aston Martin DB7.
The Richards Era
On March 12, 2007, David Richards bought Aston Martin for £475m (US$848m). Ford saved a stake in the company valued at £40m (US$70m). Aston Martin V8 and V12 engines continued to be manufactured by Ford in Cologne, Germany until 2013. Ford had a little benefit from the collaboration with Aston Martin as they did not use Aston Martin engines in their vehicles. On July 25, 2013 Aston Martin and Mercedes-AMG signed up a partnership agreement. Aston Martin will supply new components and power plants for the next generation line up.
Now Aston Martin is going through the best of times. Aston Martin has returned to the sport and acquired a new plant and released a number of unique vehicles such as DB9, One-77, Rapide and Zagato, has developed a new engine including the V12. Over a century-old existence of Aston Martin, it experienced trials and errors. The Aston Martin founder Lionel Martin would have probably proud of his creation. But one thing has always remained the same: from the first day until now every single Aston Martin car was manually assembled. Even Ford could not impose conveyor to Aston. Hopefully, this century-old tradition will continue for many decades ahead, and the eternal struggle for survival is left for Aston Martin in the past.
In 2013, Aston Martin, the legendary British car manufacturer, it celebrated its centenary existence!
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