TODAY, many of the top echelon of sports car owners with well padded pockets are singing of a new love, the thundering Aston-Martin sport coupe. This little car -with a voice like Tallulah Bankhead has been so highly touted in various foreign publications and on these shores, by the fans capable of putting up about $7,000 for one, that all this smoke called for further investigation.
When I’m in a hole for something exotic and rare to test I usually contact Briggs Cunningham, America’s number one sports car backer, because I know if it’s worth while and in America he’ll have one. On arriving at the Cunningham West Palm
Beach factory, where he is now manufacturing competition cars for international racing, I felt I had hit pay dirt. Before I could ask, Briggs suggested I make tests of his Aston-Martin.
I took this car out and headed west toward the Everglades. The Aston-Martin has beautiful lines and finish. It looks expensive. More important to the owner it has a very fine double overhead cam, 6 cylinder, 2 1/5 litre, Lagonda type engine which
whips the cream on top of other small engines performance. It is light of weight, remarkably comfortable and rides fairly well for a sports car, but on one really bumpy road, I found the car dropping so fast under me that the metal roof was playing an uncomfortable staccato on my bald head.
The instruments are all excellent and the speedometer fantastically accurate at high speeds. The hardware is top grade as it should be at these prices; after all-you can buy two Caddies for the price of most Astons. The steering control seemed to me on all three Astons I finally drove, to be dangerously exact; also in all three, I noticed a desire to leave the road at high speed which without the security of wings and stabilizers was not pleasant.
My first fast run that day scared the pants off me. The black top was not exactly as smooth as the village pool table because the hot Florida sun is tough on roads and this one had some slight dips and rolls in it. As I built up speed, I instantly realized that this was no car for one-arm amateur driving. Both hands were definitely needed on the wheel which was starting to feel like a snake in my hands. I kept my foot flat to the floor and saw the tachometer climbing past 5,000 rpm and the extremely accurate speedometer touched 116 mph. I had all the confidence of getting out alive that a guy who finds himself in bed with a cobra has.
This car has such extremely sensitive (in my opinion over-control) steering that it was like tearing over a heavy gravel road at 30 mph on a bicycle, no hands. In addition, I distinctly felt the car was becoming airborne in the front end. It felt, above 100 mph, as if 500 pounds had been lifted from under the hood. Keeping it on an exact straight line called for a phenomenal amount of restraint to under steer on this over steering car. I got the feeling this rig wanted to head for the woods.
When it came time to back off, as a turn was looming up a half mile ahead, I found it equally nasty. I sailed into the corner at about fifty and was doing just dandy. The cornering qualities of these rigs, however, are startling to say the least. They have a way of holding like glue and then all of a sudden-BANG! you’re heading for the wide blue yonder, just as you thought you were doing swell. On the next run I held my speed to 105 tops and then made my acceleration runs – which were terrific- zero to 60 in 10.8 seconds, for example.
When I told Cunningham what I thought of his car, Phil Walters, of the Cunningham Co. and perhaps the greatest sports car driver this country has ever produced, said that he’d like to try it out too. (Walters may be better known to you under his racing name of Ted Tappet and is, with Willy Frick, the creator of the Fordillac).
The next day Walters, Cunningham, Art Vogel, top mid-west sports car builder, and George Schrafft, owner of the Palm Beach Foreign Motors and local distributor of Astons, went back to the same road. Walters took the Aston out. When he got through with his run he said he had experienced the same sensation I had. The car felt, he said, a bit airborne and the steering had definite over steering tendencies.
To double test the road, Walters and I got Briggs’ Healey-Cadillac (with its Tappet-Frick 250 hp engine). At an even 130 mph it held the road like glue and took the curve that had bothered me at 50 in the Aston, at better than 70. Ordinarily this would have been the end of all tests, but not with Cunningham; he’s a perfectionist. He asked me where I had originally tested his XK 120 and I told him about 35- miles further south on another Everglades road.
The next afternoon a real sports car rally got underway, heading for that road.
In the caravan we had two Aston-Martins to be tested, Briggs’ and Thorne Donelley’s, a Healey-Cadillac, a Fordillac, a special Tappet-Frick 250 hp Cadillac sport coupe of Thorne Donelley’s and George Schrafft driving the Jag XK 120 which holds the Daytona Beach foreign car record. Bringing up the rear was my plain, straight shift Cadillac. This road is fast, long and straight, a much better road than the first one I made my Aston tests on. Briggs made the first run in the Aston-Martin I had tested which had 8.5 heads instead of the more standard 6.5. He did 116 mph and on coming in reported the car felt fine to him and suggested it may have been the other road that embittered me. I then took the same car out again and let it go. When I passed the group I was doing exactly 122 mph and I must admit on this extremely fine crushed gravel hard surface road it felt much better, though I would hate to have been distracted from my driving by even a short sneeze.
After this Thorne Donelley volunteered his special Cadillac for acceleration checks with the Aston. Donelley’s Caddie has Hydramatic, of all things-but here’s the catch. Walters has reworked this unit so that it never shifts before 3,800 rpm when your foot is held flat to the floor. This means extreme automatic transmission pickup as the unit will take you up to near 80 before dropping into high. This, coupled with the Tappet-Frick 250 hp engine makes this car a wildcat. At the beginning of the stretch, Walters in the Caddie got right on the Aston’s tail and off we went. I revved up to 5,000 in each gear before shifting and though I was reaching 60 in less than 11 seconds, the Caddie was forced to back off to keep from running over me! We stayed this way until I reached 112 mph and then the Caddie fell back and the Aston went on. I was just beginning to warm up to this little barge when, all of a sudden, at about 120 mph on an absolutely dry road I started a four wheel slide to the right. A quick cut of not more than a half an inch and I was on course again but my heart was beating hell out of my shirt front. What caused this slide I’ll never know, as there was almost a dead calm. Perhaps just a slight wind puff did it -anyhow, I went right back to my original opinion, this is no car for the amateur to wheel around at speeds of 100-plus. Walters was right behind and saw the slide, but could not explain it either. These cars seem to me to be poorly balanced. This may not be a design fault. There is a chance that the front ends, as they are delivered in this country, do not have the right caster and camber for high speed running and they may duck walk at top speeds. Later, I took out Thorne Donelley’s 6.5 Aston Coupe and made speed runs with Phil Walters driving this time and me taking notes. With the 6.5 heads we got this little bucket up to a nice 113 but Walters, like myself with the first car tested, felt a little uneasy about it.
After this we went back to the original bad road with the XK 120 Jag. On this road where the Aston had scared me on my first run, the Jag held on at 120 mph without the slightest sign of wavering. The Jag actually has slight under steering tendencies and is. a safer all around car.
In summing up, I think the Aston one of the best looking wheelbarrows on the highways. It has a real bearcat of an engine that will spit in the eye of any other 2 1/2 litre engine ever made. I think this rig has a tremendous potential but at this writing feel it still needs some definite reworking in the steering and balance department.
In the 1951 Le Mans race the Aston- Martins made a remarkable showing for 2 1/2-litre cars. They not only won in their class but in the overall picture finished third, fifth, seventh and tenth. This remarkable feat brought loads of critical mail to my doorstep because in earlier published reports I had stated that the Aston had bad steering and handling qualities. This still goes in my book as these cars were handled for the most part by professionals. My criticism of the Aston was and still is that it is not a car to relax in at high speeds.
Note in 2017: What made Porsches, which weren’t yet available as they became, when 911’s 6 cylinders rigs came to being, is that everything, and I repeat, everything, described here is ABSENT when you subject a Porsche to these strains. And you do not have to be professional to do that… (REC)