It was the sort of day that Herodotus would have written about in The Histories, possibly in a chapter called The Elephantine Rainspouts of Silverstone. Except this was Monday, June 10, the day the skies opened and stayed open; the day we tested a 1935 Aston Martin Ulster, chassis LM18.
“Works fine in the workshop and on the rolling road, and then this,” grumbles Ben de Chair, amiable motor engineer from Ten Tenths, the historic preparation specialist owned by Nick Mason, Pink Floyd’s head of syncopation.
This old red charger, an ex-works car, veteran of the 1935 Le Mans 24 Hours and the Ulster TT, had spluttered into life in the pits at Silverstone, only to fracture its oil pressure gauge pipe and pump out a fair slick from its dry-sump tank.
De Chair sets to, with spanners, water-pump pliers and a plastic takeaway curry box having a grand second life holding copper washers.
Fortunately it’s too wet even for the normal testing of modern Astons and the company’s chief engineer Matt Becker is holding a meeting in the dry.
You know it’s boring because when CML722’s cracking, rasping exhaust note rattles the pit doors, hardened testers raise their heads like gundogs pricking their ears at the crash of a 12-bore. (Heaven knows what these old cars do with petrol; they seem to tear it apart, noisily ravaging its hydrocarbon chains, leaving no bystander untainted or unthrilled.)
Robert Blakemore, MD of preparation specialist Ecurie Bertelli (which Mason, along with Derrick Edwards and Judy Hogg, founded as Morntane in 1976) explains the idiosyncratic controls: centre throttle, reversed H-gate for the exposed four-speed gearbox, dashboard spattered with tiny instruments whose meanings are not entirely clear – and there’s no speedo.
A railwayman’s lever on the steering wheel advances and retards the ignition (early engine management) and there used to be a quaint arrangement between the clutch pedal and the oil filter which jiggled the filter’s plates around when the clutch was depressed; these days the car has a proper full-flow system.
It also has a more reliable points and coil ignition, too, though still sports a magneto just as it would have done at Le Mans in 1935, where it was driven by Jim Elwes and Mortimer “Mort” Morris-Goodall into 12th place. Contemporary reports call this 58-entry classic 24 Hours “the race of the floods”, so there’s symmetry there.
The car had all sorts of little idiosyncrasies so it could be recognised through the murk from the signalling pits; the side lights are mounted on the narrow scuttle and the headlamps can be switched individually so the driver can signal back.
It was raced fairly consistently until the Second World War and a bit afterwards. Edwards found it semi-derelict in Normandy, France, and he and Mason bought it in 1977 and restored it. The only non-original panel is the coal scuttle-shaped rear panel, which hides the horizontally mounted spare wheel; the original panel was damaged in the 1935 Le Mans race. These days it’s owned and raced by Mason’s daughter Chloe, so it’s her we have to thank for the chance to drive it in such biblical weather.