Many cars are credited with saving their company, some even rightly so. Would Lotus have survived in the 21st century had the Elise not come along? It seems highly unlikely. The New Class BMWs of the early 1960s brought salvation to the struggling Bavarian brand while the Porsche Boxster turned Porsche’s ship around in 1996 and set it on a course that in time and with the help of the Cayenne enabled it to become the most profitable car manufacturer in the world.
JUL 14th 2017
Thank Frankel it's Friday: The car that saved Aston Martin
But I want to talk about an Aston Martin and, before you ask, it’s not the DB7, though there can be no doubt that TWR’s reskinned Jaguar XJS also hauled Aston back from the brink. I want to recount the tail of this particular Aston because, unlike all the cars mentioned to date, very few people have even heard of it. Total production amounted to a single car whose design was already almost a decade old before the first production car it was to inspire went on sale.
Work started on the car known as the Atom sometime before the outbreak of hostilities in 1939. By then Aston Martins were not only expensive, they were completely outdated, underpinned by engineering that was always of high quality but vintage in its technology and thinking. The Atom stood in recognition of the fact that if Aston Martin was to survive it needed not only an entirely new car but an entirely new approach.
It was chief engineer Claude Hill who provided it. Abandoning the traditional ladder chassis to which the body was simply bolted, his chassis comprised rectangular section tubing of varying widths according to the stresses they would bear. Further stiffness came from a tubular body frame to which highly aerodynamic lightweight aluminium panels were attached.
The Atom had an innovative parallel link fully independent front suspension, a Cotal semi-automatic gearbox and shape so sleek it seemed not merely years but decades ahead of the cars it was designed to replace.
It seems the car first actually ran in 1940 and was frequently loaned out to car magazines desperate to fill pages in those straitened times. The Autocar called it ‘the future in the present’, its great rival Motor proclaiming, ‘in this car we can see the new order of motoring.’ Even back then when criticism was not quite so trenchant as it was later to become, this was rare praise.
Aston Martin’s then boss Gordon Sutherland used it as transport during the war, at least when fuel allowances permitted, and is said to have racked up 100,000 miles in the car using at first a standard pre-war engine and from 1944 a new 2-litre pushrod four also designed by Hill. But it was in peacetime that its greatest value came to be realised. For it wasn’t just periodicals that saw the future in the Atom, an industrialist from the North called David Brown decided to buy the struggling company largely on the promise it showed.
The only problem was the lack of a suitable engine. With Jaguar now toting a 3.4-litre six cylinder motor with twin overhead camshafts, Hill’s 2-litre was hardly going to suffice, and while it was fitted to 14 2-litre Sports models (the car is known popularly today to the undisguised irritation of the cognoscenti as the DB1) which had been designed largely before Brown arrived, something else was clearly needed. It was provided by the acquisition by Brown of Lagonda and came in the form of a 2.6-litre twin-cam 6 designed by Willie Watson under the close supervision of none other than WO Bentley.
Hill’s chassis (now with a coil sprung live rear axle) complete with the Bentley/Watson engine and Frank Feeley’s taut bodywork was the recipe Aston Martin needed. Together they created the DB2 and a line of cars that would endure for another decade. Yes, it’s true that it was the depths of David Brown’s pockets far more than the meagre and often non-existent profits these cars produced that kept the Aston head above water, but in the meantime, they built Aston’s reputation as creators of beautiful, high-quality English sporting GTs that it enjoys to this day. So remember the Atom, without which it’s likely that David Brown would never have even looked at Aston Martin, let alone go on to keep it afloat for the next 25 years.
Photography courtesy of Aston Martin
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