Although Aston Martin was founded by Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford in 1913, the early years of the company, even when the world was not at war, can be seen as faltering at best. So if today we ask who was it who actually put Aston Martin on the map, turning it into a globally recognised and respected brand that was equally at home on road or track, the answer is one Augustus Bertelli, an Italian who moved to the UK aged three, took over the engineering of all Aston Martins following the company’s first bankruptcy in 1925 and was known to all and sundry, somewhat unimaginatively, as Bert.
And when Bert Bertelli was asked to choose the greatest cars he ever created, he named the last of his 1.5-litre ‘Ulster’ racing cars, built to be raced by the factory team for the 1935 season. There were just four cars in total, whose numbers carried on the series of earlier Astons intended to race at Le Mans. LM18, LM19 and LM20 actually raced at Le Mans in 1935 while LM21 came along later in the season. To call these cars rare and special is to understate the extremely obvious.
This one is LM19, the star lot of Bonhams’ forthcoming sale at the Goodwood Festival of Speed and with a guide price of £1.6-2.2million, is expected comfortably to break the record for the largest sum of money ever paid for a pre-war Aston Martin. And, even if you never looked at the car but simply its history, you could see why; this is a veteran not only of Le Mans, but also those other great long distance races of the era, the Tourist Trophy and the Mille Miglia. It was not the most fortunate of the works racers, its typical pattern to be storming fast before retiring, but that is of only minor consequence today. Bathed in spring sunshine outside Goodwood House with that low radiator and wing extensions that mark it out as a 1935 team car, to me it is the most beautiful pre-war sports racing car this country produced, and I say that as someone with closer connections to both Bentleys and MGs of this era.
It also looks incredibly inviting. One of the reasons Astons tended to do so well in long races of this era (its sister LM20 came an almost unbelievable 3rd overall at Le Mans in 1935, beaten only by a Lagonda with an engine three times larger than its 1.5-litre, four cylinder motor, and a 2.3-litre, supercharged eight cylinder Alfa Romeo), is that Bertelli made sure the cars were both comfortable and easy to drive. He was one of the first to figure that the most unreliable component of any car is always the one holding the steering wheel, and that careful management was needed to prevent brain fade.
‘You could go shopping in LM19 and do the Mille Miglia or almost any other big European tour.’
The cockpit looks tiny, but even at 6ft 4in, I fit perfectly. The car is jet black now but would have been bright red at Le Mans, a colour you can still see if you know where to look under the bonnet. The Smiths and Jaeger dials are scattered unhelpfully across the dash and are small enough to be hard to read were they right in front of you. The steering wheel is huge.
In the day the single cam, 1.5-litre engine used by the Ulsters offered 85bhp or, if you continued to rev it, 100bhp at the potential price of a con-rod through the side of the block. Modern metallurgy cured these issues long ago so there is definitely a triple digit amount of power under my right foot. The engine starts with a tuneful clatter but before you can drive it you need to remember three fairly crucial facts: the gearbox has no synchromesh so shifts need to be doubled in both directions, the gate is reversed with first and second where you’d expect to find third and fourth and vice versa, and finally the accelerator is in the middle and the brake is on the right. Drivers far better than me have proven unable to adapt this particular issue, one S Moss among them who had the similarly configured pedals of his Maserati 250F swapped back.
What you notice most about the Ulster is not its speed because, to be honest and by modern standards, it’s not that fast. It’s the immediacy and precision of the car I had not expected from something in its 80th year. Once you’ve got your head around which way the gearlever needs to do next, the shift quality itself is unimprovable. Time it right and the lever will move across the gate with the well-oiled precision of a .303 calibre rifle bolt and as fast as you can move your hand. The engine, or at least this engine, struggles just a little at low speed because the gearing is high, but once you show it a few revs, the exhaust note sharpens and sooner than you’d think you’re really travelling.
Today we’re on the Goodwood hill and, while the first corner might require no more than a lift in Festival conditions, we have to allow for others using the road. Even so those big drum brakes shed speed brilliantly, whereupon the Ulster will corner flat and faster than you’d ever imagine a pre-war sports car might.
And this is the secret of the Ulster: its chassis is so capable and reassuring that while it may take the car a while to gather speed, once accrued there’s rarely a reason to lose it again. The proof of this is provided by the fact that at Le Mans in 1935 LM20 lapped at over 81mph despite a top speed of barely 100mph, smashing the lap record for a 1.5-litre car by so great a margin it would hold it for fully 15 years.
In my head I carry a guide to what makes cars desirable, and LM19 seems to tick almost every box. It is of course beautiful and important, from a blue chip manufacturer and complete with an amazing competition history. It’s fabulous to drive and incredibly rare too, which helps. But it is also blessed with the talent so many forget but is probably the most important of all; it’s usability. You could go shopping in LM19 and do the Mille Miglia or almost any other big European tour. I imagine it would be looked upon favourably as a Goodwood entry or you could just use it for hammering around your local lanes. Together these talents explain why it might just break £2 million at the Bonhams sale, and having been lucky enough to drive it and learn about its history, I’d not be surprised if it did.