Ul­ster drive

It’s rare to find a pre-war as­ton in com­pletely un­mo­lested con­di­tion. this won­der­ful ul­ster has been in the same fam­ily for more than 50 years, and it’s a to­tal joy, as we dis­cover

VANTAGE - - Contents - Words Stephen archer Photography Matthew how­ell

We cel­e­brate what might very well be the most orig­i­nal Ul­ster in ex­is­tence

It’s not of­ten a car leaves you speech­less, but the words I’d like to use to de­scribe this As­ton Martin – words like ‘orig­i­nal’ and ‘char­ac­ter­ful’ and ‘pati­nated’ – don’t re­ally come close. Stand­ing next to it, even Andy Bell, that doyen of pre-war As­tons, strug­gles to put into words just how spe­cial this 1935 Ul­ster ac­tu­ally is. What you re­alise is that ev­ery plat­i­tude and act of hy­per­bole that is ha­bit­u­ally used to de­scribe such a car has been de­based by over and in­ap­pro­pri­ate use.

This car stands out above the mod­est-sized crowd of pre-war As­ton Martins for many rea­sons but not least be­cause it speaks to you. The ad­mir­ing by­stander may be lost for words but the car is elo­quent. Ev­ery­thing you can see and touch speaks to you – of its own­ers, its ad­ven­tures, its mak­ers. And it speaks from 1935, be­cause this still is the 1935 car. Never re­stored. Never re­built. Al­ways in use and al­lowed to age just as it chooses. The car de­fines it­self, and in a strong and gen­tle way de­fies any­one to in­ter­fere with its age­ing process. But it also wel­comes the driver, rather like, as cur­rent owner Chris Hud­son says, ‘a pair of old slip­pers’.

When I went to drive the car I was dou­bly stumped. Not only was I ren­dered speech­less by its charm and con­di­tion but also be­cause I have known and in­deed raced against it for nearly 40 years. So I re­ally thought that I knew it. But I did not. While I had al­ways been aware of it and ad­mired the way it was used, I had never ap­pre­ci­ated just how ex­tra­or­di­nary it is. So ex­tra­or­di­nary that it made me re­alise that most re­stored Ul­sters – which is pretty much all of them – are se­ri­ously lack­ing in de­tail ac­cu­racy. Though to be fair to the re­stor­ers, they of­ten did not have enough to go on since the cars were so of­ten messed with at some ear­lier point in their lives, ei­ther through choice or ne­ces­sity.

The com­plete­ness of this car is a marvel. Though it has passed through many hands in its eight decades, it still re­tains its orig­i­nal hood. Although it has to be said that while this may have been of some prac­ti­cal value, and in­deed a re­quire­ment for such events as Le Mans (even the DBR1 had to have a hood avail­able), it is a rather com­i­cal item. A frame is at­tached to the car and the hood it­self is at­tached with press-studs to the rear, then stretched for­ward to meet the top of the screen. Un­less you were tiny or a con­tor­tion­ist, it would have been best erected with the oc­cu­pants in place. Once se­cured, the whole ef­fect must have been very claus­tro­pho­bic, the view out fright­en­ingly limited. All of that said, while the hood’s fab­ric is very much de­cayed, it was ev­i­dently very well made.

The car also has its orig­i­nal car­pets. Now, I know of no other Ul­ster with any car­pets, never mind orig­i­nal ones. They fit in each footwell and one large one wraps around the gear­box and the gear-se­lec­tor mech­a­nism. As with the hood, they were ev­i­dently won­der­fully made. It would be so nice to be able to take th­ese items back to the mak­ers and show them what fine work they did when Ge­orge V was still king (this car has lived un­der four mon­archs). The bucket seats are trimmed in the orig­i­nal leather and there are no tears or no­table de­cay in them. Clearly this was a good hide, and the de­tail­ing of the edg­ing and pip­ing is an­other point for fu­ture re­stor­ers to note.

Ex­traor­di­nar­ily, the orig­i­nal padded leather cock­pit lin­ings are still in place and have never been re­moved. Even the Team cars ran with th­ese, though none still has them. They are a lovely fin­ish­ing touch to an in­te­rior that when fully trimmed and with the hood up would be very cosy in­deed. And very warm thanks to the to­tal lack of in­su­la­tion of any sort be­tween the en­gine bay and the cock­pit. Even with no hood, the driver is blessed with life­giv­ing en­gine warmth and mind-bend­ing fumes. The screen and its sep­a­rate re­mov­able aero screens are in fine or­der; it is a clever de­sign, al­low­ing for im­proved pro­tec­tion when the screen is up and sur­pris­ingly good pro­tec­tion when only the aero screens are in use. Re­mark­ably, the wiper sys­tem with its re­mote ca­ble drive is still in place and op­er­a­ble, though the mo­tor drive is cur­rently de­tached.

Most of the car’s his­tory is known, and it has cer­tainly been colour­ful. Speak­ing of which, the bright red paint is orig­i­nal and is the same red that was ap­plied to the 1935 Team cars. (‘Bert’ Bertelli’s wife fa­mously sug­gested Ital­ian rac­ing red af­ter the bad luck the cars had en­dured in 1934 when they were Bri­tish Rac­ing Green. She was right, too: for­tunes im­proved greatly on the track in 1935.)

This car is one of the last of seven pro­duc­tion cars that were built with the low ra­di­a­tor of the Team cars (it’s about 3in lower than the usual rad). Though built in 1935, it wasn’t ac­tu­ally de­liv­ered un­til Jan­uary 25, 1936; one has to re­mem­ber that sales of As­ton Martins in this pe­riod were rarely brisk. Orig­i­nally it was reg­is­tered to a Mr Ogilvy, a garage pro­pri­etor from Brad­ford, hence the ‘KU’ in the reg­is­tra­tion. He sold the car in June 1936, af­ter which it had sev­eral own­ers, though it seems it was laid up dur­ing the war. When it came back on the mar­ket in April 1944 it had cov­ered just 5000 miles.

In its first 23 years, AKU 991 passed through the hands of at least nine own­ers, a mix­ture of naval servicemen and

‘ev­ery­thing you can see and touch speaks to you – of Its own­ers, Its ad­ven­tures, Its mak­ers’

busi­ness­men, and yet it suf­fered no ill ef­fects, ne­glect nor the loss of im­por­tant ac­ces­sories. And then, in 1959, the car en­tered the fam­ily that still owns it to­day.

Broth­ers Reg and Arnold Hill of Pre­ston were suc­cess­ful bak­ers and busi­ness­men and bought the Ul­ster for £450. They were also keen sport­ing mo­torists: Reg Hill had taken part in many na­tional ral­lies in the UK and on the Cir­cuit of Ire­land in the 1950s, driv­ing Tri­umphs with some suc­cess. When the broth­ers sold their bak­ing busi­ness in the late ’50s it al­lowed them more time to in­dulge in their hob­bies. In fact Reg was able to com­bine his pas­sion with his busi­ness ex­per­tise when in the early 1960s he was brought in to help turn around strug­gling Black­pool-based sports car maker TVR. He also presided over TVR’S ap­pear­ance at Le Mans in 1961.

Any­way, the Ul­ster soon be­came a well-loved ad­di­tion, af­fec­tion­ately known in the Hill fam­ily as ‘Wheel­spin’. It was used reg­u­larly on the road and also in com­pe­ti­tion in such events as the Bar­bon Hill Climb in Cum­bria. Then in 1963 it was en­joy­ing a well-earned rested in Reg Hill’s garage when it was spot­ted by the boyfriend of Reg’s daugh­ter Sue. That boyfriend was Chris Hud­son, who knew a bit about cars and also har­boured a de­sire to go rac­ing. He now fixed his sights on own­ing the Ul­ster.

Not long af­ter, Chris mar­ried Sue Hill but it wasn’t un­til 1976 and af­ter much fam­ily de­lib­er­a­tion that Reg al­lowed him to buy the Ul­ster. ‘It took 13 years and four grand­sons be­fore he agreed to sell it me,’ Chris laughs to­day.

Since then the car has been used al­most ev­ery year for VSCC and AMOC events: sprints, hill climbs and races. In 1977, Chris won the pres­ti­gious St John Hors­fall tro­phy at Sil­ver­stone with the car. In fact in his hands it has com­peted in over 200 events with su­perb re­li­a­bil­ity.

Af­ter a few years the orig­i­nal, heavy, steel ‘hel­met’ wings were re­placed with Team-car-style alu­minium ‘cy­cle wings’ (though the steel items still ex­ist). This is the only mod­i­fi­ca­tion that the car has ever had, aside from the oc­ca­sional re­moval of head­lights.

In­evitably in rac­ing there have been mishaps. In the 1980s the car suf­fered a bent axle in a crash at Oul­ton Park. The axle was taken to Bri­tish Steel (where else?) in Sh­effield where the steel work­ers warmed it up and straight­ened it out. The car was back out again two weeks later.

At Cad­well Park in the early 2000s, one of the three main bear­ing caps failed, re­sult­ing in the exit of two con­rods through the block. The 1935 block re­mains with the car, but it now sports a new one un­der the bon­net. The rest of the en­gine is still the one that was in­stalled in 1935.

The only other work has been to the body frame. The ash and ply struc­ture un­der the skin of th­ese cars does not like be­ing flexed for 100,000 stren­u­ous miles. But it was not un­til AKU was about 70 years old that Chris was

‘with so much me­chan­i­cal feed­back and so

lit­tle pro­tec­tion, it feels fast at 50mph’

forced to re­new bits of tim­ber in the frame and spare wheel cover. None of the alu­minium has ever been re­placed, and though it has had some paint from time to time, the depth re­mains thin, as it would have been when new.

There was never any ques­tion in Chris nor the fam­ily’s mind of restor­ing or re­build­ing the car. As Chris says, ‘Why would you?’ And see­ing this car in close prox­im­ity to a rather over-re­stored Team Ul­ster makes the point for him. The case for restora­tion should only be made in force ma­jeure – es­pe­cially with such rare and pre­cious cars.

This is also one ex­tremely tough car. It has sur­vived 79 years of very con­sid­er­able use and cov­ered maybe 100,000 miles or more. Not only has it never been re­built, but the back axle has never been apart and the gear­box has only been dis­man­tled once to change a bear­ing. It al­most beg­gars be­lief un­til you look at the car and drive it and then you know it to be so. As­ton Martin made a fine mo­tor car – it made its name do­ing just that – but I reckon if Bert Bertelli had been around to see his cre­ation to­day, even he would have been rather sur­prised at its dura­bil­ity.

In re­cent years, two of Chris and Sue’s sons, James and Michael, have raced the car with sim­i­lar pas­sion and en­joy­ment to their fore­bears. We are for­tu­nate that there has been such a spirit of own­er­ship and such a de­sire to en­joy the car as its mak­ers in­tended. And now it’s my turn be­hind the wheel…

Slid­ing down into the cock­pit is the only way to en­ter with­out the huge steer­ing wheel block­ing your way. Once in, the car en­velopes you and ev­ery­thing is ex­actly where it should be. That said, the gear­box gate is back-tofront, with first at top right. From ex­pe­ri­ence driv­ing other Ul­sters, this takes more ad­just­ing to than the seem­ingly alarm­ing pedal re­ver­sal with the ac­cel­er­a­tor in the mid­dle and the brake pedal to the right. In­deed, hav­ing the brake on the right and set higher than the throt­tle makes it per­fect for the es­sen­tial heel-and-toe­ing. The steer­ing wheel seems very close at first, but once you’re on the move this helps af­ford the lever­age re­quired in tight turns.

A long row of switches in­cludes those for the mag­neto and fuel pumps; once they’re on, the starter but­ton can be pressed and the en­gine fires in­stantly, send­ing gen­tle vi­bra­tions through the whole car. Dip the medium-weight clutch, care­fully se­lect first, and you’re away. As crash ’boxes go, this one’s pretty friendly, the gears nicely bed­ded in (as you’d hope af­ter 79 years). Chang­ing up through the gears is quite easy, though the dog-leg fourth can’t be hur­ried. Com­ing back down, well-judged dou­blede­clutch­ing en­sures pleas­ing and very swift changes.

As you look down the bon­net to the ra­di­a­tor cap, you’re aware that the front wheels and the cy­cle wings are alive to ev­ery rip­ple in the road. In fact the chas­sis han­dles even poor sur­faces with ease: af­ter all, roads in 1935 were

in­fe­rior in the main to to­day’s. Scut­tle-shake is spec­tac­u­lar but it’s all part of the char­ac­ter of the car, a car where ev­ery part has aged to­gether and formed its own re­la­tion­ship with the other com­po­nents.

With so much me­chan­i­cal feed­back and so lit­tle weather pro­tec­tion, it feels fast even at 50mph, ev­ery sense as­sailed and stim­u­lated. This is the essence of pre-war mo­tor­ing. You are aware of ev­ery ac­tion hav­ing a con­se­quence, and if you make a mis­take the car will mildly ad­mon­ish you.

Driv­ing this par­tic­u­lar Ul­ster, though, you en­ter an­other di­men­sion. Usu­ally you feel as if you’re driv­ing a 1935 car in the 21st cen­tury. The con­nec­tion with the past here is so vivid it feels like driv­ing a 1935 car in 1935. The mod­ern cars are the ones out of place on the road, not the Ul­ster.

The en­gine is still to the ex­act orig­i­nal spec­i­fi­ca­tion, which means it is no­tice­ably less pow­er­ful than the many mod­i­fied Ul­sters but no worse for that, with am­ple torque for road driv­ing. The ex­haust wafts the sub­lime smell of Cas­trol R back to the driver and, although of only four cylin­ders and 1.5 litres, the en­gine sounds big­ger and more pow­er­ful than it is: strong, smooth and will­ing to be driven far and at a good pace.

The brakes have the idio­syn­cratic be­hav­iour typ­i­cal of ca­ble op­er­a­tion: strong with a strong right foot af­ter all the ca­bles have tight­ened up, but un­til they’ve achieved equal ten­sion the car squirms. The steer­ing, too, lacks the pre­ci­sion of a mod­ern sys­tem, but re­lax, let the car do the work and it will go ex­actly where you want, no mat­ter the sur­face. Heavy when park­ing, it light­ens with speed and al­ways sends masses of feed­back to your fin­ger­tips.

There are no nasty sur­prises, no mat­ter how hard you push, just lots of re­as­sur­ing twitches, chirps and rum­bles. When sta­tion­ary the car speaks to you; when on the move it be­comes a vi­brant con­ver­sa­tion. On a freez­ing win­ter day I came away with warmth in my heart and body.

The bit­ter­sweet post­script to the story is that the Hud­son fam­ily have put the car up for sale (ecuriebertelli.com for de­tails). Chris ex­plains: ‘It’s just too valu­able. If it was a £50,000 car we would just keep it in the fam­ily and use it.’ It’s a co­nun­drum for many own­ers of clas­sic As­tons to­day.

I do know one thing: if this car is ever fully re­stored it will be de­stroyed. And if that sounds like a warn­ing to fu­ture keep­ers, then I sup­pose it is. It’s the de­fin­i­tive ar­ti­cle. It has been loved, re­spected and en­joyed. It should also be revered. And only now do I ap­pre­ci­ate quite how spe­cial it is. So the next time some­one tells me that they have an orig­i­nal, his­toric As­ton Martin, I will ask them to check the claim against this won­der­ful Ul­ster.


Clock­wise from above left Four-cylin­der 1.5-litre over­head-cam en­gine is ex­actly as it was built in 1935; some of the wooden frame in the hinged tail has been re­placed but body­work is all to­tally orig­i­nal; back-to-front gear­box gate takes some get­ting used to, but the gears them­selves arenicely bed­ded-in af­ter 79 years; orig­i­nal seat leather and dash, in­clud­ing tiny lamp to il­lu­mi­nate di­als, re­de­fine ‘patina’

Clock­wise from top leftReg Hill, who bought the Ul­ster in 1959, pic­tured at the fam­ily home in about 1960; the cock­pit as it was with the fac­tory-sup­plied car­pets fit­ted (they’re still with the car); Chris Hud­son, who mar­ried Reg’s daugh­ter Sue and even­tu­ally per­suaded his fa­ther-in-law to sell him the Ul­ster, dic­ing with a Ri­ley at Sil­ver­stone in the early ’80s, and at Brands Hatch

Ul­ster CON­STRUC­TION Steel lad­der chas­sis, alu­minium body pan­els EN­GINE In-line 4-cyl, 1495cc MAX Power c90bhp MAX Torque n/aTRANS­MIS­SION Four-speed man­ual, rear-wheel drive SUS­PEN­SION Solid axles front and rear, leaf springs, fric­tion-type dampers STEER­ING Worm-and-cas­tor BRAKES Drums front and rear, ca­ble-op­er­ated WHEELS 18in wire-spoke TYRES 5.50x18 crossplyWEIGHT c900kg Power To WEIGHT c100bhp/ton 0-60MPH n/a TOP SPEED c90mph

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