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
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