The Last Drive

My dad’s Aston Martin was always there. Even when I could not actually see the car it looked out at me from pictures hanging on the wall and it was occasionally present in various car magazines left lying around the house. And always that smell, the rich smell of Castrol R oil. The ‘R’ stands for racing. My auntie Ann once bottled some as perfume and gave it to my dad as a present. That smell still lingers in the garage, but there is no red Aston Martin there anymore.

I was driven to school in it as a kid occasionally but not particularly as a treat or anything. With no doors and no roof, I would feel the road moving fast all around and the elements on my face – open to the world. As a child I thought that driving in this old car meant we were not ‘rich’. I thought this because we had an old car, and our house, though large, was made of  ‘old’ bricks.

My mum had some of her driving lessons in the Aston. The clutch pedal was in the middle of the brake and the throttle pedals and you had to depress the clutch twice when changing gear. A painful grinding sound like chewing little metal teeth set your body on edge when you mis-timed the change and ground the gear in. I certainly won’t miss that feeling.

This Aston was no ordinary car. Not even in 1934 when it was made. It was a British car, but designed by an Italian and was an exact copy of the winning cars in the famous LeMans races. It was called an ‘Ulster’ and marketed as a ready to race sports car for the discerning gentleman racer. Capable of reaching 100 miles an hour, although the noise in the car at that speed would have been deafening. When first offered for sale it cost £750 three times the price of similar cars. Unfortunately car technology in the 1930’s was moving forward quickly and by 1935 this particular model was already starting to look cumbersome. It certainly wasn’t going to beat an Alfa Romeo or Bugatti anymore but it drove wonderfully, and even today its proportions and stance are revered.

Our particular car was one of only 31 ever made of which 28 survive. It was built in 1934 in a factory in Feltham and eventually sold to a dealer in 1935 (at a discount no doubt) because the factory could not sell it. A doctor bought it initially but by the 1950’s it had ended up at the side of the A6 in Lancashire with a ‘For Sale’ sign dangling on the windshield.

My grandfather Reginald spotted it by the side of the road and decided he should be the next owner. Him and his brother Arnold sold everything they could, including their chickens, to raise the princely sum of 150 quid to purchase it. Thus began the car’s history with our family.

My grandfather, or ‘Poppa’ as we referred to him, entered several racing events in the car during the 1950’s and 1960’s, including the Barbon Hill Climb. My mother vividly remembers a near death experience on the Hardknott pass in Cumbria where at high speed the hub caps on the Aston ripped open the side of a car coming the other way, just as James Bond’s Aston Martin did in the film Goldfinger.

There is a family myth that whilst waiting outside my grandfather’s house to take my mother on a date, my father, Chris, had a quick look in the garage, saw the Aston and decided right there that she was the girl for him. The car was eventually passed onto my father who raced regularly throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Despite it always being there I never had a desire to drive it, never mind race it, until I was in my mid 30’s. I was either too busy, too far away or too scared. In the early 2000’s my father decided to start racing an older, but faster, 1920’s Bugatti and the Aston became ‘available’ to me.

After minimal fatherly instruction I took my racing license at Donnington Park and before I really knew what I was doing I was lined up at Silverstone in a grid of other ‘pre-war’ cars for a practice session. I was introduced to another racer in a similar car, who when learning I would be racing against her, looked me up and down and said, ‘anywhere behind me will be fine.’

And that was generally what happened. Other cars flew past us in the race and sometimes even lapped us. Even though I was often racing against cars that came out of exactly the same factory in exactly the same year. A whole manner of changes can be made to a car to give it extra oomph on the racetrack; enlarging the engine, changing the wheels, changing the tires, shedding weight by removing, replacing or even drilling new holes in parts of the car. ‘Opening up their cheque books and passing me on the back straight,’ is how a friend described the effect. Somehow it never occurred to me to do any of this. Needing to win was obviously not in my blood. A race for me would involve driving to the circuit, taking out the spare wheel, the tool kit and the passenger seat and leaving them in a pile on the paddock floor. Then I would just fold the windshield forward (removing it altogether would have shed a bit more weight but would have taken far too long…), register, stick some numbers on wonkily to the side of the car and then head off to scrutineering.

Ah yes, scrutineering. Having to stand by while a team of race stewards check that your car meets their regulations. It is hard to think of a decent everyday analogy of scrutineering. It feels a bit like going through customs at an airport knowing full well you have no contraband and are a legal citizen – but yet you still feel guilty. The car was always scruffy but basically ok, however I always felt very relieved when it passed and was considered fit to race. It is a necessary and important part of any motor sport event but the bureaucracy and authority of the process jarred with me and seemed to be at odds with the rest of my laid back approach to racing.

By this point we had usually been up for hours and often driven the car a couple of hundred miles to the circuit, spending a sleepless night in some tent or a van, so the next important stage would be a pit stop: a tragic full English breakfast in the circuit cafe. Then, feeling massively un-athletic, I would get my racing overalls on and navigate my way to the ‘assembly area.’ Just typing those two words now brings back sharp memories of hearing our race announced over the tannoy in the paddock, ‘cars for practice number X to the assembly area now please.’ My fry up would turn in my stomach as I waddled to the car and it suddenly became very clear what we were all there for.

A glorious array of Aston Martins and, depending on the race, also Alvis’s, Frazer Nashs, Talbots and Rileys are all lined up in neat (ish) formation before being released onto the track. As you put your helmet on, your mind races with all the things you might have forgotten to do, you move your foot onto the accelerator pedal, start revving the car up, (mostly because everyone else seems to be doing it…). Then suddenly the flag goes and you are moving. What a release. You are on the track and it feels like you have just driven out onto the salt flats of Utah. There is space. There is movement. There is no speed limit. There are other cars everywhere but it feels safe because you are all going in the same direction. That is, until someone spins off and the whole illusion is shattered, especially when it’s you that spins off. If you are lucky then your spin may be gracefully performed horizontally on the grass and you can rejoin the race. If you are unlucky then your spin ends you up in contact with another car, or a wall, or a hospital.

The practice session helps the stewards work out what starting position a car should be in. As the cars in many vintage races are quite different in terms of power, a ‘handicap’ system often operates. The car’s power, any known (i.e. admitted to) alterations, and previous lap times at the circuit are all taken into consideration. So are the lap times done on the day of the race during the morning practice. The competitors set off in groups for the actual race – slowest ones first and fastest ones last. If the official ‘handicapper’ has done their job perfectly then all the cars would cross the line on the last lap at exactly the same time. This never happens. My approach at practice was to go as fast as possible and treat the practice as a race. My approach was like this because a) its more fun, and b) the car might break down before I even get to do the actual race. I often think this would be the best approach for everyone. However some drivers use a different tactic called ‘sandbagging.’ No, this has nothing to do with flooding. Sandbagging means to hold back on purpose during the practice session on the day with the result that you will be given a slightly better ‘handicap’ and start nearer the front. So cars that are of a very similar speed (cars you could be having an exciting close race with…) might end up starting five or ten seconds before you and you will never be able to catch up with them. On a short five lap race, ten seconds is a lifetime.

Despite this moan, I do understand wanting to win. I understand interpreting the rules to your advantage and I understand cheating. Racing cars in the 1920’s and 1930’s were designed to go as fast as they could and their drivers were probably not much different to most racing drivers now. However the idea of modifying the car, practicing and winning in the Ulster just never appealed to me. There were other reasons I went: the pleasure of driving to and from the race, close racing and overtaking regardless of final finishing position, the history of the car and wondering what my Poppa would have made of it all.

In the afternoon, the races would begin. We meet in the collection area, line up in our starting positions, drive round the track in formation and then line up on the start straight. Sometimes there is another formation lap before the race starts. Sometime I would not realise this and think the race had begun…

Here is the story of my last drive. In the centenary year of Aston Martin no less, I went to a summer race meeting at Brands Hatch in south east England. Brands Hatch is the kind of circuit that’s exciting even without anyone to race with. I’d driven the car down from Lincolnshire the night before, straight down the A1, into London over Tower Bridge headed for Peckham to stay the night with a friend. In Peckham the Aston is parked on the street with just a tarpaulin over the top of it to keep off the thieves. There is no key – lots of old car owners operate on the principal that if someone knows how to start and drive such a car then they are probably not the sort of person who would steal it. I do know of a million pound car that was stolen after being left overnight in a race car trailer. Soon afterwards the police found the car nearby and untouched, but the trailer was never recovered – they are much easier to sell, being far less unique.

The race itself happened in the afternoon. There were four of us all very close towards the back overtaking each other again and again by breaking late into corners, powering past each other after exiting a perfect corner and ‘worrying’ the driver in front until they made a slight mistake thus allowing you to get past them. It was close racing and perfect weather on the best track in the UK.

After the race, a quick drink and a bit of banter with the other drivers there was the long drive home through London. Driving a vintage car through the streets of a city can get interesting. I got onto Kingsland Road in East London and suddenly ran out of fuel. This had happened before. No fuel gauge of course. No problem though. I got a lift to the petrol station from a friend. Then it all went a bit weird. When I got back to the car two guys were standing there, one photographing the other in front of the car who then announced to me that he had just put my car on eBay…

Next a rollerblader came skating down the road and we caught each others eye. In that moment the two of us reached a complete and telepathic understanding. The understanding was that I was going to tow him up Kingsland Road, one of his hands holding on to the mud guard, the other holding onto his bag of shopping. One of my hands was on the steering wheel, the other filming him with my phone. Behind us, safely driving a modern car, the friend looked on, laughing at the situation.

Then dinner, then the A1 back to Lincolnshire. There was no key for my brothers shed as planned so we had to throw ourselves on the late night mercy of friends (with small kids…again sorry!) and sleep on their sofa.

I finally dropped the car off the following morning at my brothers shed, a temporary home until it could be driven back up to my dads garage. Getting out of it and back into my modern car to head home I realised I’d just been party to an adventure, and that the experience of racing this rare Aston-Martin was one that not many people would have. Maybe even one to write down. Funnily enough, I was doing exactly what the car was designed to do, only 80-odd-years after it was made. I had feeling it could be the last time I drove it. And perhaps right then I made a decision to make it the last. You see it was never going to be better than that weekend and I knew it. The car sat alone for a year or two as I got on with my life. My dad raced it once more himself and then quietly, but with my full knowledge, he put it up for sale. Eventually a deal was done. Amazingly the car is still in the UK and it is still being raced.

As I’m writing this I have actually just bought a new car. A sports car. A sports car I intend to race occasionally. It was made in 2006 and has a bonded aluminum chassis, a v8 engine, a manual gear – box but not one that requires double de-clutching to change gear. It also has a roof. It even has doors. So it’s nothing like dad’s old car. Apart from the fact that it’s red, and it’s an Aston Martin.

James A. Hudson 2017.