The following article by HW was published in

The Aston Martin Owners Club Members News Sheet, December 1949

(printed on 4 pages of cyclostyle foolscap size sheets

 separate from but attached to the News Sheet)



motors 4 9a article 1949 AMOC






by Henry Williamson


The following short story was submitted by a member for

publication in the “AM” but being rather too long I decided

to publish it here. I have accepted the story as a work of

fiction based on the author’s actual experience (Editor)


[The real names of HW’s nom-de-plumes for the various firms involved should be obvious after reading the main entry.]



I had always wanted an Aston Martin, and in 1946 read an advertisement in an East Anglian paper for a 1938 2-litre model. Recently I had watched a competent dark looking fellow in a Suffolk village overhauling his black Aston. The care with which he examined valve springs with a glass, looking for any small pittings by rust, told me that he was a man after my own heart; for I like things to be right and proper. He had everything beautifully laid out on the grass outside a dilapidated shed; he had taken down his black motor-car after service with the R.A.F. and was preparing it for post-war racing. He had brothers farming in the district where I had recently come to live.


I asked him if he would care to look at the advertised A.M. for me. He replied that at the moment he was very busy getting his 2-litre Aston ready for a race in Belgium, but afterwards he would be glad to help me in any way he could. This from one with whom I had only the slightest acquaintance – and I had sought him out – and who did not know even my name, was most courteous; for I should have known better than to presume on another like that. A week or two later my small sons told me that the village boys were very proud that the black motorcar had won the Grand Prix race at Spa, although it was eight years old.


Meanwhile I had gone to see the owner of the advertised Aston, and had been taken for a ride in it. I thought it noisy, but it looked so low and wide and wonderful that I wanted it badly. The owner, a tall and handsome type, who also had steeple chasers in his stable, told me he had had scores of cars during the last few years. That made me think; but over a glass of sherry in his cool and luxurious drawing-room, accompanied by his beautiful wife, he told me that the engine had been completely overhauled, fitted with liners, new pistons, bearings etc. and had done only 600 miles since then. He had driven me at 60 m.p.h. but assure me that 6,000 r.p.m. at that stage of running in was not excessive. I wondered, but I did so want to own an Aston Martin . . .


Yes, but I wanted that low, wide, buff-maroon Aston. What was the price? He didn’t know. I offered him £600. He said that he had just bought a new 2½ litre Riley, and must pay for it with the Aston sale. But he didn’t know the price. His brother might want to buy it too. So I went away. Later he rang me up. £800. In the meantime I had looked in the “Autocar” for April 1946 and found that it was about the price for a reconditioned 2 litre.


He said the gear-box needed a new gear, and the engine new rockers: they were ordered: and so I bought it, subject to the gear-box being in first class condition. I went over to his place in my 8 h.p. Ford, a wonderful little car, which I had bought after only 700 miles of use for £145 in 1941, and drove back in the Aston, a friend following in the Ford.


The rockers were awaiting fitment at a garage near London: thither I went and had the motorcar tested. “It’s awful”, said the manager with doleful face. “That gearbox! It wouldn’t grind coffee properly.” The Aston had changed hands many times during the war, among R.A.F. types. So I told the recent owner about the gearbox who agreed to a reconditioned unit being fitted. This was done, also the rockers, and I set off for Devon.


There I used it for about 2,000 miles, when the oil-pressure dropped. It had never been high, but it went rather low, about 12 lbs at 3,000 revs when hot. Also the engine began to use a lot of oil.


In the Autumn I was going to lay it up, and use the saloon Ford, but wanting a first-class motorcar, I decided to leave the Aston at Eldorado Motors Ltd., for a 100% overhaul. I asked them to quote for curing the oil-pressure, for fitting four new springs, stripping the chassis and repainting, making good the body and especially the rattling cold-draught doors (which everyone had slammed, it seemed), re-wiring (I had had trouble with fusing cut-out, and two lights), new tonneau cover, new carpets, new chromium plating, etc., in fact, 100% reconditioning. They quoted £145.


That was the year of the great winter, and the coal shortage. In the New Year came the floods. I didn’t get near the Aston again until May, after six months laid up. When I went for it, the Eldorado manager dolefully told me the bill was £245. The motor-car looked beautiful, with its holly-green cellulose, still wet from a washing, its re-chromed hub-caps, flexes, lamps and bumpers, as it stood apparently ready to be driven away. But, THAT BILL! It was explained that they had had awful trouble to get the engine right, and had fitted new pistons in the end. I was asked not to exceed 30 m.p.h. for 500 miles, then gradually increase speed, 100 r.p.m. over 100 miles.


I got into the cockpit. I tried the windscreen wiper. It didn’t work. Then the lights. They didn’t switch on. The horn blew a fuse at once. I saw the old wiring was still in place. It hadn’t been touched. The doors weren’t screwed on firmly; they didn’t close properly. While these jobs were being attended to (less the wiring and the doors) we had a talk in the office. I said that £245 was a lot of money. Directors, manager, etc., gathered together about me. Feeling like a plutocratic criminal caught behind the Iron Curtain I suggested paying £200 which was readily agreed to. I drove carefully away from Eldorado Motors Ltd.


When the washing water dried off the new cellulose, I saw that it was in two hues, one darker than the other, in patches. This was most noticeable in the sunlight, but not when the motorcar was wet. One side of the bonnet was dark green, the other was almost bright green. And a deep patch of dark over one door. The painting had cost £80.


The carpets and tonneau cover had cost £19.10. They were poor stuff. The tonneau cover was also shoddy, and cut to the pattern of the old ill-fitting cover which had come off a 1930 Silver Eagle. But the oil-level remained constant after 400 miles. I went down to Devon, and after 2,500 miles opened up the engine. It did 88 m.p.h. across Salisbury Plain. Wonderful!


Alas. After another 1,000 miles the oil pressure was down to 8 lbs. at 4,000 rpm. And a gallon of oil left the sump every 400 miles. Oddly, the exhaust didn’t smoke.


When I took it back to Suffolk, for the following Winter, I called in at a big garage, occupying two or three acres, in the town near where I had bought it. My idea was to have it decoked, and new oil, before laying up. I explained how it should be done, or rather, not done. “Don’t take off the timing chain.” When I returned to Mammoth Garages Ltd., a week later, it ran like an electric brougham of pre-1914 vintage. In low gear it moved forward slowly, even with throttle opened full. Taking it back, I suggested the timing was late. A terrifically efficient-looking works manager dismissed my silly suggestion. “I can assure you, sir, we have tested and checked it more than once, and it is in fine order, our tester reports.” The licence was about to expire, so I drove it home, with the promise it would be put right in the Spring.


After six months in grass and on jacks, it came out into the sun again. It went back to Mammoth Garages. The bill for decoking was £17.10., including a set of new cylinder block studs; the old ones had been stretched, to get the head down to stop water trickling past the solid copper gasket. This 17.10. included an item of 15/- for a telephone call to another garage asking how to do the job after the timing chain had been removed. Odd things had happened to the speedometer reading; it was 60 miles on from the figure entered up on re-arrival, and the petrol gauge was three gallons lower. “I can assure you sir, only the tester has driven it around the town.”


Despite the assurances of the timing having been checked, re-checked etc., the previous Autumn, it was found in April 1948 that it had been put back four teeth late . . . But the management proved to themselves that the charge of £17.10. was justified and to avoid further arguments about modern British standards it was paid. The oil pressure was now 6 lbs at 3,000 r.p.m.


* * * * *


I had struck up an acquaintance with an A.M. fan who could talk about colloidal graphite, compression ratios, the virtues of plastic as opposed to copper gaskets etc. all night with unflagging enthusiasm. Telling him of my troubles, he volunteered that he would like to make my Aston a real good ‘un for me, just for the love of the MARQUE. I have had some experience as a war-time farmer with enthusiastic volunteers (verbal species) and said I would like the work done but I would pay him. He said ten pounds would cover it, for his time. I said he ought to keep a record of his time, and mentioned twenty pounds as a limit. He agreed. That was in May 1948.


We began to strip the engine together. We found every bearing, after 5,000 miles or so from new, worn, rough and even scratched. As for the bores, when taken to a sport’s specialist garage nearby they were measured to be about 9/1000” worn. A rebore of the liners and new pistons was decided on, plus crankshaft grinding, new mains, big ends etc. I hoped to have the car on the road by midsummer 1948, and the A.M. fan agreed to assemble the bits after the block, crankshaft etc. had been done by Aladdin Autos Ltd. the Sports-car specialists.


The A.M. man was running another business under handicap, and though the work of reboring, grinding, trueing-up block and head etc. was finished in June, the parts lay uncollected from Aladdin Autos until September. When at last they were sent for, they lay for a further month in a box in the carrier’s shed. The body meanwhile, was at a local coachbuilder’s for re-painting, and doors and body being made 100% good. It had been found that the chassis painting at Eldorado Motors hadn’t been done at all. So the chassis stood in the coachbuilder’s shop and he was busy.


Autumn 1948 came, Winter passed, Spring came again in 1949. After eleven months and many letters, at last the job was alleged to be done. But only the chassis had been painted during the year at the coachbuilder’s. He hadn’t had time to finish the job said the coachbuilder!


I had arranged to go to France in April 1949, to see the publishers of translated editions of various books I had written. I proposed to go to Calais, thence to Toulon; along the river by Corniche Road to Geneva; then on the autostrada to Milano; over the Alps to Switzerland; across France to Paris; a day there to find agents and publishers, and then home. About 2,000 miles in all.


When I got my motorcar, a few days before embarkation at Dover (there was a long queue for cars going abroad, and to miss one’s turn might mean weeks of waiting) it was in a curious state. I had hoped for a beautiful job; but it was a sore sight for hopeful eyes. The paint was scratched and chipped; part of the carpets was missing; holes gaped in the floors. As for the engine, it boiled even at 30 m.p.h. And, oh! horror: a thick seam of oil lay atop the radiator after 50 slow miles in which the plugs constantly oiled up. After 400 miles of slow running-in in England and changing plugs every 30 miles, I took it back, the day before embarkation. No water was found in the sump and it was thought that I might risk it. The job so far had cost about £40 for rebore, pistons, bearings etc., another £10 for parts, and the ‘Fan’ had charged £25 for his time. I gathered he had scraped and fitted the bearings etc, but the engine had been put into the chassis by a local firm, who later sent in their bill for £10. Total cost £85.


We started for Dover. Engine boiled; we added soda, drained and re-drained the radiator; always oil re-appeared. At Folkestone, after more boiling and missing, we cancelled the crossing and returned to have the head removed and a new copper gasket fitted. After a few miles the engine clanked, boiled and missed as before. Oil still got into the water and plugs. Nevertheless, we crossed the channel, a spare spring in the back and other items, and got to Calais; drove away through the bombed ruins down to Arras. And so to Toulon, 600 miles south, after several stops at garages. French mechanics swiftly fitted a coil to replace burnt-out magneto, attended to burst oil pipe, fused lights etc. We carried a complete set of spare gaskets, but daren’t risk having the head removed, lest the debacle of a dropped timing chain occur again. Sometimes it ran well for as much as 30 miles – until the plugs oiled again. Oil in Italy was £2.10.0 a gallon, and we burnt a gallon every 300-350 miles. No smoke; the oil just disappeared. We had gone at 40 m.p.h. all the way. After 1,500 miles we did 50 m.p.h. but the oil pressure was low. It was a miserable tour, having to stop every 50 miles or so to change oily plugs. My right wrist was studded with scar and scabs of burnings against the flexes. It rattled and bumped; we found that no split-pins had been put in the engine bolts; no spring-washers on the gear-box holding nuts; while the tortion bars were loose. Once the brakes bound and smoked badly.


It was hell on the autostrada from Genoa up to Milan, through mountain tunnels. For one thing the road was filled with great 50 ton lorries, some with trailers, diesel-engined, creeping up and round the bends, columns of them, and through the narrow mountain tunnels. We had to follow. Without a fan, the water boiled and thundered around the engine. 5 h.p. Fiats and the wonderful new 10 h.p. Lancia passed us on the straight bits, and with screaming tyres hurtled round the bends, avoiding scores of American-driven Fords, Buicks, and Packards etc., and once Rita Hayworth’s Alfa-Romeo, by the traditional hair’s-breadth. In 80 miles we passed three smashes, one amidst pools of blood and glass and twisted tyre marks.


Oh! Those plugs! One would cut out at any moment. I couldn’t rely on speed to pass a lorry fleet. The Aston might run like a hare, or stutter like a constipated tortoise. By this time, after 2,000 miles, I had a definite defeat complex. And the irony of stopping in the towns or villages, while admiring groups spoke of the great speeds we were obviously capable of. When we started, we crept away slowly, hoping that clouds of grey smoke that followed the clanking noises would not betray those flashing lines, those Auto-Union-like exhaust pipes, that flat windscreen!


Then came the great moment – climbing about 9,000 feet in 10 miles up the Simplon Pass, over the Alps into Switzerland. Dare we do it? Would the engine blow up? Ten miles without a fan! It was snowing on top we had heard, though it was now the end of May.


We started early one morning from Strass. I suggested that my wife should wear overalls, but it was warm by Lake Maggiore, the sun shone brightly, so she wore a light cotton frock, with espadrilles, or rope-soled shoes. She was most patient, for I was in a state, every day worried by dwindling money, and one thought, shall we get to Calais again?


The road lay beside the river Po, with its grey-green snow-water rushing down a stony wide bed. It became a mountain torrent as we climbed up, coming at last to the Customs, in a dripping, rocky mountain pass where Switzerland begins. It rained heavily. Cars from Switzerland passed down; and wonders of wonders, a 1909 model of an Alfa-Romeo lorry with wood-spoke wheels.


We climbed on, up the narrowing road, under great cliffs and defiles. We stopped when the temperature dial was 95° Cent. As soon as I switched off the engine (which dieseled) it ran to 100° Cent. And it thundered. When the rumbling stopped, I opened the cap; a pillar of bright green liquid splashed up. We refilled with icy water from the torrent, using old wine bottles. After half an hour, while my wife got drenched in her summer frock, we went on. Another couple of miles in second gear, and the engine was boiling up again. In a sleet-storm my wife got changed into overalls. While she stood on a rock, four cars passed by. All stopped, asking if they could help. We declined with thanks, saying we were admiring the view.


At last the summit. A great falcon, carved in stone, fifty feet high, stood looking down into Italy. Gentians were in flower in the short turf. Alas, the great peaks were veiled in mist. Snow-drifts melted dirtily on the road-edges. We drank some Benedictino, then some Chianti, and felt better.


I had bought a two-gallon can of thick American oil in France, meaning to use it on the way through Switzerland (for we had no Swiss money or traveller’s cheques, by an oversight). I was about to drain the sump before running down the valley beyond the tunnels on the crest of the Simplon Pass, when I thought to take out the oil-can first.


The tin had burst; two gallons of thick green oil lay over some of our possessions in the 2-seater. It was a wonderful moment.


Despite everything, we got back to Calais a few days later, and met on the ferry-boat an enthusiastic M.G. driver who had been the same route as ourselves, but his 1½ litre 1949 M.G. had used only used a little more than a quart of oil. He had fitted a Fram filter, and also, after taking delivery of his motorcar, he had stripped it and ground together the faces of cylinder head and block. He assured me he had not cleaned it during his trip. Then he opened the bonnet, there was hardly a gnat on the iron and aluminium surfaces within. But the interior of those 10 h.p. Lancias were the thing to have seen: they looked clean and neat as a jeweller’s shop.


The road to Folkestone and London beat anything we had seen on the Continent for surface, contouring and vision.


Well, to end this sad story, I took the Aston back to Aladdin Autos. They took off the head and drew the pistons. They found in many of the rings, including all the scrapers, a gap as wide as 1/8” or 125/1000”. The proper gap they said, was about 4/1000”. Through the gaps oil had poured, as through four pumps. The cylinder bores were not worn; that wide gap had probably been filed by the “Fan”.


New rings were fitted, and a plastic gasket to replace the solid copper one. But we must drive carefully, not exceeding 40 m.p.h. for 500–700 miles. We did so. It was wonderful; no oily plugs. After 1,000 miles I opened up to 4,000 r.p.m. The A.M. had a flashing acceleration. A new magneto had been fitted by the way. But, after, 1,400 miles when I was doing 4,700 r.p.m. a sudden shower of water from the radiator cap told me that the gasket had blown. In the morning the two front cylinders were solid with water. I drained them; had the head taken off; the plastic gasket had never fitted tight where the water leaked into the oil.


Later, we found cracks where the studs screwed into the block. They had been strained when the head had at Mammoth Garages been pulled down on a copper gasket probably imperfectly annealed. Anyway, the block was cracked: trouble which I am told, occurs with some 2-litre blocks when they are bored out for liners.


Now for some final statistics. I paid £800 for a 1938 car in May 1946. I got £75 of this sum back, for the cost of a reconditioned gear-box and for new rockers. After about 3,000 miles from a rebore and complete engine overhaul, it cost £200 for new pistons and so-called reconditioned bodywork. After a further 2,000 miles, £17.10.0. for decoking, plus new cylinder studs, the old ones having been stretched. After another 50 miles, the engine was re-sleeved, new pistons, journals, all bearings, for £85. Then 2,000 miles abroad, with £50 expenses for new gaskets, etc., three times. Another 1,000 miles and today I am faced with another large bill for welding block, reconditioned engine, etc., plus £50 for the two new batteries, and other repairs. £500 repair bill in 8,000 miles.


As for the true-blue type I met three years ago in the Suffolk village, of yeoman stock, he was a man in a thousand. St. John Horsfall was killed recently in a race. If all Englishmen were like him, we should soon be leading the world again, and not merely by possessing money either. He remains in my memory with another man who was scrupulous like himself, a Brough-owner, known to the world as Lawrence of Arabia.


The coach-builder who kept the Aston eleven months mildly asked me the other day if I thought I ought to pay for having garaged it there during that time. Which only shows how differently the same thing looks to each one of us! I nearly retorted by saying that through neglect I had lost about £100, which was the capital depreciation of the 2-litre while the body was standing idle in his shop, and the engine lying undone in the amateur’s backyard.