1949 Aston Martin DB1 Le Mans 24 hour racer, Two Litre Sports/DB1, Chassis number AMC/49/5, Engine number VB6B/50/51, Registration number UMD 123.
The Aston Martin 2 litre Story
The history of Aston Martin is very well documented in various books written by marque experts however the Two Litre Sports (also known as the DB1) may be less well known as they only made 15 of them so I will summarise it here. Just before the outbreak of World War Two Aston Martins’s designer Claude Hill was given the job of designing a new car which became known as the Atom. Although production plans were put into abeyance for the war years, development work continued on a part time basis and when time permitted Hill was able to design a new four cylinder engine. Aston Martin, like many other small manufacturers of specialist high quality performance cars, suffered from underfunding and was undoubtedly saved by the arrival of engineer and industrialist David Brown. He sanctioned the development of the Atom project into a fully fledged road car which was launched in 1948 as the Two Litre Sports. In standard form the car was powered by Claude Hill’s 1970 cc four cylinder push rod five bearing crankshaft engine which produced around 90 bhp though performance could be improved with a high compression (raised from 7.25:1 to 8.5:1) Spa cylinder head. Apparently 115 bhp could be achieved with a 10:1 compression ratio and special flat top alloy pistons. N.B. in 1953 Aston Martin installed fitted the twin cam 2.5 Litre DB2 Vantage engine which it still has today.
UMD123 – Description
The very stylish alloy body, designed by Frank Feeley and reminiscent of his Lagonda cars, is very much in the fashion you would expect to find amongst the more advanced post war sports cars. You can see similar looking flowing coachwork on several 1940/50 Alfa Romeos and Jaguar’s XK 120 amongst others. The main technical aspects of this car are described further on so at this point I will summarise its general appearance, overall condition and driving characteristics. It is a very striking and elegant car which will immediately attract attention at any car event as, apart from its good looks, the chances are that most people won’t have seen one before. It can best be described as maybe not in 100% concours show order but as a road going car in really presentable, very smart and sound condition throughout. The high quality paintwork has a glossy finish with no obvious defects apart from the odd small scratch, the brightwork is also very good and the body is sound with no nasty rattles even when driven on uneven roads. The upholstery, interior trim and carpets are smart and the hood is fine though it does have a couple of small tears. The engine compartment and underside of the car are clean and workmanlike though have clearly not been prepared with concours events in mind as the car is in regular use. The engine starts readily, runs smoothly and pulls very well throughout its range without making any unpleasant or expensive sounding noises and it maintains good water temperature and engine oil pressure. The synchromesh gearbox is also really nice and very easy to use. There are no untoward rattles from the suspension or nasty noises from the transmission and back axle. In summary the car is great to look at, really good fun to drive and will definitely reward a press-on approach to motoring! UMD123 can be viewed by appointment at its owner’s premises in New Zealand.
UMD 123 – Technical Information – Chassis
As you can see from the cutaway drawing in the attached pictures the car has an advanced space frame chassis fabricated from rectangular section tubes as opposed to the traditional ladder structure which was still in use by most manufacturers at the time. It has coil sprung independent front suspension with a transverse torsion bar shock absorber with the back axle located by parallel radius arms, a Panhard rod and coil springs. The Claude Hill chassis design, which combined lightness and rigidity with advanced suspension, gave the car much better handling than most of its more traditional contemporaries.
UMD 123 – Technical Information – Engine
DB1s were normally powered by designer Claude Hill’s 1970 cc four cylinder push rod five bearing crankshaft engine which produced around 90 bhp though performance could be improved with a special SPA cylinder head which raised the compression from 7.25:1 to 8.5:1. Apparently 115 bhp could be achieved with a 10:1 compression ratio and special flat top alloy pistons. According to Aston Martin’s records, UMD 123 was originally fitted originally with engine SPA4/49/3 and that it subsequently came back in to the Works on 3rd September 1949 to be made as standard with the exception of racing type pistons. The service records also note that its present 2.5 Litre six cylinder twin cam Vantage engine, number VB6B/50/51, was fitted in the car between 13th May and 15th May 1953. The service history also records that in May 1953 the car was resprayed Boticelli Blue in place of its original Suffolk Green paintwork and that it was fitted with Alfin brake drums in July 1954.
For the Le Mans race the normal fixed windscreen had been replaced with fold flat units and the car had a special bonnet mounting to give better access to the engine. Rather than being hinged at the rear as standard it could be lifted vertically by turning a lever under the dashboard and could also be tilted open from either side. This mechanism is still in place and can be seen in the photographs of the engine. Contemporary race photographs of UMD123 and the model of the car available from http://www.racingmodels.co.uk also show that a long range twin filler fuel tank was fitted in the rear seat compartment.
Robert Lawrie – Owner Driver of UMD 123
Robert (Bob) Lawrie was a supplier of specialist polar and mountaineering boots and equipment as well as being an accomplished climber. Amongst others he supplied Everest expeditions including Hugh Ruttledge’s 1933 and John Hunt’s in 1953 which resulted in New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay becoming the first climbers to reach the summit. In recognition of his contribution to climbing and exploration he has a glacier named after him in Graham Land in Antarctica. He was also a keen amateur racing driver, driving in four Le Mans 24 hour races starting with the 1949 event in which he used the Aston Martin 2 litre UMD 123 described here, followed by the 1950 event in a Riley 2 ½, 1951 in a Jaguar XK 120 and 1952 in a Morgan.
UMD 123 and the Le Mans 24 hour race
Having followed racing at Le Mans in the 1930’s Robert visited the circuit several times after the war and got to know the race organisers well enough to be invited to drive in the first post war 24 Hour race due to be run in 1949. He then visited the London Motor show and persuaded Aston Martin to build him a car. His next step was to get a competition licence from the RAC which wasn’t going to be easy as he had never raced a car before (something the Le Mans organisers were not aware of but more of that later!) He started by showing the RAC his invitation to take part in the event which didn’t go down well as they were not aware that any race invitations had been issued and felt it was traditionally their role to do so! However, faced with his formal invitation and his sheer determination, they relented and he walked out of the RAC with his licence in his pocket. It was only when he got to Le Mans that the organisers discovered that he had never raced a car before and, not surprisingly, were not too pleased. Anyway, he had their invitation, he had his RAC Competition Licence, he had a car and he was there so they arranged that he would do several officially observed laps of the circuit at racing speed. He apparently drove faultlessly so they let him take part with his friend and co-driver Dr. Richard (Dick) Parker.
In Robert Lawrie’s own words he was not expecting to win but he definitely wanted to finish. Aston Martin expert Neil Murray told me that his strategy was to conserve the car rather than thrash it which obviously worked well as towards the end of the race they were running in a very creditable 10th place when Dick Parker (apparently known as “Chum”) pulled in to the pits and offered the car back to Lawrie on the basis that he should take the flag. Despite it being a very gentlemanly offer Lawrie was more than a bit annoyed as they lost a place so missed out on some prize money! Still, they finished in 11th place out of the 19 cars which completed the race and the 49 which started which is really quite an achievement and a great credit to them and their car. NB to see the full race results copy and paste the following address into your internet browser Click for 1949 24 Hours Le Mans 24 Race WIKI Page.