18th August 2020

The Aston Hill Climb and Mr Martin

In 1914 Lionel Martin took his modified Singer car to a sporting event near Aston Clinton, Buckinghamshire, and the result was a world-famous marque.

Just to the left of the entrance to a public car park, not far from the top of a hill, is a small and elegant, but easily overlooked monument. Celebrating competitions in 1914, it’s an unlikely tribute to two of the defining days in Aston Martin’s history.

Engineer Robert Bamford and sporting motorist Lionel Martin moved into a small garage workshop in Henniker Mews, London, in late 1912 and on 15 January 1913 their partnership became incorporated as ‘Bamford and Martin Ltd’.

The two had dreams of building their own cars, but as a first step they concentrated on modifying and selling cars built by British brand Singer Motors. Keen to show just what they could achieve, they entered a prototype car in ten various Hillclimb events across the country: at the time an increasingly popular way of proving your mettle through the heat of competition.

One of the venues the pair selected was Aston Hill in Buckinghamshire, not far from their London base. In use from 1904 to 1925 on part of Lord Alfred de Rothschild’s land, the hill established itself as a leading climb on the motoring calendar. Held on a public road running through the rural estate, the time trials originally finished level with the Rothschild’s house at the top of Aston Hill. To start with, the climb was set at a distance of 0.75 miles with an ascent of 80 metres, but the course was modified over its 20 years, and fluctuated between 0.57 miles and 0.8 miles in length.

On 4 April 1914 Lionel Martin made his first appearance on the hill, taking the self-built special to the Cyclecar Club’s meet, although he was back soon after for the Herts County Automobile and Aero Club’s climb on 16 May. By all accounts, his modified Singer, with about 10hp on tap, performed well, although the official results are hard to find. What is certain is that it left an impression on the nascent car company. With their reputation bolstered and valuable experience gained, Messrs Bamford and Martin set about growing their business.

A year later they were ready to launch their first car and, when deciding what to call it, Mrs Kate Martin, Lionel’s wife, is supposed to have had a cunning plan. Ensuring that the new company would come top in alphabetic lists and catalogues for the growing number of car manufacturers and cashing in on their sporting success the year earlier, the name Aston Martin was born.

This very first Aston Martin, registration AM4656, was affectionately known as Coal Scuttle, due to the fact it resembled the then household item. It remained the only Aston Martin in existence until a second car was finished in 1920. The escalation of the Great War put a temporary stop to the pair’s endeavours who both saw service, with Martin joining the Admiralty and Bamford the Royal Army Service Corps.

Use of Aston Hill for events stopped in 1925 when the Competitions Committee of the RAC decided not to issue any permits for high-speed competition on public roads. This was after a number of incidents at similar venues, which included a spectator being injured at the nearby Kop Hill Climb in Princes Risborough.

If you want a deeper dive into all things Aston Martin, you could combine a road trip to the monument with a visit to the Aston Martin Museum in South Oxfordshire. Operated by the Aston Martin Heritage Trust charity, it holds a wealth of history including the oldest surviving Aston Martin car.