Hurtling across the British countryside in a pre-war Aston Martin should be top of every enthusiast’s bucket list.
A 1930s roadster might be lacking in horsepower but even at a modest 60mph, is there a more thrilling automotive experience? Well-known in Aston Martin circles, ALM 697 is an Aston Martin Le Mans, first introduced at the London Motor Show in 1932. Available in long- or short-wheelbase versions, the 70bhp two seater features a racing-style dry sump and single overhead camshaft engine — state-of-the-art in those early days of motoring. Capable of speeds in excess of 100mph, the four-cylinder sports car was originally owned by RC “Bobby” Morgan, who famously raced the Aston Martin Green Pea in the Grand Prix of Boulogne in 1923.

Almost a century later, the Le Mans’ 1,495cc engine is energetically transporting me to the Aston Martin Heritage Festival, the largest gathering of Aston Martins in history, even eclipsing the company’s centenary celebration meet at Kensington Gardens in 2013. More than 680 Aston Martins are converging on Dallas Burston Polo Club in Warwickshire and ALM 697 is among the oldest. The star of the June event, however, is another very special pre-war model.

Lasting legacy: The iconic ALM 697 rides again

The pre-war ALM 697 has been lovingly restored to its former glory, and is as thrilling to drive today as when it was built almost a century ago

The gathering has been organised by Aston Martin Heritage Trust to celebrate the Aston Martin A3 —
the oldest surviving Aston Martin in existence. The 1921 roadster was originally owned and raced by Lionel Martin, co-founder of Bamford & Martin Limited, the manufacturer of the company’s first sports cars. A hundred years ago, the A3 claimed several light-car records at Brooklands, including averaging 100 miles at 86.2 mph. 

The character and endearing charm of a classic, pre-war Aston is still quite intoxicating. The centenary A3 is now part of the Trust’s own collection and well cared for at the Aston Martin Museum, near Wallingford. However, it was overhauled by pre-war Aston Martin specialist Ecurie Bertelli, which recently completely rebuilt the drivetrain, and the company has instead invited me to drive the equally engaging Le Mans to the festival.

Lasting legacy: The iconic ALM 697 rides again
Lasting legacy: The iconic ALM 697 rides again
Lasting legacy: The iconic ALM 697 rides again

The Bertelli showroom in Buckinghamshire is a smorgasbord of vintage Astons — beautiful cars infused with a heavy whiff of motor oil. Each storeroom is an Aladdin’s cave for collectors, crammed with ancient steering wheels, chrome headlights and wonderfully archaic engine parts.

Seat adjustment wasn’t straightforward in the 1930s and usually required a spanner. Before I press the Le Mans’ starter button, I’m handed a back bolster and advised to swap my shoes for more delicate footwear, as the pedals are set so close together.

ALM 697 has no safety belts, tiny doors, a huge steering wheel that could have been designed for Mr Toad, and a crash gearbox. Without the synchromesh gears found in modern car, I’m required to manually match the engine’s rpm with the driveshaft speed. It’s brutally unforgiving and makes me feel like a learner driver again. I curse every time I crash through the four-speed box with a wince and metal-crunching score. I never fully master the technique but work on a policy of any gear is better than none.

Lasting legacy: The iconic ALM 697 rides again

Getting behind the wheel of ALM 697 offers a return to proper old-school motoring, with features such as the crash gearbox demanding complete concentration

Everything about the Le Mans demands full concentration because the vague steering needs gentle and constant adjustment to keep the car between the hedges. Anyone who has flown a light aircraft — or driven a Series I Land Rover at speed — may have experienced the same. This feels like proper old-school motoring and, after a couple of hours holding up everybody else on the road, I come to appreciate just what a feat it was to race a car like this 100 years ago.

This story is an extract from an article featured in the AM49 issue of Aston Martin magazine, out now. If you're not already a subscriber, visit magazine.astonmartin.com/magazine-subscription so that you can read the full story. 

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