In 1939 my grandfather visited Donington Park to see the greats of voiturette racing go head to head. He has captioned the photos as being the Empire Trophy 1939 with Siamese prince B. Bira as the winner. I suspect grandfather actually attended that year’s Nuffield Trophy, which Bira won in ERA R12B, nicknamed Hannuman. I find it so exciting that he actually got to see Mays and Bira racing the cars which continue to excite and thrill crowds, myself included, in historic racing today – and looking just as they did then. It is magical to imagine him enjoying the nose of Castrol R and rejoicing in the rasp of that Riley-derived straight 6, just as I have done so many times in recent years. If only he was still around to share the experience with me.
There is a fascinating account of the race in Prince Chula’s book Blue and Yellow, detailing the emotions of watching your driver at the head of a fine field. The cover photo on the book looks remarkably similar to my grandfather’s and I do wonder whether it was taken during the same race. Sadly the cover illustration is not listed in the book.
It was with some excitement that I embarked on the short hop from Ampthill to Millbrook on Tuesday morning. As the local commuters went innocently about their business, I was guiding the Elise to the Millbrook Proving Ground, where the UK motor industry goes to test its machinery, away from the public eye. With my dad having just bought a new Aston Martin, I was to be the lucky beneficiary of a trip to AML’s small facility on-site.
I met up with the dealer representatives where my phone camera was covered and ground rules were put in place. The facility is to be considered top-secret and all guests must respect that; seems pretty reasonable. We trundled onto the site in a minibus and before us opened the vast expanse of the famous 2 mile bowl. Bit of a flutter of excitement over trying that one out later in the day.
AML’s facility is half clubhouse, half showroom, with the full current line-up arranged perfectly outside. Inside are comfy leather sofas, neatly arranged dining tables and refreshments awaiting guests. I settled with a coffee and signed the requisite indemnity forms. Well, what better way to go than at high speed in such a car?
The course I was due to complete is a special gift from AML dealers to their customers and allows them to drive a range of cars over several of Millbrook’s most unique and challenging tracks. Having never driven any kind of Aston before, this was some treat. The first batch was ready to go and my name was called – V8 Vantage around the city course. Given the choice between Sportshift and manual transmission, I plumped for manual. I’m afraid I’m one of these luddites who enjoys swapping cogs the old-fashioned way. The city course is a tight, winding series of bends arranged over open macadam to test the low-speed reactivity and agility of a car. It looks and sounds simple and only in a couple of sections does one get out of second gear, but it takes some real concentration to proceed quickly and maintain smooth momentum to offer your passenger a comfortable ride. I was seriously impressed by the car. The steering is fantastic, with a nice weighting at all degrees of lock. The steering, pedals and gearbox all shared a similar feeling of solid, engineered precision. That consistency of weighting between the major controls is something which, for me, always marks out a real driver’s car and it is one of the factors I so admire in my own little Lotus. All too soon, my laps were over and it was time to hand over to my instructor. I wrongfully presumed he was going to show me how to traverse the city course correctly. To my delight, we were to tackle one of the handling courses at speed. A relatively flat concrete surface peppered with expansion joints, this was a high-speed challenge to show off the “baby” Aston’s capabilities. It didn’t disappoint with that wonderful V8 bellowing from behind. The rigidity of the chassis and balance offered by the transaxle layout were obviously apparent and it handled tightening bends, mid-corner bumps and high entry speeds with utter disdain. Make no mistake, this is a very serious sporting motorcar and one whose limits you would struggle to approach on the open road. It left a deep impression, though tinged with a hint of gentle envy that one of these wonderful cars now resides with my dad who can enjoy that poise whenever he wishes. We returned to the clubhouse in time for a quick drink while steadying nerves for the next drive.
My name was called again and it was my turn to join instructor Ben in the DBS on the famous Alpine handling course. The DBS is AML’s flagship car, with the image and price to match. It is a quite stunning machine and carries a huge presence compared to the DB9, upon which it is based. We proceeded at a reasonably sedate pace onto the Alpine circuit, which is every bit as challenging as its reputation suggests. Ben was driving to show me lines and techniques around this breathless track. Having never visited the Alps, it’s hard to say how accurately their topography is rendered at Millbrook, but what is certain is that the blind crests and off-camber corners lined with unforgiving armco makes for a slightly intimidating drive. I took over behind the wheel and introduced my own ineptitude to this marvellous piece of macadam. I was trying to remember which way the track went and maintain decent progress while savouring the experience of a 6L V12 masterpiece. My first mistake was wheel-shuffling. I never do this in my Elise, but around town in my Peugeot, with its relatively low-geared steering, the IAM way is the only way. It was a habit which needed breaking and it was certainly much easier to progress with hands constantly on the wheel, especially with the paddles controlling the gearbox being mounted behind the wheel. This was to be the car’s achilles’ heal around such a circuit, at least for me. Being a full auto with manual over-ride, I found the throttle response a little lacking and, when I was able to give the mighty engine its full head, it shuffled for the appropriate ratio before violently kicking down and thrusting me towards the horizon with utter glee, but zero subtlety. I’m sure that out and about in the real world, the ‘box makes perfect sense, but as a manual driver I struggled with it and it slightly let down the whole DBS experience. Putting aside my own limitations, this is a quite remarkable car – a true comfortable GT but with a tactile feel and total stability. Despite its size, value and power, it was a friendly companion and to tackle a serious continental blast, I doubt there is any car better qualified. I’d love to have a run in a manual.
With my DBS experience over all too soon it was time to prepare for its little brother – the crazy V12 Vantage. This takes the V8 Vantage’s small and svelte body but shoehorns the DBS’s monster 510bhp engine under its louvred bonnet. This was the car I was most excited about driving and the course we were to tackle was a simple one – a gently inclined mile-long straight. I was passenger for the first run and we tickled our way onto the straight before nailing it in second. Through the gears, we were north of 150mph before slowing to 100mph to demonstrate the huge carbon ceramic brakes. This was perhaps the most impressive display of automotive retardation I have ever experienced, and as cliched as it sounds, I genuinely was hurled into the seatbelt and left bracing myself bodily against the bulkhead. It was even more vivid than the acceleration. Then it was my turn. We eased onto the straight and it was foot to the floor and round to the redline in second. Then third. Then fourth. Then fifth. Finally into sixth and the end of the course was looming rapidly. Despite my urges for the horizon to move ever further away so I could allow the monumental urge to continue, the opposite was true and it was very apparent that I would need to test those mighty brakes for myself. At just over 160mph I was off the throttle and starting to brake gently at first to settle the car before using full force to bring the car to a standstill. So rapidly does one slow down, that I almost didn’t get the clutch dipped in time to prevent a rather undignified stall. It was a quite remarkable experience and the car, with its single-piece seats and little suede-covered steering wheel, was as informative, noisy and generally brilliant as I might have hoped. While the V8V would appear a better compromise for normal road use, the V12V felt like a delightfully unruly beast by comparison and to unleash that savage speed on the Queen’s Highway must be a tremendous sensation. For our final run, we had to attempt to outwit a slow-moving double-decker bus conducting straight-line test work and perform the same exercise but from a rolling start in fourth gear instead of second. To my amazement, our terminal velocity was remarkably similar and the linearity and feeling of total relentlessness as we surged towards the redline and into fifth was deeply impressive. Another 160mph run and another chance to demonstrate those massive brakes. The stability of the car at such speeds was far greater than that of its driver and the impression it gives is that you will always be the weak link in the chain. Despite the big numbers, it was a serene and very enjoyable experience and not in the slightest bit scary.
Back to base and a good chat with sales exec Tim before the penultimate test of the day and a car I hadn’t really thought too much about driving – the new Rapide. As AML’s big four seater, I was struggling a little to see its relevance to me. While it is handsome in the extreme and something I appreciate for its elegance, preparation and engineering soundness, I cannot pretend to be a fan of big cars particularly. My preconceptions took a bit of a battering. Straight out onto the Alpine course again and I felt much more comfortable than before, with a slight recollection of which way the corners went, working on improving my lines and steering technique. It became apparent that this 5m long behemoth is a most remarkable machine; perhaps the best in the whole range. It shares its 470bhp V12 with the DB9 and makes a delightfully sporting noise, while bathing you in leather-clad opulence. Despite this luxury and the car’s not-inconsiderable heft, it was so easy to throw around the circuit. Tightening bends, constant radii, mid-corner bumps, a little lift mid-corner; nothing shook its composure and it immediately shrank around you, feeling V8V sized. While it is hard not to be impressed by any true sportscar, this was the model which surprised me the most and probably left the biggest impression. I could’ve gladly spent the entire day behind the wheel on that twisting course before pointing it North and wafting back to Yorkshire in style.
Age hasn’t dimmed the DB9’s beauty. This was to be my final ride of the day. While, rather controversially, I actually think the V8V is the better proportioned of the pair, this is a most elegant conveyance. It will live as a true classic and certainly helped establish AML’s current reputation for curvy beauties in this millenium. Instructor Simon took the wheel and we pottered past various automotive prototypes testing over Millbrook’s range of courses and slotted in behind a tank as we crossed the bridge over the bowl. Military vehicles are tested here as well and clouds of dust rose from the various off-road courses as vehicles of war pound the countryside. As we crested the bridge, I noticed a satin black supercar being checked over by a small team of engineers. It transpired that McLaren were working on their forthcoming MP4-12C and there was prototype XP7, as compact and discrete as any 600bhp supercar might dare to be. We turned onto the 2 mile bowl and entered a new surreal world. Simon built up the speed slowly, moving out across the five lanes as the pace picked up, finally into the outermost lane which is as steep as you like and nudges the armco at the top. Up here he demonstrated the legendary “hands-off” technique where science permits the car to lap of its own accord at 100mph without steering input. As a passenger it is bizarre, but not un-nerving and I was excited about having a go myself. As we swapped seats a walkie talkie crackled and we were told that another car would be carrying out high-speed braking on the bowl. Best keep an eye on the mirrors then…I eased out onto the bowl and started to build up a little speed, following Simon’s actions from a few minutes previously. As I moved into lane two, that same McLaren came bellowing past us in lane five. I cannot comment on that car as a driving experience, but it really does look good lapping at speed. At 96mph, and myself up in lane five, it was my turn to try the hands-off routine. It was deeply unsettling, with the proximity of the barriers and the nature of the constant cornering proving to be a genuine leap of faith. I put my life in the hands of science of crossed my arms, scanning between the surface in front of me, the far distance and those barriers once more. To my surprise we avoided a massive accident and instead proceeded without fuss at significant speed and all the while cornering hard left. It was a must unusual sensation; only heightened when I was told to ease off the throttle to move down the banking, before performing the opposite manoeuvre to settle myself back in the groove at the top. All the while my arms remained folded. With that demi-miracle performed and my nerves totally shattered, it seemed only right to up the pace a little. With significant shove from that delightfully mellifluous V12, we piled on the power and were soon lapping at 135mph with some mechanical ease. The same could not be said of the driver. The steering is weighting up hugely at those speeds, with the neck muscles braced, this was not the serene cruise I was expecting. Instead, with those ever-present barriers only a couple of feet away, this was very visceral and very real. While not one to usually be shy of speed, the whole feeling is peculiar, yet strangely addictive. I wanted to go faster still, but felt I was at the limit of prudence so completely a couple more laps at 135 before it was all over and I was gently bringing down the speed, trying to feel what the vehicle was telling me and rather helplessly searching in the mirrors in case I was obstructing Ron Dennis’s latest baby at real speed.
And so back to the clubhouse and lunch. Time to reflect on a morning which had offered me the chance to sample a clutch of the most iconic, aspirational and powerful sportscars in the world; and from a marque which I’ve admired from afar for so many years. The current range of Aston Martins is sensational. At the risk of being accused of gushing, these are just terrific machines – elegant, comfortable and tactile. I returned to the car park and settled myself into the Elise’s fibreglass seat. As I eased out onto the flowing road passing Millbrook and got up to speed as the car warmed up, I had a thought: Those Astons were amazing, but my little Lotus…it feels like home.