The early 1930s were a tough time for Aston Martin, and the New International of 1932 was cheaper to produce than the car it replaced. But, as Mark Dixon found out, it was also better rescued. Photography Matthew Howell. Aston Martin International. Driving a pre-war tourer that wears its history on its sleeve. The sweet-revving 1500 is just itching to show what it’s capable of.
You have to admire his honesty. About three-quarters of the way through his report and road test of the Aston Martin New International four-seater, Motor Sport ’s scribe declared: ‘After testing it at Brooklands, we set off along devious routes with the firm intention of seeing if it was possible to blow it up. 4000 to 4500 in all gears, cornering as fast as the road allowed, up and down the box… the car seemed willing to stand this indefinitely.’
The writer isn’t credited, but the dry humour has all the hallmarks of founding editor Bill Boddy. He didn’t blow it up, and concluded that ‘one is safe in calling the New International a genuine 70mph car’. From which you may conclude that it wasn’t the fastest thing to leave Aston’s Feltham works, even by the standards of the 1930s.
‘When asked at garages if I needed any oil, I’d answer “Yes, let’s start with a gallon and see how we go!”’
But then, outright speed isn’t everything, and there are some pre-war cars that may not seem to be terribly fast on paper but which turn out to be remarkably good at eating up the miles cross-country. Riley’s Kestrel saloon springs to mind: fitted with the Wilson preselect gearbox, which lets you choose the next gear before you need to engage it (very handy when getting set-up for a corner), it’s a brilliant little road car. And having just driven the actual car that Bill Boddy (perhaps) tested in 1932, I reckon the Aston Martin New International could be another.
Aston’s output wasn’t exactly huge in the early ’30s. It offered two kinds of car: a sports tourer – which, for 1932, would be the New International – and the Le Mans sports racer, a copy of the team cars it fielded for the 24 Hours. The latter proved much more popular than the former, with over a hundred built, whereas just a dozen New Internationals found buyers.
This New International was the works development hack, and had a hard early life. It was used as a team tender for Le Mans in 1932, where, according to Motor Sport, ‘it arrived carrying more luggage, tools and spares than one would have believed possible for a car of its dimensions’. In ten months it racked up about 20,000 miles in the hands of Aston Martin’s then-owner, the London motor dealer Lance Prideaux-Brune. When the car was sold at the end of the year, the works build sheet stated with surprising frankness: ‘Speedo put back (9000m)’!
The speedo read 37,801 by 1936, when the build sheet records that the Aston needed body repairs after an accident. There’s a bit of a gap in its history then until the 1950s, when two brothers owned it briefly in succession. Tony and Colin MacEke are both still hale and hearty – and both crashed it at different times, too.
Speaking from his home in Devon, Tony recalls: ‘I bought the International in 1957 for £175 to replace the Austin Seven special that I’d built the previous year. Although I didn’t have the Aston long, I did like it. I remember going on holiday in it to Cornwall. On the way back it was absolutely tipping down with rain, and I pulled out to overtake a van. The driver stuck his hand out, which made me wonder if he knew something I didn’t… Just in front of him the road curved sharp right, with no warning, and I skidded into a bridge parapet. Fortunately we weren’t going very fast by then!’
Tony had the car repaired, but soon afterwards his head was turned by a Le Mans model and he sold the International to his brother. Colin, who now lives in Gloucestershire, had an equally adventurous rite of passage with it: ‘The wing nuts on the [cable-operated] brakes were vulnerable to vandals, as I found out when I went into a ditch to avoid an accident. From then on I fitted lock nuts. But my constant worry was the oil filter, for its [securing] threads were almost gone and I could never get a decent seal. When asked at garages if I needed any oil, I’d say “Yes, let’s start with a gallon and see how we go!”’
Colin had to sell the Aston after a couple of years, when a young family meant it was no longer practical. An Army officer who was being posted to Germany bought it: ‘I pointed out the oil problem but it didn’t deter him and I watched him drive off with oil pouring out with a mixture of relief and nostalgia.’
The buff logbook that’s still with the car shows that the Army man last taxed it in 1966. And yes, he crashed it too, according to Aston specialist Jim Young – who bought his first Aston in 1952, also a New International. Jim knows the car well. ‘It has some interesting features: the back axle is an experimental ENV unit, and the body is different from subsequent production cars, with deeper side valances over the chassis members. Pre-war Astons are incredibly well made and durable, and two of the most used pre-war cars in the AMOC are New Internationals. Their biggest disadvantage is that they’re relatively heavy.’
MV 2543 hasn’t been on the road for nearly 50 years, due to engine problems that weren’t resolved until it came into the hands of vintage car fettler and enthusiast Nick Benwell, proprietor of the famous old Phoenix Green Garage, which is located next door to the even older Phoenix pub, birthplace of the VSCC. Octane’s photoshoot will be the first time in several decades that it has covered any proper mileage on a public road.
Painted red with black wings in 1963, the car was blue when the MacEke brothers owned it, but dark green before that, and the works build sheet says that it left the factory in black… In 1932, Aston was going through a particularly tough period. Its cars had a good reputation for quality but they were expensive, and the main reason for that was because everything was produced in-house, including the gearbox and back axle. So for the New International, intended to replace the International that had debuted in 1929, these major components were bought in: the gearbox came from Laycock, and the spiral-bevel back axle from ENV. And for the first time in an Aston, the gearbox was bolted direct to the back of the engine, rather than mounted separately in the chassis and connected via a short propshaft, in vintage car tradition.
Accepting these ‘compromises’ meant that Aston could cut a hefty £120 from the retail price, which was now £475. That was a big improvement but it was still an awful lot of money for a 1500cc tourer in 1932. The sporting motorist of the early ’30s could choose from a wide range of marques (Singer, Riley and British Salmson to name just a few) that offered similar or better performance for under £400, which helps explain why only a dozen New Internationals would be built.
So was the New International a duffer? It wasn’t an especially quick car, nor a particularly rakish looker, despite having an underslung chassis and cycle wings. The engine was overhead-cam but it was a 1.5-litre four-cylinder rather than a straight-six, which you might have expected in this price bracket. But get behind the wheel and you’ll find that, just as Aston claimed in its advert at the time, the New International is a ‘most satisfying car’.
That big, sprung four-spoke wheel is the nerve-centre of the Aston’s cockpit, its boss housing a hand throttle and advance/retard lever for ignition timing. The gearchange is ‘back to front’ – in other words, first is up and to the right, fourth down and to the left – and there’s a chunky, stubby little lever protruding from the end of a long alloy remote-shift casing, which is mounted on top of the gearbox and projects back into the cockpit. The fullwidth dashboard is a simple piece of varnished wood, and not original to the car; a 1958 snapshot shows that it had Aston’s centraldash arrangement back then.
Remember that this car has a central throttle (with the brake to the right of it) and press the electric start, and the Bertelli-designed inline four instantly thrums into life. It’s one of the all-time classic engines, a dry-sump unit with valves arranged to give combustion chamber turbulence for optimum performance, and it sounds smooth and refined.
Nick has kindly made the car available for our photoshoot with barely 24 hours’ notice, and he warns me that the ignition timing may not be set quite right. So it proves. The little 1500 is clearly down on performance, but you can sense that it’s just itching to wake up and show what it’s capable of. It feels like a peppy little thing, sweet-revving and willing, but just a bit under the weather at this moment.
Once wound up to speed, the International is a pleasure to hustle along a typical English backroad. The steering is beautifully light and direct and, guided by those cycle wings that turn with the front wheels, you can position it to the inch in a corner. But more surprising is the quality of the gearchange. Motor Sport complained that ‘two or three seconds is lost on each change if one waits the correct time’ – and perhaps that’s the case if you’re absolutely caning it, but in normal motoring the lever slips between ratios as clean as you like, with a lovely solid precision, almost like a much bigger version of those tiny levers fitted to Cotal electric gearchanges. It’s one of the nicest features of the car, and no Aston customer should have felt shortchanged because they were buying something not made at Feltham.
Driving with the caution appropriate to something that’s not been exercised in half a century, the cable-operated brakes aren’t a problem, and a bigger danger would be locking those skinny 21-inch tyres on a greasy road. But because you can position the car so accurately and can see all the extremities, you feel confident in hustling the Aston past oncoming traffic in narrow country lanes. You don’t actually need to slow down very often. Yes, this is a well-used and, er, extremely patinated vintage car, but it has huge character and I suspect it’s going to give the new owners a lot of pleasure. They plan to use it as a general runabout, labradors in the back, and they’re adamant that it won’t be tarted up.
It’s the right decision: once you started, you’d really have to go the whole hog and rebuild it from the ground up. Better that this small piece of Aston Martin history wears its scars with pride, rather than become just another shiny toy.
Thanks To Nick Benwell at The Phoenix Green Garage, Hartley Wintney, Hampshire, +44 (0)7762 116129.
‘The sweet-revving 1500 is just itching to show what it’s capable of’
Clockwise from far left Originally a hardworking Le Mans support car, MV 2543 is these days only required to carry its current owners and their labradors; the 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine needs a little work yet, but is full of promise; the Laycock gearbox is an unexpected delight. Clockwise from far left For a car that has barely been driven for the last 50 years, the New International inspires a surprising amount of confidence when barrelling down narrow country lanes; MV 2543 is a characterful surivivor, not a gleaming concours queen, and it’s all the better for it. Above At rest in the Phoenix Green Garage, spiritual home of the VSCC – and literal home, for a time, of Denis Jenkinson. The Aston’s patinated appearance fits perfectly here.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE 1932 ASTON MARTIN NEW INTERNATIONAL
ENGINE 1493cc four-cylinder, OHC, iron block with alloy head, dry sump lubrication, two SU carburettors, magneto ignition
POWER 55bhp @ 4500rpm
TRANSMISSION Laycock four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
STEERING Worm and sector
SUSPENSION Beam axles, semi-elliptic leaf springs, friction dampers
BRAKES 14in drums, cable operated
WEIGHT 965kg approx
PERFORMANCE Top speed 72mph. 0-60mph 22sec approx