Born from the messy aftermath of a truncated Formula One adventure, this racing special made its mark on Northern Irish motor sport. Today we drive this connection to a lost strand of Aston Martin history. Words Sam Dawson. Photography Jonathan Fleetwood.
Unravelling the mysterious tale of the Irish HWM-Aston Martin
On the trail of lost F1 connections in a unique Aston-powered racer
There is no combination of sight, sound and smell more evocative in classic British motor sport. Asphalt banking, untroubled by catch-fencing or crash-barriers, crackles beneath whirling deeply-treaded Dunlops that bob either side of a long green cigar-tube bonnet. Beneath a flat air scoop punctured by SU carburettors, a twin-cam straight-six snarls and snorts, exhaling a strong mixture of race fuel and hot Castrol R. Sun glints off the spokes of a vast, wood-rimmed steering wheel. If I glance in the rear-view mirror, I might imagine glimpsing a Maserati 250F or a Lancia D50 in fierce pursuit of Grand Prix glory.
So what am I driving? Vanwall? Cooper? No. The nosecone bears Aston Martin wings but the chassis doesn’t. It’s a tale of a failed F1 project colliding with a little-known Northern Irish racing scene via some sporting aristocrats.
‘I anticipate something peaky as I raise the revs gently and lift the clutch pedal’
Following the demise of the Dundrod TT in 1955, Northern Irish motor sport became an unusual, confusing scene. The TT had given the nation a round of the World Sports Car Championship, but the 1955 race was the first to take place after the 1955 Le Mans tragedy.
The deaths of three drivers marred the rain-soaked event, and a new safety-conscious spirit in motor sport ended car racing on the tricky, tight road circuit. But the passion was still there. In the wake of the departure of world-championship racing from Northern Ireland, local motor racing coalesced around three old World War Two airbases – Long Kesh just outside Lisburn, Cranfield near Newry, and Kirkistown on the Ards Peninsula. A sports- and specials-racing scene thrived.
Throughout the Fifties, older sports cars from the likes of Frazer-Nash and HWM, often offloaded by English and Scottish teams, made their way to Ulster privateers to be re-engined, retuned, rebodied and campaigned on the bumpy old RAF-laid asphalt. In January 1956, on the other side of the world, Aston Martin was investigating a new direction. Works mechanics John King and Richard Green, and designer Frank Feeley, built an Aston Martin Grand Prix car, ‘Development Project 155’, to the new 2.5-litre formula. Based on a modified DB3S chassis, its downsized 2493cc version of the DB3S engine was underpowered compared to Ferrari and Maserati opposition, but driver Reg Parnell found it promising, and identified New Zealand’s domestic championship as the ideal place to test its viability during F1’s off-season.
Parnell got off to a bad start, DP155 throwing a conrod in practice at the opening race at Ardmore. Aston flew out a standard DB3S engine for installation into DP155 in time for the 150-mile Lady Wigram Trophy at Christchurch, but the car only managed a distant fourth, more than five minutes off winner Peter Whitehead’s Ferrari. The Aston team missed much of the rest of the season, returning DP155 to the Feltham works before selling it to specials-builder Geoff Richardson, together with a DB2 engine.
Richardson paid £900 for the car and was disgruntled by its performance, swapping the Aston engine for a Jaguar XK, racing it twice then, at the behest of customer David Gossage, discarding the single-seater bodywork in favour of a full-width bodyshell before selling it to him. That car, built on DP155’s chassis, has since been restored as a conventional DB3S and resides in the US.
‘Deeply-treaded Dunlops bob either side of a long green cigar-tube bonnet’
Its new body came from another unique Aston, an aerodynamically-smoothed DB3S owned by serial Aston customer and specials-builder Lord O’Neill, of Shanes Castle, County Antrim. He was one of a pair of racing Lords participating in the airbase races along with his contemporary Henry, Lord Dunleath. Lord O’Neill’s specials typically followed a particular pattern – modified racing chassis, big straight-six, sleek lines.
It’s at this point that this car appears to have come into existence, as Richard Young of the 500 Motor Club, operations manager and lifelong historian of Kirkistown circuit, recalls, ‘Lord O’Neill was a great man for building strange specials, including a few HWM-Altas which changed identity. At this time, something claiming to be an HWM-Jaguar emerged.’ It combined a heavily-modified HWM-style chassis with a Jaguar XK engine of the kind Richardson used, and what appeared to be the bodywork from DP155. Although no records were kept, O’Neill’s DB3S streamliner body heading to Richardson and a combination of DP155 bodywork and Jaguar XK engine appearing on the other side of the Irish Sea at the same time seems more than coincidental.
The car was promptly acquired by Lord Dunleath ahead of 1958, his Victor’s Garage business in Belfast promptly swapping the XK for a 2922cc Aston DB3S unit ahead of an assault on Northern Ireland’s airbase-racing scene. Lord Dunleath campaigned the car ‘HWM-Aston Martin’ at Long Kesh, Kirkistown and Cranfield. ‘The main thing about those races was that they were all run to a handicap system,’ Young recalls. ‘The grids weren’t big enough to make up races for any one type of car, resulting in a combination of single-seaters and sports cars on the same track. Drivers soon learnt a trick to fool the organisers into giving them a more favourable handicap – they were issued at the beginning of the season and stayed the same regardless of progress because there weren’t enough races in the year to justify adjusting it. They’d drive deliberately slowly in practice in order to be considered in a slower handicap, resulting in more favourable grid positions.
‘You had to be careful though – you couldn’t exceed your practice time in qualifying by more than five percent or you’d be thrown out, so drivers became very cunning about it. Paddy Hopkirk, who was driving a Triumph TR2 at this time, would hang around Kirkistown’s corners with a stopwatch, calculating other drivers’ entry and exit speeds, working out how slowly he could get away with going through it!’
Lord Dunleath didn’t own the HWM-Aston for long. Brian, the current Lord Dunleath, understands that the car was only in his possession for the 1958 season, after which Henry switched back to Frazer-Nashes. However, the HWM-Aston’s time on the front-line was short-lived, as Young explains, ‘The airfield circuits were on land sequestered by the RAF during World War Two, and in fact as a naval air station from 1942, Kirkistown is the only race circuit to have been a ship! It carried the naval designation HMS Corncrake II. It was hastily laid by the RAF on swampland, and when the water table rises with the tides, the concrete slabs move about.
‘Kirkistown was the closest circuit to Belfast, and has remained in continuous use since 1952. However, the others were out in the countryside, and once the RAF’s leases ran out in 1959, their landowners took them back. Cranfield became a caravan park, and the Maze Prison was built on Long Kesh. With the exception of Kirkistown, if you wanted to race you had to travel to the South. In those days before Mondello Park, that meant Phoenix Park – a public park – Dunboyne’s triangular airfield circuit, and the seven mile road track at Wicklow. And there was a very high fatality rate.’
I’m contemplating the morbid racing world this special was born into as I lower myself into it. Getting in is tricky. I’m bracing myself with my left hand on the rear-mounted fuel tank and my right on the top of the rear tyre, wrist perilously close to exhaust. A narrowing footwell squeezes my knees together, and my lower left leg snags a bolt on the side of the gearbox. I wonder how I’m going to hit the brake pedal without getting the accelerator at the same time, even though I’m wearing narrow driving shoes. There’s a good reason for this awkward skew though – that space to my left could be passed off as a passenger seat, allowing the HWM-Aston to be classified as a sports car or a monoposto depending on which race it was entered into.
I hit the starter button, and the engine coughs before erupting in a cacophony of SUs. I clank into first gear on the exposed linkage, inhale an intoxicating waft of oil, and anticipate something peaky and awkward as I raise the revs and gently lift the clutch pedal. Thanks to the DB2 engine currently fitted – in England in the Seventies, but in the spirit of the original – it’s tractable and manageable. The clutch is light and pleasant to use and making a keen getaway is easy, even if the DB3S gearchange is heavy and industrial, more David Brown tractor than Aston Martin sports car.
Despite its hunkered-down, muscly appearance, it only takes one of the banked corners at Longcross to realise how tactile this car is. Only millimetric steering inputs rather than arm-twirling heroics are needed to handle it, a feather of throttle here and there if it’s called for to tighten a line. I’m not racing, but it’s an incredibly compliant car with small-sport dynamics rather than the snarling monster it looks and sounds like.
Only the drum brakes really let it down. Be gentle and progressive and they’re ineffective, but get firmer with them and they get savage, locking up if you’re even slightly too hard with them. That bolt digging into my leg is heating up along with the engine, my lower body is cooking, and my face is being blasted by the kind of frozen air that whips between the North Channel and Strangford Lough, across Kirkistown’s shifting flagstones. Occasionally, the big whirling Dunlops nick the edge of a slippery white line or an icy patch in the shadow of a tall tree, and the HWM-Aston twitches sideways. I’m suddenly grateful for the precision and economy of opposite-lock movement afforded by the steering.
After Lord Dunleath’s brief tenure behind the wheel, the Ulster Racing Partnership bought the car and fitted another XK, returning its ‘HWM-Jaguar’ identity. It raced all over Ireland with the Partnership until 1965, before being acquired briefly by owner-driver Dickie Lovell-Butt of LB Cars, then LB’s driver in both circuit races and hill climbs, Alec Watkins. Its history between its final appearance at Mondello Park in September 1968 and its appearance in a garage in Frome, Somerset in 1972 appeared uncertain, but with this car’s reappearance on the classic scene, two observations provide vital clues.
Young recalls, ‘In 1971 I saw a car fitting its description fail scrutineering at Phoenix Park. It looked like it had been race-prepared by a blacksmith!’ A year later, racing driver Joey Greenan took his newly-acquired BMW 3.0CSL E9 into Stanley Harvey, a dealership and service garage on Clarence Street West, Belfast, for fettling. ‘I saw this car at the back of the workshop, covered in dust, and enquired about buying it because I was looking for a singleseater,’ Greenan recalls. ‘The reply was “Lord Dunleath’s car? It’s not for sale,” so I bought a Formula Ford car instead.’ But by the end of the year the then-HWM-Jaguar had been sold to Frome. Stanley Harvey was the business of Ian Titterington, himself a racing driver, and cousin of Jaguar and Mercedes works driver Desmond Titterington. Maybe his connections led to Ian acquiring it.
As a classic, this car drifted from Barbados to Singapore before winding up behind a snooker table in Devon, owned by a reclusive Aston Martin Owners’ Club member. It’s now in active hands and bound for this year’s Jersey Grand Prix. But I like to think that one day it will thunder through sea gales across the Kirkistown tarmac once again.
In a world where engines are snatched out of chassis in order for owners to regain matching-numbers provenance, it’s vital that specials like the HWM-Aston Martin are kept alive, recalling an era of now-forgotten circuits, when drivers were perhaps less precious about their cars, but a whole lot more daring behind the wheel.
The top name in UK competition radiators in the Fifties ‘Passenger’ space meant it could enter single-seat and sports races. Exposed linkage looks brutal, but heavy gearchange is precise Hot exhaust pipe snakes directly beneath driver’s right elbow. The shapely tail panel encloses a neatly tapered fuel tank Despite brutish looks, HWM-Aston needs delicate handling. Tim Parnell is son of Reg, Aston’s original Formula One pioneer. DB2 engine now, but it’s had multiple Aston LB6s and Jag XKs. Could this aristocratic special race at Kirkistown again?
1958 HWM-Aston Martin
Engine 2580cc in-line six-cylinder, ohv, two SU H4 carburettors
Max Power 125bhp @ 5000rpm (est)
Max torque 144lb ft @ 2400rpm (est)
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Worm and roller
Suspension Front: independent, double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers.
Rear: live axle, twin semi-trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers Brakes Drums front and rear
Performance n/a (never measured)
Cost new n/a
Value now in excess of £350,000
OWNING THE HWM-ASTON MARTIN
‘I was in an auction bidding on some World War Two aircraft instruments from a Hurricane or Spitfire, and bidding climbed out of my range,’ David Bide recalls. ‘But then a man sitting next to me said “If you’re interested in a set of those, I have some at my house in Devon.” The following week, I was down there, buying them, when I found this car next to his snooker table. I asked him if it was for sale and he invited me to make him an offer, which he accepted, and I was back the next weekend with a trailer.
‘There’s been a lot of misinformation flying around about this car over the years, which has made me determined to find out the whole, true story, and to this end I’m about to go to Northern Ireland and meet as many people as I can find who were involved in its story and airbase racing in the Fifties. Plus the current Lord O’Neill, who may know more about its origins.
‘It’s a fascinating adventure – and in the meantime I’ve just got my race licence, so I can drive it in historic races. And if anyone has any previously-unknown information for me, I’ve set up a website – astonmartinspecial.com.’