Aston Martin Atom (1939)

2016-11-29 Read: 129x

Despite producing some of the finest sports cars of the 1930s, Aston Martin never actually managed to turn a profit once. After the armistice, the company was offered for sale by owner Gordon Sutherland through a small ad in the newspaper. The only real asset was the experimental Atom show car, which had been developed right before the War. After driving the Atom, industrialist David Brown was sold and he acquired the company on the spot.

The design brief for Aston Martin's chief engineer Claude Hill was simply to create the smallest, lightest and quietest small saloon possible. At the time, the atom was the smallest particle known, which explains the Aston Martin's type name. Key to this was the box-frame chassis created from welded rectangular tubing. Compared to the conventional ladder frames used by most contemporary production cars, the Atom chassis proved to be both lighter and torsionally stiffer.

Specialist Gordon Armstrong was responsible for the Atom's patented suspension design. At the front two short, parallel trailing arms were fitted with coil springs. At the rear a Salisbury live axle with semi-elliptic springs was fitted. This was a first for a British vehicle for the particularly sturdy axle, which would soon receive near legendary status for its durability on the army Jeeps. Hydraulic lever-arm dampers and hydraulic drum brakes were fitted on all four corners.

Carried over from the existing Aston Martin models was the two-litre, four-cylinder engine. Equipped with twin overhead camshafts, it was good for around 110 bhp. The exotic engine, however, would ultimately be to expensive for use in a potential production model, so Hill also developed push-rod straight four, which would be mounted in the car in 1944. Regardless of the engine used, the Atom was equipped with a Cotal pre-selector gearbox with four forward gears.

In keeping with the Atom's underpinnings, the body was also of a cutting edge design. The lines followed experiments with aerodynamic shapes as seen on the interestingly styled Type C Speed Model. Thoroughly modern, the slippery Atom body featured integral front and rear fenders and no running boards. The aluminium panels were mounted on a small diameter steel tubular frame, not unlike the Superleggera construction method used by Touring of Milan.

Upon completion late in 1939, the Atom was extensively tested and received a very warm welcome in the British press. With the original still fitted, it achieved a top speed of nearly 100 mph despite running on low-quality, Wartime fuel. During the War, Aston Martin produced aircraft parts and development of the car ground to a halt but it was used extensively by Gordon Sutherland himself. He is believed to have clocked over 100,000 miles on the Atom himself before the end of the War.

Although Sutherland had ambitious plans to further develop the Atom, he offered Aston Martin literally in a 'For Sale' ad shortly after the War. David Brown answered the ad and as mentioned before, driving the Atom convinced him to acquire the company. He did not follow up with a production version of the Atom but the chassis and engine were used in the first post-War model, which immediately won the 1948 Spa 24 Hours outright. The chassis design would go to form the basis for the DB2 produced until the late 1950s.

David Brown did not retain the Atom for very long and this very important British motor car eventually ended up in French hands during the mid-1960s. During this period, it was displayed on occasion in the Chatellerault Musée de l'Automobile and also in the official Le Mans museum. In 1985, it was acquired, sight unseen, by Aston Martin enthusiast Dr. Thomas Rollason and repatriated to the United Kingdom.

During the following years, it was sympathetically restored to its 1946 specification with insights of Gordon Sutherland himself. By that time, it had covered over 250,000 miles. Since the restoration, the Atom has been a welcome guest at many of the major shows, notably winning a class award at Pebble Beach and Goodwood.

After a custodianship of nearly 30 years, Dr. Rollason has now consigned the unique Atom to the 2014 Bonhams Goodwood Festival of Speed sale. The privilege of owning one of the earliest concept cars and the saviour of Aston Martin will come at an estimated £ 600,000 - 1,000,000.


Country of origin: Great Britain
Produced in: 1939
Numbers built: One-Off
Designed by: Claude Hill for Aston Martin
Author: Wouter Melissen
Last updated: June 26, 2014
Configuration Straight 4
Location Front, longitudinally mounted
Displacement 1,970 cc / 120.2 cu in
Bore / Stroke 82.6 mm (3.3 in) / 92.0 mm (3.6 in)
Valvetrain 2 valves / cylinder, OHV
Fuel feed 2 SU Carburettors
Lubrication Wet sump
Aspiration Naturally Aspirated
Power 90 bhp / 67 KW @ 4,750 rpm
Torque 183 Nm / 135 ft lbs @ 3,000 rpm
BHP/Liter 46 bhp / liter
Body aluminium panels on a steel frame
Chassis steel box frame chassis
Front suspension twin parallel arms, coil springs, hydraulic shock absorbers
Rear suspension Salisbury axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, hydraulic shock absorbers
Gearbox Cotal 4 speed Semi-Automatic
Drive Rear wheel drive
Weight 1,219 kilo / 2,687 lbs
Wheelbase / Track (fr/r) 2,591 mm (102 in) / 1,270 mm (50 in) / 1,270 mm (50 in)
Fuel tank 77 Litre (20.3 Gallon US / 16.9 Gallon Imperial)
Tyres 5.5 x 17

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