1938 ASTON MARTIN 15/98 OPEN SPORTS
By the mid-1930s, Aston Martin was under the control of Augustus “Bert” Bertelli, who transformed the ailing firm into one of the most admired British sporting marques. Aston Martins of the era were undeniably pretty while also being quick, agile, and well-built. The 1.5-litre endurance sports racers continually evolved and achieved considerable success, taking the team prize in the 1934 Tourist Trophy race in Ulster and finishing in an impressive 3rd place at the 1935 24 Hours of Le Mans. The newly christened Aston Martin Ulster production model made for a very desirable 100 mph sporting mount for the enthusiastic driver. Ultimately, the Ulster’s market was limited to a small number of serious (and well-heeled) sportsmen, whose business wasn’t quite enough to boost Aston Martin’s bottom line.
Aston Martin decided to develop a more versatile offering for the company’s next generation of cars, starting with an updated new chassis by Bertelli, with credit also going to another brilliant engineer, Claude Hill. Significantly, the new specification mandated an increase in displacement to two litres, as its longer stroke could provide ample torque for a more relaxed motoring experience. The new four-cylinder, single overhead-camshaft wet-sump engine, developed 98 brake horsepower, and it featured an excellent four-speed Moss synchromesh gearbox and Girling rod mechanical drum brakes. Overall, it was an exceptionally well-balanced machine, now marketed as the Two-Litre range. Accolades flowed in, such as the following summary from Autocar: “[The Aston Martin Two-Litre is] softer, quieter, and more flexible, whilst acceleration and general suitability for everyday purposes have increased out of all knowledge.”
Aston Martin set its sights on Le Mans for 1936 and developed a competition version of the Two-Litre chassis (known as the Speed Model), but a labor strike in France resulted in the race’s cancellation. Nevertheless, production continued, with an initial focus on touring configurations, such as a closed saloon, a drophead coupe by coachbuilder Abbott, and a 2/4 seat open tourer, with road-going versions dubbed 15/98; a common designation denoting Britain’s “taxable” vs. measured horsepower system.
With excess capacity at the factory, a short-chassis version of the 15/98 was introduced with its most appealing shape to date, the Open Sports, bodied by Abbey Coachworks of Willesden, London. After its debut at the inaugural Earl’s Court Motor Show in 1937, about 50 stylish Open Sports were built, out of a total production of approximately 171 Two-Litre cars. These marvelous cars offered thrilling open-air motoring with the benefit of superior comfort over their race-bred counterparts.
According to factory production records, chassis number J8/776/LS was delivered to A.W. Stewart-Dean Esq., Sudbrook Manor, Grantham, on October 21, 1938. Production details show the car left the works as a standard chassis, fitted with Bertelli Saloon coachwork. Interestingly, Stewart-Dean was a longstanding and faithful Aston Martin customer, and he only sold the 15/98 because his new DB2 had arrived in 1953. It passed to the second owner, I.H. Mann, of Berkshire, on March 6, 1954.
The subsequent recorded owners were R.W. and R.J. Mills, who acquired the 15/98 in the 1980s. During their ownership, the car underwent an extensive restoration, which included shortening the chassis to works “Short Chassis” specification, and fitting the beautiful open-sports body, built to exact standards of the Abbot original. The Mills later sold the car to longtime Aston Martin Owner’s Club North America member Vincent Young, who turned to the marque specialists at Steel Wings of Ivyland, Pennsylvania, to perform a complete nut-and-bolt restoration to world-class standards. During this time, the owner took the opportunity to convert it to left-hand drive, update it to hydraulic brakes, and fit a gearbox with synchromesh on 2nd through 4th gears to ensure the car was not only beautiful but an effortless high-performance driver as well. It was shown extensively in AMOC events, winning numerous awards through the years.
The Aston Martin 15/98 then caught the eye of noted collector, the late Orin Smith. While in Mr. Smith’s care, the Aston Martin was judged Best in Class at the 2012 Cavallino Classic Sports Sunday and featured in the AMOC’s quarterly journal. After Mr. Smith’s passing and dispersal of his collection, the 15/98 joined a private stable where it has been enthusiastically driven and meticulously maintained. The Steel Wings restoration remains in superb condition, with gorgeous dark blue paintwork, lovely gray upholstery, and fine detailing inside and out. Period accessories such as a central spot lamp, chrome trumpet horns, headlamp stone guards, and Brooklands windscreens lend a sporting, purposeful character. With its eager 2-litre engine and updated gearbox, it is surprisingly user-friendly and perfectly suited to entry into a wide range of tours and rallies.
Pre-war, Bertelli-era Aston Martins are a rare sight, particularly on US soil, and few examples are as well-sorted and fit for enjoyment as this superb example. It will undoubtedly take a place of pride in any marque-focused collection or assemblage of significant British sporting motorcars.
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