Aston Martin World - Chapter 4 – The Flying Dutchman - Driving Ambition by Barry Weir
As the car had recorded 402,000 miles since new it was a fair bet that the engine had had several re-builds. With every re-build the head is tightened down and the block tends to ‘bow.’ Eventually the block splits from front to rear… Goodbye engine!
The originally designed engine had many flaws, poor waterways, restricted oil ways and thin metal areas. So I decided to purchase a new Flint block. All the old problem areas have been modified. Wider water and oil ways and strengthened areas made this a much sounder investment for the trip. The old block along with its new liners and pistons (8:1) would be the backup engine … Just in case. ‘One should always have a backup plan.’ Tim Stamper was the person chosen to build a new engine. “If an engine leaks oil then something is wrong and it should be fixed” – his saying, not mine, and it’s this attitude that convinced me that he was the person for the job.
No, I didn’t know what they were either. I thought Tim was pulling my leg. With a new block I decided to fit the best available at the time. A new modified and strengthened crank was ordered with solid cheeses supplied by Beauxfield. Tim checked everything and found that the crank would not fit into the block. The new strengthened crank had ‘shoulders’ on its shaft. These stopped the shaft from going right into the front bearing. No one told us. Hours were spent deciding what to do. Eventually Tim moved the front bearing out of the block slightly and chamfered the inside edge of the front bearing to accommodate the ‘shoulder.’ The cheeses all lined up and the crank was installed. Now all was correct.
Pistons with enough play that they rattle
We fitted new con rods and pistons. Unfortunately the gudgeon pin, (a steel pin that holds the piston to the con rod), had so much play it rattled. Beauxfield had sent the wrong dimensions to the manufacturer.
The hole in the top of the con rod (little end) was much too big. The big ends, situated at the bottom of the con rod, were also too big. Same problem. Beauxfield did admit their mistake. Fortunately Tim checked everything – and a good job too! Con rods and pistons were returned to Beauxfield for correction. The liners were ok. Well something had got to fit hadn’t it? These were fitted and checked for clearance at the top to within four thousandths of an inch proud. This allowed for the head to be bolted down later.
A tight spot
A new modified oil pump was fitted. Even this had a tight spot when turned by hand. A new modified distributor was fitted. This has a spiral groove on its shaft to stop the oil-spewing out. I hoped!
The con rods were returned and checked. All was now well and they were fitted. Turning the engine by hand was almost impossible, as it was very ‘tight’.
A god-forsaken existence
During this time I was living in a Travel lodge on the outskirts of Penrith. One concrete room with a toilet. What a god-forsaken existence it was. I was paying for this adventure before it started. If you think doing up an Aston is all glamour and excitement think again.
We fitted a lightweight starter motor. Half the weight of the original one. All was going well. It made a change. The head was fitted. This was the original one and had been converted to unleaded fuel already. More measurements and checks were made. Tim was really fanatical that everything was measured and checked before fitting.
We fitted a new heavy-duty clutch – ‘diaphragm’ type – and a new modified rear engine oil seal. The original oil seal was a spiral groove in the rear of the crank. The new oil seal was a ‘rubber lip’ seal that pushed into the back of the bell housing into a machined flange, then slid over the rear crank. Where did they get these names? Cheeses, bell housing and there is not a bell in sight. Anyhow, the oil seal was simply fitted by pushing into the machined, modified bell housing. The flywheel and clutch were also fitted. Finally, when the engine was run and the car first driven, oil leaked out of the engine’s rear oil seal spraying all over the road. James Bond would have been proud of me except that I was not being pursued by nasty villains!
The engine was dismantled for the FIRST time. The oil seal was half way out of the bell housing. It was replaced. No reason was found for the problem. Beauxfield also had no idea why this has happened. Again the engine was run and the car driven. Yes, more oil leaks.
The engine was dismantled for the SECOND time. The new oil seal, one from Beauxfield, was chewed up on its lip. We fitted a new one, replaced the engine and again the car was driven. Yes, more oil leaks.
The engine was dismantled for the THIRD time. Tim decided to use another bell housing that Beauxfield had engineered for him. It was for another car. This time the oil seal pushed into the bell housing from the front and then the whole unit fitted to the engine. As Tim tried to fit the oil seal to the bell housing the machined part fell onto the workbench. It had not been welded to the bell housing!
At this point I decided that enough was enough. We took my original unit and fitted a new oil seal. Over this, Tim made a large washer (5-6in). This was fitted to the bell housing with five self-tapping screws. Its job was to sandwich the oil seal into the bell housing and create a good permanent seal. It worked – and would take me round the Tulip Rally. While I was away Tim would machine my spare bell housing and weld the parts together. This unit would take the oil seal from the inside. It couldn’t come loose or drift out that way.
I instructed him not to use Beauxfield again. I couldn’t risk any more problems occurring in the future. There had been too many already.
Then the gearbox
The gearbox had been overhauled, cleaned and new seals fitted along with new end bearings. The ball bearings in the top of the selector unit had been replaced and the whole lot was fitted to the car. We found there were oil leaks. The plate on the under side of the selector box was too thin and would not tighten flat onto the selector box. It had been replaced at some time in the past with the incorrect thickness plate. This was soon corrected. The engine was fully checked before being turned over by hand to check that all timing chains were adjusted and set correctly.
They are no good in the boot
I decided to fit two throttle cables. It was pointless to carry a spare and have to fit it when one breaks down. Usually when it’s raining, and at night when you are tired. So the ‘spare’ was fitted now. A bracket was made to fit the second cable to the ‘carbs’ in the middle of the shaft between them. I also fitted two coils to the chassis for the same reason as above and two regulators to the bulkhead. The electrical wires were long enough to reach either the original or the spare.
I felt like a fair weather sailor washed out to sea. I had a small amount of theoretical knowledge, and minimal practical experience. There had been occasions, like the ‘launch’ party, when it was plain sailing, but more often than not, I was caught in a heavy swell, just about coping with wave after wave of problems that keep rolling in. None of them were insurmountable, but at times it became extremely hard not to be discouraged.
In April, I entered the Aston for the Tulpenrallye, the Dutch Tulip Rally, to get some idea of how the car would perform under pressure and to give me some desperately needed rallying experience. I was to be part of the ‘Astonishing Astons’ team with a Dutch DB4 and DB5, and as it was my first outing I took with me an experienced rally driver, Pat Anderson.
I first met Pat in 1998 when he contacted me after seeing my ‘Wanted’ ad in the AMOC newsletter. He had been driving competitively for more than 30 years and had taken part in most major European international events including the Monte Carlo and RAC Rallies. He also has his own DB2 that he had rescued from a rubbish tip and was restoring to rallying condition.
A London taxi?
I don’t know exactly what I said to Pat during our first telephone conversation, but I do know that my gauche enthusiasm didn’t exactly instil him with confidence in my ability to carry out the task I had set myself. He was interested in my plans and happy to offer advice, but, being an extremely practical man, clearly didn’t want to raise my hopes too high. One of his letters carried his caveat:
Dear Barry, On a personal note only, I think the car is very unsuitable for the 80-day trip due to low ground clearance, long wheelbase and very wide wheels. However, should the car get to the finish, I believe it would be a heap of scrap.
Having had over thirty years experience of this sort of event I would suggest a London taxi, which has good ground clearance, narrow wheels, minimum electrical problems being diesel, and a lot of interior space for spares, luggage etc. A very good condition taxi could be purchased for about £7,000 and for a further £5,000 you can fit long range fuel tank, LSD, sump guards etc.
I do not wish to dampen your enthusiasm but would seriously ask you to reconsider using the DB2.
Yours sincerely, Pat H. Anderson
I didn’t take his advice about the London taxi, although I would have probably saved myself a great deal of money if I had. After much thought Pat decided the Around the World was not for him, but he was happy to accompany me on the Tulip Rally.
We set off on the week-long 2,500 kilometre event from the Dutch seaside resort of Noordwijk, and followed a roughly triangular course that took in the German capital of Berlin, before returning to the starting point via Aachen.
It was a bit overwhelming. There must have been more than 500 people milling around in the rain, looking at the cars and waiting for the start. We were second to last leaving and didn’t arrive at the hotel until very late – we had lunch at 2.00 am! Then four hours later we were off again. The second day was better – lunch was at midnight! We managed to work our way up from the bottom of the group after the first two days, to 152nd out of 217, which meant we overtook 65 cars, not bad for my first time.
Some residents clearly objected to the Rally. In places cars were parked so awkwardly we could only pass by crossing the road at right angles. On one occasion a local resident cut a tree down across the road to try and stop the Rally.
Car won’t stop
We broke a bonnet hinge but I managed to wire it up for the rest of the Rally. It would need fixing and modifying for the 80 Days Rally. The only real problem was the brake linings that were too soft. Every time I braked there was an awful smell of burning and eventually they gave up and the car just wouldn’t stop. So they would have to be put right.
I returned from the Tulip Rally in high spirits. The car had lived up to expectations and I had acquitted myself well. I was sure that with just a few finishing touches and perhaps another rally under my belt, we would be ready for the off.
My preparations received a set-back in May when a telephone call to the Rally organisers revealed that their scout team had experienced difficulties with poor fuel – as low as 72-octane, causing their 8:1 compression engine to pink badly, even though they were using octane boosters. The DB 2/4 was also set at 8:1, so I took the decision to fit even lower pistons. The replacement was to be made later in the year. I was not happy about the delay and it was an added expense that I could really do without, but I was worried that if I did not make the change, the pistons might burn out before we got to China.
While I was looking at making changes I had a rethink about the second fuel tank and decided to fill it from the outside. I also decided to send the car to Rod Jolley Coachbuilders in Lymington, to have the bonnet modified to allow more air through and to have a few cracks welded up. I was eating a cornetto ice cream as I designed the vents in the front bonnet. There’s definitely an Italian influence here!
Bits of a DB7
As I decided to fill the second fuel tank from the outside, Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd at Newport Pagnell offered a filler flap and box from a DB7 to be fitted to the outside of the 2/4. They also made headrests for the Recaro seats and trimmed them in leather. One has to keep up standards. After all this was an Aston! It was very much appreciated. The filler flap duly arrived attached to a large chunk of a DB7. Unfortunately its shape would not fit the 2/4 and was returned. The filler cap was eventually located in the rear quarter light, the glass window having been replaced with plastic.
I decided to install a vent system to remove hot air from the inside of the car. Two slots 4in x 2in were to be cut (behind the rear number plate) in the body. Because of the wing effect at the rear of the car a negative pressure would be created which would suck air from the car as it travelled forward, I hoped.
I also designed supports for the front spring towers. A weak point on the car.
The car would then be launched for the 80 days trip on the 8th August 1999 at the 50th Sir John Horsfall meeting, Silverstone. At that time I would announce the co-driver. The car would also have a complete respray slightly darker than at present.
Still looking for that elusive animal – the sponsor
It was hoped to have all the team present for this occasion and I hoped to supply them with polo shirts and a jacket to create a ‘professional’ image. I would also be inviting sponsors to this meeting if I could find any.
In the midst of this turmoil, and knowing that I was facing a busy summer, I booked places for Roma and myself on the AMOC tour of Western Australia in the coming October. It would be good to have something to look forward to.
In early May, I drove the DB7 in the Wiscombe Park Hill Climb. A friend introduced me to Andrew English who was the Daily Telegraph Motoring Correspondent. He expressed an interest in possibly tracking my progress in the Around the World Challenge as an ongoing article in the newspaper. A meeting with the motoring editors followed but was inconclusive.They confirmed their interest in the event, but would not make a decision until September, which was disappointing as I would have liked to announce the publicity at the Horsfall meeting in a bid to encourage sponsorship.
I was also busy designing the “team outfit”. I took the view that ‘as it was an Aston then the appearance of those involved should be equal to that of the car.’ It would help promote a professional approach to the whole rally. I was still minus a co-driver. After a year of searching, the need to secure the right person for the job was becoming urgent, and I was determined to resolve the situation in time to make an announcement at Silverstone.
97 too young?
I had not suffered from a shortage of applicants and was, in fact, overwhelmed by the response to my advert. Letters flooded in, the writers ranging from distinct possibilities, such as a major in the Queen’s Hussars, to the ‘Not-A-Chancers’, who included one young gentleman of 98 years. I do not consider myself ageist, but I had to draw the line somewhere, and thought that 97 was probably about the right place.
After months of sifting, sorting and head scratching, the choice came down to two people – neither of whom, as it turned out, was connected with the ad. Flight Lieutenant Sophy Gardner, age 30, was the first of the two. I had been acquainted with Sophy for a number of years and while discussing the trip one day she expressed an interest in taking part. I knew her to be an excellent navigator and she also had good practical experience of restoring old cars, having worked for Aston specialists R.S. Williams in Surrey, so she would have been okay on the repairs front.
The other was Ronald Brons, 43, from Holland, was a Maxilo Facial surgeon and fellow DB 2/4 owner with plenty of rallying experience. I had met him during the Tulip Rally when he was navigating for one of the other ‘Astonishing Astons’.They came in way ahead of us so I judged that he must be pretty good.
Sophy’s last stand
This was going to be very hard but first I needed to know more about these eager travellers. It was their first and last chance to convince me that we would get along and that they were the right person for this 12 week trip of a lifetime. I had arranged to take them in the DB7 (the DB 2/4 was being resprayed at the time) on separate short tours. Monday the 14th of June and Sophy arrived at my home in Sussex. We talked about the route and packed for departure the next day. I had arranged for the AA to provide details of a non-motorway route from Calais to Versailles to Aix les Bains and on to Turin. This would give us an idea of the route that the rally would take in the first few days from the start on 1st May 2000.
A bad omen or what?
Tuesday morning and the DB7 wouldn’t start. The starter clicked but wouldn’t turn the engine over. Was this a bad omen or what? The problem was traced to a near flat battery. The car had been regularly used and should have had a fully charged battery. I used the booster battery that I had purchased for the DB 2/4. All was now well and we had no further troubles on our tour.
Sophy cannot hold her beer
After leaving Calais we headed for Versailles and had an uneventful trip, arriving late afternoon. At this point I should make it clear that we were not using any air-conditioning but travelling with open windows as we would on the rally itself. The town was crowded and all hotels full. We hit the road again and ended up in Fontainebleau. It was almost deserted. That meant that there were plenty of rooms at the Hotel Ibis. After dinner I went to bed but Sophy stayed up to have another beer. In the morning she told me that she took her beer to her room to plan the next day’s route and as she opened the map “with gay abandon”, the beer was sent flying all over the room. She definitely can’t hold her beer. An hour later she went to bed with half the bedroom hanging out of the window to dry!
She’s a rat!
Over breakfast I was also told that she is called affectionately by her commanding officer his ‘little rat’. That’s ‘Rent A Tart’ to you and me. It’s amazing what you can learn about a person in a few days. Sophy was a rat? We left and headed to Aix les Bains, another overnight stop on the rally. It was pleasant travelling until we rounded a corner and saw an upturned car on the other side of the road with someone still inside. We stopped and gave assistance, getting a young man out. The services were called and we left.
Sophy and the 7
I decided that the time had come to let Sophy have a drive of the DB7. You probably think that I’m mad, but I had to see how her driving was. Any doubts about her ability were soon dismissed. She was a very confident and able driver. No problems there!. The town of Aix les Bains was very smart with lots of great hotels but after a short tour we decided to head for Briancon via Italy. We had to travel through a 6.5 km tunnel. Not very pleasant. In Briancon I looked for a chemist. Remember I mentioned about open windows. Well you would be amazed at the amount of dust that there was. My eyes were sore and in need of eye drops. These would definitely be taken on the world rally.
After another restful night we decided to head home via Grenoble to Reims. Leaving at 7.00 am, we climbed up through alpine passes with little traffic, which was wonderful. It took eight hours to reach Reims, in places travelling 240 kph. It was time for a rest, a good meal and then the next day a more leisurely journey home.
Is she the one
Was Sophy the co-driver? I didn’t know. In two weeks I would be taking Ronald for a short tour to see how we got on. Sophy was very easy going and an excellent navigator. But she did not have any sponsors as yet.
The flying Dutchman
It was now time for Ronald Brons and myself to take a trip to Wales and the north of England to see how we got along. Ronald was my second prospective co-driver. We got ourselves organised and left at 8.00 am Monday 5th July. First stop was Think Automotive in London, for some bits to take to Tim Stamper. Then off to Wales. It was a long day when we reached north Wales and we started looking for somewhere to stay. A sign directed us to a Castle Hotel and we duly signed in.
Adult only hotel
The keyring had written on it ‘Adults Only Hotel’. Had we struck lucky? Was the sun shining on us? Were we going to have a good time? No… it turned out that the hotel was for adults only and not children so the average age was 80+. The entertainment included hostesses to dance with the elderly guests, if they could move unaided. We were referred to as the ‘boys’. We renamed the hotel ‘God’s waiting room’, and left early the next day. Our next stop was Tim Stamper in Penrith to see how the car was coming along. As I was checking out a small leak of petrol from the rear tank it became clear that the brass block of the take off was not attached to the tank in all the right places. The tank had to be drained and who got the job? Yes, me. I was breathing out petrol fumes and smelling like a garage forecourt as we finally lifted the tank clear. It was now up to Tim to re-solder the pieces together. We left to enjoy a nice evening meal, and petrol fumes! At the North Lakes Hotel the dining room was full of ‘wrinklies’. Had they followed us from Wales? Fortunately we were shown to a small dining room to have our meal in peace.
It was Wednesday and a telephone call from Tom May suggested that we should meet with Keith Barton, ex Concorde pilot, who had taken part in the Peking to Paris rally. Lunch was organised by Tom at the Phyllis Court Club, Henley for 1.00 pm. It gave me four hours to get from Penrith to Henley. This is not the time to talk about speed limits but we arrived at three minutes to one. No penalty points there. Lunch was an informal question and answer meal. Full of interesting comments and observations. We learnt a lot. Hazel, Tom’s wife, provided afternoon tea and then it was off again to Heathrow to get Ronald his flight to Holland.
Well, I had by then confirmed that my choice of the two potential co-drivers was a good one. They were both excellent in their own way and my choice would now be very difficult. But choose I must as only one could go as the co-driver.
I wrote to Ronald at the beginning of July confirming him as my choice of co-driver.
After a few miles into Wales and a visit to the ‘Adult Only’ hotel I am convinced that you and I will make a great Around the World team.
I am therefore inviting you to join me as my navigator and co-driver for this event, starting 1 May 2000.
Best wishes, Barry
Happily he accepted my invitation. Sophy was philosophical about losing out to Ronald, maintaining an active interest in my progress both before and during the event itself, and we remain good friends.