Aston Martin World - Chapter 5 – Problems, Problems and More Problems - Driving Ambition by Barry Weir
On Saturday morning of the 8th of July as I prepared to race at Goodwood in the DB7, I received an alarming telephone call from Tim Stamper. He had been checking the new engine, just returned from the Tulip Rally. The new crank had six cracks on the flywheel-fixing flange. I spent over an hour talking with those who had had experience with such matters. There were several theories but no definite answers. I would have to wait until Monday to contact Beauxfield for an explanation. On Sunday, still thinking about the crank problem, I decided to call on an old friend for coffee. He had worked on all the old cars and was an engineer with great knowledge. “Stress cracks!” Get a new crank was his advice.
By Sunday night I had decided that this car had got to be sorted correctly. I was sure it wasn’t Timothy’s fault as I had seen the engine being built. A 15 minute telephone call at 10.15 pm and all was arranged. Tim would take the new engine to Beauxfield first thing Monday morning.
Midday Monday 12th July, Tim was relieved. Beauxfield had agreed that there appeared to be a manufacturing problem with the crankshaft. Apparently the crank is drilled, going through the flywheel-fixing flange, to lighten the big ends. These holes in the flange are then welded up. It is these welds that had cracked. But what had caused them to crack was unknown at present. The whole engine was dismantled. The front bearing was destroyed. The modified oil pump gears in the block had worn badly. This engine had done only 2500 miles!
Piston, con rods and liners were in excellent order and would be retained. As for the other items there was serious work to be done. Manufacturing problems? Design problems? They had all got to be resolved before the engine was ready for such a long trip. Time was now running out. I telephone Beauxfield and spoke to Graham. He had arranged for his insurance assessors to inspect the items and would report back later. I told him I didn’t want his crankshaft and had now ordered one from Farnden Engineering, in Coventry.
Flywheel out of balance
The flywheel and clutch had been independently checked (Oselli). All were out by some degree. However the flywheel was out by ‘two ounces on a one inch radius’, which in layman’s terms is very excessive and virtually off the scale of the balancing machine’. Quote Oselli. It had now been balanced.
God help us. How can a mere mortal like me survive when the supposed ‘specialists’ cannot balance a simple thing like a crank and clutch assembly?
I collected the new engine and con rods from Beauxfield and took them to Davron, an Aston Martin specialist in Wiltshire, to be crack tested. They would be completing the new engine build using Land Rover bearings for the first time. The cheeses would need some modifications. I hoped we were not asking for more trouble. Tim Stamper appeared to be relieved. I think the stress of the problems with Beauxfield was getting to him. He put the original engine back into the car so that it could be used.
One bit of good news on the oil seals front. We now hoped to have Viton seals made, which could take temperatures of about 280oC, so they should last longer than the originals that could only take 110oC.
I’ve lost the car
Silverstone was drawing inexorably closer and I was now in the strange position of having found a co-driver but having, temporarily anyway, lost a car. When the DB 2/4 was finally ready to be collected, I arranged to meet Timothy at my daughter, Donna’s home in Milton Keynes, since it was about midway between us both and it gave me an excuse to pay her a visit.
It was a hot Sunday afternoon and I ‘cooked’ on the way down to Sussex. I needed some heat insulation to stop the heat from the exhaust from getting into the car. I spent hours fixing ‘proper’ heat insulation to the floor and bulkheads. Tim might be a good mechanic but the car was always returned in a filthy condition. I removed the dials. The pointers were a different shade of red. That would drive me mad during 80 days. So they were all painted the same shade of red. I was continually cleaning the car as I tidied up the inside and engine bay. It’s all these little bits that would make life easier in the long run. A joke ‘long run’. Oh well, please yourself.
It was eleven at night and I was getting tired. I ‘itched’ through fitting this super insulation which had silica as its main component. Other improvements that I did included drilling another hole in the bulkhead to allow the speedo cable to fit without sharp bends. I had also designed supports for the front spring towers. They would be fitted Friday. Cutting it tight for Silverstone, but I would be there and the car finished. I was now running with the original engine. The number one engine would be rebuilt by September. Without Beauxfield’s help! I had also just had root treatment on a painful tooth. It had been a bad day.
It was Friday and I had to go to work this morning. That left the afternoon to finish the car. I was still itching from the silica insulation. All was not going well. The car was filthy from when Tim Stamper had been working on it. I would not be associated with a car in this condition. I called Tom May and told him that the car would not be at Silverstone. He convinced me otherwise. Dear Tom, no wonder he made Major. I had a Pot Noodle for lunch and a glass of wine. I was now fortified and ready to carry on. My tooth was hurting so it was off to the dentist again. He had to do more root treatment without an anaesthetic, as there was an infection. God did it hurt when he hit the nerve. I returned to continue work on the car. I could at last see the end in sight. The engine was cleaned and polished. The inside was clean and polished and the windows nearly done when disaster struck. I was cleaning the windscreen when the Windowlene container slipped from my hand. It bounced on the engine, the bonnet was open, and spilled all over the engine. The pink Windowlene soon turned white as it dried. The engine looked as if it had caught a deadly virus.
I sit down and cry
That was the last straw. I sat down and had a good cry. It was all too much.
I had been working on this car for over a year and a half. I had been plagued with faulty goods, Tim Stamper’s dirty cars, and I had had to do it all myself except for the help and support that Tom May had given. I had had to coax Tim to carry on when he found Beauxfield parts faulty and the stress was telling. I had to design the car and organise new parts to be made – then find people to make them. Roma, my wife, had her own agenda. We had guests arriving the next day and she was busy washing sheets and getting ready for them. She offered her help but did very little in reality. Women do think differently to men. But I still love her dearly.
Ronald my co-driver was coming Saturday and I didn’t want to let him down so I vowed to start again with a fresh approach. As for Friday I thought an early night would be in order. When down the only way is up!
The DB 2/4 was finally in pristine condition and I collected Ronald from the airport and we drove to Silverstone for the St John Horsfall meeting. He had no idea of the disaster of the previous day.
We had a great time and there was lots of interest in the car, which, I have to say, looked fantastic. It rained most of the afternoon, but not until after we had finished the photo session, and the only disaster was Timothy Stamper turning up in blue shorts after I specifically asked him to wear beige trousers with our navy ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ team polo shirts. But we stuck him in the background behind the car so his shorts could not be seen.
It was so busy at the end of the afternoon it took us an hour and a half to get away from the circuit.
The car went to Davron after Silverstone. They seemed to be doing good work on the new engine and had a rolling road nearby; so I made the decision to let them finish the job. Timothy seemed relieved to be relinquishing the reins. He had been struggling to cope with all the pressure.
I thought we had reached the fine-tuning stage but at the end of August I was still sorting out problems. Davron had received the drawings of the new crank from Farnden Engineering, but said it was too long. The drawing gave the last bearing as 1.895in where it should have been 1.69in, a difference of 0.2in.
I phoned Farnden and they told me it was a typing error. “I’ll give them typing error”, they appeared no better than Beauxfield and if the mistake had not been found I would have had a crank that was too long. Was there no one in this country capable of doing a good job?
The big Rally briefing took place at Brooklands Motor Museum on 29th and 30th August, and it finally began to dawn on me what an adventure it was going to be. I had just booked hotel rooms at the Tower Hotel, London, for the 30th April 2000 and it all suddenly seemed very real and very near. What was just a fanciful idea 16 months before was fast becoming a reality.
Brooklands on Monday 30th August 1999. This was the final briefing. Most of the Aston Team was there in the team colours. We were mentally outmanoeuvring the opposition then disaster struck. First the horn on the car stuck. Then there was petrol dripping from the rear vent of the second fuel tank. I hadn’t left the car park yet and I’d got problems. The horn had a loose screw but the petrol was causing more problems. The tank was full and as it heated up in the sun the petrol expanded up the vent tube to the top of the car. No problem so far, however when the petrol started to run down to the open air at the rear wheel arch it started to siphon the petrol from the tank. Opening the filler cap and removing the pressure soon cured it.
Go for it Ronald
The meeting was very useful. The roads would be bad. The dust would be constant and would get everywhere. Some other competitors really did not realise what they were letting themselves in for. No sympathy from the rally organisers. “If your car cannot be fixed within 20 minutes,” then they leave you. “You are on your own!” Ronald got to meet all the other competitors and was very impressed with our car. He was very confident about our success. I hope he would feel the same stuck in sand in scorching heat in the middle of nowhere! One thing emphasised time and time again was the poor fuel. Low octane and water in the fuel. The ‘sweeper’, the person who is last and also the mechanic, mentioned the poor fuel quality and that he had a device that removed the water from the petrol before it entered the fuel tank. Now I must admit that I forgot to ask about this device until two days later. When I finally got the mechanic’s telephone number from the Rally office he was most helpful but could not remember the telephone number of the firm in the USA that supplied the device. It was obvious that no other competitor had thought it important enough to follow up his advice. However he did remember the firm as being in California somewhere.
Eventually I traced them to West Bay Marina and duly ordered a 6in diameter. fuel filter and water separator. This could be the most valuable piece of equipment that I would be taking.
On Tuesday it was photo day. I decided to take a series of photos before the Rally. As if the car was on the rally.
We used quarries, dirt tracks and a ford to get the effect. If we did an article for The Telegraph and couldn’t get back the ‘real’ photos then these would do. I got a lot of good advice from the photographer who would also be covering the Rally. We would get to the hotel and one of us would check in. The other would buy water from the bar, then book the evening meal. Lastly hand in any washing. All this before we looked at servicing the car. Apparently the hotels cannot handle large numbers arriving within a short time space. They do not take on extra staff so it becomes a bad tempered bun fight.
When I embarked on this project I decided that I would use only the best parts and professionals, but with limited funds and no secretary I had to do a lot of the non-specialist car maintenance and tedious administration work myself. The admin tasks sounded a lot more interesting than they actually were and I must say I preferred working on the car, even though it was often a lengthy business as I was learning as I went along, and sometimes had to resort to trial and error to solve a problem.
I decided to have a go at the shock absorbers and check all the nuts, etc. The bonnet and rear hatch leather straps were all loose. When the car went to be sprayed I had insisted that all parts removed for spraying had to be replaced with Loctite. This had clearly not been done, as the nilock nuts holding the leather straps on were all loose. I had to peel back the lining to apply Loctite and re-tighten the rear straps. The front ones were a little easier. The draught proofing around the front doors had also not been replaced after the re-spray. Were there any firms that could do a job properly and as requested?
Anyhow it was Sunday and I set about the shock absorbers. The valves were installed differently on both front and rear. It appeared that only the one on the driver side had been working. The light fork oil was thick and black. All the others had clean oil but they did not work. It took the best part of the day to discover that on these shock absorbers the upward movement is fixed (large preset spring) and it is the downward movement that can be adjusted.
You’re not coming in here
Roma was not feeling well and we were having her mother for lunch (no we weren’t going to eat her. She was our guest!). I must have smelt awful. I certainly looked bad covered in grease and shock oil so I was told to take my lunch and eat it elsewhere. Good for morale or what?
The bloody things don’t work
It had taken hours to discover that the shock absorbers did not work correctly, not only because the valves were fitted incorrectly but also because they had air in the cylinders. I finally found that if you opened the door and jumped up and down violently (for five or six times) you could move the air, which then allows oil to fill the cylinders. Then they worked correctly. Now all was well and the car rode superbly. Nobody had any knowledge about setting up Armstrong shock absorbers correctly. I had to reinvent the wheel. Adding thicker oil is not the way! One problem that emerged was the fact that the cylinders, which the pistons travel up and down in, were not long enough. The result being that the small return valves in the bottom of the pistons were banging on the bottom of the casing. All the shock-absorbers casings would have to be deepened by 3/10 of an inch to allow clearance for these valves.
I lined the wheel arches (half way up) with thick plastic to protect the aluminium from stone chips. The car was returned to Davron to fit a larger electric cooling fan. I had just spent another Sunday designing supports for the front timing case cover. The original ones restricted the flow of air through the radiator. A bit of lateral thinking and 10mm copper tube is all that was required. Another problem fixed I hoped.
Unfortunately without limitless funds one has to do a lot of work oneself. I decided that it is a very lonely life preparing such a car for a world event. But what a trip!
I phoned Heidi at the Rally office and booked two first class seats on the Beijing to Anchorage and New York to Casablanca flights, and single rooms in the hotels. The first class seats were to give us a chance to catch up on some much needed sleep, which wouldn’t be likely for anyone of six foot and over in economy class. The single rooms were to give us some space, and I suspect they would be worth their weight in gold after a few weeks of travelling.
It’s off to Australia
It had been a difficult summer and I was relieved to be escaping to Australia for a few weeks on the AMOC tour. Roma and I left the country intent on relaxing and forgetting about the car and the Challenge for a while. John and Brenda Milne, a couple we met on the Club’s Western USA tour in 1998, lent us their well-used V8 for the drive up the West Coast of Australia. However it was comfortable and very reliable.
We were a group of 14 and we had great fun, travelling long distances each day and enjoying lavish meals in the evenings, or descending on one of the many vineyards dotted along the coast.
On one stop we had the opportunity to swim with dolphins. It looked to me like a mass baptism, with lots of people wading in fully clothed. Since I was not terribly religious I decided it was not for me and retired instead to the restaurant. While I idly watched the others frolicking in the water my mind drifted back to the Rally. It was never really far from my thoughts, although I tried not to let Roma know. How would I get good oil seals? What should I take? What would it really be like? Everything I had done in my life had been achieved through total dedication, perseverance and commitment, and rightly or wrongly I approached the Challenge in the same way. I was eating, sleeping and breathing the project, and I couldn’t get it out of my head however hard I tried.
Our last two days in Australia were spent as guests of John and Brenda, fishing and sightseeing. They are a great couple with a wicked sense of humour and we thoroughly enjoyed their company, but by now my thoughts were slipping back more and more to England and my half-rebuilt engine. Fortunately they didn’t hold it against me and before we left, John and I visited an oil seal supplier in Perth and I came away with a bag full of double-lip Viton oil seals.
It really was a fantastic trip to Australia. Good food, good wine, very good company and a lot of driving in an Aston. The result was fat, fat and fatter. Yes a great trip but it had highlighted one problem for the 80 day marathon. Lack of exercise would result in the pounds going on.
Fight the flab
So, it was off to the gym. I had a personal trainer, Anthony, who was very good and supportive. I was going for three one-hour sessions a week and would continue right up to departure date next May. I was surprised how unfit I was and how stiff my body was. A large beached whale would be a good description. The first three weeks were the worst. It got easier and I wasn’t coughing or wheezing so much.
The November newsletter from the Classic Rally Association arrived, casting a shadow on my rose-tinted view of the car’s progress and informing me in no uncertain terms that I was behind schedule. It read: ‘With less than six months to the start you should be driving around in your car now, fully prepared and putting in some careful miles.’
I knew by now that it was going to be January before the Aston was ready for road testing. There had been problems with one of the six pistons and, in November, all had been returned to the suppliers in the USA. They should be coming back to us just before Christmas.
Last Thursday I decided to take a look at re-routeing the rear brake lines. They were fouling the axle catch straps. When I took the brake pipe out of the cylinders the ends were bent and almost sealed. They had been overtightened. Davron had removed the locking diff, and I assume that they had over tightened the fittings. I re-routed the brake supply along the outside of the rear seats, using a flexible pipe along the trailing arms. Whilst doing this I noticed that oil was seeping from the rear axle down the back plate. The bolts were a little over hand tight. I corrected the problem sealing the spacers as I did so. That was the second problem that I could do without. I was not happy with Davron.
I had also asked Davron to waterproof, dust proof and check the wiring. They contracted this task out to an auto-electrician. I was not happy!
The plastic connectors were not waterproof. What else had not been done? I fitted new brake shoes M272. This was the new compound, ‘non-asbestos’ type.
On Monday I took the car to Tim Butcher of Bastion Engineering, specialists in auto-electrical work, to check the wiring. I left the car with him and waited for his report. On Tuesday I asked him for an update, as I would be going to Davron with a newly converted head the next day. “It’s a bloody joke,” he said. The wiring was supposed to have been done by a qualified auto electrician. This electrician had not waterproofed the joints and there was a 10 amp wire with a 30 amp fuse protecting it. Just some of the many problems. Had Davron not checked the electrician’s work?
So many mistakes
I was furious, so many mistakes in such a short time. These were major problems that should never have happened. I decided to sleep on it.
Bye, bye Davron
It was Wednesday and on the way to Davron the more I thought about the problems the more I wondered if they were the right mechanics for the job. I had lost confidence in them and their ability to build a car to go around the world, which I promptly told them on arrival. Initially, David Reed was not pleased but after a while understood why I had come to that decision and it was agreed that Bastion Engineering should finish building the car and new engine.
It was agreed that as Ron Washer had all the visas he would continue to service the spares and act as backup if we should need parts flown out to us. It was now up to Tim Butcher to build the car to complete this great world rally. The car would not now be ready until March. It would then be tested on the MoD track in Surrey, returned to Tim to check for damage and then it was off to the start. This was cutting it fine but to have a chance to complete this rally, let alone win, the car had to start in the best possible condition.
Meanwhile, in need of some light relief, I went to see the new James Bond film, The World is Not Enough. The action and exotic locations did their job and I came away quite invigorated. It was full of adventure and lovely women. It also showed areas I would be travelling through in the Around the World in 80 Days Challenge. Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan were remote and peaceful until James Bond devastated them in his usual manner, with buildings blown up and bodies everywhere. I hoped they had managed to clean up the area before I arrived! In Baku, an overnight stop for me, James managed to upset the local police and caviar cartel, polluting the Caspian Sea in the process – a brief visit with no fish to eat then! Then it would be on to Istanbul where the sea had been poisoned by an atomic sub. No wonder we Brits have such a bad reputation abroad.
However, I would be lucky enough to be driving an Aston. James had to put up with a BMW, which was ultimately sliced in half. I hear that he may get an Aston next time.
The general areas and towns that were shown looked very civilised and not as daunting as I first thought. Plenty of hotels and restaurants. I may not look quite like James Bond but with my fitness programme things had improved. Over the past five weeks my body fat, which was 30 per cent of my total weight, had dropped down to 18 per cent. Normal is 15-25 per cent, and I still had another four and a half months to go.