Cooper clone running on enthusiasm
- Mattijs Diepraam, Felix Muelas
- 8W May 2001 issue; additional input by James Canela on December 12, 2002
- Alan Brown - Driver-entrepeneur that scored Cooper's first points, by Felix Muelas/Mattijs Diepraam
- Frazer-Nash - The marque that failed to take the Cooper straight, by Mattijs Diepraam
- Turner - A pidgeon among the British F2 cats, by Mattijs Diepraam/Marc Ceulemans
Bill Aston (Tony Gaze)
Aston-Butterworth NB41 (HWM-Alta 52)
XXIII Italian GP (5 September 1952, qualifying)
When Grand Prix organizers all over the world instigated the move to F2 regulations for the 1952 World Drivers Championship a flock of nimble, British-built racing machines suddenly became eligible for participation in World Championship events. Most known and setting the standard among these cars conforming to the old voiturette rules - 1100cc supercharged or 2000cc unsupercharged - were the Coopers (see Alan Brown story) and there were many semi-professional and amateur efforts following the trend set by the Cooper family.
Some of those never ventured outside of Britain, such as the Turner, others tried their hands in assorted WDC events, such as the Frazer-Nash. What all had in common, though, was a lack of resources to further develop the car in order to compete with the ubiquitous Cooper-Bristol design. Several Cooper copies proved to be surprisingly competitive at first but financial restraints almost always caused the efforts of their creators to be abandoned at some premature point.
Among those smart-looking Cooper clones running on enthusiasm and a tight budget was the Aston-Butterworth, as the car became commonly known, William S ('Bill') Aston being its constructor with Archie Butterworth providing the engine. In fact Aston's special was a near copy of the Cooper box-section chassis while the engine was an air-cooled flat-four AJB unit serviced by Butterworth. It used a Cooper T20 frame with drop-gears behind the final-drive to lower the prop-shaft, a lay-out that John Cooper himself had envisaged for later cars but was thus pioneered by Bill Aston before the Cooper works got on to the idea. Another novelty was a swing-axle rear suspension, with which Bill emerged on Easter Monday at Goodwood, but this was soon dropped in favour of the conventional Cooper lay-out.
Near copy or not, the car showed several outwardly visible deviations from the distinctive Cooper look. First of all, the flat AJB engine allowed Aston to shape a very low bonnet that had little in common with the famous Cooper bulge that also donned the Frazer-Nash. Secondly, he fitted Borrani wire wheels with separate Alfin bimetal drums that also marked the car out from the drones of Coopers. With a 4-speed MG TC gearbox, the propshaft passing under the ENV diff, the driver line was kept as low as possible. Aston thus created a supremely low-line machine in the same fashion as Paul Emery's special, giving it a 500cc racer's look, the driver almost sitting on top of the car. Unsurprisingly, Bill had been a frontrunner in F3 in the late forties, racing a Cooper-JAP, so the heritage was obvious.
For 1950, a rejuvenated Aston moved up to the voiturette class with an 1100cc Cooper, proving equally competitive by winning the Lavant Cup and the Madgwick Cup - both 'sprint' events at Goodwood. This was great stuff from a man born at the turn of the century, who had served in the Great War and had only started to race seriously - but still as an amateur - after World War II, having dabbled with motorcycles before. Aston continued in F2 for 1951 and again tried to win the Lavant and Madgwick Cups, but this time one Stirling Moss was around… He did lead the GP des Frontières at Chimay but had to retire with engine trouble.
Now in his fifties, and with his engineering and fruit farming businesses thriving, Aston put in his money to try something different, while at the same time keeping involved with Cooper. Here he is seen among the people standing proud behind the special record-breaking Mark V streamliner immediately after its completion. The location is Hollyfield Road, the date 14 September 1951. In the picture are John Kelly (second from left), John Cooper, Fred Bedding and son Pete, who built the bodywork, and John Hulme in the beret. On the right is Bill Aston and beside him with cigarette, works foreman Ernie Looker.
With the design of his own car progressing Aston's friend, American Robin Montgomerie-Charrington, ordered a chassis for himself but fitted bolt-on Dunlop alloys to distinguish it from the 'works' car - as if the American blue-and-white paint job didn't do the trick! As a matter of fact Charrington took over the first car (NB41) while Aston drove three races in the new NB42 before the American decided to return to his home country, handing NB41 over to Aston again.
Like the Frazer-Nash F2 machine, Aston's cars - both NB41 and NB42 - could match some of the Coopers for pace initially but as the year evolved the amateurism of Aston's and Charrington's efforts began to take its toll. The cars were frightfully unreliable, however for no particular reason, but Montgomerie-Charrington took the opportunity to shine on occasion, his best international showing being his stunning qualifying form in the Belgian GP at Spa. Starting 15th of the 22 runners, having outpaced a Ferrari, two HWMs and three Gordinis, he ran as high as 7th in the race, only to have his effort thwarted at half distance by an unfortunate, clumsy refuelling fiasco, his mechanic pouring in the wrong mixture, giving the engine some serious indigestion… At Chimay, Robin gave the car its best placing, finishing third in a diminished field of privateers, while at Reims he contrived to strip his car of its gears. He then managed to locate a local gear-cutter that machined new gears while he waited!
While Montgomerie-Charrington abandoned his mount to emigrate to the US, Bill Aston persevered with his design, continually modifying it. By the time he entered the Italian GP, taking his car on its longest-ever journey, it had dramatically changed, not just under the bonnet but in appearance as well. Now a huge Cooper-style top air inlet interrupted the flow of the bonnet while the mirrors had become aero-shaped as well. The Borrani wheels were still there, however. All the modifications could not help Bill qualify, but it must be admitted that an exceptionally large field turned up at Monza. Aston made six entries with NB41 in 1953, his best result an 8th in the final of the Coronation Trophy at Crystal Palace, before putting it away.
In 1957 he sold it on to Dickie Metcalfe who commissioned well-known Maurice Gomm to turn it into a Climax FWA-engined sportscar with new aluminum bodywork. The NB42 car is still in its original shape. NB41 - still in its sportscar guise, but with a supercharged Kent engine - is now owned by enthusiast James Canedy, who races it in various historic events in the US. This is what the car's current owner has found about its history since it was converted from Cooper clone to Lola lookalike:
"The series of owners included Bill Aston, Dickie Metcalfe, Kenneth Brian Shaw, Graham Bovet-White, Mike Mullen, and me. A very short list for an old race car.
The story of Bill Aston and Montgomerie-Charrington is well documented on your website and all race results can be verified by chassis number in F2 configuration. The F2 car was purchased in 1957 by Metcalfe. It was taken to Maurice Gomm of Gomm Metals to rebody the car. He was responsible for Tojeiro and Lola designs. The Aston has a very similar body to the Lola Mk I that was created several years later.
The chassis required minimal modification. A Climax 1098cc engine was installed along with an MG gearbox. In January 1983, Classic and Sportscar ran an article about the car and referenced that Metcalfe raced the car in handicap events at Goodwood and Silverstone between 1958 and 1961, 'finishing well'. I have not been able to find finishing results for these races. According to the article, the car was sold to Brian Shaw through Connaught cars in 1964. A Ford Kent engine with Sharrock supercharger was installed and remains with the car today. Shaw reportedly ran it in sprint and hillclimbs with reasonable success. I have not been able to document any of these results.
In 1974 the car was purchased by Graham Bovet-White. He has been kind enough to supply photos and information. He won the Brighton Speed Trials in 1977, and the Birkett 6-hour handicap event at Siverstone in 1980. The car was imported to the United States in 1993 by Mike Mullen who ran the car in regional events including the Copperstate 1000.
I acquired the car in 1997. It was mechanically refurbished and cosmetically restored. Care was taken to maintain the original body and mechanical parts intact. A roll bar, updated hydraulics, and fire system were installed as required. The car has been run at Road America and Mid America Motorplex."
A fine history for a fine little car. Great to see it in such good shape after all those years.
Reader's Why by Josh Lintz
Bill Aston was an amateur racer who began his career on motorcycles, but in the late-1940s Bill was a front runner in the new F3 series. In 1951 he actually led the Grand Prix des Frontieres at Chimay before retiring with a seized engine. His business acumen helped fund his F2 Aston-Butterworth cars, which he ran with Robin Montgomerie-Charrington. So the Aston-Butterworth was the first Grand Prix car driven by its constructor in the history of the World Championship!
With a Cooper-inspired chassis, the NB41, powered by Archie Butterworth's Flat-4 air-cooled engine, was less than successful. Only two cars were built and both were raced privately. As one of the lightest Formula 2 machines around the NB41 could match the pace of some of the early Cooper-Bristols, but as little more an amateur operation the concept could never be taken further. The results were disappointing, even considering that you needed a Ferrari or a Cooper to achieve any decent results. He qualified, but non-started, at Silverstone. Then he qualified but retired from the German GP, and failed to qualify at Monza.
Bill Aston also held an interesting, if not unenviable record: one of the oldest drivers to take part in a Grand Prix. He was 52 years old when he made his championship debut in 1952! After his abortive Grand Prix career he switched to racing in club events racing a Jaguar D-Type and Aston Martins, often winning his class. He continued to race well into his sixties and scored wins with Jaguar saloons and Minis. Bill Aston died in 1974.
"Tony" Gaze was an Australian fighter pilot in Britain at the age of 21, and he had ended World War II as a Squadron Leader. He earned two awards: the Distinguished Flying Cross, and "ace" status, having been credited with a dozen "kills" in aerial combat! In 1946 Gaze suggested the Duke of Richmond and Gordon (better known as Freddy March), that the perimeter roads of the Westhampnett aerodrome would make a fine racing circuit. It had been built on land belonging to the Duke, so March tried a few laps around, agreed thus the Goodwood racing circuit was born!
Gaze raced in Australia in the immediate postwar period in a prewar Alta and then returned to Britain to race one of Geoffrey Taylor's Alta F2 cars in 1951, although without any success. In 1952 he began the year with the same car but then bought a new HWM-Alta and competed in the Belgian, British and German Grands Prix. He failed to qualify at Monza. Tony thus became the first Australian driver in Formula One. He later switched to sports car racing with Aston Martin, in which he enjoyed more success. He eventually retired from the sport and took up farming near Ross-on-Wye.