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Lance Macklin and Aston Martin - Part 1

Reproduced from previously unpublished autobiographical manuscripts.

DB2 in build

Above: One of three Aston Martin Works Team DB2 prototypes being built in the original Feltham factory in Essex. (credit: Bonhams)

My first race for Astons was at Spa (24-hour race) in ’49 where I drove the 2-litre, 4-cyl car; LMA/49/2 – the second DB2 prototype. Leslie Johnston and Charles Brackenbury had the Lagonda-engined 2.5-litre six-cylinder. I came 5th with Nick Haines. With that car we had large fuel tanks capable of giving us 5-6 hours without refuelling, so they decided to do without a pit stop and put me in the car around 10 or 11am. The plan was for me to go right through until 4 in the afternoon, which I did. But it was a very hot day and very tiring. The temperature inside the car was unbelievable and I felt completely dehydrated. 

A friend of mine, Charles Lewis, was at a roadside café on the Masta Straight and every time I went by he’d hold up a glass of cool lager. After a few laps of this, I made frantic signals at him to let him know I wanted a beer the next time round. As I pulled up, he ran out and handed me this glass of beer which I grabbed and shot off into the race again. Funnily enough, Astons never picked this up. They weren’t timing every lap and no questions were asked. Louis Klemantaski happened to be walking up the course at the time and saw me take the glass and took the photograph. At Christmas he sent me a copy, saying: ‘What’s it worth not to send one to Astons?’.

DB2 fuel stop

Above: A beer in the hand … is worth taking the shot? Renowned motorsport photographer Klemantaski captures the moment Macklin makes an unsanctioned ‘fuel’ stop. Copyright: The Klemantaski Collection

I had originally been selected to drive at Le Mans that year but the Rudge-Whitworth Biennial Cup was left over from before the war and only those drivers who’d driven before the war qualified. Astons had won it a number of times and it was important to them to win it again if they could at this, the first post-war Le Mans. So they gathered together a number of drivers who were qualified and they were given the drives. I practiced but I was a reserve for the race and didn’t take part. In my opinion the only driver who really had a go in the race was the French driver, Pierre Marechal, but he unfortunately crashed and was killed. I then took his place in the team and drove at Spa.

DB2 racing

Above: The second Aston DB2 prototype, UMC65, driven by Jones and Haines at Le Mans in 1949. Macklin was paired with Jones for the Spa 24 Hours two week later.

At Le Mans in 1950, I was due to drive with Dudley Folland but at the last minute his family objected and he withdrew. John Wyer asked if there was anyone I’d like to drive with, although by that time most drivers were committed. One I’d always admired a lot as a press-on type was George Abecassis, so I rang him and asked if he'd like to drive for Astons at Le Mans and of course, he said yes. 

By about 10 o’clock in the morning we were lying just behind a little Panhard Monopole X84 which was first on Index – the thing that really carried the prize-money! I was the fastest of our drivers and I’d come in about 8am. At about 10, Wyer asked if I could get in again and drive until the end. We had enough fuel to carry us through and without another pit stop we might just beat the Panhard on Index. 

At the start of the race, when we’d been leading, practically every lap there’d be a ‘Go slow’ signal hanging out for me. I didn’t see any point in going any slower – I wasn’t stressing the car, just driving at a speed it felt comfortable at. But by about 2 o’clock the next afternoon when I was pretty tired, not having had any sleep all night and with the car pretty clapped – the shock absorbers had gone and the brakes were nearly gone, too – we were equal first on Index. The team thought it wouldn’t require very much more to beat the Panhard, so then I started getting nothing but ‘Go faster’ signals every lap! But, being so very tired and in a car that was clapped, I simply couldn’t go any faster, so we ended up equal first. 

After the race, David Brown, having proudly driven the car out to the circuit the day before, said he’d like to drive it back to the hotel, just to see how it feels. I said, ‘Okay, I will come with you, but be careful because the brakes are dodgy and the shock absorbers aren't too good.’ And, of course, he was absolutely shattered – he couldn't believe that 24 hours before, the lovely motor car he had driven out to the circuit had become practically a wreck on wheels.

I came third in the TT in 1950, again with the DB2. I was quite a bit faster than the other Aston drivers in practice but I made a bad start in the pouring rain and Reg Parnell managed to get away ahead of me. I tried everything to get past him, sitting right on his tail with my headlights on, but he never gave way. Eventually I tried to get past but over shot and had to take to the escape road, letting the others all go past me. Eventually, I finished 3rd in class.

Then came the Class D, 24-hour record attempt at Montlhéry. I know I wasn't very happy about it as I didn't find driving round and round this very bumpy bowl very enjoyable. There was no particular skill attached to it – it was more or less a flat-out drive. I think the DB2 had a maximum speed of about 118 mph and we were lapping at a little more than 103. 

In the evening, it started to get misty and having read as a child about Rosemeyer driving in the fog on the Nürburgring and not going any slower than when it was clear, I told myself that this was just a straightforward drive round a bowl, so I shouldn't worry too much about the fog. 

I pressed on and suddenly came off the banking and hit a wall of fog with absolutely no visibility at all. For a moment I kept my foot down, thinking I’d come out of it but when I didn’t, I suddenly panicked, thinking I might go over the banking.

So I braked and did one more lap and the same thing happened again and the next time round John Wyer called me in. He’d heard the squeal of tyres and was quite worried – thinking I’d gone off the road. That ended the attempt and it was very lucky, because when they stripped the cars down later they found that an alloy cross member at the front of the car had fractured virtually the whole way through. Another half hour or so it would have broken altogether and the suspension would have collapsed! So it was probably just as well the fog did come down.

In 1950, I happened to meet a very odd Italian prince called Raimondo Lanza in Monte Carlo. He asked if there was any chance of my getting an Aston for the Targa Florio. He offered a bit of starting money and invited me to be his guest all the time I was there. It would cost me nothing from the time I arrived. I tried Astons, but they were busy preparing the cars for the coming season and couldn’t spare one but David Brown had a DB2 (Chassis no. LML/49/4, registered as UMC272) which he had replaced with a slightly later model. I bought his ‘old’ car and took it out to the Weber factory in Bologna and had three, twin-choke carburettors fitted. They had it for about a week and did the job free of charge. The difference in performance was absolutely astounding. So I ran it at Monza in the Coppa Inter-Europa where I finished second in class behind an Alfa which was quite a lot faster. Then I drove the car down to Naples, put it on a ship and crossed to Sicily. 

DB2 prototype

Above: The fourth prototype DB2, chassis no LML/49/4 that Macklin purchased from David Brown. Photo by Nicolas Jeannier at the 2010 Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este

I arrived early in the morning and was told that the cars wouldn't be unloaded until later in the day, so I decided to take one of those Sicilian horse-drawn cabs and try to find Raimondo Lanza's house. He had given me the address and told me to get a cab and tell the driver, ‘Villa Trebia, Palermo.’ We set off and finally arrived at these enormous wrought-iron gates. But the driver refused to take me any further, saying, ‘The last time I went in there, my horse and I were nearly killed by all these lunatics driving racing cars about the place.’ 

Lanza had his own little private circuit set up in the grounds of his villa. Nuvolari was there, and Raymond Sommer, Ascari – all the top drivers. Every day they’d run their own little practice sessions round the park. So the cab driver didn't want to risk going in.

The race started – for me – at about 3 in the morning. I set off a minute behind Ascari, thinking I’d rather be a minute behind him than have him a minute behind me. He was driving a Ferrari and obviously knew the circuit better. Being 1,080 kilometres round Sicily, it wasn’t really a circuit, and there was no hope of learning it properly, but the Italians obviously knew it better than I was likely to. It was pitch dark, pouring with rain and a shiny, slippery road – really unpleasant conditions. I suppose I'd been going about two hours, it was just beginning to get light, when I saw the rear lights of a car in front. I eventually came up behind it and as we went through a slow corner I saw that it was Ascari. I was amazed and realised that I had only to sit behind him the rest of the way and I’d won the Targa Florio. 

So I sat behind him for another hour or so without too much trouble, but then we came to a long stretch which wound its way up into the mountains and he managed to get in front of a little Fiat Special or something. He made a point of getting in front just before a series of hairpin bends and the Fiat made a point of keeping me behind. As Ascari gradually pulled away and disappeared, I thought, I’ve caught him once, I’ll do it again

It was getting light now, but still pouring with rain and I was now going down the mountain on the other side. The road appeared to go through a fast right-hand bend and up the other side of the mountain so I thought it was pretty well flat out. I came howling into this corner at about 90 mph and to my utter horror I realised that in fact the corner turned sharp right, up into the hill and round a hairpin bend to the left. In between us was a great big ravine. With no hope of stopping, I decided to go straight off the road and not try to get round the corner at all. The car dropped 2-300 feet and finally ended up with an enormous crash, half upside down. I was more or less knocked unconscious and came round and realised that petrol was pouring all over me! Co-driver John Gordon and I managed to get out. We had been very lucky, landing in a concrete drainage ditch that had been dug along the top of this railway cutting to collect falling rocks and boulders. Immediately the other side of this ditch was a vertical drop of around 100 feet onto a railway line!

by Lance Macklin

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