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Lance Macklin and Aston Martin - Part 2

Read Part 1

Reproduced from previously unpublished autobiographical manuscripts.

I drove the 1951 Le Mans 24 Hours with Eric Thompson. I think he was a friend of John Wyer but as far as I was concerned he was unknown. I think he’d driven in one or two sports car races, that’s all, and I wasn’t very happy when I was told he was going to be my co-driver. What’s more, we were supposed to have one of the three new lightweight cars but Aston had only managed to build two in time for Le Mans. So when I arrived they said, ‘We’re very sorry but you’ll be in VMF 64 again, not the new, lightweight car.’

1950 DB2

Above: Contemporary photo of VMF 64, the car Macklin and Thompson drove to a magnificent third place overall at Le Mans in 1951. Image credit: RM Sothebys

I wasn’t too pleased about that, either. We were at a bit of a disadvantage with the other cars being lightweights, plus the fact that I had this unknown co-driver. Well, Eric turned out to be a fabulous driver – very fast and very consistent and ‘old’ VMF 64 seemed to take on a new lease of life and we beat all the lightweights and finished third overall.

I did all the testing of the new DB3, much of it at Chalgrove, which wasn’t ideal. Eberan von Eberhorst was responsible for the design. As the DB2 handled so well and had such fantastic roadholding I expected a lot from this new car. 

In fact, if anything, it seemed a retrograde step, at least initially. After quite a lot of testing we did get it to handle much better and I finally drove it in the TT at Dundrod in 1951. They had a handicap system there. Stirling was the favourite with the Jaguar and I suppose I was second favourite with the Aston, but it was an unknown quantity as far as the organisers were concerned so they didn’t know quite how to handicap it. 

During the first part of the race I think I was gaining slightly on Stirling. Certainly we had a good chance in the race, but unfortunately – it seems an extraordinary thing to say – I think someone forgot to tighten up the sump bolts. They’d removed it the night before the race, cleaned it out, and replaced it with fresh oil. In the race we lost all the oil and ran the bearings. In any case, before that happened, the exhaust pipe dropped off. I stopped to have it refitted and it was only when they found they couldn’t put it back they realised the bearings were gone. So they announced the car was retired because the exhaust fell off and nobody was told about the bearings.

At Silverstone in ’52 I’d been considerably faster than everybody else in practice but at the Le Mans start I jumped in and pressed the starter and nothing happened. I finally got away about half a minute after everybody else but still managed to get back up to 4th overall.

Aston Martin DB3

Above: Aston Martin DB3 chassis no. 5 made its debut at the Silverstone International meet in 1952. Macklin recovered from a poor start to finish fourth. Image credit: Aston Martin

The Monaco GP that year was for sports cars and Astons sent three DB3s; for Parnell, Collins and myself. This was the first outing for the new 2.9-litre engine and the cars ran very hot. We arrived with tremendous hopes for the new cars with the bigger engine and felt that we really had a good chance. In practice, even using just 6,000 rpm, I was not very far behind the Ferraris and I felt that using peak revs we could do very well. As it was, my car threw a rod about three quarters of the way through when running in 7th place. I think Peter Collins stopped just before the finishing line with a rod through the side and he just managed to drive it across the line. And Reg had that extraordinary crash; he put a rod through the side, too and threw oil all over the circuit. I was in front of him at the time so when I came round the accident had already happened. I saw the oil fairly quickly and drove inside it and saw Reg jump out of his car. Next time round, to my astonishment there were three or four other cars involved and I had a fleeting vision of Stirling Moss taking off up the grandstand at high speed.

At Le Mans I drove with Peter Collins in the DB3. We were well up with the Mercedes at one time with about four hours to go. We both knew that the whole situation was very dicey because Astons that year were having trouble with the back axles. They'd moved the brakes inboard and the heat off them was causing the rear axles to overheat and pack up. So before the race Peter and I arranged with the mechanics to slacken off the rear brakes before the start, so we hardly used them, braking mostly on the front. We decided we’d drive as much as possible without braking. Most of the Astons went out hours before us and we managed to keep going. Around 4 hours from the end, I handed over to Peter to complete the final stint. I was very happy to be out of the car because all the other Astons had their axles seize up on them – it’s never pleasant when that happens, but especially not as you go down Mulsanne at 140 mph!

Anyway, Peter went off and a dozen laps later they announced that he’d crashed. Eventually he came back to the pits and he was very lucky – the axle had locked up on him but not on one of the faster parts of the circuit. It was a shame, because we would have finished third.

Aston Martin DB3 present day

Rear view Aston Martin DB3

Above: Current photos of Aston Martin DB3 chassis no. 5, campaigned by Aston in races at Monaco, Le Mans, Sebring, Goodwood, Mille Miglia and Silverstone. Image credit: Hall & Hall

That was my last race for Astons – the following season I joined Bristol. Looking back, leaving was probably one of the worst mistakes of my life. I was probably their number one driver at the time, but the reason I left was purely financial – they were at that time very mean with their drivers. I wanted to get Stirling Moss into the team with me. We were driving together in the HWM team and I knew how quick he was and I thought we’d make a good pair at Astons.

He wanted to join the team and asked if I could arrange an interview with John Wyer, so one day I drove him down to Feltham, introduced him to John and left them to it. I sat outside in the car and after about 15 minutes, Stirling came out looking very red in the face and said, ‘My God, what a ridiculous thing. I’ve never heard such nonsense in my life. He offered me fifty pounds a year retainer!’ 

So I said, ‘Well, yes, that’s what I get.’

He said, ‘You must be out of your bloody mind! Do you realise, Bill Lyons gave me £1,000 after I won the TT’

So Stirling didn’t join Astons at that time. He did later on, of course, but by then he was so good and they wanted him so badly, they were prepared to offer him more money. But their attitude at the time was: ‘You’re lucky to be in the best sports car racing team in the country. If you don't want to drive for us there are hundreds who will.’

by Lance Macklin

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