1938 Aston Martin 15/98 'Short-Chassis' Open Sports
Amelia Island - A Gentleman's Collection: The Pride & Passion of Orin Smith
- An extremely rare and desirable pre-war Aston Martin
- Restored by marque specialist Steel Wings for AMOCNA stalwart Vincent Young
- Presented in most desirable ‘Short-Chassis’ Open Sports configuration
- Wonderful lines and proportions
- At ease on touring and rally events; very user-friendly
THE ASTON MARTIN 15/98
By the mid-1930s, Aston Martin was one of the most admired of British sporting makes, as it was now under the design and technical direction of Augustus “Bert” Bertelli. The cars were undeniably pretty, but they were also purposeful, solidly engineered, hand-built, quick, and agile. The signature 1.5-liter endurance sports racers continually evolved and gained great success, taking the team prize in the 1934 Tourist Trophy race in Ulster and finishing in an impressive 3rd place at the 1935 24 Hours of Le Mans. As a production car, the newly christened Ulster model made for a very desirable 100 mph sporting mount for the enthusiastic driver. Ultimately, though, its market was limited to a small number of serious (and well-heeled) sportsmen.
Aston Martin took the decision to develop a more versatile offering for the company’s next generation of cars, starting with an updated new chassis by Bertelli, with credit to another brilliant engineer, Claude Hill. Significantly, the new specification mandated an increase in displacement to two liters, as its longer stroke could provide plenty of torque for a more relaxed motoring experience. With its four-cylinder, single overhead-camshaft wet sump engine, the new car developed some 98 brake horsepower, and it featured a four-speed Moss synchromesh gearbox and Girling rod mechanical drum brakes. Overall, it was an exceptionally well-balanced machine, now marketed as being the Two Litre range. Accolades piled up, such as the following summary from Autocar: “[The Aston Martin Two Litre is] softer, quieter, and more flexible, whilst acceleration and general suitability for everyday purposes have increased out of all knowledge.”
The car was originally targeted for debut at Le Mans in 1936, so a competition version of the Two Litre chassis was developed (known as the Speed Model), but a labor strike in France resulted in the cancellation of the race. Nevertheless, production continued, with an initial focus on touring configurations, such as a closed saloon, a drophead coupe by coachbuilder Abbott, and a 2/4 seat open tourer, with road-going versions dubbed 15/98; this was a common designation that denoted Britain’s “taxable” vs. measured horsepower.
With excess capacity at the factory, a short-chassis version of the 15/98 was introduced with its most appealing shape to date, the Open Sports, which was bodied by Abbey Coachworks, of Willesden, London. After its debut at the inaugural Earl’s Court Motor Show in 1937, some 50 were built in this stylish form, out of the approximately 171 Two Litre cars produced in total by Aston Martin during the pre-war era. The result provided sporty, open motoring without the racing pretentions.
CHASSIS NUMBER J8/776/LS
The 15/98 offered here, chassis number J8/776/LS, is recorded by its original build sheets, copies of which are on file, as having been delivered as a standard chassis with Bertelli saloon coachwork to A.W. Stewart-Dean, Esq., of Sudbrook Manor, Grantham, on 21 October 1938. The record further indicates that the car passed to second owner I.H. Mann of Terreagles [sic], Maidenhead, Berkshire, on 6 March 1954. Interestingly, Mr. Stewart-Dean had acquired a brand-new DB2 in 1953, and so it seems likely that the sale of the 15/98 was spurred only by an enthusiast’s acquisition of the “latest and greatest” Aston Martin. He was a longstanding and well-known customer of the factory, whose daughter carried on the tradition of Aston ownership following his passing.
The next known owners, recorded in Aston Martin Owners Club records, were R.W. and R.J. Mills, who apparently acquired the car in the early 1980s. In their ownership, the chassis was shortened to the “Short-Chassis” configuration, and a two-seat Open Sports body built, to the original Abbey styling, with its wonderful flowing lines and lovely proportions, and installed, apparently by R.W. Mills’ own hands. In this form the car was later acquired by longtime Aston Martin Owners Club North America member Vincent Young, who commissioned a fresh and complete, body-off restoration by the noted marque specialists Steel Wings of Ivyland, Pennsylvania. As part of the restoration, the car was converted to left-hand drive and outfitted with hydraulic brakes and a gearbox with synchromesh on second, third, and fourth gears, while also being finished to show-quality standards throughout. The entire machine-turned aluminum firewall of the car was professionally fabricated, as part of the left-hand-drive conversion. Done to be both a beautiful and fit driver, during Mr. Young’s ownership the car reportedly won every available award for its type from the AMOC North America!
No wonder, then, that Orin Smith subsequently decided to add the car to his collection, where it has been well maintained and enjoyed since. It was judged Best in Class at the Cavallino Classic’s Classic Sports Sunday at Mar-a-Lago in 2012, appearing thereafter in a report on the event in the Winter 2011¬–2012 edition of the AMOCNA quarterly journal, The Vantage Point. The Steel Wings restoration remains in fine overall condition, with a wonderfully satisfying appearance; overall, it appears well done, without being overdone in any particular area, and is clean and ready for further show appearances with a new caretaker. It is the only pre-war Aston Martin known to a longtime AMOCNA director, to be configured in left-hand drive, and with its updated gearbox and willing Two Litre engine, is about the most user-friendly example one might imagine.
Many collections include fine Aston Martins, but it was typical of Orin Smith to expand to show the evolution of the company, beginning with its ultimate pre-war model, the saucy and sophisticated 15/98. It is a superb tour and rally entrant, easy to drive and easy on the eyes, with beauty and sophistication to spare.