Aston Martin Atom Factory Prototype

The ground-breaking Aston Martin Atom – compact, lightweight, sophisticated, a design before its time, a prophetic forerunner of all the high power-to-weight ratio, high-performance Coupe, or Berlinetta Grand Touring cars which became such a defining feature of the 1950s and '60s to follow. Here is an all-British concept car to be recalled and mentioned in the same breath with the much more celebrated and trend-setting Alfa Romeo 8C-2900Berlinetta cars of the late 1930s, and the SavonuzziAerodinamica Coupes from Cisitalia in the late 1940s.

This avant-garde, and highly-original aerodynamic Coupe concept car has been both renowned and revered for decades by Aston Martin owners and by the inner circle of knowledgeable and confirmed classic car enthusiasts.

But while Aston Martin's unique Atom is less well-known to the public at large, this 1939-1940 one-off prototype from the legendary British marque is in fact a hugely significant and influential landmark within motoring history.

As the specialist British marque's frontier-technology test-bed, the 1939-40 Aston Martin Atom survives today in fantastically well-restored, highly-original specification as one of the World's earliest fully running motor industry concept cars. It featured in period:

• A fully-patented, lightweight yet rigid integrated body and tubular spaceframe chassis structure (years ahead of the multi-tubular spaceframe Mercedes-Benz 300SLs)
• Lightweight aluminium body paneling, which permitted speedy styling changes.
• Patented parallel-linkage coil-sprung independent front suspension
• The first UK use of the later almost universal Salisbury back axle
• Cotal electromagnetic semi-automatic gearbox – forerunner of the modern 'paddle-shift' system.
• Aerodynamic 'fastback' style Coupe coachwork
• Aeronautical-style 'hammock' seats

Come 1945 the Atom would also provide the first use of Aston Martin's newly patented 2-litre (DB1) engine. This had high lift exhaust valves later used on F1 Judd engines and, slightly modified, powered the 1948 Belgian Grand Prix winning Aston Martin.

While the General Motors Buick 'Y-Job' of 1938 is widely accepted as having been the very first pure 'concept car' (in the modern meaning of that term) ever confected, the Aston Martin Atom emerged just a few fleeting months later.

The Atom was finished and UK road-registered only six weeks after the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940. Aston Martin's contemporary owner, enthusiast businessman Gordon Sutherland, had ordered the car to be designed and built by a dedicated engineering team led by Claude Hill. At that fraught time when park railings, pots and pans were being melted-down to aid the War effort, the Atom was amongst fewer than 750 private cars to be UK registered in the entire year.

Gordon Sutherland himself explained that, "The whole point of the Atom was to make the smallest, lightest, quietest enclosed saloon possible". It was intended to combine the performance, roadholding and handling of the finest contemporary sports car with quietness and the comfort of an aerodynamically efficient, saloon body, easily modified and economically produced. Within this latter discipline the Atom's concept was probably even further forward-looking than, even ten years ago, we would have appreciated....

In that pre-nuclear age Gordon Sutherland and his colleagues simply knew of the 'atom' as being the smallest, yet potentially most powerful, item conceivable – the essence of everything – and that is why the name was chosen as the perfect title for this technically advanced and futuristic
Grand Touring car and registered with the SMMT (Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders).

The Aston Martin design unit's ambitions had no British exemplar, but Gordon Sutherland would admit they considered the contemporary BMW 328 quite closely during their design period in 1939. Both the company owner and engineer Claude Hill appreciated that the entire era of 'vintage' motoring was over. Future customers would expect more comfort in terms of ride and weather protection. To achieve such objectives with traditional manufacture meant hand-built heavy coachwork demanding huge and extravagantly fuel-thirsty engines to suit.

Major motor manufacturers were beginning to make unitary-body cars with independent suspensions – widely derided by true car enthusiasts as floppy, wallowy rust-buckets – but of obvious appeal to the mushrooming motoring market at large.

Although high-achievers within the motor sporting world, Aston Martin's vintage-era chassis were undoubtedly heavy and Claude Hill in particular considered them insufficiently rigid. For the Atom he created a lightweight, torsionally strong box-frame chassis welded-up from rectangular steel tubing and clothed in aerodynamically-sleek aluminium body paneling – a constructional method ideal for Aston Martin's low-volume high-quality practices.

Gordon Armstrong drew the Atom's patented suspension system, independent at the front by short trailing arms and coil springs while the live rear axle was suspended upon long, supple leafsprings. Hydraulic lever-arm dampers featured all round. Direct, high-geared steering with only 2.25 turns lock-to-lock was tailored to the feel required from a high-performance car of true quality. The French Cotal electric-magnetic four-speed semi-automatic gearbox was 'the latest thing', and in early testing Sutherland's team timed the Atom at 98mph, running its original 1950cc long-stroke 4-cylinder engine on wartime 'Pool' petrol – stupendous performance for a small – notionally 'four-seat' (though in truth rather confined – 92-inch wheelbase) saloon of that era.

The Aston Martin Atom's wartime press reception was ecstatic. 'The Autocar' described it as: "The future in the present...a complete breakaway from existing Aston Martins and the general run of British cars...The saloon body breaks with British car convention...see it as the comfortable, convenient sports car of the future..."

'Motor Sport' magazine enthused: "This is a machine which convinces you it is all the way a winner...", while'The Motor' was emphatic that " this car we can see the new order of motoring...".

This unique 90-100mph 2-plus-2 Coupe was used as much as possible by Mr and Mrs Gordon Sutherland for both personal and private transport, their children often travelling in its cosy rear seats. Indeed it took part in the exclusive Chessington 1941 and Cockfoster 1945 rallies organized by Rivers-Fletcher. However lack of publicly available fuel during wartime saw the Atom stored at his factory for up to three months at a time, but Gordon Sutherland knew its technology-proving value for a postwar resumption of Aston Martin production. He is said to have driven it personally for more than 100,000 test miles and immediately postwar the experience of driving the Atom persuaded industrialist David Brown to buy the company that had created it.

In 1944 the Atom was fitted with a Claude Hill-designed 1970cc pushrod engine breathing through twin SU carburettors, and Gordon Sutherland's notes confirm an intention to add an extra 6-inches wheelbase, to render the occasional rear seats properly habitable. He also projected a reduction in fuel tank size (from the original 17 gallons) to provide more luggage space, either a higher back-axle ratio or overdrive, minor front suspension refinement, a redesigned rattle free window mechanism and a lower roof and scuttle line.

Against a background of wartime shortage and privation, Mr Sutherland's list envisaged the time when materials might again become available. While the Atom influenced David Brown's decision to acquire the company, many of its innovations and lessons-learned would be built postwar into the David Brown-owned Aston Martin company's illustrious DB-series of Grand Touring cars.

Today the Aston Martin Atom, taxed, tested, with UK V5C registration document and FIVA passport, is ready to rally or exhibit, being well-restored/conserved with painstaking attention to retaining absolutely as much of its surviving originality as possible, it is believed to have completed some 250,000 miles running; including that during the ownership by W.O. Bentley's godson Bob Gathercole of Samurai racing and Pebble Beach fame. The car comes complete with an impressive archive of documents and photographs that chart its provenance, together with essential and valuable running spares.

This most significant cornerstone of Aston Martin marque history has changed hands only once over the past 49 years. The current owner , recognizing the once in a lifetime opportunity – acquired the Atom sight unseen – in 1986 from France where it had been in an ex Aston racing driver's collection and had been loaned from time to time to the Musee de l'Automobile, in Chatellerault, Vienne, and the exclusive Le Mans Motor Museum. This largely unsung little jewel – yet one so absolutely iconic amongst truecognoscenti – has long been conserved and maintained by one hyper-enthusiast owner.

Such is the importance of the Atom that it receives numerous invitations to events worldwide. Most recently it has received accolades by being voted Best Car of Show 2012 at the NEC International Classic Car Show and being chosen for the AML Centennial timeline at Kensington Palace in 2013. The new owner will have the opportunity of enjoying many more such occasions.

The Atom is, in short, one of Aston Martin's absolute landmark designs. It is certainly one of the most exciting one-off British cars that Bonhams has have ever been asked to offer. It is unique, it is super sophisticated, and - when one considers it within the context of 1939-40 – its creation alone represents a monumental achievement.

That the Atom has survived in almost constant use, and is today so beautifully conserved in highly original order, is a great tribute to the enthusiasm and taste of the Aston Martin connoisseurs who have fostered it for so many years...

In short, if it were not for the Atom, David Brown might not have bought Aston Martin. What fate would then have befallen the company we do not know, but without David Brown, there would be no Aston Martin DB series cars - no DB3S, no DBR1, no James Bond DB5. We all owe so much to the mighty Atom.