This article has been taken
from the June 2014 issue
of Aston Martin's official
AM Magazine. Available now in Print and App format.
As it celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, Aston Martin’s Atom concept car is still instantly recognisable with its groundbreaking sleek curves and beautiful lines.
The Atom was an avant-garde prototype developed using an early form of space-frame chassis and independent suspension, while the Cotal semi-automatic gearbox was a forerunner of today’s modern “paddleshifts”. Its key design elements can be seen in the 2-litre Sports, which was the first model produced under David Brown in 1948. That, of course, led to the great classic designs of the iconic DB family (DB2, DB2/4, DB4, DB5 and DB6), which created Aston Martin’s reputation as a manufacturer of the world’s most beautiful sports cars.
Brown, who famously bought the company after seeing an advert in The Times in 1946, saw the advanced engineering and patents of the Atom as the key to the marque’s future success and the concept car was one of the reasons behind his decision to purchase the company. He took the Atom for a test drive during the negotiations and clearly liked what he saw enough to put in his bid for the company. Aston Martin Design Director Marek Reichman says that the Atom’s design was more homogenous and integrated than any of its predecessors. “At that time, the whole world was beginning to streamline and starting to think about speed for the first time. The fenders flowed into the body and the shape kept the driver safe and dry.”
Current owner Tom Rollason bought the Atom in 1985 from the Musée de l’Automobile in Chatellerault, where it had been on display for two years after a period in the Le Mans Motor Museum. Aston Martin enthusiast and collector Rollason painstakingly restored it to its 1939 specifications. Among other things, this involved taking out the modern headlamps that had been installed and reverting from a royal blue exterior paint colour to the original silver. In the process, he struck up a firm friendship with Gordon Sutherland and learned much more about the car through their lengthy conversations.
Today, the narrow, winding, dipping, climbing roads where Grover-Williams grew up connect the bustling low-lying harbours with the lofty old town of Monaco-Ville where, if you stand for long enough, will lead you to believe that this is where most of the world’s exotic cars end up. As a result, it takes a truly impressive automobile to turn the head of the average Monégasque—which says a thing or two about the latest addition to the Aston Martin stable, the shamelessly racy Vantage N430.
Stepping through the doors of Nice airport, it was easy to spot the N430, not least because of the vibrant yellow hue accenting the “lipstick” grille surround, snaking up the A-pillars and cant rails, swathing the rear diffuser blade and door mirror caps.
“The Atom encapsulates everything that Aston Martin represents. It was highly fashionable, at the cutting-edge of design and anybody would have been extremely proud to have owned it,” Rollason says.
The interior is equally striking, with airline-style seats in luxurious, deep red leather. The rear seats look spacious—although the narrow doors make it a bit of a squeeze to ease into them.
Rollason continues: “There is also the bonnet release, which is unique to the Atom and not seen on any other Aston Martin. It was designed bespoke for the car in the shape of a Delta wing—another nod to aircraft design—and when viewed side-on, it’s the famous winged logo cut in half.” So what is the car like to drive? “It is quite amazing,” says Rollason. “The very rigid body, which gives the impressive front suspension, is actually a very comfortable ride and actually very modern in its feel. Sutherland’s aim was to avoid too many connections from the engine bay to the cockpit to minimise fumes and noise.
“It’s also very precise in the steering. When I’ve thrown it into roundabouts, it keeps very neutral in its handling—there’s nothing nasty in terms of oversteer or understeer. The Cotal gearbox makes it a very pleasant drive. And once you are used to the seats, which are admittedly a bit different from what you might be used to, it becomes a very relaxing car to drive.” Having owned several other pre-war Aston Martins such as the 11Ž2-litre Le Mans, Rollason says that the Atom is a huge leap forward from that type of car. And when it comes to the Atom’s speed, he says: “With its previous engine, the Atom was documented as reaching 96mph. It would be really great to do a test trial with the new engine and modern petrol on smooth roads.”
Nobody was more pleased to see the car restored to its full glory than Gordon Sutherland himself. “In 1996, I invited Gordon along to Newport Pagnell to see the car restored and to have a drive in it,” says Rollason. “He immediately accepted and I found out later that it was actually the first time he had been back to the factory since 1949. He told me how he used to take his children to school in the Atom with them sitting in the back.” Rollason was also able to gather some unique insight into the other changes Sutherland had made on the car. “He experimented with ratios and different suspensions and every change he made was documented. It’s very unusual for a car of this age to have that level of provenance.”
When the Second World War took hold, it meant the second Atom was never built, but Sutherland was not short of ideas on what he wanted to do with it. “He was going to put extra length in the chassis so that it was a true four-door saloon,” Rollason explains. “He also planned to lower the roofline, which would have made it a very streamlined car. And he wanted a smaller petrol tank to increase the boot space and a different gearbox if the Cotal wasn’t available. There were also going to be some changes to the rear braking system.” In fact, Sutherland test drove the car for more than 90,000 miles during the War years, conscious of how important it would be for the marque once production resumed after the conflict had ended. But after Brown bought the company he wanted the first car built on his watch to be a roadster rather than a sedan so the Atom was destined to stay a unique, one-off.
As this remarkable feat of engineering and design shimmers in the spring sunshine, it’s clear this embodiment of Aston Martin’s core design values, glorious curves and perfect proportions will look young at heart and instantly recognisable for years to come.
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