|Years in F1||1952|
|Team Principal||Bill Aston|
|Best Result||DNF (twice)|
Throughout the 1950s and the early 1960s privateer manufacturers began emerging from Britain, entering Grands Prix around the world. Some of them had their fair share of success in Formula One. You might recognise names such as Lotus, Cooper, Vanwall and the reformed B.R.M. They may have had amateur spirit, but on the track they raced like professionals. They were innovators in F1, taking the battle to the major works teams and winning multiple drivers and constructors championships.
Then there were those that raced like amateurs. Drivers over 50 years of age making their debut. Passing off designs from other teams and claiming it as their own. Filling their cars up with the wrong fuel. All this before the glory days of Lotus, Vanwall and the like.
As it was, Bill Aston was that amateur.
Part 1: The Late Bloomer
Born in 1900, Aston was involved in World War One during his youth before starting up a moderately successful venture into… fruit farming. Yes, that’s how he made his fortune. Aside from his agricultural adventures, Aston was also a prominent test pilot. This job got Aston involved in engineering and aerodynamics, which eventually saw “Big Bill”, as he was known, enter the motor racing scene. You might be thinking at this point that Bill must’ve started racing between the wars, right?
You’d be far off the mark. Bill Aston’s first recorded motor race was in 1949. He was 49 years old.
To give Bill his dues, he didn’t do all too badly for a 49 year-old amateur debutant, quickly becoming a recognisable name in 500cc racing and Formula Three, even picking up a victory in Brussels during his first year. In addition, Aston came within one lap of winning the 1951 Grand Prix de Frontieres, his engine seizing within sight of the chequered flag. This good run of results brought him to the attention of the father-and-son duo Charles and John Cooper. Their names may sound familiar to you. They’re better known as the founders of Cooper Car Company, innovators of the rear-engine layout seen in modern F1. Back in 1951 though, their main priority was designing 500cc racers, and they had built a streamlined version of their new Cooper MkV with the aim of shattering the 500cc speed record.
Who better to ask to drive the car than 51 year-old fruit farmer Bill Aston himself? With Aston’s frame literally crammed behind the wheel, the MkV went on to set new speed records at a smidgeon under 100 m.p.h. around the heavily banked Linas-Montlhery oval in October 1951. Not a feat to be shrugged at. It seemed like Aston and Coopers’ partnership could go a long way.
But Aston had other ideas. Coupling his business acumen from his fruit farming pastures with his engineering prowess from his days as a test pilot, Bill Aston was planning to design his own chassis. With the incentive that the World Driver’s Championship was switching to Formula 2 regulations in 1952, Aston set about designing his car around the new ruleset. However, our intrepid hero still had no experience designing a racing chassis from scratch. Perhaps he could ask Cooper for help, given he’d just set a speed record for them…
…or he could just take their existing T20 chassis, tweak it a little, and name it after himself and another bloke. This is the story of Aston Butterworth.
Part 2: Mr. Butterworth
In fairness to Aston, he had made several changes, exterior and interior, to the existing T20 chassis to craft it into his own Aston Butterworth NB41. The biggest change of all revolved around the engine, which is where the Butterworth name comes into play.
Archie Butterworth made his name as a prominent hillclimb racer in the late 40’s and early 50’s. Fans were dazzled by his wild, crazy runs with his radical self-constructed AJB special, powered by modified Steyr engines. He set quite a few hillclimb records, including one in Blandford that remained unbeaten for a good ten years. Eventually his brave driving style came back to bite him when he was heavily injured in an incident at Shelsley Walsh which ended his driving career. Butterworth wasn’t done with motor racing though. He could still build a lean, mean racing machine, and so he set about making one of his own.
Butterworth started designing an innovative engine using parts of the Steyr that led him to hillclimb success. In his mind, he envisioned three different capacities of a flat four engine, 1500cc, 2500cc and the Formula Two-spec 2000cc capacity with an innovation never-before-seen in motorsport: a swing valve. The engine, christened the AJB, was going to be revolutionary in motorsport.
However, Butterworth couldn’t get his swing valve design completed in time before Bill Aston came calling. Aston initially planned to purchase a Kuchen V8 engine, but given these were in short supply he approached Archie to get his design ready for Aston’s upcoming project. Butterworth hadn’t yet manufactured the swing valve engine, though, as he was still busy tinkering over its implementation. In a compromise, Butterworth designed a 1984cc “interim” engine minus the special swing valve for the short-term, selling two to Aston for his chassis.
Despite being a mere customer, Bill Aston felt it was only right to name the the car ‘Aston Butterworth’, after himself and Archie Butterworth. All this without prior consultation with Butterworth himself…
Aston pretty much designed his NB41 around the AJB engine. As the AJB was a flat-four, this allowed him to design a nose much closer to the ground than the factory Coopers. With every component crafted to take advantage of the nose, this allowed for a low bonnet on the NB41. All in all this gave the NB41 a very low centre of gravity compared to its counterparts, allowing for impressive handling. Aston even included a unique swing axle rear suspension, though that was scrapped for a regular Cooper set-up as it proved to be one innovation too unstable for the NB41.
Even then, Bill Aston knew that a 52 year old like him had little to no hope of obtaining good results in his car. He turned to one of his friends in 500cc racing, fellow amateur Robin Montgomerie-Charrington, to share duties driving the NB41. Fifteen years younger than Aston, Robin jumped at the chance. Shortly after this arrangement began though, Robin asked for his own, separate chassis. Despite Montgomerie-Charrington being British, he requested the new chassis, designated the NB42, to be painted in American racing stripes to reflect his wife’s nationality.
With a bold engine, a driver of reasonable age and a promising chassis, what could go wrong?
Part 3: Aspiring Amateurs with Rough Reliability
Aston Butterworth’s first outing was the non-championship Lavant Cup, only featuring Aston behind the wheel. Despite a decent eighth place finish for Aston, the aforementioned swing axle suspension trouble caused a redesign to be effected in time for the International Trophy in Silverstone the following month. Both Aston and Montgomerie-Charrington had mechanical troubles, failing to finish their heat races. They were out of the final but more importantly, this result would be an indicator of the poor reliability the cars would suffer through the season.
Even with a recalcitrant car, Montgomerie-Charrington was actually proving himself behind the wheel. Unlike Aston, “Monty” was able to show that the Aston Butterworth had some promise.
At the non-championship Grand Prix de Frontieres on the notorious Chimay Circuit, “Monty” had a fantastic race, finishing in third. Granted, most of the field that day were Belgian gentlemen racers, but still a good result nonetheless. Montgomerie-Charrington had actually run out of fuel with two laps to go, but he was still so far ahead of the rest of the pack that it didn’t matter. With that, they headed to Spa-Francorchamps for their first World Championship Grand Prix.
Bill Aston opted to watch from the sidelines and let Montgomerie-Charrington attempt the race himself. Very little was expected of the Cooper clones within the paddock, yet the Brit turned heads by qualifying in 15th, ahead of notable names like Louis Rosier and B Bira. Come raceday itself, “Monty” made a name for both himself and Aston Butterworth. From 15th, he climbed all the way up to seventh by lap 14, which was only two places outside the points positions at the time.
Then came his pitstop. A routine stop, fill the tank, out you go again. From their fuel issues in Chimay, a stop like this was likely necessary. Still, you would think this was a simple enough task…
As it turns out, Montgomerie-Charrington’s car was filled with the wrong kind of fuel. Two laps later, the engine started sputtering. Aston Butterworth threw away a promising result in their first race.
Robin Montgomerie-Charrington would only take part in a few more non-championship events with Aston Butterworth before leaving motorsport altogether. The true reason he left is unknown, but his finishing record with the team wasn’t exactly a high note to go out on. A broken gearbox in Silverstone, clutch issues at Monthlery, running out of fuel at Chimay, the fuel mix up at Spa, a loose wheel at Monza and a broken universal joint at Reims. If you count his third at Chimay as a failure to finish, “Monty” didn’t finish a single race in the Aston Butterworth.
Bill Aston faced a rather similar situation while racing his designated NB41 in a couple of non-championship races. In his case fuel flow issues dogged his car, so he developed a cunningly simple solution: MORE FUEL PUMPS. Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly), this often backfired, the car running out of fuel quicker than others (hence “Monty”’s issue in Chimay) or even catching fire due to incompetent engineering on Aston’s part. As such, Aston mirrored Montgomerie-Charrington’s results of constant DNFs. His car couldn’t even go the distance in the seven-lap Madgwick Cup in Goodwood before pulling to a halt.
Part 4: Race Your Own Invention
With Robin Montgomerie-Charrington leaving motorsport entirely to emigrate to the United States, “Big Bill” was the only driver left for his own team, but there was no way he was going to let his advanced age hinder him. Keen to make an impact, he went and entered a few more World Championship races by himself, starting with the 1952 British Grand Prix.
At Silverstone, Bill Aston was about to enter his first ever Grand Prix at 52 years, 3 months and 21 days old. In his own car, unreliable even by the standards of the day. To say he fared terribly is an understatement.
In practice, Aston was 1 minute and 28 seconds behind Nino Farina’s pole time of 1m50s. The lack of pace was more down to the NB41’s problems than Aston’s driving itself, but there was no escaping that terrible qualifying time.
Even though there was no risk of failing to qualify at Silverstone – Harry Schell and Emmanuel de Graffenried still made the grid without setting a time – Aston wisely withdrew before race day, knowing there were major issues that had to be sorted. By the time the German Grand Prix rolled around, Aston tweaked the AJB engine, fitting in a new carburettor and cylinder heads. Incredibly, Aston’s updates to the engine actually worked. He qualified the car 21st, mired amongst the mass of German one-off entrants but still a decent effort in a field of 34.
On the first lap, Felice Bonetto spun his Maserati in front of the entire field. Aston was able to get through the mess and made up plenty of time, climbing to a superb 10th place by the end of lap 1 . As usual though, the Aston Butterworth did not survive the torrid pace, the oil pressure disappearing on lap 2 forcing Aston to retire the car before more damage was done.
Aston would make one last attempt at a World Championship race that season, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Having being designed to provide optimal handling, the Aston Butterworth looked like it would struggle around one of the fastest tracks on the calendar. To combat this, Aston attached a Cooper-style air intake on top of the Aston Butterworth’s low bonnet.
All that achieved though was make the NB41 look even more like a Cooper clone than it already was. The AJB engine was too gutless to set a fast time. Aston was only 31st fastest and unlike Silverstone, Monza’s grid was limited to 24 entrants. That failure to qualify would prove to be the Aston Butterworth’s last assault in the World Championship.
Unfortunately for Aston, his funds were depleting at a rapid rate. No fruit farm could harvest enough money for Aston to continue developing his pet project. He would still enter a few local Formula Two races with his NB41, but had almost nothing to show for it. Bill was only able to achieve a seventh and an eighth in separate races at Crystal Palace, hardly impressing anyone. He couldn’t source the funds required to take the Aston Butterworth overseas anymore. By the time the World Drivers’ Championship adopted the new 2.5 litre Formula One regulations in 1954, Bill Aston had shelved the Aston Butterworth project for good.
Everybody involved in Aston Butterworth went their own separate ways following the project. Robin Montgomerie-Charrington emigrated to the USA as mentioned earlier, but came back to Britain in his elder years and was seen at historic racing meets from time to time. Archie Butterworth soldiered on with the development of his AJB engine, partnering with Elva Cars alongside his good friend Archie Scott Brown. Butterworth even planned to enter an AJB-powered Cooper into a couple of Formula One races with him, but withdrew the entry and quit motorsport entirely after Scott Brown’s fatal accident in 1958. Finally, Bill Aston was still a spirited racer, often competing in club meets in Minis and Jaguars, winning races well into his 60’s before passing away in 1974.
The chassis themselves have had their own journeys over the years. Bill Aston’s primary NB41 chassis was sold to Dickie Metcalfe, who converted it to a Climax-engined sports car. “Monty”’s NB42 has a more storied history though. Originally sold off to VSCC racer Bill Wilks, the car was passed around like a hot potato amongst owners for quite a while, minus its AJB engine. Eventually, chassis NB42 was reunited with an AJB, though this one was a spare from Butterworth’s later association with Archie Scott Brown.
NB42 was then sold at a Bonhams auction in Goodwood during 1999 alongside a variety of engines, including the original used by Aston. Owner David Brock Jest managed to restore the car to running condition, and NB42 was set to make a return to the racetrack at the 2004 Monaco Historic Grand Prix.
In true Aston Butterworth fashion, the car did not start.
It would still be used heavily in historic meets afterwards, though, and was once again on the auction block at the Bonhams auction in Goodwood during 2016, valued at a cool £60,000 – £80,000.
The car certainly had some potential. Archie Butterworth definitely thought so with his engine, but he didn’t like how Bill Aston and Robin Montgomerie-Charrington handled the project. In an interview with Motorsport Magazine in 1984, Butterworth remarked that with the copycat Cooper chassis, the project’s “real name should have been Cooper-AJB” and said of Bill Aston with this golden quote: “You can’t win with that level of competency”. He thought of them as two spirited amateurs lacking the professionalism required to succeed in Grand Prix racing.
In all honesty, that’s all Bill Aston ever was.
Sources: Motorsport Magazine, 500race.org, StatsF1, 8w.forix.com, Bonhams Auctions, Conceptcarz.com, Allard Owners Club, @zdravkost on Twitter, Elva Cars, LAT