Andy Chapman worked as an engineer and test driver for Aston Martin in the 1960s and has since spent much of his working life restoring and rebuilding classic Astons from the David Brown era.
A technical consultant to the Aston Martin Owners Club and contributor to its publications since 1978, the 72-year-old from Lichfield was recently presented with The Viscount Downe Memorial Award in recognition of his major contribution to enhancing the heritage of the Aston Martin marque.
As the Warwickshire-based firm gears up to celebrate its centenary, he looks back at the famous marque.
It was more by accident than design that my passion for doing engine work led me to Aston Martin in 1961.
I’d just completed a six-year apprenticeship at AEC Southall, which built London buses.
They couldn’t give me a job saying it was dead man’s shoes in the engine experimental department where I wanted to work but I was told that Aston Martin at its site near Feltham was recruiting.
I thought it would be a hell of a journey from my home in Wembley but decided to take the plunge and joined them. At the time I thought: “I’ll give this place two years”.
When I arrived I found it was just a couple of old aircraft hangars – the former Hanworth Aerodrome, where before the war the first helicopters had flown.
It certainly didn’t have much glamour then, even though the firm had enjoyed racing success and won a world championship in 1959.
I remember starlings used to fly in the roof of the hangar. The first hangar was the experimental department and the second was the service department, while production was done offsite at Newport Pagnell.
I suppose initially it was just a job to me, but I was happy as it fulfilled my burning ambition to do engine work.
It became clear I was out of my depth when I started. They said an engine should be rebuilt in 65 hours, but my first one took me 130. Thankfully I managed to do my third one in the regulation time. Something about Aston Martin really appealed.
I loved the way the cars were hand-built. I had always been interested in mechanical things and Aston for some reason suited my personality.
The Hanworth lease ran out in 1963 and the whole factory moved up to Newport Pagnell, which was actually rather handy as I was getting married in ‘64 and could afford a house in Buckinghamshire. When the company moved only about four of the 100 or so staff moved there with it.
After two years I thought: “I said I’d give this company two years and I’m going to move on”, but at the time they wanted more road testers. They asked me if I wanted to become one. I couldn’t believe it, but there I was at 23 years old driving Aston Martin cars for a living
A year later I was asked if I wanted to take over the engine shop where we used to recommission engines. I was 24 years old and was a foreman with 12 engine mechanics. We used to overhaul customers’ engines and did all the service work.
Even at the time I felt I was getting experience that would see me be considered a specialist Aston Martin engine man. I ended up becoming the training officer with responsibility for 200 apprentices and 12 trainees, staying with Aston Martin for about nine years.
After then I came to Birmingham to help someone start a business – Aston Distributors in Perry Barr. I was their first employee and trained all seven mechanics
After about five years there I took the plunge and started my own business in Aldridge in 1975 – but as I did so Aston Martin went into receivership. I was very concerned as a lot of my trade was with Aston vehicles. I needn’t have worried though and it turned out that my firm Chapman Spooner went on for 20 years, going from being a one man band to employing 24 people.
It was tough in the first recession but things got better and I never looked back. At times we turned over quite a lot of money.
Eventually the overheads got quite a lot higher and we had to call it a day.
After a break and I considered about doing something with boats because I’ve always loved sailing, but eventually went back to doing what I knew best – Aston Martins.
It was funny, people were even bringing cars out of storage after hearing I had started up again. At one point I had three cars I was working on which had only done 1,200 miles between them in the intervening period. Things built up and I moved from Lichfield to Kings Bromley.
But in 2003 I suffered an illness which forced me to drastically cut back on work.
Even so, I still loved being involved in the car world, and I wrote articles for the Aston Martin Owners Club – ‘Andy Chapman’s tips on the David Brown cars’.
Looking back, I’ve loved being involved with Aston Martin. The cars, because they were hand-built, gave you a lot of scope for improvisation.
You had to think about what you were doing all the time. You could take a door off one car and take the same door off another car and it would be completely different. You had to use your brain all the time. With a Ford Cortina everything was standardised – but not with Aston Martin!
It was always a challenge – a bit like sailing – you could do well one week racing but not another even though you might think you were doing everything exactly the same.
It was interesting to see the brand evolve too. Originally when you look at the customers Aston Martin attracted there were quite a few of the aristocracy – even the Duke of Edinburgh had one – and also successful people who ran their own companies.
But when the James Bond film Goldfinger came out it really gave Aston Martin a boost. In later years I would sometimes get calls from someone asking if I had a DB5 for sale, and I would later realise it was because they had shown the film again on TV.
I was later asked to build a replica of the famous Bond DB5. I had to make all the simulated special effects work electrically, unlike in the film cars. Guns came out of it and water came out of the back and we had stage effect cartridges fired from a 12 volt charge.
It was for a special buyer. They never said who but I suspected it was someone in the Middle East. It was an interesting case of history repeating itself as my grandfather had done something similar in connection with the film All Quiet on the Western Front. He was in the motor trade from 1896 when it really got going.
James Bond undoubtedly gave Aston Martin a bit of added charisma. Pop stars started to buy them and I remember Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath, Bev Bevan from ELO and Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin being customers.
Throughout all that time I only ever owned an Aston Martin once – a DB5 which later ended up being featured on calendars. I had known the car from my Aston Martin days when it was new. A schoolteacher in Bridgnorth wanted to get rid of it when fuel prices went crazy. I’d seen this car all through its life and I’d got some money so I bought it. I thought ‘I’ve got an Aston Martin at last’.
But when I drove it, it was too much like work. I’d hear a noise and wonder if it was something to do with the oil pressure and I thought ‘I’m not enjoying this’. If I had it now it would probably be worth around £300,000. I think I sold it for about £8,000 and made £2,500 on it. But you have to remember in those days it was difficult to get £1,000 for a DB5. Now people are regularly paying £250,000 and a convertible might go at auction for as much as £600,000.
I have fond memories of racing, in particular the ex John Surtees Lola Aston Martin, which in 1967 had failed at Le Mans. The new owner, Peter Millward, asked me if I would like to look after it and for eight years I lived a dream.
The team had many good races and they drove the Lola to its limits, winning a few trophies and claiming class lap records. Looking back this was my dream job making a car that was reliable and did well.
When I visited the new factory at Gaydon I couldn’t get over how much of it was automated. We used to put a dashboard in by hand whereas they have equipment to do it now and it’s already been tested by a computer. It used to be such a pain in the old days.
My favourite car of all is the DB4. It was neither the best handling or the best in many respects but it had character, with wind-up windows and a basic gearbox.
The handling took some getting used to and initially I thought the steering was heavy but as time went on I liked it. They were uncomplicated and handled well if you knew how to drive them.
I think Aston Martin can look forward to a good future. I don’t know if it’s necessarily rosy – they’ve got a lot of competition even from the likes of Jaguar, BMW and Mercedes – as well as supercar makers.
Motor racing should keep them in the public eye and they have all that history and heritage behind them, so I’m sure they will continue to do well.