Life with Lionel
While best known as the dominant co-founder of Bamford & Martin, the fledgling company which shortly before the outbreak of World War One sired what would become one of Great Britain’s most prestigious sports car manufacturers, Lionel Martin accomplished much more – both before Aston-Martin and after.
Born in Cornwall on 15 March 1878 to a wealthy family, its fortunes derived from local tin mines and Lincolnshire quarries, Lionel Walker Birch Martin benefited from a privileged childhood while growing up at his parents’ home in London’s Knightsbridge. It was during his education at Eton between 1891 and 1896 that Martin, like many others, became enamoured with the bicycle, then barely out of its infancy, demand for which, and the new found freedom it offered, was immense. He acquired his first two-wheeler, a Singer, as reward for steadying his mother as she learnt how to balance her own bicycle; many a rapid trip with like-minded pupils while at a grammar school followed, on the Singer and then a racing Ormond, before the moustachioed young Lionel became an undergraduate at Marcon’s Hall, a private college at Oxford University.
Tall, well-built and strong, it was on the University’s cinder cycle racing track that Martin discovered his natural competitiveness. Imbued with the need for speed, he soon became a member of the distinguished Oxford University Bicycle Club and by 1900 was representing the University in amateur events with considerable success. Such was the super-fit Martin’s prowess that two years later, while living in Chiswick, West London, he joined the highly respected and exclusive Bath Road Cycling Club, his dominating pace, matched by the ability to down large quantities of ale, practical jokes, lively partying and willingness to help others being quickly appreciated by fellow members. His reputation was further cemented when, in August 1902 riding a Rover, he broke the Land’s End-London record by 3 hours 9 minutes 16 seconds. The following year, by when he had been awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree, he was elected Captain of the Club.
Martin, now sans moustache, had also bought his first motor bicycle, a 2¼-hp Humber, which led to an ever-increasing interest in motorised speed (similarly afflicted “Bath Roaders” included Montague Napier, whose eponymous company was already producing England’s most competitive race cars). Martin’s enthusiasm for cycle racing, however, had not dwindled, while in May 1903 he and T. H. B. Vade-Walpole broke the Edinburgh-York tandem bicycle record by 43 minutes despite turbulent weather. Towards the end of the year Martin, now also competing on a tricycle, went into partnership with a cycling friend who held the sole concession in Surrey and Sussex for Napier and de Dion. His interest in cars further grew while living in France in late 1904, where he used a 24-32-hp Mors, and by 1905 the highly accomplished racing cyclist, in part due to recurring lumbago, had switched his main allegiance to four wheels, demonstrating Napiers and de Dions around the country – until in November 1909 he lost his licence for repeated speeding, while at the same time being fined for his failure to attend court under previous summonses to identify him as the offending driver! Now living in Drayton Gardens, Chelsea, Martin returned to cycling with the Bath Road Cycling Club. The following year he would meet a new Club member with whom he would forever make his mark in motoring history.
An engineering apprentice at Teddington Launch Works and himself a fine cyclist, vicar’s son Robert Bamford became good friends with Martin – renowned for the meticulous preparation of his cycles – who would get his licence back by May 1911. Seven months later Martin broke the Edinburgh- York record for a tricycle with a time of 13 hours 54 minutes – a considerable accomplishment at the age of 33, given his five year retirement from competitive cycling. By October 1912 he and Bamford had joined forces and were running a garage repair, tuning and sales business for both cars and motor bicycles in Henniker Mews, off Callow Street, Fulham; Bamford & Martin was also an agent for Calthorpe, G.W K. and Singer. Martin had bought a 10-hp example of the latter at the 1912 Olympia Show and meticulously modified it to be capable of 70mph.
Not long after, Bamford & Martin Ltd was incorporated on 15 January 1913, with newly recruited engineer Jack Addis, the significant third player in the company cast, who was also ex-Teddington Launch Works, as works foreman. Sadly, in 1914, Martin’s wife Christine died, having recently given birth to their son John.
Martin was soon entering his modified Singer in reliability trials such as the London- Gloucester, London-Exeter and London-Land’s End, often accompanied by Addis, as well as hillclimbs, all of which inspired Martin to build his own make of fast touring car which could be used in competition with minimal stress. In June/July 1914 a 1389cc Coventry-Simplex engine was installed in a small, modified 1908 Isotta-Fraschini sports chassis, and, as is well recorded, in deference to his many entries in the Singer at Aston hillclimb in Buckinghamshire, Martin called his four-cylinder creation an Aston-Martin. This was the car, soon after its completion and just before such activities were suspended by the outbreak of World War One, which gave the marque its competition debut, at the Brighton Trials, winning a Silver Medal with Martin at the wheel.
This “hybrid” was to be followed in 1915 by the first all inhouse Aston-Martin using the former’s engine and a purpose made chassis and Wrigley gearbox, but the war – during which Martin, who used the firm’s first model throughout hostilities, served in the Admiralty and Bamford in the Army Service Corps – meant development was curtailed until 1918. It also meant demands for tin had further increased the Martin family wealth, allowing Lionel to self-finance resumption of his plans to put Aston-Martin into production. By the middle of 1919 “Coal Scuttle”, as the second Aston-Martin had become known due to its shape, had amassed 15,000 miles and kept Aston-Martin in the public eye; thereafter, of course, it successfully competed at Brooklands.
The following January Bamford & Martin moved to Abingdon Road, Kensington, where a third car, with exclusive 1486cc engine designed specifically for competition, emerged in late 1920 – shortly after which Bamford resigned, having lost interest in the Aston-Martin project. Martin, now married to cleric’s daughter Katherine, who replaced Bamford as company director, achieved his marque’s maiden race victory with the third Aston prototype in Brooklands’ Essex Short Handicap Race in May 1921.
Martin realised the importance of a racing programme to garner sales, and this marked its beginning. He would enjoy many more successes, while the strong-willed and independently-minded Mrs Martin (known among some of her acquaintances as “Calamity Kate”) like Addis, was no mean Aston-Martin racer herself, for which she received much praise in the motoring press; other notable drivers among the “Aston-Martin Boys” included Count Louis Zborowski – who also provided some much-needed finance – and Bertie Kensington Moir. They were regular visitors to the Martins’ new home near Abingdon Road, as ever an open house to all friends, and both became very close to the couple.
Production of the finely-engineered and beautifullyfinished Aston-Martins finally began in 1923, courtesy of some 20 employees, while works-entered Grand Prix and sports models, plus World Speed Records, had further endorsed Aston-Martin’s competition credentials, and in 1924 26 examples were sold. Martin’s personal financing of his company, however, had by then reached its limit, but relief came with backing from Lady Dorothy Charnwood whose son, the Hon. John Robey Benson, became one of the directors, as well as chief engineer, of newly formed Aston-Martin Motors Ltd. It would make its Motor Show debut early in October 1925, at London’s Olympia. While its models drew much admiration and potential orders, this was not enough to avoid the company entering receivership a month later. During the ensuing hearing a bitter Benson, with whom the Martins had until then been very close, made unsubstantiated allegations of a conspiracy between Lionel and Jack Addis to remove working drawings without his knowledge, as well as accusing Lionel of mismanagement of the company. He additionally claimed that Martin/Addis had removed spare parts while the firm was in receivership, for which Martin successfully sued Benson for slander during a week-long trial – when Benson made further allegations, including that Kate was vindictive to employees – in October 1926. On the twelfth of that month Aston-Martin Motors was sold to Renwick and Bertelli, which would mark a transformation in the marque’s fortunes.
While Martin, to whom his company’s failure had been a considerable blow, turned his attention to the family businesses, his appetite for motoring did not diminish, initially with Rileys, one of which Kate raced in 1928. That year Martin became a member of the British Racing Drivers Club and his wife joined the Women’s Automobile and Sports Association. The couple thereafter became increasingly involved in the motor sport world; Lionel joined the RAC Competitions Committee and acted as a Brooklands steward and Kate continued racing. As a RAC steward, incidentally, Lionel, together with S.C.H. “Sammy” Davis and Sir Algernon Guinness, had to deliberate the outcome of one of Brooklands’ most controversial and closest race finishes when John Cobb’s 10½ litre Delage took the April 1932 100 Mile Race flag at 126.363 mph to the 126.354 mph of Captain George Eyston’s 8.0-litre Panhard-Levassor; Eyston appealed, arguing that Cobb had baulked him and, after much legal argument, the RAC agreed and reversed the result.
Fortunately, during the early 1930s the financial depression did not hit the Martins too hard, and in 1932 they moved to a large and luxuriously furnished house in Kingston-upon- Thames, Surrey. The previous year they had campaigned an MG in the International Alpine Trial, as they did the following year with a Humber, as well as the Monte Carlo Rally with Lionel in a Humber and Kate in a Hillman. Many such ventures and Continental tours ensued, and the now portly Martin would also act as a steward at every Shelsley Walsh meeting until the onset of World War Two, by when he was also a main committee member of the British Automobile Racing Club and a regular contributor to the motoring press. In 1938 it was he who drove the German Minister of Sport around Donington Park’s track at the British Grand Prix where Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz demonstrated their devastating domination.
With the outbreak of war – prior to which Martin had owned over 60 cars, ranging from Rolls-Royce, Bugatti and Buick to Railton, BMW and Lancia – came the sexagenarian’s return to active cycling with the Bath Road Cycling Club. While training in 1941, he impressively completed a 100 mile trip; he was re-elected as vice president. Martin, who for many years had been a diabetic, recovered from both serious illness in 1943 and broken thigh bones after being knocked off his tricycle the following year, but on 14 October 1945 a similar incident befell him as he neared his home, from which this time the 67-year-old did not recover.
Charming, entertaining and generous to the last, the man who created Aston-Martin died one week later in Kingston County Hospital. Among the many tributes that followed, S.C.H Sammy Davis summed him up thus: “Lionel Martin was a character rarely found in these days of ours. He was out and out an Etonian, perfect of manners, certain what was right and what was wrong in life as in all other things and a perfectionist if ever there was one…I never knew him criticise a rival manufacturer savagely, always his manners were excellent. And to him, I think, each car had personality and an animal quality, so should be looked after all the time.”
After his death, Lionel Martin’s majority shareholding in the main family business of Singleton Birch passed to his wife and on her death in 1959, as stipulated in her Will, the Katherine Martin Foundation was established. Exclusively benefiting the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Barnado’s Homes, all of these today continue to receive income via dividends from Singleton Birch.