The Aston Martin story

If you can't afford the car, you may just be able to afford the definitive history of the marque. Roger Bell meets the publisher
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The Independent Culture
JUST OVER 80 years ago, Robert Bamford and Lionel Martin produced a hybrid sports car billed rather grandly as a Bugatti substitute. The name chosen for what was to become Britain's most exotic and emotive marque was not, as logic would suggest, Bamford Martin. It was instead Aston Martin, a combination of the name of the dominant partner - a bit of a hotshot, by all accounts - and that of the Aston Clinton sprint hill climb near Tring, Hertford-shire. But what of Mr Bamford? Did he regret not being immortalised in chrome?

Searching in vain for the answer in Aston Martin, the Compleat Car, I learnt instead this nugget of motoring lore. "With marketing in mind, a name beginning with A was chosen so that it would be near the top of alphabetical lists." So there you have it. Business before sentiment. A before B.

You don't need to be a car buff to appreciate Palawan Press's first limited- edition title - but it helps. This definitive illustrated history of Aston Martin is even more exclusive than the cars it depicts - and, pound for pound, much more expensive. Even the "cheap" cloth-bound edition (1,500 printed, pounds 36 per pound weight) costs pounds 250. On the leatherbound cover of the pounds 600 version is a brass plaque (displaying the book's number - 001 to 150 - and the owner's name), produced by the people who "plate" for posterity Aston Martin's V8 engines. It's a nice bespoke touch that will appeal to gurus on the Antiques Roadshow a century hence.

This lavish, 336-page heavyweight says almost as much about its publisher, Simon Draper, as it does about its subject. "There were lots of books about Aston Martin, but none that did it justice," says Draper, who as Richard Branson's former business partner now has the means to indulge expensive hobbies. "I wanted to produce an authoritative reference work, not another anecdotal story about the marque. But the task was too big for one person." Five Aston Martin oracles race you through the glossy leaves. The splendid pictures mix archive material (from the collections of Louis Klementaski and Geoff Goddard) with specially taken still portraits by Richard Newton.

Four of Draper's passions - cars, art, books and exotic birds - are embraced by the Aston Martin tome. Birds? Palawan Press owes its name to a rare ornamental pheasant. "I've always been interested in wildlife since my boyhood in South Africa," says the affable Draper, who is in his mid-forties but looks younger. His prosperity, however, is rooted in music. "I'd just graduated and was intending to go to Oxford. Richard, my second cousin, had this mail-order business selling cut-price records called Virgin. I joined him for a few months in 1971." Draper never did get to Oxford. Instead, he built Virgin into the world's fifth-biggest record company before it was sold to Thorn EMI.

After owning a succession of fast, technically interesting business wheels - Saab 99 Turbo, Audi Quattro, Quattro Sport - Draper was persuaded by Roger Taylor (the drummer with Queen) to buy an Aston Martin Vantage. "When Virgin went public in 1986, the directors allowed themselves a bit more spending money. The Vantage was a good compromise. It took three kids and luggage, and went like a rocket." This much-loved Aston formed the nucleus of Draper's car collection.

Another drummer and a fellow car freak, Nick Mason of Pink Floyd, also encouraged Draper's Aston Martin habit. "Nick gave me a lot of advice," he says. "My interest in Astons is fuelled by their history. It's all here, in Britain. Astons of every era are unified by their individuality. They are cars of great character. If something goes wrong, you find yourself dealing with interested people." He describes the Aston Martin Owners Club, 60 this year, as "the finest one-make club in the world."

Draper's first old car was a DB4 convertible. "It was terrible, an old dog," he confesses. It was bought, though, when values were rising steeply in the late Eighties. "The boom encouraged collectors to go a bit bonkers," he says. "After expensive restoration, it was still worth more than I had paid out." His cars are not mothballed museum pieces, but pristine runners to be enjoyed on road and track - he will be racing his Aston Martins at the Goodwood Festival of Speed next weekend, and at the Coys Inter-national Historic Festival at Silverstone on 29-30 July. His collection also includes Bristols ("idiosyncratic cars of great appeal"), Lancias ("made to exacting standards and wonderful to drive") and a Lamborghini Miura ("because of the way it looks").

Draper is not a Porsche fan, but he still has three Ferraris, including a troublesome new 456 that vies as everyday wheels with an Aston DB7. "Ferraris have the better engines," he concedes. Hooked on historic racing in 1991, Palawan's founder no longer buys Astons indiscriminately, but concentrates on the competition classics. Although the set is incomplete - he's still missing a "team" DB2, for instance - there are samples of Aston's most prized models: the DBR1 (which fulfilled the late Sir David Brown's dream of winning at Le Mans, in 1959), and a DBR4 single-seater that stretched the great Roy Salvadori. Among Draper's other favourites is the LM20 that came third at Le Mans in 1935 on just 1.5 litres. "It's much quicker now than it was then - but Nick Mason's is even quicker," he says. "Pre-war Aston Martins were beautifully made."

Draper is now as keen on publishing books as he is on collecting cars. "I found doing Aston Martin, the Compleat Car tremendously exciting and satisfying, so I decided to do more. I knew it was possible to sell expensive books of very high quality by mail order." Forthcoming publications, on Ferrari racing cars and the Aston Martin DB3S, are even more narrowly focused than the Aston history. There's also a two-volume magnum opus in the offing, about every known species of pheasant - all 48 of them, including the Palawan. "This is my riskiest book yet," says Draper, relishing the challenge.

! `Aston Martin, the Compleat Car' is published by Palawan Press Ltd, 28 Holland Park Mews, London W11 3SX, at pounds 250 and pounds 600.