Crossing the Block: Aston Martin Atom Prototype
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If that’s true, these pictures must be worth an entire library. This is the 1939/1940 Aston Martin Atom, and it might just be one of the most significant British cars ever made. In 1939, Gordon Sutherland, contemporary owner of Aston Martin, had the vision to build a lightweight sports coupe – a car that had no true British contemporary. To do so, Sutherland enlisted the help of engineer Claude Hill and some of Aston’s finest designers. It’s safe to say the result was nothing short of revolutionary.
Named after the powerful yet pint-sized particle, the Aston Martin Atom did away with the heavy chassis of the day and instead featured a lightweight but rigid internal body, aluminum outer panels, and tubular spaceframe architecture. Underneath, the Atom rode on coil-sprung independent front suspension and the UK’s first use of the Salisbury back axle.
Hill sourced power from a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine derived from an earlier Aston Martin 15/98 sports car, but after the war it received the very first 2.0-liter DB1 engine. And beggar belief, it featured a Cotal electromagnetic semi-automatic gearbox; a precursor to today’s paddle-shift transmissions.
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The space age concept was finished and road-worthy in 1940, just as the Battle of Britain began raging in the skies over England, an achievement even more remarkable considering that lamp posts, drain pipes, and other sources of spare metal were being repurposed for the war effort.
For months during the war, the Atom found shelter inside the Aston Martin factory, but also cranked out a staggering 100,000 miles of personal road use in the hands of Sutherland. Thankfully, it survived the conflict and allegedly inspired David Brown – after a drive in the concept – to purchase the Aston Martin company. Planned developments for the Atom instead found their way into Brown’s iconic DB-series of grand touring cars.
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Unmodified and meticulously conserved by its previous owner, the Atom wears 250,000 miles on its odometer, and will hit the auction block on June 27 at the Bonhams’ Goodwood Festival of Speed Sale. Considering its provenance and that only one exists, expect the final bill of sale to surpass extraordinary, and border on the fantastical.
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