William 'Bill' Aston's life was filled with excitement and the thirst for new adventures. This quest for new adventures and experiences would lead Aston to entering the World Championship in 1952. It would also lead him to put to use his technical skills. For he wouldn't just enter the World Championship as a driver, he would also develop his own car for the purpose of competing in the top level of grand prix racing.
Technical innovation and engineering were all part of Aston's life, from even a very early age. Born in Stafford, England in 1900, Aston would participate in the First World War. Then, after war's end, he would have a career as a test pilot. This would truly open his eyes to the world of aerodynamics and engineering. If he couldn't be flying all the time, he needed to find another outlet for his desire for thrills, and to test out his own interests in engineering and design. Racing would be the answer for which he was looking.
In spite of being in his late forties, even his early fifties, Aston would take part in races of all forms. He would even take part in some record-breaking speed runs for which he would become best known and would develop very important relationship for the future.
One of those important relationships Aston would develop would be with John Cooper. In 1951, Cooper and Aston would team up to establish a new record in the 500cc class. Driving the MK V streamlined Cooper chassis, Bill would go on to record a record-breaking speed of 99 mph.
Aston recognized the potential of Cooper very early on and had been racing their cars since 1949. The relationship continued to grow and bloom into such amazing moments as the record-breaking run at Montlhery in 1951. However, Aston had an engineering mind and believed there were things that could be done to some of the Cooper chassis that would only make them better. Then in 1952, when it was decided the Formula One World Championship would compete according to Formula 2 regulations, Aston saw the opportunity for which he had been looking.
Aston didn't merely have an automotive or engineering mind, he also had his wits about him when it came to business. This allowed him to create his own team using his own finances. It would also allow him to begin developing his own grand prix. What would result would become known as the Aston-Butterworth NB41.
While technically and officially the NB41 was its own car, it was obvious to even the most amateur eye that it was merely a heavily manipulated evolution of Cooper's T20 chassis. However, the NB41 would actually have a number of advantages and innovations that would even make John Cooper envious.
The NB41 started with its engine. Bill Aston had a close relationship with Archie Butterworth. Butterworth had designed and built his own 2.0-liter engine in which he raced in 1950. The engineering mind of Aston was quick to notice the advantages the engine would provide. He would; therefore, approach Butterworth about building the same kind of engine for his NB41 chassis.
Most of the Cooper T20 chassis used a 2.0-liter Bristol engine based upon the prewar BMW 328 engine. This engine was very good when it was designed. However, it proved to have a couple of Achilles heals by the time the World Championship decided to run according to Formula 2 regulations. First of all, the engine was based upon a prewar design. It could handle developing up to 100 hp rather well, but to be competitive in the early 1950s, it had to be capable of producing upwards of 150 hp. While the engine was capable of doing it, it would prove over and over that it didn't like doing it for very long. Secondly, the engine was a straight-six design. This meant the engine sat high in the bodywork. In fact, the Cooper-Bristol would sport a shark-nose like inlet on the top of the chassis. This inlet provided air to the carburetors but it was also meant to reduce some of the incredible drag created by the large engine protruding so high out of the top of the car.
Butterworth's 2.0-liter engine seemed to offer fixes to the trouble spots of the Bristol. The engine was capable of producing over 100 hp. In addition, it was a flat, four-cylinder engine. This meant the engine had a low center of gravity and afforded Aston the flexibility of creating a chassis design that was a little lower to the ground, and therefore, offered better handling.
Having the engine he needed, Aston would go to work creating his NB41. The changes would start right at the front of the car. Because of his tight budget, Aston would start with what was a Cooper box-section chassis. Aston would slightly alter the tubular framing to create a grille opening that was a little shorter than that of the Cooper. Although slightly altered, the grille provided plenty of cool airflow to the radiator positioned behind it.
Of course, because of the engine type and placement, Aston's NB41 would initially be void of the shark-nose inlet on the top of the chassis. This meant the NB41 had a little bit of a cleaner aero package than that of the Cooper. Initially the design would be void of the shark-nose-like inlet. However, when the car appeared at Monza for the Italian Grand Prix, the top of the car featured a rather large air inlet that was still rather low in profile, but about as wide as the car itself.
Another advantage Aston would manage to get away with due to the engine would have to do with the car's transmission. The drive on the transmission was located lower than what it was on the Bristol engine used in the Cooper T20. This meant the final-drive sat lower in the car and further helped to keep the center of gravity lower.
The front suspension on the NB41 was similar to that of the Cooper T20 as well. It utilized a transverse semi-elliptic leaf spring with a lower wishbone and shock absorber arrangement. However, the rear suspension was changed. When Aston debuted the NB41 the rear suspension featured a swing-rear axle suspension. This arrangement would prove to be rather unstable; however, and would be quickly dropped in favor of the original rear suspension used on the Cooper chassis. This consisted of a layout similar to that of the front.
In addition to the departure, initially, with the rear suspension, Aston would also depart from the stock Cooper chassis when it came to the choice of wheels. Aston would fit Borrani wire wheels, with their bimetal drums, to the car. The metal drums would house Lockheed hydraulic drums to provide the braking power for the car. The drum housing would, like practically all of the cars of the time, featured deep grooves around the circumference of the housing. These grooves allowed cooler air to pass between and help cool the brakes. This was very important with drum brakes that had a tendency to fade rather easily.
The low nose bodywork, as it travelled aft along the car, would consist of a slightly more steep top line. The box-frame and the bodywork would be designed in such a way that it would sweep upward rather heavily right before the cockpit.
Inside the cockpit, a 4-speed MG TC gearbox would be used, coupled with the low-lying final-drive. Because of the transmission arrangement low in the car, the driver had the feeling of sitting on top of the car instead of down in it. This would only be further enhanced by the deeply cutout sides of the chassis. This left either side of the driver widely exposed. About the only element attached to the car that offered the driver any kind of protection would be the single-pane windscreen. About all this was worth was for cutting down on the number of insects that would strike the driver during a race.
Flanking each side of the windscreen were the all-important rear-view mirrors. These were vastly important for Aston and Montgomerie-Charrington during races in the 1952 season. Initially, simple, round mirrors were attached to either side of the windscreen. However, later in the season these would be revised to feature more aerodynamic shrouds and the mirror positioned inside the shrouds.
Although exposed greatly all-around, except at the driver's back, the car had an incredibly low line, which made the car one of the better handling machines in the World Championship. Unfortunately, it wouldn't be matched by reliability.
To drive his new NB41 chassis, of which there would be a couple built, Aston would turn to another friend. Aston would bring on Robin Montgomerie-Charrington to drive the car. Montgomerie-Charrington would be impressed and would order a second car for himself. This second car would called the NB42, but would still be the same NB41 model.
Although Aston would hire Montgomerie-Charrington to drive the car, it didn't mean Aston wouldn't also race. In fact, when once the second car was made for Robin Aston would take on the racing duties as well as managing the team.
The first race of the 1952 season would feature Aston behind the wheel. And while not capable of the pace of the front runners, Aston would manage to bring the new NB41 home in 8th place at its first race, which was the 4th Lavant Cup race at Goodwood during the Easter races in April.
Then, on the 1st of June, Montgomerie-Charrington would earn the NB41's best result. At the 22nd Grand Prix des Frontieres at Chimay in Belgium, Robin would manage to outdo a number of local Belgians to finish the race 3rd. This 3rd place would set the stage for an incredible run at Spa a couple of weeks later, even though it would eventually end in failure.
The first round of the World Championship in which WS Aston would take part would be the Belgian Grand Prix. Held at the ultra-fast Spa-Francorchamps circuit, Montgomerie-Charrington would impress in practice. The race would be even more impressive.
In the race itself, Robin would manage to run as high as in the top ten, and almost the top five. Although obviously helped out by the rainy conditions, this was still an incredible episode taking place in the background behind Scuderia Ferrari and other 'works' efforts. Unfortunately, the fairy tale would come to an end, but in the most unfortunate way. A mistake in refueling during a pitstop would lead to the engine developing a misfire, which would cause Robin to retire from the race. Its one moment in the rain would be lost. From that point on it would truly rain.
Throughout the rest of the season, the NB41 and NB42 cars suffered from atrocious reliability problems. The cars would fail terribly in the British, German and Italian grand prix. In fact, the reliability was so bad that neither of the two cars would finish a race after the mistake at Spa during the third round of the World Championship in late June.
Early on, it seemed the ultimate fairy tale would come true. The small team would come close to scoring a great result in a World Championship race. Ultimately, the attempt would fail through an unfortunate mistake. From that point on the fairy tale would meet tragic end after tragic end. Under-financed, Aston would only be able to tinker with the car throughout the year instead of thoroughly developing it. Without being able to fully develop the car, the NB41, while showing some promise, would; ultimately, go down in World Championship history as another failed innovative design.