Lionel Martin is for many people an unknown name when it comes to motoring, however for enthusiasts, he is known as one half of the team that created the Aston Martin name however he didn’t create the company.
Martin came from a family of minerals experts. On his father’s side it was China Clay from Cornwall used to make fine porcelain and on his mother’s side it was lime and chalk. Although he was born in Cornwall in the south west of England, he was raised in Knightsbridge, a wealthy part of London and went to school firstly at Eton and then Oxford. He would have had access to a very cashed up old boys network for sure.
This was turn of the century Britain and cars were only just starting to appear on the roads and like many of his peers, he had become an avid bicyclist. Motor cars were new and his network came in handy through which he met Montague Napier who had created a luxury car maker with Selwyn Edge. Martin joined forces to sell these new machines as well as imported ones.
It was clear that Martin enjoyed these cars to their fullest extent as he was banned from driving for two years in 1909. Somethings haven’t changed in a hundred years! Whilst back on human powered two wheels, he met Robert Bamford and they got together in business also selling cars. Bamford was an engineer – and unrelated to Joseph Bamford who later founded the JCB brand of construction equipment.
Bamford and Martin was created to firstly sell cars and then develop their own models. The signed agencies with many manufacturers at the time such as Singer, GWK and Calthorpe. Many of the marques they supplied have long become defunct.
They modified a Singer and I did read an article that suggested that they also modified a 1908 Isotta Fraschini, both for the new sport of hill climbing. With great success, they then undertook the creation of their own vehicle in 1915, affectionately called the “Coal Scuttle” due to its shape. This car was officially called the Aston-Martin, and took its name from Aston Hill, near Aston Clinton which was the site of a hill climbing competition and about 50 miles north west of London.
It took the partners another 5 years to build another vehicle and then they completed 60 more in the next 5 years before the company collapsed. It was the rebirth – with new owners and financiers – where the name Aston Martin Limited started. Interestingly, many articles suggested that Bamford was the money behind their automotive venture, however he was the engineer, it was Martin’s family money that initially funded the business and it was Martin’s driving ability that got the partners noticed in the industry.
After the collapse of Bamford and Martin, Lionel went back to the family business on his mothers side – Singleton Birch. He had become a director in 1915 on the instructions of his uncle who had specified that Martin would inherit the family business on his death. He became the majority owner of this entity in 1929 and was with this company for the rest of his working life.
Martin and his wife became more involved in motor sport as competitors rather than as a manufacturer and he joined the British Racing Drivers Club and became an RAC Steward for events. He was also instrumental in the British Automobile Racing Club, competing in many races and classes.
He was married twice, his first wife died shortly after giving birth to their son, John. His death in 1945, at the age of 67, was from complications from a road accident – he was knocked off his bicycle by a car. The war had meant rationing of many products including petrol so he was back on two wheels again and this was the second time in recent years that he had been hit and badly injured.
When he died, his ownership of Singleton Birch was passed to his second wife, Katherine and when she died ten years later, she left a sizeable chunk of those shares to the Katherine Martin Charitable Trust that is not only a major shareholder in the company but a major benefactor for children’s charities in the UK through the dividends paid on the shareholding – over £40M in the last financial year.
In 1997, Lionel’s son along with Sir David Brown’s widow, Paula, unveiled a cairn on Aston Hill to commemorate the founders of what became Aston Martin. Lionel Martin was an entrepreneur and successful businessman who was instrumental in the early years of cars and motor sports and his name will always be linked to a marque that today produces luxury grand tourers and hypercars.