It isn’t perfect. For a few moments, the engine struggles to catch. Starter grinds are drawn out, though the engine struggles to catch. Starter grinds are drawn out, though the mechanized whines ring determined. But what follows the wait has a high net worth.
This is a distinctive machine; a custom Aston Martin Bertone with no peer-year 1953. It fires with an abrupt cough and after a couple of sputtering grunts, settles into a low, sexy rumble you can feel all the way through to your ribs. The resonance is throaty. In the engine compartment the cams clatter with clean precision. That’s where the highly polished plaque is; the one that sets this car apart from all other Aston one-offs. It reads:
Presented to Charles A. Ward, president and general sales manager, Brown and Bigalow, with sincerest appreciation from your 60 sales managers, Christmas 1953.
Below the names of the sixty sales managers from forty-eight states are etched into the polished metal. These managers, from the Minneapolis-based greeting card and calendar firm where Ward was chief, paid $6,800 for this Christmas present. That’s $52,337.08 in today’s dollars, according to the Federal Reserve; a bargain when you consider the current entry level Ford-era Aston, the V8 Vantage, will consume more than 100,000 of today’s dollars.
And this is far more distinctive piece of machinery, Ward’s monogram is embedded in the steering wheel hub. A commission plaque is affixed to the dash. Included with the car was a personalized tool kit in a custom-crafted wooden case. The car was fitted with just three seats, with the fourth behind the driver’s seat surrendering to a custom made picnic hamper complete with a bar and glassware. Ward was a lover of picnics.
According to automobile collector Gene Ponder, Charles Ward owned the car for exactly one year. “Well that’s the sad part now,” Ponder says with some exasperation . “They gave it to him Christmas of ’53 and he sold it the next year. I mean, your employees go and give you something like this and it means no more to you than to sell it the next year?”
ART OF THE WHEEL
Ponder refers to this Aston as a work of art; a magnificent automobile. But then, he refers to moist pieces his sixty-one car collection as art forms. He searched years for this Aston after first eyeing it at a California Auction in the late 1980s, where it was snapped up by a wealthy Japanese businessman. He finally located it again in 2000 in a garage in Missouri. It was tattered. The metallic blue paint was tired and fading. The red leather interior was worn. The engine didn’t fire. Ponder says he reluctantly paid something north of $300,000 for the machine.
Not a stiff price when you consider its breeding. Stanley H. “Wacky” Arnolt, a Chicago entrepreneur who made a fortune securing the manufacturing rights to the Waukesha Sea-Mite marine engine in the late 1930s, commissioned this Aston Martin. The flathead four was used as auxiliary power for sailing yachts and , with the onset of World War II, Arnolt recognized the engine’s potential to drive the lifeboats that would accompany troop transports. Hence, he grew wealthy satisfying rich defense contracts.
Arnolt used his fortune to nurse a passion for European mechanicals and coachwork, and in 1950 he opened a dealership showcasing Bentley, Bristol, MG, Austin and Aston Martin. His automotive passions drew him to the Turin auto show in 1952, where he forged a relationship with Nuccio Bertone, heir to the struggling Italian coach builder founded in 1912 by his father Giovanni. By the time Nuccio shook hands with Arnolt Bertone had been faltering after achieving marked success through the 1930s.
Arnolt was smitten with the coachbuilder’s work and he filled his showroom with Bertone bodied chassis and mechanicals from MG, Bristol, Bentley and Aston Martin, Among the more obscure Arnolt vehicles were the Bertone Aston Martins, based on the DB2-4.
Ponder’s example was the first Arnolt Aston Martin delivered stateside. Propelling the convertible coupe was a 2.6 liter twin-cam six churning out 125 horses. Its long elegant body is finished in rich maroon with a red interior trimmed in beige piping. Ponder sunk more than $175,000 in the restorative project in an effort to approach its original luster – or, more likely, exceed it.
“It’s not something you’d want to, with the restoration I’ve put into it, take out and drive 1,000 miles in the countryside, rocks kicking up on it,” says Ponder. “It’d break your heart.”
Ponder says he has no idea what the original color was. He has been unable to locate color photographs of the original car and there was no color designation on the build sheets.
“But definitely, it probably wasn’t red,” says Kevin Kay of Kevin Kay Restorations, an eight-man classic car refurbishing operation in Redding, California, that caters to British and European cars with a particular focus on Aston Martins. Kay says his personal fascination with the car is its pedigree. “To me it’s that whole history of those guys having commissioned the car and giving it to Ward as a present.” He says. “That’s what identifies that car, that plaque and that story and the whole nine yards.” Kay says this Aston Bertone was featured in the November 25, 1953 issue of the English magazine The Motor. In 1954 it appeared in the Earls Court Motor Show. It showed up at Concourse in 1987. But the Bertone Aston’s history is otherwise a blur.
Kay says Bertone affixed its elegant coachwork to the chassis with crude welds, instead of bolting it to the underpinnings as was the custom at the Aston Martin factory. “This thing, they just too the Aston chassis and literally just welded stuff all over it,” he says. “Italian coach building was not equal to English coach building by any stretch.”
Yet Kay says welding the Bertone body to the chassis actually made the car more rigid than its English counterpart, potentially making it more agile navigating through the weaves and winds in the roads of East Texas, where Ponder keeps his collection.
But it won’t be doing that any time soon. Like his Arnolt Bristols and Arnolt Bentley, Ponder is purring this Aston Martin Bertone under the auction gavel. And with it will go a distinctive of European automotive history entwined with a chunk of Ponder’s legacy.
“I just like the flair and the style that the Europeans had,” Ponder says. “And my cars, every one I do, I’ve got to do better than the last one. That in itself drives you crazy.”