Sunday 2 April 2017

Why I don't own Aston Martin

My grandfather, Bill Renwick was a  brilliant engineer. In the 1920s he sold the family estate in Scotland, and with his business partner ‘Bert’ Bertelli, bought Aston Martin. He designed a revolutionary engine (with a wedge-shaped combustion chamber, which gave it some advantage I don’t understand) but was swindled out of his money by the perfidious Bertelli, and had to leave the country in ignominy (he rode the railroads of America as a travelling bum for many years.)

1937 Aston Martin featuring a Bill Renwick engine
Or so I was told.

In fact, it was not true. Most of it was; but he was not swindled by Bertelli at all. That bit was family legend. We discovered the truth of it when my nephew Joe wrote to Aston Martin to ask why Bill Renwick didn’t feature in a book about the history of the marque. That prompted an enthusiastic answer from the Aston Martin archivist, Alan Archer, to say that they knew little of the Bill Renwick story, and would like to meet Joe and learn what he could tell them.

Joe, of course, knew little too; but my mother (Joe’s grandmother and Bill Renwick’s daughter) did know some bits of the jigsaw. So Joe and my mother were invited to Aston Martin at Newport Pagnall to meet Alan Archer the archivist; and as neither of them had a car, I drove them there and crashed the party.

We were treated like royalty: given a tour of the factory, and taken to lunch. The head of the plant sent his apologies; he was in a meeting elsewhere or he’d have loved to meet us…  And my mother and Mr Archer swapped what information they had about Bill Renwick. He was fascinated by the story of Bertelli’s swindling my grandfather, and thought it most unlikely.

Crucially, my mother was able to tell him the name of my grandfather’s estate in Scotland (Langgarth, near Stirling). So after the meeting, Mr Archer did some investigation and was able to establish when it was sold and for how much. He then went though the Aston Martin books, and was able to demonstrate that all the money had been invested in developing racing cars.

The prosaic truth was that my grandfather had never been swindled; it was simply that he was a great engineer and a poor businessman, and had sunk the family fortune in racing fast cars.

Where the legend of the Bertelli swindle came from, I do not know. However, he was divorced from my grandmother (in an age when such a thing was scandalous) so it may have been a face-saving story of some sort...

The only other story about him is that he liked, when stopped by a policeman on point duty in London, to grind his gears in such a way that they played God save the king. I do not know if that story is true, either.

But I love such stories - and found it fascinating to watch the truth that I had grown up with as a child disintegrate when the facts were put together.

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