Aston Martin DB-Series: How a tractor magnate saved Aston Martin
In 1964 Sean Connery’s James Bond drove the Aston Martin DB5 to enduring fame, but this model still does not rank among the most significant of the long line of DBs; at least the specially modified Silver Birch DB5 drew wider public attention to one of Britain’s most interesting marques. Aston Martin was founded in 1913 with co-founder Lionel Martin, who was a regular Hillclimb competitor, enshrined in the double-barrelled name.
From 1913 through to 1946 Aston Martin repeatedly teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Indeed, Gordon Sutherland who was the boss from 1933 until 1947 and the entrepreneurially-minded figure who sold the company to tractor magnate David Brown (one cannot help but think of Ferruccio Lamborghini!), famously observed that ‘saving Aston Martin was a recurring chore for all its owners, but making money was optional.’ And a possibly apocryphal story concerns an exchange between David Brown and Hollywood star Clark Gable who wanted to buy himself an Aston Martin. Gable reckoned his purchase would confer extra glamour on the beleaguered marque and expressed his desire to pay no more than cost price. David Brown beamed: ‘Oh, thank you very much, Mr Gable, most of our customers pay £2000 less than that!’
Having bought Aston Martin in 1946, Brown then turned his attention to Lagonda, for whom W.O. Bentley had designed an advanced new 2.6-litre double overhead camshaft straight six-cylinder engine.
Racing was high on David Brown’s agenda and his first car – which has only retrospectively acquired the DB1 (where, of course, ‘DB’ signifies David Brown) moniker – was the 2-Litre Sports, a model which was essentially pre-war in its configuration. No, the first in a trio of DBs most deserving of celebration is the DB2.
Impressively, the rakish new coupe did not make its debut at the Earls Court Motor Show or Paris Salon but at Le Mans in the 1949 24-hour race. W.O. Bentley’s wonderful new engine in more potent guise luxuriated beneath the DB2’s ultra-long bonnet. Three prototypes were on the grid but only one of this trio was equipped with the Lagonda engine. Unfortunately, Leslie Johnson retired the car after six laps when the water pump failed. The potential was evident though, with one of the comparatively underpowered 2.0-litre (the pre-war engine as seen in the 2-Litre Sports) cars finishing seventh outright. Weeks later the Lagonda-engined DB2 in the hands of Johnson and Charles Brackenbury came third in the Spa 24-Hour.
In 1953 the most famous edition of the model, equipped with a raised roofline, two occasional rear seats and known as the DB2/4, made its debut. Because the extra seats could be folded flat to create more luggage space, there are aficionados who claim Aston Martin pioneered the hatchback. This is as maybe, but results in motor racing remained higher on David Brown’s list of priorities.
Launched in 1951, the DB3 used some DB2 components but was specifically intended for the racetrack. The 1953 DB3S was lightened and fitted with a 2.9-litre engine and even so it was underpowered in the context of an outright victory at Le Mans. All but a smattering of DB3s and DB3Ss were roadsters.
Because it achieved outright victory in the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans in the hands of Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby, the DBR1 must be deemed one of the stand-out DBs.
The DBR1 first arrived on the grid there in 1956, alongside two factory DB3Ss. Significantly lighter than its predecessors and disc-braked, the DBR1 used a transaxle that initially proved troublesome. Thanks to the DBR1, Aston Martin won the five-race 1959 Sports Car World Championship ahead of Ferrari and Porsche.
Naturally, racing fed into the production cars and for 1954 the DB2 coupe also got the bigger engine from the DBRS. Next came a Mark II with minor revisions before the DB2 Mark III – ‘DB2/4’ having been relegated to history – came to market in 1957. As well as disc brakes for the front wheels and more power, the Mark III wore what was set to become the classic Aston Martin grille, designed by Frank Feeley.
The Mark III was available in three stages of tune. In standard form, it had twin SUs and made 162 brake horsepower. Twin exhausts added a further 16 and with triple Webers peak power was 195. In the latter guise, the Mark III could reach 60 miles per hour in 8.5 seconds and a V-Max of 125.
Excellent as the DB2 was, David Brown had been planning a real breakthrough. He had employed the gifted Polish engineer and racer Tadeusz (‘Tadek’) Marek to design a totally new straight six for what was to be the 1958 DB4 which debuted at Earls Court in far less sparkling company which included Rover’s staid P5 3-Litre.
The DB4 was a beauty, the model for which Aston Martin most deserves to be celebrated. Not only did it package the wonderful new 3.7 (soon to be taken to a full 4.0-litre capacity) aluminium alloy engine promising 240 brake horsepower, but there was aircraft-style Superleggera (super light) construction with a frame of fine steel tubes atop a platform chassis, overlaid with aluminium bodywork. A voluptuous Volante convertible was also available.
Numerous iterations followed. The GT featured a new style of enclosed headlights. The DB4 Vantage was offered from 1961 on the Series IV DB4. ‘Vantage’ – destined to become a trademark Aston Martin descriptor – meant an extra SU (to make three) and reworked cylinder heads. Marque purists mostly believe a triple-carb 4.0-litre DB4 is the best to drive of all the DB4, DB5 and DB6 variants which together span the 1958 to 1970 era. Of course, the DB4 GT Zagato was and remains the most prized with just 19 examples produced out of 1204 DB4s. The DB5 and DB6 Harold Radford Shooting Brakes are also rather special.
The Series IV was superseded by the V in September 1962, featuring a longer wheelbase and bigger boot, which carried forward to its DB5 successor. Most Series V cars had full Vantage spec and essentially the DB5 (with twin fuel fillers and other, mostly minor, revisions) was a last-of-the-line DB4 Vantage.
The DB5, which was set to achieve its screen glory and enrapture young boys the world over in Goldfinger, was the last with Superleggera. Production was 1059. The Kamm-tailed DB6 from late 1966 weighed no more than the DB5 and offered markedly improved high-speed stability. Sales were higher at 1788 units.
The DBS arrived in 1967, initially with the existing 4.0-litre straight six, as ‘Tadek’ Marek readied his new V8. The DBS was much wider, somewhat lower and an inch and a half shorter. According to the English magazine Motor, here was: ‘A connoisseur’s four-seater GT devoid of fundamental faults: great performance and handling, despite immense weight.’
Marek’s 5.3-litre V8 was fitted to the DBS in 1970, occasioning a renaming of the car to DBS V8. Maximum power was 325 brake horsepower, zero to 60mph came up in 5.9 seconds and the glamorous super coupe could attain 160 miles per hour – seriously rapid for the day.
David Brown sold Aston Martin in 1972 to a consortium for just one hundred pounds.
What we might call modern classic Aston Martins date from 1994 with the DB7 whose underpinnings were based on the Jaguar XJ-S. Suave and elegant, the supercharged straight six DB7 was redolent of the Sean Connery era and suitably highly priced. The six made way for a V12 in 1999. There were GT and Vantage editions.
The later DB9 (2003) and DB11 (2016) – there was no DB8 or production DB10 – are thoroughly modern sports cars cum GTs, which ensured that the proud Aston Martin brand would drive healthily into the new century.