In a homage to the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock thriller The Birds, we take an Aston Martin DB2 drophead on a haunting coastline drive
There’s a seagull looking at me. Now, you might not think that significant, but I’m driving an Aston Martin DB2 drophead up on the Northumbrian coast and I have two concerns. One is that seagull poo and convertibles don’t mix. And the other is that, if you think back to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 him The Birds, it was an Aston Martin DB2 drophead that the heroine Tippi Hedren was driving. You’ve got to ask yourself – was it the Aston that kicked off that whole ‘angry birds’ thing? It was never made clear; maybe there was some resentment by the seagulls about a posh girl turning up in an equally posh foreign car in their small Californian fishing town?
But I can’t accuse a DB2 of being provocatively flash. The model comes from a time when Astons were handsome rather than sexy. The DB2 was and is a Bulldog Drummond of a car; strong-shouldered, square-jawed and understated – very manly, English qualities, but with enough rakishness in its lines to counter the appeal of coachbuilt Italians like the Ferrari 195 Inter, while still offering a more sober take on sports touring than Jaguar’s swooping, feminine XK.
But there’s something else about a DB2 I can’t put my finger on. I’m looking at the mist clinging to the north British coast and thinking again of Hitchcock’s enigmatic thriller – with this obscure, then ten years old, ‘European’ roadster grumbling through that out-of-the-way, clapper-board town.
Compare that with Goldfinger and its DBS, made only a few years later. Yes, I know they are different genres, but there was the DB5; centre stage, glamorous verging on flash and a little dangerous. You got the message and felt its impact immediately. On him or in real life, I don’t think you’ll get the measure of a DB2 or its driver in one glance.
I’ve been driving for an hour or so and still don’t feel like I know it, but it seems the right car for the job – the job being exploring enigmatic and maybe slightly dark places.
Also, I’ve worked out why the seagulls aren’t too interested. The Birds car was a later DB2/4 (it had an uprated 2.9-litre engine and folding rear seats). People get angry when the purity of a design is compromised. Maybe birds are the same.
Luckily the car with me today is a very early DB2 drophead coupe, a 2.5-litre but in Vantage spec; we have 20bhp over the standard I05bhp. Underneath, the chassis is still ostensibly Claude Hill’s square tube arrangement from the DBl with central X-frame bracing (though eight inches shorter), but Frank Feeley’s body design is far more purposeful and less fussy than the earlier car. Its unadorned sides are high, its windscreen low and there’s a lot of bonnet. Not that this translates into legroom when I try to slide behind the wheel – there’s no way I’ll stretch out in here. My left leg is inclined knee-out toward the wide transmission tunnel, with my ankle sharply angled over the pedal.
Once I’ve shuffled into position, I notice that the sober theme continues inside; large, centrally mounted dials and identical-looking black Bakelite switches. With a whinny and a blast, the straight-six fires into life, settling to a precise idle that corresponds exactly to the car’s no-nonsense bearing.
We’re quickly away, no stubborn old war horse truculence or heaving of steering. I’m surprised by how deftly I’m driving it, easily staying with the traffic on dual carriageways. I’d overtake it if I could see anything rearward with the top up. We’re also turning quickly when required. And we’re stopping.
All this means upgrades. I think a good way to judge these equally acclaimed and maligned entities is – do they detract from the original’s character, or am I just driving a Touchtronic DB9 in a duffle coat? ‘These days, most of our customers ask for upgrades of one sort or another to make their cars more usable,’ says Aston Workshop’s general manager Clive Dickenson, though he admits that English buyers are more conservative – especially compared to those from the Far East. Still, I’m not going to argue with a car that can stop and those large front discs make sure of that.
On the other hand I’m usually happy with period gearboxes; there’s a satisfaction about getting it right with a little less synchromesh and more double de-clutching, but there have been too many times when I have found Aston ’boxes dreadful – so many corners spoiled, one hand distractedly grappling with a bunch of recalcitrant cogs, some of which appear to be missing. Maybe I’m an Aston philistine, but this five-speed Tremec feels great with its short, positive throw and smooth, definite action. It gives the motor great flexibility; relaxed cruising, with the serious pulling power beginning around I200rpm (the tachometer is a bit noncommittal), and spinning beyond 3400rpm.
I might be left in two minds as to second or third in the tighter country lane bends out behind the coast, but neither leaves the car wanting as I begin to push on through the apexes. My mind is on the DB’s pace and the steering – the wheel close, halfway up my thighs. Expect a bit more work on bumpy corners where it might feel skittish or hop a fraction sideways. I might wish for the car’s original, bigger steering wheel – the added torque of the bigger circumference gives a more relaxed feel and grip and, as a result (paradoxically), makes the driver less prone to overcorrect. Still, the Aston is grippy in the bends, understeering slightly, but with little body roll. I find I’m driving it like a car that’s ten years younger.
The car’s character is more alive now that I’ve put the top down; the rich, rorty burr of the exhaust, but with little buffeting with the frameless windows up. The wide, virtual bench seats in the front are cosy for a couple. I feel like I can saunter on, one arm across the back or hunker down and hustle the car, snug behind the wheel. But pushing through these mist-filled hollows and crests I discover something strange – I’ve felt at ease quicker with this Aston’s Italian contemporaries. What’s that about – rear leaf springs as opposed to coils and semi-trailing arms? Radials instead of these tall crossplys? I feel a slight numbness or lack of connection. It’s probably a personal thing; the DB2 was tested by the best of the best. Phil Hill (writing for Road & Track ) said it handled Tike a dream’. Motor Sport borrowed David Brown’s DB2 drophead and acclaimed it to be a motoring great.
Maybe it’s the electric power steering, the last of the upgrades. Is it set too high? There’s a five-position rotary control around here somewhere and I keep feeling for it as I drive, now more mindful of the worm and roller system. It’s actually very positive on these B-roads. There’s a slight vagueness around the straight ahead but it firms up nicely as the radius tightens. Ah – found the control, hidden in the driver’s glovebox. Maximum setting brings something akin to a Seventies Jaguar XJ-S, but with more of a ‘handling’ car I’m not sure that’s a good idea. ‘Off’ makes me feel like I’m steering the Golden Hind on the Manchester Ship Canal – at least at low speeds. ‘Before it had that system, my heart used to sink as another roundabout came up,’says Clive. ‘Now, it’s a car I’d be happy to drive to Goodwood.’
He’s right. Set at one or two, it adds just enough assistance to take the tension out of my upper body, while letting me know how much resistance there is in the chassis and tyres. Feel free to practise fourwheel drifts… Is a DB2 drophead really that kind of car? Yes – remember, unlike later racers, it is a direct relative of the cars that took some very respectable results in early Fifties endurance events. Although the coupe did most of the winning, the drophead is also eligible for events like the Mille Miglia – this car raced in the USA in period – part of the reason why dropheads can command more than £400,000. Some might say that the Astons are just acquiring the values they deserve. Or were they some of the last bluechip classics whose values held a modicum of common sense? For the price I could have a ’Healey 100 with all the ‘M’ trimmings and a Bentley Continental (steel) for smart.
But that’s missing the point. The DB2’s appeal comes from old Aston lore, not modern spin; the values that attracted original buyers before the spy in a bow tie, before Premier League footballers got one, before any notion of a global brand inflated the badge’s worth. It was a car you could drive discreetly to the office in your suit, or take for a blast in cavalry twills and a hacking jacket at the weekend. Today, it’s a classic you could take to a wedding one weekend and a hillclimb the next. Together, you will never be one-dimensional or the default choice, maybe always something of an enigma. It may take a little longer to really know what this one is about – it’s balance of qualities – but the relationship will be deeply satisfying.
1953 Aston Martin DBl drophead coupe
Engine 2580cc, in-line six-cylinder dohc, two SU H6 carburettors
Power and torque105bhp @5000rpm;1441b ft @ 2400rpm (standard)
Transmission Four-speed manual (standard), rear-wheel drive
Steering Worm and roller
Suspension Independent trailingarms, coil springs, anti-roll bar, lever-arm dampers. Rear; live axle, parallel trailingarms, coil springs, Panhard rod ,lever-arm dampers
Brakes Drums front and rear
Performance Top speed: 117mph; 0-60mph: 10.7sec
Price new £2043
Current values £400,000-430,000
John Cray: the restorer
Restoring a barn find might not be financial suicide but demands serious thought. ‘We always take the cars back to a bare chassis,’ says Aston Workshop manager John Gray. ‘We drill into the chassis rails and send in a camera to check for corrosion. We would most likely replace the (alloy) floorpans, and the rear wheelarches usually need rebuilding.’ He also notes that the alloy body clothes a steel frame, separated by cotton insulation, so it’s more complex and expensive to sort than later designs. He adds,’Few people want standard cars, but we aim to make upgrades invisible and reversible.’
The trailing arm front suspension can be a lot of work and it has an alloy cross-member that supports the kingpins and anti-roll bar. With angled and tapered components that have to be accurately positioned and 58 roller bearings per side, getting the setup right can be a long job.
‘The engine is also unusual,’ says Bob Garside. ‘It has large triangular structures that bolt around the crankshaft to hold the shell-type main bearings in place.’ This was part of an advanced counterbalanced