The car Macca used to record Hey Jude returns to its Liverpool roots
Reflections of a tunnel’s overhead lighting stream towards me along the high points of the Aston’s bonnet bulge and wingtops, there’s a distant sound of the twincam straight six’s droning rasp bouncing off the concrete walls, and inside, a Sixties Philips cassette deck is doing its best to fill the cabin with the languid melody of Hey Jude.
Speeding towards Liverpool in the Aston Martin DB6 that Paul McCartney bought new in 1966, I wonder what it must have felt like for a young man of 23 who had – in his words – a lower middle class upbringing, to be touring the world, besieged by screaming fans, living life to the full at the heart of affluent London, and owning a car like this. At a time when any lower middle class family would have been delighted to scrape together £670 for a new Ford Cortina, nearly £5000 for the Aston was a fortune. Unless you happened to sing, play bass and write the songs that made the Beatles the most successful band of all time. And by 1966 the Beatles had had plenty of time to get used to their superstar status – John Lennon was infamously quoted as saying in a 1966 interview, ‘We’re more popular than Jesus now’ – so expensive cars could easily have been merely accessories for a rockstar lifestyle.
But this car meant more than that to McCartney; he kept it for six years and drove it everywhere, including on a holiday to France. In the book Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now, by friend and business partner Barry Miles, he recalls watching his car being unloaded from the cargo plane in France, ‘It was great to see your car come out, and also I was pretty proud of that car. It was a great motor for a young guy to have. Pretty impressive.’
The importance of this car in Beatles folklore runs even deeper than that. During 1968 McCartney went to visit John Lennon’s wife, Cynthia, and son Julian when the marriage was breaking up. Driving out from London to their Weybridge home he started to sing the words ‘Hey Jules’ to himself, making up a song to cheer up the five-year-old boy. With a change of lyric to Hey Jude, the song would become the most successful Beatles single, selling five million copies in the first six months, and seven million by the time McCartney sold the Aston in 1972. The story goes that he first captured the song on the Philips cassette deck hung beneath the dashboard on the passenger side of the car. Unlike more modern machines, this one has a record button and a DIN socket for a microphone, and the ambience inside the DB6 is calm enough to make it possible. He wouldn’t have been able to hear himself think, let alone sing, in the Mini Cooper with which the DB6 shared garage space. The tape that’s playing Hey Jude to me now through the original push-button Radiomobile radio was put into the car as a finishing touch to a meticulous 12-month restoration in the Aston Martin Works Service workshops.
As my palms guide the slim wooden rim of the steering wheel towards Liverpool, making small intuitive corrections as the front wheels react to ruts in the road surface, the tape helps me get a little closer to the car’s former life, saving me from having to sing ‘naa naa naa, na-na-naa naa’ out loud. I’m happy to drive the man’s car, but best leave the singing to him.
In fifth gear the engine is pulling just 35oorpm as it propels the car west-bound at an easy 9omph. The rich, rounded drone from the exhaust is more urgent and the wind eddys softly around the screen surround and quarterlights, but you could talk without raised voices.
It’s a relaxing place to be, a sanctuary from the intense touring and recording schedules that had seen the band release six albums between 1963 and 1965. The interior colour scheme, from the headlining down to the carpets, is black on black. Only the glittering array of chromebezelled gauges and switches packed into the metallic black-painted instrument panel relieves the sombre atmosphere.
For all of its hefty price tag and exclusivity, the Aston was a discreet choice for a young rockstar able to enjoy his fame and wealth to the full. Even though the DB6 was new for 1965 it was an evolution of a Fifties design, looking dated with its rounded curves and live rear axle alongside cars like Lamborghini’s mid-engined Miura.
Though the DB4 had been thoroughly modern at its1958 launch, most of the improvements that created the DB5 and then DB6 were aimed at making the car more refined and practical. The DB5 brought a quieter four-silencer exhaust system, Sundym glass, electric windows and Girling disc brakes. Armstrong Selectaride rear dampers were an option and a five-speed ZF gearbox replaced the David Brown four-speeder mid-production. All of this contributed to a 25olb weight gain.
The DB6 was heavier again – this time just l7lb – but more importantly the wheelbase was lengthened by 3.75 inches and the roofline extended and then swept downwards to a kicked up Kamm tail. As well as improving rear passenger room, these changes improved high-speed stability by reducing aerodynamic lift by 6olb and moving the aerodynamic centre of pressure backwards.
Tadek Marek’s twin-cam straight six had grown from 3670CC to 3995CC for the DB5 and the 325bhp Vantage option, with its triple Weber carburettors, was standardised for the heavier DB6. However, this car was ordered with the non-Vantage triple SU setup which would have suited McCartney’s London lifestyle, flitting from his new home in St John’s Wood and around the avant-garde world of jazz musicians, artists and other cultural experiences that would increasingly influence his song-writing. It was a no-cost option that gave better flexibility than the Webers in urban conditions, at a cost of 4obhp.
McCartney attributed both the choice of car (and the electric curtains in his house) to the influence of James Bond movies. Flip down the speaker grille in the centre console and you’ll find a modern CD player hidden behind, pre-loaded with a compilation of Bond theme tunes. I smile at the connection, but can’t bring myself to use it – this is a DB6 in Goodwood Green, not a Silver Birch DB5. Nothing could be more evocative than listening to that old Philips cassette player as the route suddenly plunges into Liverpool and through a one-way system determined to keep cars away from the pedestrianised area now called the Cavern Quarter, which is packed with Beatles landmarks.
The Cavern Club you’ll find there today is a clone, circa 1984, because the original warehouse building was pulled down in the Seventies, but nearby Rushworths Music House and the shop that was Hessy’s Music Store where they bought instruments both survive. The building that was Beatles manager Brian Epstein’s NEMS record store is still there as well, albeit as an Anne Summers shop. It’s all a smart, modern shopping area now, smattered with Beatles tributes and statues to give the tourists something to photograph.
Nosing the Aston through the city streets I’m conscious of the weight of the car – in spite of the large wheel it’s an effort to aim through the tighter turns and the tall 6.7in-wide Dunlops begin to scrub if you push your luck. It lightens as the flow picks up and the turns get wider, allowing me to thread my way through traffic accurately and with more confidence, using fingertip pressure to guide the slim chrome gearlever through the gate with a positive click-clack two-step movement.
McCartney must have found the standard triple Webers complete with 325bhp extremely tempting when this car was new but I’m certain that they would be fluffing and popping by now, making unnecessarily hard work of the journey. Here in real world driving conditions the SUs prove the point, allowing the engine to pull smoothly from as little as I500rpm in third or fourth – it doesn’t seem to matter – delivering a willing squirt of acceleration to place the car into that transitory gap in the traffic flow or escape another autograph hunter who’s spotted you at the lights.
With my anonymous mug behind the wheel I’m aware of how little attention the car seems to be attracting. The one-way system spills out onto the Albert Dock, with its trendy warehouse apartments, newly cobbled walkways and smart shops transforming the banks of the Mersey. Liverpool has come a long way from the gritty, depressed city that produced the Beatles, but a DB6 would still turn heads in Kensington, and this one belonged to Liverpool’s most famous son.
Still, it’s been a long time since a picture of this car was last in the papers, and music fans would have paid more attention to McCartney’s hippy-dude droopy moustache and Sixties-chic outfit than the LLO 840D registration.
Certainly it was well known enough to appear at the heart of a bizarre conspiracy theory started by a caller to a Detroit radio station in 1969. He claimed that in November 1966 McCartney had left the Abbey Road recording studios in the Aston after an argument with the Beatles and had crashed fatally on his way home, and cited countless pieces of ‘evidence’ revealed on album covers and in the music to support his theory. He reckoned that Paul McCartney had been replaced by doppelganger William Campbell, discovered in a look-a-like contest. There’s a similar theory that Sean Connery died in a DB5 while filming a Bond movie. And you thought that the debates over the provenance of some historic cars were scary.
Leaving the Mersey behind I head uphill into the rabbit warren of narrow streets to the south of the city centre in search of the backstreet clubs where the Beatles played some of their earliest gigs. Squeezing the Aston down bustling Slater Street I find The Jacaranda – which was owned by their first manager, Allan Williams – and a mob of admirers for the car. Perched on the pavement outside the club today, the DB6 draws praise from everyone who passes. They’re wowed by its glassyperfect paintwork and sparkling chrome, and once they’ve done a quick walkaround to check out the badges, excited that it’s an Aston. ‘Great car mate,’ they say. ‘Used to be Paul McCartney’s,’ I reply. ‘Really? Sound.’
There’s something about this car and its former owner that draws respect rather than bitter jealousy. It looks expensively desirable, but does without the exaggerated proportions of contemporary sports cars. Its rounded snout with that distinctive grille is proud without being arrogant, the bonnet is no longer than it needs to be to house the engine and the roofline that sweeps down to the upturned tail is functional, not extravagant.
Although the DB6 lost some of the purity of the original DB4, it wears its extra length and rear passenger accommodation well. It’s around those rear side windows that the redesign starts to look unresolved, the truncated shape of the glass exaggerating the tail-heavy shape. The DB6 was supposed to be a stopgap model, but delays with its William Towns-designed replacement meant that nearly 1700 were built before the DBS V8 finally replaced it, making it the most successful Aston Martin until the DB7 came along in the Nineties.
The DB6 was such a part of McCartney’s life that he still owned it when the Beatles split in 1970 – finally selling it to estate agent Nicholas Defries in 1972. The car has since been extensively restored by Aston Martin Lagonda in the Works Service workshops.
Back in 1968 McCartney had the car repainted before driving it for another four years. Most people in his position would surely have traded it in for a new one. Maybe he felt a sense of loyalty to the car that had been the vehicle for his most successful song. Or perhaps he enjoyed the reassuring calm of the cabin and the measured tone of the engine when everything else in his life was changing so fast.
1966 Aston Martin DB6
Engine 3995cc, in-line six-cylinder, DOHC, three SU HD8 carbs
Power and torque 282bhp @ 5500rpm; 2801b ft @ 4500rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual, rearwheel drive
Brakes Discs front and rear
Suspension Front: independent, wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: live axle, trailing arms, coils springs, Watt linkage, Armstrong Selectaride lever-arm dampers
Performance 0-60mph: 8.2sec (est). Top speed: 148mph (est)
Weight 32501b (1476kg)
Cost new £4998
Value now N/A