Prototypes usually face a grisly fate once they’ve served their propose for testing or publicity. Most have disappeared in a shower of angle grinder sparks or the blaze of a cutting torch because the manufacturer needed the spare parts, or just didn’t want the public to be reminded of an embarrassing development blind alley. Project DP114 is one of the few to have made a lucky escape. The reason? Because Aston Martin boss David Brown thought it would make fine transport for his wife. Even the factory build sheet survives, which lists the model type as DB4, with the words ‘prototype abandoned’ handwritten next to it. Maybe that should read ‘prototype spared’.
Launched in October 1958, the Aston Martin DB4 remains an icon in the world of truly exotic grand tourers. Forget Maserati and Ferrari – here at last was a drop-dead gorgeous British machine that could live with the best of them in every performance parameter. The seeds of its birth, however, date back as far as 1952, when the original DB2 was nearing the end of production. Four years later the first running prototype, Development Project (DP) 114, was up and running.
There would, of course, be subsequent prototypes, with later ones bearing a much closer visual resemblance to the car that we all know. But it was specifically Project 114 that marked the all-important transition from old-school style and development to a new younger and more thrusting design approach for Aston Martin. It would be a giant step from the by-then ageing DB Mklll – the ultimate evolution of the DB2 – to that stunning all-new DB4.
Construction of the first DB4 prototype chassis, using a new, Harold Beach-designed perimeter frame, was underway by summer 1954. Polish designer Tadek Marek began design work on its new 3670CC, aluminium straight-six, twin-cam engine in August 1955, while attention was being paid to the aluminium body structure intended for production. This was designed in-house by Frank Feeley, almost certainly with some input from hands-on chairman David Brown.
Legendary Aston Martin team and then general manager John Wyer later recorded, ‘It is axiomatic that the design of a successful car should be one third engine, one third body and one third chassis. Undue emphasis on any one of these departments leads to an unbalanced entity. In the interests of performance, and therefore weight, the body panels must be aluminium.’
By early 1956, however, Aston Martin Lagonda management was having second thoughts about the styling and began studies in conjunction with Italian design salons Touring of Milan and Pininfarina, to produce an alternative, with the former ultimately getting the contract.
Wyer went on, £To provide the necessary rigidity the aluminium panels must be mounted on a steel framework. The acknowledged expert in this form of strong and very light construction was Superleggera Touring. Apart from the body construction, which was entirely its design and is now built under licence, and the styling, which was a combined operation, my discussions with Touring convinced me at a very early date that the only sound basis for a car of this type was a platform chassis frame.’
So, despite 10,000 miles of testing, it was this thinking that eventually sounded the death knell for Aston’s perimeter chassis and DP114. DP114/1 had progressed no further than a running chassis with a makeshift steel body, presumably designed to replicate the proposed weight of the production model. This car is DP114/2. Although its chassis and coachwork would never make it into production, it was the first completed prototype, up and running by 1956.
It’s chassis used the rear end of a DB 2/4 Mkll/DB Mklll but with a new Watt linkage-located de Dion axle providing a 15 per cent reduction in unsprung weight over the old car’s live axle set-up. It was pure DB4 at the front with rack-and-pinion steering, but it still had drum brakes. During 1957 DP114 would be fitted with disc brakes all round, which were standard on all but the first 100 DB Mkllls.
The engine was originally named DBA Engine Development project unit (subsequently known internally as the DB4 engine), coded DP164. This was a development of the DB MklU’s LB6 twin-overhead camshaft straight six, which was designed by Willie Watson for Lagonda during World War Two and first saw service in the DB2 in 2.6-litre form.
As for the all-aluminium body, it would remain a one-off, as did most of the car, including the engine specification – although its output gradually increased over the ensuing years. Only the rack-and-pinion steering and front suspension were carried over to the production DB4, while the de Dion axle did not appear on a road-going Aston Martin until the DBS of 1967.
Those who test-drove the car found it to be satisfactory, with better roadholding than the DB Mklll, although its straight line performance came in for criticism, no doubt thanks to approximately 3oolb of extra weight compared to the Mkll/III.
With the now-familiar Touring design being fitted to subsequent DB4 prototypes and DP114 having fulfilled its arduous testing duties, David Brown acquired it from the company on August 23, 1957 for his wife’s personal use. By now it was commonly referred to as the ‘Walls Ice Cream Van’, thanks to its unusual colour scheme of white with a blue roof, which was identical to that of the ‘Stop me and buy one’ tricycles used by Walls in the Fifties and Sixties. Sold to its first private owner in 1962, it remained in the same livery for years until repainted yellow with blue stripes in the Eighties by then-owner Jim Murray.
Having obtained FIA papers for the car as a prototype GT, he used it in historic rallies, including a class win on the1989 Pirelli Marathon. After this DP114 again changed hands and was returned to Aston Martin Works Service, where it was stripped back to its bare chassis and subjected to a five-year rebuild using original drawings retrieved from the engineering department. It appeared at the Louis Vuitton Concours d’Elegance and Silverstone before being bought by haulier David Bailey in 1997.
The roads nearby provide a perfect backdrop in which to sample 4 MMC. It’s a striking car to look at, although you would hardly describe it as beautiful. The rear three-quarter view is its best, even pretty. The front end, with its gaping mouth, is less fetching but does its best to blend in with the rest of the design.
Slip inside and the generous glass area and unobtrusive rear window pillars provide good rear three-quarter vision. There are lots of delightful details, such as the neat chrome catches that allow me to swivel the quarter lights through 180 degrees to direct air at the driver or passenger. Ahead there’s a leather-covered wheel, with elegant stalks for lights and indicators each side – the one to the right houses a push-button for the horn in its tip. With its high-geared window winders and the twin blue-tinted sun visors, the cabin oozes style.
The dashboard is painted metallic grey, complementing the black hide interior trim and grey cloth for the headlining and glovebox interior.
There’s a 160mph speedometer and a 700orpm tachometer red-lined at 600orpm, and to their left a quartet of small gauges for oil pressure, fuel, amps and water temperature. It’s all very simple and neat with touches like the fly-off handbrake to my left and a chrome lever next to the rear seat armrest, which operates an external flap to reveal a chrome Monza fuel filler cap.
The driving position is quite upright and the wheel positioned low and close to my legs, but it’s comfortable with ample headroom. In the back there is only sufficient headroom for the vertically challenged, though, usefully, the seat back unbolts at each end and drops flat to allow long objects to be carried in the boot. The tall gearlever for the David Brown gearbox moves smoothly and solidly and steering is light and direct, though it could do with more feel. But the ride on the 6.70×15 Avon Turbospeeds is smooth and quiet.
The de Dion rear end slides easily on some wet, undulating roads on our test route but gives plenty of warning before breaking away gracefully enough for me to counter it with a twist of the responsive steering. And while there is body roll, the Aston holds the road with tenacity, belying its vintage and 29001b weight. The 3.0-litre six, producing around 200bhp via triple Weber 45 DCOE carburettors, has torquey and spirited performance. It will hit 6omph from rest in around nine seconds and feels like it has more to give at an indicated uomph. Braking from such speed requires a serious push on the pedal but servo-assisted discs front and rear slow the car with reassuring force. Generally restrained and happy to waft along at modest speed, 4 MMC is always willing to get up and go when the occasion demands.
The DB4 that finally emerged was beautiful and capable of momph in standard guise. It couldn’t have come at a better time for Aston Martin. In 1959 the company was enjoying a lot of success in sports car racing and the DB4’s first full year of production coincided with the DBR1 winning both Le Mans and the World Sportscar Championship. But it was crying out for a new road-going model to top up the company coffers and breathe new life into its image. That image needed to be complemented by a truly modern machine that would help see the company into – and through – the next decade.
The swinging Sixties saw the DB4 evolve into the DB5 – essentially a DB4 Series V with a 4.0 rather than a 3.7-litre engine and subtle cosmetic changes – and millions world-wide saw it as the car of choice for one Commander James Bond. Indeed, millions wanted one.