A drive in 62 EMU, one of the famous racing Astons of all time, reveals that myths are based on fact.
It’s like being handed Van Gogh’s Starry Night. I mean the real thing – brittle canvas, lumpy paint, faded frame, the whole deal – and asked to carry it around for a day. Nightmare. You’d spend all day worrying in case you spilt jam on it or snagged it on something sharp – it’d be a liability. And wouldn’t you breathe a sigh of relief when you handed it back, still in one piece?
And the next day it would probably hit you, that you’d been holding it in your hands, a thing so fabulous and famous and admired for generations, something so significant and historical. And you’d probably want to hold it again, I’d imagine.
Driving 62 EMU is like that. This is no ordinary car. Sit behind the wheel of this, one of the most famous and most important Aston Martins in the world, and suddenly all those black and white pictures, all the mythology of great races won and lost, all those pages of history, are vivid and alive. Like a great painting, it goes beyond mere brush strokes on canvas – barrel along between the hedges in third gear, the side exhausts hammering right beneath you, and it’s easy to imagine Peter Collins, Roy Salvadori, Stirling Moss or Tony Brooks sitting right here in this very cockpit. This beautifully original cockpit. It’s a little bit battered perhaps, clothloomed wiring and black switches everywhere, but virtually unchanged since it was raced nearly 50 years ago. All that history rides with you when you drive 62 EMU, and you sense the responsibility you’re shouldering – smash a car of this significance, and you become an embarrassing footnote in history.
What’s clear is that 62 EMU is much more than the sum of its parts. Viewed mechanically, the Aston Martin DB3S is impressive, but hardly magical, based as it was on the largely unsuccessful DB3 – David Brown’s new racing Aston for 1951, designed by former Auto Union and ERA designer, Professor Robert Eberan Von Eberhorst.
Despite a fantastic name and excellent credentials, the DB3 was slab-sided, overweight, and underpowered. So at the end of 1952, Aston’s other engineer and designer, Willie Watson, bypassed Von Eberhorst and proposed a new, smaller, lighter version of the DB3 directly to David Brown and team manager John Wyer. When he got the green light for the 1953 season, Watson’s car became known as the DB3S.
So there’s nothing mythical about 62 EMU’s bare specification, its big ladder-frame chassis or its 3.0-litre straight six, derived from a Lagonda engine that WO Bentley designed during the war; nor its rugged David Brown four-speed gearbox and axle, Borrani wires and Dunlop racing tyres. It weighed I70lb less than the DB3, and it clearly belonged in a different world to the average road-going saloon car, but it was hardly rocket science.
The bodywork, penned by Frank Feeley, is harder to measure in purely mechanical terms – it’s beaten from aluminium, and immediately looks more lithe, more athletic than its predecessor, but there’s also somethmg indescribably perfect about its curves and proportions.
Even though there were many iterations over the next few years, the DB3S is surely one of the most beautiful shapes seen in sports car racing – the wide front arches that flare back like the wake of a Riva speedboat, the muscular shoulders hunched high at the rear, and the way the tiny screen tapers down to the back of the door.
Immerse yourself in its history and 62 EMU comes to life. Chassis DB3S/6 was one of two new cars constructed for the works team for the 1954 season, fitted with the 3.0-litre, twin cam straight six, featuring three Weber 45 DCO carburettors and a new twin-spark cylinder head.
It was originally built, along with chassis 7, as a hardtopped coupe. Both cars appeared for the first time at the British Racing Drivers’ Club race at Silverstone in May, where Salvadori drove DB3S/6 to seventh overall and first in class; it then made its first of three appearances at Le Mans in June, driven by Collins and Bira. Here, the coupe’s shape proved to be flawed, and Bira crashed at 4.15am because of aerodynamic instability, the first of three major crashes in the car’s life.
The car emerged again in 1955 with an open body, fitted with new Girling disc brakes, and now registered with its famous registration number. That year, 62 EMU won at Silverstone, came second at Aintree, second at the tragic Le Mans behind Hawthorn in a Jaguar (and first in the 3.0-litre class) driven by Collins and Frere, and finished third at the Goodwood Nine Hours in the hands of Collins and Brooks. In 1956 it was driven by Moss, Collins and Salvadori on circuits from Sebring to Oulton Park; that year also saw it converted to the new 1956 specification body, as you see it here.
It was then sold by the works to the Whitehead brothers, Peter and Graham, who took it to, among others, the Niirburgring loookm (where they came sixth), and to Le Mans for its third and final time, in 1958. That year was one of the wettest 24-hours on record – Whitehead described driving the full length of the Mulsanne Straight in third gear because visibility was so poor. Nevertheless, the privateers came second, in their four-year-old ex-works car. Hard to imagine now.
In the end, the car was sold to another privateer, and then it passed through the hands of two collectors before arriving with Hugh Taylor. It has been reported – and subsequently disputed – that DB3S/6 had its chassis written-off three times during its hugely successful competition life – the first at Le Mans 1954, the second at Silverstone in 1956 and the third at a test session there later that year. Chris Nixon – author of Racing With The David Brown Aston Martins and The Aston Martin DB3S – however, has stated that John Wyer’s race reports, which are still in the owners’ club archives, show that it began life in 1954 as a saloon, crashed heavily at Le Mans that year and was scrapped. Aston then built two new open cars the following year, one of which was given the original DB3S’s chassis number in order to avoid having to pay 40 per cent purchase tax. Wyer’s reports stated that 62 EMU again received a new chassis after a crash at Silverstone in1956.
When we arrive at Hugh’s house, 62 EMU is sticking out of the garage, its green and yellow nose in sunlight. It looks stunning in real life, slightly smaller than you might imagine, and in a wonderful, well-used condition – the original and beautifully mellowed interior beckons in a way that a pure museum piece probably could not.
Painted in what looks like Olive Drab and broken up by flashes of worn leather, the cockpit has a businesslike, almost military feel to it. The start procedure, too, feels like you’re firing up some old war plane – flick the fuel pump switch, push the big starter button, and as it turns over, pull out two togs to engage the twin coils. It fires with thunder, buzzing the ear drums with a crisp, sharp-edged bark. Blip the throttle, and the straight six punches the air with ear-splitting revs, revealing a sensitive pedal and very little flywheel effect. Its racing credentials are firmly in place even before I set off.
But setting off is not so easy. Not because of the clutch, which needs concentration but at least it’s light underfoot; nor because of the heavy steering. No, the problem is that the car is facing the wrong way, and 62 EMU appears to have absolutely no steering lock whatsoever. It takes what feels like an eight-point turn to get it out of the garage, and on each manoeuvre the steering seems only to veer the nose slightly off course, rather than actually turning it round.
All awkwardness is soon shrugged off once I pick up speed. The engine dominates at first – it feels irresistibly strong, blaring out a massive growl. Sitting right on top of that twin exhaust, it’s deafening – roaring in my ears to make everything else seem mute by comparison. It’s also startlingly quick. The twin overhead cam 3.0-litre may have been designed as a 2.6-litre Lagonda many years earlier, but David Brown’s racing programme had kept it competitive in the DB3S, and even now, almost half a century old, this car can sling me from one end of a straight to another, and overtake modern traffic with ease.
But enjoying the engine is just scratching the surface of the DB3S. Willie Watson’s substantial modifications to the DB3 transformed a somewhat leaden performer into a remarkably balanced chassis, perfectly matched to the power available.
I can immediately feel how fluid the chassis is when it’s got a bit of speed behind it – it dances through direction changes and slinks off its weight through the bends. Powering out of a grassy apex with the hair-trigger throttle, I can feel the rear end adjusting the angle – not tail sliding (you’ve got to be kidding), just shifting its centre of gravity and unwinding the lock, feeding itself out of the corner and onto the next straight for full bore secondthird-fourth-gear blast.
It is scary driving something as irreplaceable as 62 EMU, but a few hours behind the wheel and the impression is of a well-mannered, wellbred, friendly kind of car. Surrounded by all that history, it’s important to resist the temptation to give it back as soon as possible, just so I can hand it back in one piece; opportunities like this are too rare for that.
Which is why, 50 years on, it attracts collectors, not just by its roll-call of considerable honours, but because you can get out and really drive the damn thing too – really drive it; it makes me feel like I could come second at Le Mans, even now. Legends are made out of thin air, you know.
1954 Aston Martin DB3S/6
Engine 3.0-litre straight six; dohc, three Weber 45 DCO carburettors
Power 225bhp @ 6000rpm
Transmission David Brown four-speed manual, rear-wheel-drive
Brakes Discs all round
Suspension Front: semi-trailingarms. Rear: de Dion axle
Weight 19621b (890kg)
Performance Top speed: 145mph. 0-60mph: 6sec
Cost new Works car, not for sale