Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato

We take to the track in the most famous career racer, 2 VEV. Racing since Le Mans 1961, and the ultimate DB4 GT Zagato, 2 VEV is everyone’s favourite Aston. We drive it on track

Aston Martin DB4 GT ZagatoApproaching the legendary 2 VEV – most purposeful, longest and lowest of the DB4 GT Zagatos – the first thing that strikes me is the quality of the restoration. The car really is superb – paint, trim, instruments; everything.

Climbing in, I have to watch my head as I have to duck, but once in, there’s enough room for a big six footer. The hip-hugging seats feel comfortable and adjust easily, and drilled pedals sprout from the floor, reminding me that this is a racer foremost; they’re perfectly placed for heel-and-toeing, too. With the engine cold, I have to pump the accelerator a couple of times to prime the three big twin-choke Weber carburettors, but if it’s hot I just turn the key and touch the throttle – the car fires instantly, settling to a lumpy, noisy idle. Here’s the first surprise – the quality of the restoration distracts me from the fact that this is really a pared-down racing machine. It could go straight back on the track and win, so it’s not surprising that noise is paramount.

Slow-speed manoeuvring is not its forte, but given a few revs and judicious use of the heavy clutch, it’s quite tractable, only the big Webers spitting in fury at being asked to go slowly. The four-speed gearbox changes well but can baulk badly at parking speeds – Autocar found the same in 1962. Get it rolling, and the car grumbles and growls noisily out into traffic. Come to a stretch of open road, however, press the throttle and you get the most enormous kick in the back – with a bellow, the car leaps forward, snarling and roaring up through the revs, making the most wonderful noises. And that’s only using half throttle! The car is still running-in after its rebuild, but the work is superb and its performance so few miles after completion a great credit to the skill of the restoration team under Kingsley Riding-Felce at Aston Martin.

Even in the dry, accelerating out of a corner or roundabout requires restraint. The power comes in so instantly and effectively, whatever the revs, that the car just leaps forward like a scalded cat.

The ride is firm and can be jarring, but there is more compliance than you might expect with a race car and the chassis certainly feels taut, taking bends most impressively. Cornering levels on big Dunlop racing tyres are very good indeed in the dry, camber and direction changes doing little to unsettle a car that shows almost no inclination to roll. The power can always be relied upon to kick the tail out if I want to, but the short wheelbase – and the car’s racing history – reveal that it can catch out even skilled drivers with a sudden rear-end breakaway if I overstep the mark – so out of respect I avoid pushing my luck too far.

Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato EngineBraking is disconcerting at first, the pedal needing an almighty shove to get any serious retardation. Given that shove, they do work well, but I have an uncomfortable feeling that the car could get up to loomph in less time than it would take to stop from that speed, certainly without putting extreme strain on the seat back.

The dashboard is comprehensive, everything works perfectly and you get plenty of information – water and oil temperatures, oil pressure, amps. There seem to be no teething troubles with this restoration. I will remember the stunning acceleration for a long, long time to come – sheer grunt right through the range.

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When Aston Martin launched the DB4 in August 1958 it had produced a Grand Tourer par excellence, but there was no doubt that the capacious body was going to be too heavy to be competitive in GT racing. Less than a year later a short-wheelbase two-seat coupe with faired-in headlights hit the tracks – the DB4 GT. It saved almost 200lb on the standard body, but was still heavier than rivals from Ferrari

The ultimate answer came at the Earls Court Show in i960. The Zagato stand featured bodied coupes on Alfa Romeo, Bristol and Aston Martin DB4GT.

Just 19 DB4 GT Zagatos were to be built (until the RS Williamsbuilt Sanction II and III runs of four and two recreations respectively in the Nineties) and they hit the racing scene in 1961, but again, Aston was just a whisker behind the opposition. The new, light and smooth Zagatos were just not quite fast enough to notch up more than the occasional win. But they were awesome, civilised machines.

At its launch, the DB4 GT Zagato cost £3600; with the necessary addition of purchase tax, it was £5101. Aston records reveal that that included a 50 per cent profit margin on the 1,600,000 lire that Zagato charged for the body. By the time Autocar got hold of a Zagato for road test in April 1962, the price had gone up to a considerable £3750/£5469 – and that was competing against the Jaguar E-type fhc at £1550/£2132. For the money, you got a maximum speed of I53.5mph and o-6omph in six seconds.

The comprehensive accident which befell 2 VEV in 1993 necessitated a total strip and reconstruction. Throughout the job, the priority was always to retain the integrity with which it was built, to use as many original parts as possible and to use the original methods, such as gas welding throughout.

That said, it is undoubtedly in finer condition now than it ever was; throughout its early years, what was always paramount was to get the car bolted together and out on to the race track as quickly as possible.

Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato InteriorMuch more than just accident repair was needed, because the car was beginning to show the strains of 30 years of racing. Every component was taken down and checked; Aston Martin’s restoration shop operates a locker for each car, in which each component removed on stripdown is cleaned and stored. Kingsley Riding-Felce recalls that the most testing part of the restoration was the recreation of the front end. The bonnet and its frame were saved, but the nose and scoops had been crushed beyond redemption.

Reference was made to all the photographs that could be found, and to anyone who remembered the car from the past. As the nose was built up, regular clinics were held with top Aston personnel, the owners and others from the car’s past, all with the intention of getting it as near as possible to the unique shape that was 2 VEV.

Wherever possible, the very thin original Zagato panels, still bearing the evidence of Italian panelbeaters, hammers, were reused, but the body also required fabrication of some panels that had sustained little damage in the accident, including the offside rear wing, lower valance and rear light clusters; offside door frame bottom and skin; and rear inner wheelarches.

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The rear chassis and all components were stripped, repaired as necessary and repainted. The dashboard and instruments were reconditioned, the seats dismantled and retrimmed and all trim re-covered; Aston even sourced special lightweight black carpet to the original pattern. All Perspex windows were remade.

The engine received extensive attention. New liners and 3.8 pistons were fitted, and because the crankshaft was found to be cracked at a main bearing journal, a new crank was needed. The competition cylinder head was fully reconditioned with unleaded specification valve seat inserts and the combustion chambers matched. The front timing case required repair because it was damaged in the accident.

Kingsley recalls that there was great enthusiasm from his team working on the car, and a sense of awe and privilege to be working on such a famous Aston Martin; they genuinely did not want to let it go when it was finally finished. That level of dedication really shows.

A longtrack record:it’s been allgo since Le Mans,’61

VEV, chassis o183/R, hit the road on May 19, 1961, registered to John Ogier’s Essex Racing Stable who would run it at Le Mans in June alongside 1 VEV. The drivers were Australians Lex Davison and Bib Stilwell. Much factory support was provided but the race was a disaster – both cars dropped out after a few hours because of slack cylinder head nuts; they had run 15th and 17th before trouble struck, well behind the lighter open DBR1s. A French Zagato lasted to the final hour in ninth place, but it was the heaviest car in the race.

2 VEV tackled the 51-mile GT race at Aintree in July. Lex Davison fought a great battle with Jack Sears’ E-type, taking him on the last lap to record the car’s only win in its early years.

Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato Le MansAugust saw Jim Clark contest the TT at Goodwood in 2 VEV, against strong opposition from Moss and Parkes in Ferrari 250GTs and Roy Salvadori in 1 VEV. Pit stops were a feature of the race, Clark’s first being to have the bootlid shut. A later stop for four wheels and fuel took 65.4sec, an interesting comparison with sub-10-second fuel and tyre Grand Prix stops in the Nineties. Salvadori and Clark took third and fourth places.

Innes Ireland took the wheel at Snetterton on September 30 for the 25-lap Molyslip Trophy race. He held second but was black-flagged – for an open bootlid again. He fought back to third despite a shunt and a spin. The Paris 1000km in October saw Maggs and Whitmore achieve a disappointing ninth.

In April 1962 2 VEV was a guinea pig for Aston at Le Mans practice, using the 3995cc engine planned for the works development coupe, DP212. Some rapid laps were achieved – with 162mph on the Mulsanne straight -but the car did not take part in the race. Its lap times had persuaded David Brown and John Wyer to enter DP 212. Instead 2 VEV was loaned, via Aston, to Equipe Nationale Beige for Lucien Bianchi to drive at the Grand Prix of Spa for GT cars on May 20. He made a brave start, shot straight into the lead, but overdid it and totalled the Zagato. The remains went back to the works and a major reconstruction ensued. In just five weeks, the car was rebuilt with a new chassis, new body and many other new parts. The bulk of the cost – £2254 – was borne by an insurance company that took weeks to agree the scrap value of the battery.

On July is the car was in action at Clermont Ferrand, sporting a lower, flatter roof, longer nose and tail and wider rear wheel arches. Great efforts had been made to get it as light as possible. Tony Maggs took the car to seventh place, but the cylinder block cracked, so it was back to Aston for a new one.

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For the TT at Goodwood, 2 VEV was back with Jim Clark who held a strong 4th until leader John Surtees in a Ferrari 250 GTO came up to lap him for the second time. Clark spun, taking Surtees with him. A further £1000 was spent on the second rebuild in three months!

October 21 saw the Paris 1000km again; Jim Clark fought his way up to second but soon after Whitmore took over the car failed and Surtees’ Ferrari took second.

After this, 2 VEV was relegated to minor events, remaining in Ogier’s hands until 1964, when it passed to Alexander Roch of Bertram Cowen Ltd. He returned the car to Aston for thorough fettling before entering the Paris 1000km, driven by Andrew Hedges and John Turner; it ran well until third gear failed.

In 1965 Roch sold the car to Anthony Whyte of Whyte & McKay whisky, who was collecting cars associated with Jim Clark. In 1969, a year after Clark’s death, Nick Cussons bought 2 VEV and raced it for three seasons; then in 1971 Toni St John Hart bought the car for her husband, Roger. He ran in club races, sprints and hill climbs, winning masses of trophies in the Seventies. Occasional appearances in the Eighties were halted by Roger’s premature death. Shocked by this death, Toni put the car into a Christie’s auction held in Monaco in May 1990. To her relief, it failed to sell and before long had the car back in action, driven by Nick Cussons. He won the European FIA Classic Car Championship with 2 VEV in 1992 but car was crashed on the Isle of Man in 1993.

2 VEV- inspiration behind the DB7

Aston freely admits that the DB7 was inspired by 2 VEV. Smooth, sweet yet deceptively quick, it resembles its older brother in performance in the same way as it apes its style – by adding sophistication. Sophistication costs, of course, in weight terms; the soundproofing, plush leather seats, electric everything, air conditioning and emissions equipment make it much heavier than the Zagato. It’s so quiet that you have to keep a close eye on the speedometer, because it can be hustled along a extremely high speeds while retaining that calm aura. In fact, that calmness won’t go away.

Throw the car into a bend absurdly fast and you can distantly hear the front tyres squealing with understeer; add power and the rears gently join in as the car settles into a neutral power slide; but inside, apart from the g forces, all is calm and unruffled. I can see why hooligan motoring scribes have tried to say that it’s not a real sports car,but they’re wrong. In some ways it’s just too damn good for ultimate fun, but it’s a car that you could live with for years, that would deliver you across continents calm and unruffled, in the minimum of time.
I’d have one!

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