Aston Martin’s magnificent top-secret 1957 racer was a potential Le Mans winner but was sidelined by a lack of time and, later, by rule changes within the sport
This car looks right and, when you get in, the cockpit feels right. Generously proportioned and businesslike, everything is set up for comfortable racing, with a big chromium-plated five-speed gear gate in exactly the right place. To H avoid the risk of damage to the starter shaft if the engine kicks back, I switch on while the starter is running – the engine then picks up instantly and smoothly with a mighty bark. I’m about to be let loose behind the a wheel in the sunshine at Goodwood.
After couple of slow laps for photography it’s obvious that this is not a museum piece – the impression from the controls is of a well-sorted racing car. It charges along the straights with that fabulous engine bellowing away, there isn’t a hint of trouble with handling.
On the second lap it’s almost flat out through Fordwater and, with a car of this performance and age, that’s impressive. The design is magnificent and it’s clear that Rex Woodgate, who built the car originally and ‘sorted’ it more recently, really knows what he’s up to.
All the signals are good. I’m sitting almost upright but it is comfortable and the small screen protects me from the air stream. The old-fashioned gear change is great too, if I don’t rush it. Yes, this car is eager to perform, without doubt one of the greatest cars ever made. It really is that good.
Aston Martin entered the 1957 season with two cars to campaign – the DB3S was still there while the latest DBR1/300 was a pure sports-racing car aimed at World Championship events and, especially, Le Mans. The organisers of the famous French 24hr race had imposed a 2.5-litre limit on the faster cars after the 1955 disaster and the DBRi was initially built to this limit. The Le Mans authorities then changed their minds again for 1957, allowing bigger engines back, so the DBRi engine was increased to 2922cc producing, according to the factory records, 246bhp.
In late April, 1957 Aston Martin made a surprise announcement – the ‘hitherto secret Model R2/370’ would run at Le Mans, powered by a new production engine-based 3.7-litre straight six, ‘conservatively’ estimated to give over 300bhp. ‘The chassis is quite new,’ reported The Motor,‘built up of medium-diameter tubes around a sort of box-section backbone. Rear suspension is of the de Dion principle, incorporating the fivespeed gearbox and limited-slip differential.’
That wasn’t altogether correct though. Tadek Marek had designed an engine for the DB4 road car, due at Earls Court late in 1958, and had been promised that this would not be used in racing. But Ted Cutting recalled General Manager John Wyer’s face as he made that promise! ‘In fact, within days of the first engine turning over, JW had gone back on his word because DB [David Brown] had asked about its racing potential,’ he recounted. The new engine would go racing and they knew exactly how to create a car within the Le Mans rules.
The ‘new chassis’ shown to the press was, in fact, one of two that had been leaning against a wall ever since the Lagonda V12 sportsracer had been abandoned, following failure at Le Mans in 1955. The redesigned chassis had handled well but the engine disappointed.
Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before sharp eyes spotted the similarity between the DBR2’s chassis and that of the Lagonda, which had been quite unlike anything else produced by the Feltham factory. Within weeks the factory was admitting that the new car was a development of the 4-5 litre V12 Lagonda.
In fact DBR2/l’s chassis was a Lagonda DP166/1 clothed in a new body and given a new chassis number. The suspension on this strong chassis followed established DB3S lines – trailing links and transverse torsion bars at the front and a de Dion axle with torsion bars at the rear. The finished aluminium and magnesium alloy body bore a very strong resemblance to the DBRl designed by Ted Cutting who, along with body draughtsman Alex Stephens, drew up the DBR2.
As for the transmission, the DBRl did indeed have a rear-mounted transaxle gearbox and notoriously unreliable it was in its early days, tending to get stuck in gear with the lever in the neutral position.
The DBR2, however, was fitted from the start with a more robust gearbox, the David Brown type SC532 from the Vl2 Lagonda, mounted in the conventional position. It was a DB spiral bevel unit with ZF limited-slip differential incorporated in the back axle in the normal Aston manner.
The top-secret DBR2/1 was assembled by Rex Woodgate and Fred Shattock in the spring of 1957. Later that summer, after Le Mans in fact, they converted the Lagonda DP166/2 in the same way to create DBR2/2 – only these two DBR2s were ever built and they are both magnificently maintained today. You can tell a DBR2 from a DBRl by the bonnet bulge, the exhaust on the left and the forward-mounted gearbox.
At first the press thought that the new R2 would lead the team at Le Mans and be driven by Roy Salvadori and Tony Brooks, but when the works Astons lined up the following month the top drivers were assigned to the DBRls and the DBR2 was entrusted to the steady pairing of the Whitehead brothers, Graham and Peter. The DBR2 was seemingly too new and relatively untried for John Wyer’s liking.
The Whiteheads felt that they had a potential winner and rumour suggests that they sand-bagged in practice so that they wouldn’t be switched out of their secret weapon. It’s a delightful yarn, dismissed with a wry,‘unlikely’ by Rex Woodgate.
It’s worth going into detail, since history is often at risk from revisionist myth-makers. According to official figures, the big Ferraris and Maseratis were pulling around I70mph on the Mulsanne Straight and one D-type was timed at I78mph – the DBRls were on just I54mph.
The DBR2 should have been faster than the DBRls on the straight but it was mysteriously unable to better I48.6mph, its drivers lifting off a little on the Mulsanne to avoid burning the valves. Perhaps they convinced themselves that they were concealing the car’s potential but it was down on power anyway – full throttle would have made little difference. Tony Brooks, in a DBRl, was the fastest Aston driver in practice, sixth overall and 8.5sec slower than Fangio, quickest in the 4.5-litre Maserati.
In the race, Brooks harried the 400bhp Ferraris and Maseratis, leading briefly on lap 35 before refuelling. Then, passed by the Flockhart/Bueb Jaguar D-type, he stayed in contention until the old gearbox trouble set in. Just after 2am he crashed heavily at Tertre Rouge, distracted with the car stuck in fourth. The Jaguars were taking control, heading for a famous victory in which D-types finished first, second, third, fourth and sixth.
The Aston team had been unable to get the DBR2’s engine to deliver full power at speed in a pre-race test at MIRA and it was no different in France. John Wyer’s notes, held by the Aston Martin Owners’ Club archive, confirm that the Whiteheads had reported ‘missing’ at high revs in practice – the cylinder head was removed but no fault was found, though a split in the air intake box was mended.
Graham Whitehead got away in second place but was 11th at the end of the Mulsanne Straight on that first lap. Placed seventh after five hours, the Whiteheads dropped to 19th with gearchange trouble and were soon out of it, with perhaps the greatest chance of their careers lost. They felt that DBR2/1 could have won Le Mans, 1957. It had the potential, but not the luck.
Shortly before the race The Motor said that Aston Martin was still experimenting with different Weber carburettors on the DBR2. The truth, told later by Ted Cutting, is that it had ordered three twin-choke 48DCO carburettors but when they didn’t turn up the team had to use six-single choke DOEs.
The fuel supply system, fine on the testbed, was now too complex to fit under the bonnet, so Rex Woodgate built a simpler system and finished it at three o’clock one morning. He tried to start the engine but it just popped on one cylinder and wouldn’t run, so he went off to sleep on the problem for a couple of hours.
Returning refreshed, he ran a drill down the five feed pipes attached to the main pipe and the car appeared to run perfectly. Though no one could have known, the project had already gone wrong and there was no time left to discover that fact in testing.
History states that, when the team returned to England, it was discovered that some fuel pipes were too small to deliver enough petrol at sustained full power. Graham Whitehead went into print believing this to be true but Rex Woodgate has a slightly different recollection, ‘We did a day’s testing after Le Mans and found that the carburettor air intake box was too small. This is what lost DBR2/1 its power at Le Mans. A better air box design cured the problem.’
Whatever the cause, the real problem was lack of time for testing. The car never raced on six carbs again – the twin choke 48DCOS arrived, were enlarged to 50mm as originally planned and fitted complete with new fuel lines and a larger air box. After that missed chance, DBR2/1 was campaigned in 1957 but scored no wins. For 1958 the FIA decided to impose a 3-litre limit on World Championship Sports Car events.
Instead, the 3.7-litre engine was bored out to 3-9 litres and Stirling Moss scored the two wins for which DBR2/1 is famous. At Goodwood he won the 21-lap Sussex Trophy race after a battle with Archie Scott-Brown and his works Lister Jaguar. Moss passed Scott-Brown during the race, then his rival’s steering broke and Moss won comfortably, setting a new sports car lap record of lm 33.4 sec.
The following weekend the steering on Scott-Brown’s 3.8 litre Lister broke again, this time when leading Moss in the qualifying heat for the 25-lap British Empire Trophy race at Oulton Park. He drove Bruce Halford’s slower 3.4 litre Lister Jaguar in the final. Stirling gave one of his demonstration drives to pull away and win from Tony Brooks who was hampered by the failure of fifth gear in DBR2/2. Scott-Brown finished third and yet again Moss set a new outright sports car lap record (lm 50.8sec), though Graham Hill astonished everyone present by equalling that time on the same day in the196OCC Lotus Mkl5.
Later in 1958 the team ran DBR2/1 at Aintree, Silverstone, Spa and as the practice car for the Targa Florio. Soon after the last race the engines were enlarged to 4.2 litres and both DBR2s went to the USA where they were run by Elisha Walker. Rex Woodgate was sent out to maintain them. Although the original 3.7 litre engine in DBR2/1 was progressively englared to 4.2 litres, Rex Woodgate reminds us that new 4.2-litre blocks were fitted in 1959. He certainly fitted various engines into the DBR2s when he was running them but DBR2/1is now reunited with an original 1959 4.2-litre engine.
George Constantine drove three races in 1958 with DBR2/1, winning at Lime Rock and Marlborough; in a full 1959 season of 12 races, Constantine won at Montgomery, Thompson, Nassau and three times at Lime Rock, plus a class win at Elkhart Lake. Some say that Stirling Moss drove that car again that October at Riverside – in fact, he drove DBR2/2 there but retired with oil pressure trouble.
The Elisha Walker team lost heart after the tragic death of a teenage daughter in a horse-riding accident and in i960 the DBR2s came back to England to be sold. DBR2/1 was bought by Bill Aston for club racing and then subsequently sold on to RH Dennis who had the one-off 1954 gullwing body from DB3/6 fitted. It was not what you’d call an aesthetic success.
Happily the importance of the car was finally later recognised, and it was fully restored in the USA by Stephen Griswold between 1975 and 1979. Assisted by Rex Woodgate, the latter now relates that the original body was traced by Colin Crabbe and sent over to be restored and refitted.
The owners of such cars can be notoriously shy of publicity and rumours about who owned DBR2/1 times are misleading. It does not matter who owns it; the important thing is that such a car is properly looked after. And this classic clearly has been. One owner even acquired the original cylinder block and head which were in the car at Nassau in 1959. It was rebuilt in time for Mike Salmon to drive DBR2/1 at Monterey in 1989.
No effort has been spared to keep this car perfect and it has been attended to over the years by many of the leading Aston specialists. Everything bar the body was rebuilt by Rex Woodgate and his son, Chris, prior to Monterey. In 1991 and 1992 Ray Mallock raced it in a few major historic races, and he wiped the floor with everybody else.
In 1992-93 the body was restored to its original specification. It is a glorious machine that has been used properly and treated with respect. Ray Mallock sums it up, ‘The car was just tremendously enjoyable – one test session was enough to get it to my liking. It really is beautifully controllable, so well balanced that it’s easy to put it on opposite lock at I30mph and drive through a corner with a smile on your face.’ Yes.
Engine type Straight six, light alloy, DOHC, three twin-choke Weber 50DCO (six singlechoke Weber 48DOE for first race only)
Capacity 3670cc (1957); 3910cc (1958); 4164cc (late1958) Power 287bhp (1957)-332bhp (4.2-litre)
Transmission Forward-mounted SC532 five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive; DB final drive with ZF limited-slip differential
Chassis Multi-tube backbone
Suspension Front: independent by trailing arms and torsion bars. Rear de Dion axle with trailing arms and torsion bars
Brakes Girling disc brakes all round
Wheelbase/Track ft 9in/4ft 5in
Weight 19601b (889kg)
Watch this video for Aston Martin DBR2/1, Racer Le Mans Winner