Straight six or V8? Two Seventies bruisers go head to head. Aston Martin overcame all manner of adversity to produce a car for the Seventies -the DBS V8 remains one of the great classics of all time.
It’s normal, when considering Aston Martin cars, to separate the post-war six-cylinder cars from the V8s that eventually succeeded them. It seemed more logical to us, however, to consider the DBS and the DBSV8 together, and not just because it takes some knowledge to tell them apart by their appearance. The fact is that they were built alongside each other for some years, so customers had to choose between them then. Furthermore, together they represent a major transition period in Aston Martin’s history.
Back in the mid-Sixties, Aston Martin had already enjoyed many decades at the top of the automotive tree in terms of reputation and success. The 1959 win at Le Mans was still fresh in the minds of enthusiasts and the fact that James Bond drove an Aston Martin had brought unbelievable worldwide fame to this specialist manufacturer in Newport Pagnell. Apparently just a bit of fun, the James Bond link was far more important than is generally realised but it was the incredible tenacity and flair of those who worked there that really saw Aston Martin through many a dark year. Fading fame in the movies and a grand past in motor racing would not have been enough to carry the marque through the Seventies. At the factory in the mid-Sixties it had worked out, to the chagrin of some traditionalists, that to survive after the DB6 it would have to make bigger and more luxurious cars – more power and torque would be needed, as its traditional straight-six engine was approaching the end of its development. It was vitally important to get the new model right; more so than anybody realised at the time, because tough days for the entire motor industry were just around the corner.
A special two-seater version of the DB6, with a fast hatchback body by Touring, appeared at the 1966 Paris Motor Show and was said to be intended for serious production, but it proved to be a false trail. Aston Martin’s future was staked on a wider four-seater, which appeared in interim form as the production DBS in 1967. It took a further two years to develop the new V8 engine originally intended for it. The mighty DBS V8 set a pattern for Aston Martin that has continued to this day. The DB7 represents the first real departure from an enduring theme laid down nearly 30 years ago when Sir David Brown still owned the company.
Perhaps the most outstanding of its many virtues has always been the superb power steering of the DBS range – while it took all the unnecessary effort out of turning the wheel, it would be easy not to spot it unless you had been told that the system was power-assisted. Back in the late Sixties, Aston Martin was way ahead of the rest in this department. As well as that, all the major controls were excellent and the driving position was near-perfect. A DBS or DBS V8 may be rather too wide for rushing around the lanes, yet on the open road, with fast bends, these are truly magnificent machines. But it’s worth noting that Motor got an overall fuel consumption figure of 10.9mpg in the 1968 DBS Vantage Road Test. Even at a steady 65mph, its most economical cruising speed, it could manage only 18mpg, so the realistic range between tank fillings is unlikely to exceed 250 miles. Take a gulp and read on – that DBS recorded better braking figures in the wet than many cars could manage on a dry road in those days. The handling of these Astons really is something to enthuse about, too. This is what Motor’s testers said in 1968, `A lot of our mileage was on wet roads but this didn’t spoil our enjoyment of the car at all.. the high cornering powers are reduced but the car’s poise, balance and control are so good that you can flip the back end out and hold it there on a long corner with superb precision, balancing the power-provoked wayward tail with the steering. It is not a technique that every owner will want to indulge in, or one that can be practised very often, as a sideways DBS occupies a lot of road. But to be able to drive like this in a car of such power is a cogent measure of its roadability.’
If you believe everything that’s been written in books since those days, it would be easy to be persuaded that the DBS was a lethargic performer yet, looking at Motor’s Road Test Summary in the same issue in which the original DBS Vantage test was printed, the plain fact is that the Aston outperformed such rivals as the Jaguar E-type 2+2, Porsche 911 and Lotus Elan +2. Only two cars listed there had recorded a higher top speed and even then not by much – they were the 7-litre Chevrolet Corvette Stingray and, yes, the old DB6 Vantage. That’s the point – for sure, the DBS was slower than the DB6 but to dub it sluggish is ludicrous. The standard engine, mated to an automatic gearbox, was probably no ball of fire but a Vantage with manual transmission remains a different story. Slow it ain’t, not with o-6omph in 7.1 seconds, O-lOOmph in 18 and a top speed of I4i.5mph – these were fair figures, recorded by Motor when the car was new.
To confirm my contrary notion about the performance of the DBS, I was lucky enough to get behind the wheel of Tom Heesom’s DBS Vantage while it was in for some work at Richard Williams’ company in Cobham. I can understand why some prefer a DB6, or a 5 or a 4; I can also understand entirely the appeal of the V8 in the bigger body of the DBS for which it was designed, but the original DBS does have termendous charm. Despite its bulk it feels light, responsive and very controllable, the straight six makes a marvellous sound, the brakes have superb feel; in short, to use a saying from a later age, it is extraordinarily user-friendly. It must be admitted that the shape was still not perfected: see an early DBS on the motorway, even at 70mph, and you will notice a nose-up stance thanks to aerodynamic lift. When the DBS V8 came the package was completed, including a new front spoiler that kept the DBS range at the right ride height when cruising fast. The V8 was the engine that had been designed for the new generation of bigger, more luxurious Aston Martins. It had been a long time coming but it restored true supercar performance to the marque – o-6omph in 5.9 seconds, O-lOOmph in 13.8 seconds, a genuine top speed of l6o.lmph (I was in that car during the test so I know it was true) Here was a car that left the DB6, and all lesser cars, standing.
Despite being a little heavier than the DBS (34.5cwt against 33.8cwt as measured by Motor ), the DBSV8 was significantly better on fuel consumption – back in 1971 our figure over 1000 miles in England was I4.7mpg. OK, you still need to be rich to drive one but that’s a whole lot better than the I0.9mpg of the DBS. The dog-leg first gear and a surprising paucity of torque at very low revs made driving these early V8s in traffic slightly harder work than it should have been, but any enthusiast soon forgot about that trifling problem. One fact must be stressed – when it comes down to it, the experts all say that once you have driven a DBS V8, you won’t want to go back to a DBS. The extra response from the V8 is undeniably rather addictive.
Strictly speaking, the car that was designed was the DBS V8 – the DBS was launched a little earlier with the old six-cylinder engine because the V8 wasn’t ready for production. The design objective for the new model was to satisfy the perceived demands of future customers for a bigger, more luxurious Aston Martin without any sacrifice in performance or handling. There has never been any doubt that this was achieved. For a small company to get such a major project right is the hallmark of a true thoroughbred manufacturer. To the outside world Aston Martin had simply produced its grandest tourer yet but the process of getting to that point had involved some compromise, some agonising but ultimately successful engineering development and the odd false start.
A ‘DBS’ was displayed at the Paris Show in 1966. Motor’s team returned from France and wrote about ‘Aston Martin’s new lightweight two-seater coupe DBS with Superleggera Touring bodywork, claimed to do nearly I70mph. The engine is 2.5in lower and 8.5in further back in a modified DB6 chassis and has allowed a much lower roofline and consequently less weight and better aerodynamics. The 4-litre Vantage engine has been boosted to 325bhp (net) at 5750rpm to make it one of the fastest production cars in the world – serious production is Aston Martin’s aim. It is strictly a two-seater with a lift-up fastback tailgate opening on to a vast luggage platform beneath which lies a tool tray and petrol tank. A “champagne” locker behind the front seat is paired with the battery locker on the other side. A highly sophisticated ventilation system inside gives four separate sources of air besides open (electric) windows. It will cost approximately £6450 yet Aston Martin were certainly not short of customers.’
There seems no reason to doubt that Aston Martin did indeed aim for serious production with this car but only two prototypes were built, for motor show purposes – significantly, they were fitted with de Dion rear suspension rather than the live axle traditionally used in production Aston Martins. Through its racing activities, the company had gained extensive experience of the de Dion arrangement – at last it was coming to the road cars, including the true production DBS. The unequal-length wishbone front suspension was derived from that of the DB4.
It does seem strange that they should have tested the water with this exotic Touring two-seater when those in charge at Newport Pagnell would appear to have concluded already that what they needed was a larger four-seater. The AMOC Register states that only limited production was ever envisaged but any plans to put the Touring ‘DBS’ into production were killed by international economic problems and the fact that Touring itself was tottering financially.
Back in England, the irrepressible talent of new recruit William Towns was coming to the fore at the factory and it was his design for a larger model that would be adopted. The plan was to devise a much larger car but offer a shorter version of it, still with four seats, as the ultimate sporting Aston Martin. In the end it was this shorter version that would appear in the metal as the production DBS and DBS V8.
Like the DB6, the DBS had a fabricated sheet-steel platform chassis but this was 4.5in wider and lin longer than that of the DB6. The method of construction was strong but heavier than the Italian Superleggera system. Externally, the aluminium body was 6in wider than that of the DB6 but a little lower and shorter. One legend states that the DBS was only made that wide because a mistake was made in the tooling and they were unable to correct it, but the story hardly has the ring of truth.
The DBS went into production in late 1967, to almost universal acclaim. Some observers, for reasons that I have never understood, questioned the use of twin headlights; a few more noted that it was a bit slower han a DB6 but nobody could deny that it was an outstandingly beautiful, modern car. Most would agree that this judgement has stood the test of time.
Meanwhile, work continued in secret on the redesign of the lightweight V8 engine, following its very public failures at Le Mans in 1967. Investigation revealed that the internal weaknesses were even more serious than had been feared at first – it took another couple of years to get it right for production. But get it right Aston Martin did – this oversquare (lOOmm bore/85mm stroke) 90°, 5340cc, fuel-injected V8 was reliable and it gave the DBS chassis and body the performance intended in the original design. Its power output was quite justifiably not proclaimed in those days of dishonest gross figure hype by rival manufacturers but it was almost certainly up to 340bhp.
Other differences in design and specification between the DBS and DBS V8 included a revised five-speed gearbox, different spring rates, plus bigger, ventilated disc brakes and the factory’s own design of cast alloy wheels in place of the DBS’s wire wheels. As mentioned earlier, the deeper front spoiler came in with the DBS V8, too, correcting the nose-up attitude of the car at speed.
A let-down was the ventilation system – if those 1966 Touring show cars really did have £a highly sophisticated ventilation system inside’ it certainly did not reach the early DBS and DBS V8 production models. It wasn’t until 1972 when the revised version with two headlights appeared that this was put right.
The commitment of the factory and its recognised distributors to its older cars, plus the existence of many first-class specialists who work solely on Aston Martins, means that parts availability and access to service are superb. If looked after properly, a sound DBS or DBS V8 should give many thousands of miles of trouble-free motoring. The straight-six engine is renowned for its strength and reliability and, by the time the V8 went into production, it, too, had been developed into a sound unit. That early foray to Le Mans with the Lola-Aston Martins may have seemed a disaster at the time but it proved the value of racing by exposing basic weaknesses in the original V8 design. The serious rethink that followed the debacle resulted in a production engine that immediately gained a good reputation for staying together while delivering excellent performance.
But what about specific points to look out for? The optional AE Brico fuel injection was underdeveloped. According to specialist Richard Williams, Tt was basically an excellent system and, with what we know today, you could make it brilliant now. But most of those cars were converted to carburettors years ago.’
What about the reputation for front suspension wishbone ball joints coming apart when worn? Williams says that this is not a problem, because any driver would have to be stupid and insensitive enough to endure 5000 miles of serious clonking before it failed. ‘They don’t come adrift without warning,’ he says.
A reputation for electrical problems is not entirely undeserved – the alternators were underspecified and there were other faults, such as failure of the wiring harness into the doors, as a result of fatigue. There are simple answers to these problems and they will have been applied to a well-maintained car long ago.
On the subject of doors, they were heavy and the stop links on the early models were not strong enough; again, a simple modification exists to correct that. The early V8 was notorious for poor hot starting but addition of a hot start button, greater fuel pressure and changes to the collector pot and breather cured it. When new, the V8 had a reputation for eating spark plugs but with modern alternatives that’s a thing of the past.
After some years the engine mountings of both models are likely to start cracking. They should be replaced with more durable modern fittings.
Any car still on the Armstrong Selectaride system is likely to need sorting out fairly regularly in that area. It can be done but most examples have been converted to Koni telescopic dampers at some time.
Aston Martins today are much better built than the cars of the financially troubled early Seventies – little things like doorlock mechanisms were not very well sorted out in those days, so steady improvement for the older cars is therefore recommended. A restored car should emerge rather better than it was when new and a well-maintained example will have had the various necessary improvements carried out on it over the years.
In short, there are no real problems. Some DIY work can be carried out but most owners will prefer to rely on experts who have acquired all the necessary knowledge. For example, don’t fiddle with the metering unit on a fuel-injected car unless you really know what you’re doing, because there is a risk of damage. It all comes down to being able to afford to buy and maintain it properly. You will need to be fairly wealthy to pay the fuel bills, too.
There are some things you can check first yourself, such as searching for corrosion in likely spots such as sills and wheelarches. Go through the service history carefully to see that the car has been properly cared for; these documents will also tell you who has had it in recently.
Look at the general condition of the car. On a V8, leakage around the base of the cylinders is the mark of O-ring failure and a smoky exhaust suggests valve guide wear. These are not desperately serious problems but they can be revealing indicators of the overall level of care that has been given to the car. If you have trouble finding a good early car, you could consider a later example. The Aston Martin Vantage of 1972 was a revised DBS, available until mid- 1973, when six-cylinder production came to an end.
Last and certainly not least, we often make a point of stressing to potential buyers of a model that it’s worth joining the relevant club before acquiring a car – a few pounds spent on a subscription and a bit of time getting to know existing owners might save you a fortune. It would be madness to own an old Aston Martin and not belong to the club
Motor’s opinions of the DBS
1968:In the flesh it is a remarkably clean piece of styling, designed at home too… as much a comfortable town carriage as a driver’s car… it feels a larger car than the DB6 … a little slower than the DB6… That one can treat 33cwt of Aston with most of one’s Mini-minded abandon is quite a tribute…”
Original DBS Vantage Road Test, 1968: S for superb Connoisseur s fourseater GT devoid of fundamental faults; great performance and handlingdespite immense’weight; luxurious ride and front seating; small boot; rather noisy; defects in heating and switchgear … expensive to run.’
Of the DBS V8 in 1971:’ … few of us would not be seduced by the tremendous performance and generally impeccable road manners had we the £7501needed … savage acceleration always on tap … able to cruise at 130-150mph without any fuss, strain or drama .. . Our enthusiasm for the handling and road holding of the original DBS was so lyrical as to leave little room for further praise … Nevertheless such praise is due.
Best of the literature on the DBS
The first book to get is the Register , the Aston Martin Owners’ Club’s invaluable reference book, available to members. This gives reliable basic information on all models. For a fuller story try the two relevant volumes in the MRP Collector’s Guide Series: The Aston Martin and Lagonda, Vol 1: Six-cylinder DB models, by Andrew Whyte andThe Aston Martin and Lagonda, Vol 2: V8 models from 1970 by Paul Chudecki.
Another book I like is the late Wilson McCombs Aston Martin V8s: this was published by Osprey in 1981 but a few copies are available from specialist booksellers. A useful reference is Paul Woudenberg’s Illustrated Aston Martin Buyer’s Guide, a US softback from Motorbooks International. Frankly based on the Register but with added information from the author, it contains many black and white photographs.
More specialised information can be found in books by Michael Bowler, such as Aston Martin V8 (Cadogan Publications). Perhaps the best road test compilation is Road & Track on Aston Martin 1962-1990 from Brooklands Books.
How many Aston Martin made?
DBS (1967-72) : 790
DBS V8 (1970-72) : 405
These figures, which include a couple of prototypes and one development car, have been verified by the Aston Martin Owners’ Club, which is famous for its meticulous attention to detail in such matters as production figures and specifications. The Aston Martin Register, published by the Club and issued to members, is one of the most remarkable publications of its kind.
One DBS was built as an estate (the modifications were carried out outside the factory by FLM Panelcraft); all the rest were saloons. All DBS V8s were called saloons.
The DBSV8 was the start of the long series of V8-powered Aston Martins that continued until 2000.
Two prototype cars, with bodywork by Touring of Milan, were shown at Paris and Earls Court in1966: they are not included in the production figures given above. The designation ‘DBS’ was given to them – then, because of the expectation they had created in the marketplace, it was carried over to the new model that was launched in 1967.
But for this, it’s entirely possible that the production DBS might have been given the possibly more appropriate DB7 model name, long before the1994 DB7 finally appeared.