In 1950 Aston Martin owner David Brown gave his initials to a new dynasty of grand tourers – from DB2 to DB7 we test the landmark cars to find which best encapsulates the DB appeal, and expose the realities of owning them today
The quintessential gentleman’s sports car. One of the aspirational blue-chip marques. An intrinsic part of the James Bond legend. Winner of Le Mans and the World Sportscar Championship – it could only be the double-barrelled automotive aristocrat, Aston Martin.
As so often with classic car evolution, puzzlement and contradiction are rife. The first Aston Martin christened with those hallowed initials was the DB2, yet it wasn’t the first Aston Martin produced under David Brown’s stewardship – that marker is claimed by the Aston Martin 2-litre, retrospectively tagged the DBi.
Styled by Frank Feeley, who had previously worked for Lagonda and was rehired by Brown shortly after he bought the company, the 2-litre was largely designed by Claude Hill. It used Hill’s two-litre 90bhp four-cylinder engine and chassis, similar to that of the pre-war Atom prototype, but the production car was far more convincing with a decadently long bonnet and slightly Rubinesque grande routiere body. Its most noteworthy aesthetic legacy was the striking frontal aspect – a `face’ that went on to influence the DB2, DB2/4 and DB2/4 Mk II.
The 2-litre was replaced in 1950 by the far more modern-looking DB2. Brown was determined that Aston Martin would move on from its small-capacity, four-cylinder past. Instead the DB2 was powered by a six-cylinder 1o5bhp engine acquired during Brown’s 1947 shopping spree – the 258occ Lagonda LB6 designed by Willie Watson under the supervision of WO Bentley. Brown clearly took the threats posed by Jaguar’s XKI20 and emerging Italian GTs seriously.
Again penned by Feeley, the alloy-panel-over-steel-frame DB2 drew inspiration from the designs of Carrozzeria Touring and his own 1949 DB Mk II racer. Gone were the chubbiness and decadence of the DB1; instead the DB2 was restrained, delicate and subtle with a far more planted stance. The new car retained Hill’s chassis, though he left the company following the cancellation of his four-cylinder engine.
Like many of its contemporaries, the DB2’s headroom is rationed and the spartan dashboard is a jumble of timber, dials and switches. This 1953 DB2 also features superb competition bucket seats which, with the wide sill and lack of headroom, make climbing aboard a contortionist’s delight.
The first corner comes as a delightful surprise. On radial tyres the steering isn’t just perfectly weighted, positive and nicely geared, it has to be approaching the better steering boxes from Alfa Romeo and Porsche. Its chassis is grippy and adjustable and doesn’t roll like a Citroen 2CV, despite blessing my posterior with a friendly ride. The pedals and gearbox may be heavy, but they are tactile and operate with almost Victorian levels of engineered precision. Accelerate up through the David Brown four-speed three-synchro gearbox, savour the gear whine accompanied by the lovely rich tune from the straight-six at 3000rpm, haul on the brakes, feed it through a corner, and you feel so plugged into this enjoyable car that it makes driving a modern motor feel like you’ve gone into a trance.
The DB2’s biggest handicap was the LB6/B engine, with an unsuccessful crankshaft bearing design that Willie Watson had attempted on the disastrous Invicta Black Prince. This was addressed, along with the lack of rear seats and opening hatchback boot, by 1953’s DB2/4. The lines of the Mulliner coupe bodywork – a drophead coupe was also available – may seem compromised to some, but the bonus was that the DB2/4 increased its appeal by being more practical.
It was powered by the DB2’s I25bhp Vantage VB6/E unit until Watson’s new VB6/J became available. At 2992cc, the bores were increased, but to keep the original castings the cylinders were slightly offset in pairs. It was far from perfect but it realised I40bhp and gave Aston an engine for competition in the DB3 and DB3S.
The DB Mk II followed the DB2/4 Mkll, produced following Brown’s acquisition of Tickford in Newport Pagnell; Aston production moved there in 1954. Like the Mkll it featured a higher roofline and, to reduce bonnet flex and increase refinement, the size of the clamshell bonnet was reduced by separating it from the front wings. Unlike the Mkll, the Mk II didn’t suffer from fussy chrome detailing and it also featured a new engine and front disc brakes.
The engine built the improvements of the unit used in the DB2/4 and the Mkll. It retained the same 2922cc capacity but now featured a stiffer cylinder block casting and crankshaft, which was the joint effort of Harold Beach and Tadeusz ‘Tadek’ Marek, who had joined Aston Martin from Austin.
The Mk II’s main advances were in its styling. Outside, it left the aesthetics of the DB2 behind – the front opening bade farewell to the DBi-inspired three-piece grille and aped that of the DB3S racer, while the rear eventually featured ‘cathedral’ rear lamps that neatly terminated the tailfms. Inside, the Mk II has the first instantly recognisable Aston Martin dashboard, establishing a DB tradition by echoing the shape of the grille.
Driving this1958 Mk II you can feel its increased heft compared with the Mkll. Low-speed manoeuvring on the crossply tyres makes you huff and puff, but punt the Mk II through a series of bends and your arms start to throb as the steering loads up and is made even heavier by body roll.
In a straight line the Mk II is polished and stable, surfing along on the DBA engine’s elegantly rich exhaust note. On radials it could well be similar to the DB2 and more sophisticated. The 1958 DB4 represents the first evolutionary jump in the DB line. Its cornerstone was a new six-cylinder engine from Marek, the Design Project 186. Featuring twin-camshafts and an alloy cylinder head, it made it into production as a 367OCC unit with an alloy cylinder block, seven plain-bearing crankshaft and twin SU HD8 carburettors.
The DB4 was revolutionary, featuring new double-wishbone front suspension, rack-and-pinion steering, disc brakes front and rear and a stiffer, heavier chassis. This supported a new lightweight body built on the Superleggera principle (a cage of small-diameter alloy tubes bearing alloy body panels) which Aston Martin made under licence from Touring at Feltham and, later, at Newport Pagnell. The supremely elegant DB4 shape was styled by Anderloni and Frederico Formenti.
Incredibly the Mk II stayed in production for nearly a year after the DB4 S launch in case the new car didn’t prove popular. Brown needn’t have worried – it set a new sales record of 1110 cars, which remained unbroken until the arrival of the DB6.
Paul Shire’s 1961 Series III underwent fast-road tuning at RS Williams – debumpered with a fettled engine, lowered and with altered suspension geometry and slightly wider radial tyres. The result is the sharpest DB4 I’ve ever driven.
Yes, a DB4 will always feel slightly keener at the front, with greater grip and more alert turn-in compared to a standard Feltham Aston because of its all-alloy engine and double-wishbone suspension, but this car is in a different league. A host of detail differences make it shine – it corners flatter, is impeccably poised, has more grip and lighter and sharper steering than a standard car. Work the four-speed overdrive gearbox, roll your wrists into the corner and revel in how it attacks apices with such vigour, feeling so adjustable it’s as if there is an element of rear-wheel steer.
Replacing both the DB4 Series V and shorterDB4 GT, the DB5 was launched in 1963. Originally planned as the DB4 Series VI, it was 77kg heavier and more refined with a larger 3995cc engine claiming 282bhp – 325bhp in Vantage tune – packing more torque, featuring better twin-servo brakes and, later, a ZF five-speed gearbox as standard. It was also immortalised in Goldfinger.
The biggest differences I notice when transferring from the DB4 to Peter Little’s DB5 are a seven-dial dash and the five-speed gearbox which lacks, by the slightest degree, the clarity and precision of the David Brown four-speeder.
Other than this point of pedantry, they are incredibly close – think of your favourite music on vinyl versus CD and you get the gist. The DB5’s engine is torquier and the car more relaxing at the expense of a little of the DB4’s sportiness and immediacy.
Exploit its ability and the DB5 is a gem to drive, its beautifully weighted steering cornering with plenty of enthusiasm and wellcontrolled roll. The twin-servo brakes pull up squarely and evenly. The ride is just what you want of a sporty GT. Then, of course, there is that Aston Martin signature tune flooding into the cabin.
The DB5 was the last true Superleggera Aston because 1965’s DB6 featured a folded steel extension to the rear chassis (instead of tubes), making the car far more rigid than the DB5. It also boasts more rear headroom and a longer wheelbase.
The DB6 may appear visually heavier, but it only weighs 8kg more than its predecessor – and its performance is still impressive. Perhaps it’s because of some sort of subconscious osmosis through the controls, but for the first couple of laps the gearbox remains in fourth and I’m not in any great hurry. The power steering is nicely weighted with a fair amount of feel and connection; unlike many of its era, it doesn’t have the lightness and undergeared manner of a spinning roulette wheel, so I sit back and let the torque toil.
Yet the DB6 is more than game when I finally let the twisting tarmac entice me, handling very like the DB5 as the big bassy rumble from the six-cylinder engine is heckled by the whine from the ZF five-speed gearbox. I didn’t expect to like the visually compromised DB6, but Brian Smouha’s1969 Mkl has convinced me.
The DB6 Mkll of 1969 marked the last of the DB4 dynasty. It also shared many components, including wheels, hubs and seats, with the new larger DBS and was offered with optional AE Brico fuel injection. The DBS was all change for Aston Martin. A blend of crisp Italian Sixties detailing garnished with cues from Detroit muscle cars, the 1967 DBS can almost be described as Turin style via Park Avenue.
It was originally intended to have the new V8 but this was experiencing serious development problems, so the DBS was launched with the DB6’s four-litre six-cylinder (Vantage tune became a no-cost option). Beneath its square-cut bodywork Beach’s chassis was retained with the rear suspension finally evolving into a de Dion design.
In1970 Marek overcame the V8’s bottom-end frailty problems and the DBS V8 was launched with the engine it should always have had. Yet the last true DB – Brown sold the company in 1972 – wasn’t the success it could have been. Criticised for a lack of low-end torque, it had a hefty thirst and the Bosch mechanical fuel injection suffered with heat soak from the large alloy V8. As a result in 1973 the injection system was dumped in favour of Weber carburettors.
Inside as out, the cabin breaks with tradition – there’s a dished steering wheel and the Mk II-inspired dashboard is no more. Instead, there’s much more room, it’s darker and the DB6’s crowded dials, controls and switchgear have been replaced by Radiomobile rotary knobs and BLMC rocker switches.
Initially both DBS and DBS V8 drive very similarly, with ride/ handling bias optimised for comfort in comparison with the DB6 and the power steering positive yet slightly too light. But get used to the greater angles of roll and the DBS V8 does grip.
The engine doesn’t overdose on low-down torque, but when it hits 4000rpm it awakens with a bellow that gets progressively louder and angrier. This is where I feel the power – right in the midst of an offbeat V8 jamming session. Charging down the straight, up through the gearbox, which won’t be rushed, scrub off speed for the turn and it’s surprising how so large a car can hang on with such neutrality.
In the Nineties Jaguar and Aston Martin ended up co-operating as part of Ford’s Premier Automotive Group. Victor Gauntlett, who had run Aston since the early Eighties, had dreamt of a new DB4 since the middle of the decade, but such a car didn’t materialise until 1994. Built at Bloxham with input from Tom Walkinshaw Racing and using the XJ-S chassis and floorpan, the DB7 initially had a supercharged 3226cc 335bhp six-cylinder engine. It was a huge hit despite criticism from purists. These were addressed in 1999 by the Vantage’s 420bhp Vl2, stiffer bodyshell and revised suspension.
The interior of Nick Holland’s 2000 DB7 Vantage marks a return to form for the Aston Martin DB. Back is the 2+2 intimacy and sportiness, with the added bonus of an engine note which can only be created by a dozen highrevving pistons. Dynamically the Vantage is faultless. The power-assisted steering might be a touch numb, but it’s superbly weighted and positive. Grip is immense, turn-in instant and roll kept in check. Somehow this car wafts like an XJ yet retains that crucial element of DB involvement. The deep baritone of the ’six and the V8 are replaced by the Vl2’s haunting howl as it heads for the 6500rpm redline.
Knowing that I now have to pick one car that best encapsulates the DB magic, my shortlist comprises DB4, 5 and 6. If you want a raw connection with your car, go for the DB4; if you want a refined, easy, sporting GT, the DB6 is for you;if you want a superb all-rounder, the DB5 can’t be beaten.
Me? I have to highlight the DB4. After enjoying Paul Shires’ Sill and having endured modern drivers’ ill manners for too long, there’s something appealing about a classic Aston that has the performance to leave their vulgar aggression far behind. Ungentlemanly? Possibly. Immensely satisfying? Certainly.
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Buying essentials for all these cars include a full service history from a recognised specialist, such as RS Williams, Davron or HWM, a road test and report. Don’t be tempted by a project DB that looks like a bargain – these cars feature handbuilt engines and hand-crafted alloy bodies that need expert attention.
DB2, DB Mk II
The Watson/Bentley LB6 engine can lose oil pressure because when hot its aluminium circular bearing housings can expand away from the crankshaft. David Reed of specialist Davron, says, `When building these engines we fit a new crank, rods and pistons, then they’re safe to 7000rpm, we have engines reliably producing 200bhp.
Standard engines were susceptible in period, but look after them with regular oil changes and don’t rev them above amorpm and they will go on for some years.
`The three-litre in the Mk II is a different engine with a better crankshaft and fuel pump, plus the porting and camshafts were a development of the DB3S. But to get the bigger capacity they moved the bore centres in pairs and offset the conrod where it joined the big-end, so it wasn’t central. The rods were therefore prone to break if revved above 600orpm.’ Gearboxes are rugged, but non-synchro first can be chipped by clumsy selection. Also, getting parts for the DB2’s Salisbury 3HA rear axle is harder than for the Mk II’s 4HA. Check body and chassis for electrolytic corrosion, which can start on the rear wheelarches and door bottoms. Also the bonnet hinges can rust, which can lead to bonnet flexing and, ultimately, cracked alloy near the top of the wheelarches.
DB4, DBS, DB6, DBS V8
RS Williams boss Richard Williams says, `Check for leakage of the cylinder liner seals and corrosion of the alloy cylinder block. Examine the bleed holes – six v8in holes (four each side on the V8) on the carburettor side of the engine – for leaks, because this is a full engine strip. When we have to strip an engine we convert the cylinder head to unleaded.’ Transmissions are strong and reliable. Most DB4 spring clutches have been replaced by a diaphragm type, and modern synchromesh cones are available for the David Brown gearbox. Most DB5s and all DB6 models came with the ZF five-speed ‘box, which is tough but noisy at idle and uses thick oil that makes gear changing hard when cold. Look for is bubbling paint along the door bottoms caused by electrolytic corrosion. The hardest check is for corrosion in the sill area of the chassis behind the alloy sills – you’ll need a borescope or something similar to it to see what’s going on inside.
Richard Zethrin of HWM Aston Martin says, `Both engines can suffer with water ingress into the fuel system, causing rough running. `Rust can afflict the front inner wheelarches near the top damper mounting area and the rear mountings of the front subframe. Banging from the front over bumps can be worn front damper bushes or worn suspension bushes and dampers. `The six-cylinder automatic can make a strange whining noise when changing from first to second gear, but this is not unusual. The Vantage automatic and Touchtronic are strong gearboxes, with no major problems. `On V12 models listen for cracking and banging coming from the rear; bolts work loose on the lower wishbone trunion on early models. Sometimes the top of the subframe can split – the manual is more prone to this – and the diffrential becomes loose.’
Watch this video for Every Model Aston Martin from DB2 to DBS V8