This Aston Martin DB4 packs competition-derived GT power into standard bodywork. Perfect for shrinking trans-Europe journeys, then
I collected DB4 GT chassis numbers’ said Don Rose almost sheepishly as we pawed the flanks of his silver Aston Martin DB4 on a stop in an obscure Belgian back road. It seemed an odd pastime for a man who works in the music industry, where presumably, most earthly temptations have been put before him. I mean, chassis number compilation, even of a wonderful car like the DB4 GT, isn’t really up there in the leisure pursuit stakes with sniffing cocaine out of a groupie’s cleavage.
The thing is, Sixties Aston Martins do this to people. They reduce grown men to enthusiastic schoolboys, turn worldly business tycoons into train spotters caught like rabbits in the full-beam glare of the glamour, rarity and hand-built mythology of Britain’s most feted marque.
These are cars that evoke strong passions. A whole generation of young males had the cars’ image burned into their brains when they first saw Goldfinger, so the name and the shape gets the testosterone flowing almost like the memory of a first kiss.
When you’re little you don’t know the names of the different DB Series. I can still remember gazing at my copy of the Ladybird Book of Cars, opened at the picture of a DB6, convinced that it was ‘James Bond’s car’ and defending its honour against a Maserati Mistral that was depicted in the same book.
Later, when you know a bit more, it’s the DB5 that you want because it’s the one that’s in the film. Further on, when you finally have to accept the fact that you’re not actually going to be James Bond when you grow up, you realise that the one to have is actually the DB4 GT because it’s the fastest, the rarest and the one that Aston Martin actually raced. What you don’t know – unless you spend far too much of your time looking at car books, that is – is that Aston Martin made just a handful of standard wheelbase DB4s powered by the hugely exciting GT engine.
Visually it would be hard not to like them; particularly the elegant purity of the DB4. Fifties Astons look quaint and dumpy now, the Seventies cars vulgar and pumped-up, but the Sixties models embraced Italian style to superb effect. Aston tinkered with Touring’s shape of course (and finally buggered it up with the crop-tail DB6) but the original car is a masterful piece of work, so lithe and slim yet eager and powerful looking. No subsequent Aston, for me, has recaptured the beauty of these cars. If the DB4 is Savile Row then the DB7 is tracksuit bottoms and Nike trainers.
Encounter a DB4 and you can sense the handbuilt feel in the tight shut lines, the attention to detail and the crafty use of parts bin components in such a way that you don’t really notice them. Astons were not afflicted with the Morris Marina doorhandle syndrome that so many other low-volume cars suffered from. Then there’s the locks with the tiny keys, the cool touch of the wood-rimmed wheel, the rifle bolt action of the gear change and, of course, the muscular urge from a six-cylinder engine that flicks all the right emotional switches.
Aston Martin built 1070 of its DB4 ‘saloons’ (of which 70 were convertibles) between October 1958 and June 1963. The first car designed entirely under the management of David Brown, its aluminium engine was beset with engine problems. When the oil got really hot at sustained high speeds, the clearances in the bearings could grow to three times their normal size. The different rates of expansion of aluminium hadn’t been reckoned with and it transpired that the oil pump simply couldn’t deliver the volume of oil required. Aston’s straightforward cure involved upping the sump capacity and fitting an oil cooler.
1961GT-engined Aston Martin DB4
Engine 3670cc, in-line six-cylinder, dohc, twin-spark, triple Weber carburettors
Power and torque 314bhp at 6000rpm; 278lb ft at 5400rpm
Transmission Fourspeed manual with overdrive, rear-wheel drive
Brakes Discs all round, servo-assisted
Suspension Front: independent, double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: live axle, coil springs, parallel trailing links, Watt linkage, lever-arm dampers
Performance Top speed: 153mph; 0-60mph: 6.1 sec (The Autocar,1962)
Cost new £4169
The car was refined over five different unofficial series defined by dates and chassis numbers. And concurrent with production of the short-chassis GT, you could order your standard wheelbase DB4 with the GT’s big-valve, high compression, 12-plug, dual ignition, tripleWebered engine. Power went up from 240bhp to 302bhp at 6000rpm. These cars had the larger, twin-plate clutch and the Powr-lok rear end that was fitted to all the GT-engined DB4s as part of the GT power train package. Just eight standard wheelbase DB4s were built with the GT engine – two Series four cars and six Series five cars. This example – chassis number DB4/861/L – is one of them. It was ordered with the GT gauge package, which included an oil temperature gauge and desirable overdrive for the wide ratio four-speed David Brown gearbox.
Rose has got the Aston bug bad, ‘It started with James Bond. I always wanted a DB5. I reached a point in my life where I could afford one but I realised that the DB4 was more sporting. I found one in America in 1992 with a 4-litre DB5 engine so it was a nice combination. I do sprints and hill climbs and a bit of circuit racing. Working in Britain for two years, I had a little time on my hands and have found myself with three DB4s – the standard car, a GT and this car. I’ve got to sell at least one of them.’
What’s next, a convertible? ‘No, they always looked a little chopped to me. If I was going to have an Aston convertible it would be a DB6 Volante because it was more of a cruising car than a sports car anyway.’ Rose doesn’t know much of the car’s early American history, only that it was restored in the States by Robert and Jon Clerk of Performance Tuning and fitted with a Harvey Bailey handling kit.
Anyway, enough history. The thing is, we are in Belgium, our mission to get the DB4 – which Rose has never actually driven before – back to the Calais ferry and over the water to England. The car awaits us at GTM, an exotic car specialist in a suburb of Brussels. The bill is settled (new starter motor and battery), we talk cars with the proprietor for a while, then set forth.
Running through the post-morning rush hour traffic the Aston behaves well. The revs hunt a little at the looorpm idle, the ride is firm and jiggly over every ripple and ridge in the road and the clutch is testing my thigh muscles. But you couldn’t call it a difficult car to drive. The David Brown gearbox gets a bad press but if anything it is more positive than the subsequent ZF five-speeder, and the overdrive on this car makes it equally versatile.
We intend to find some more interesting roads back to the coast but to get things rolling we head for the E40 and let the Aston wind out to lOOmph in direct drive before popping into overdrive. It sounds wonderful and feels very strong. In straight GT form, don’t forget, this engine powered Britain’s fastest production car of the early Sixties – good for 153mph; 0-60mph in 6.1 seconds. Famously it could accelerate to lOOmph and stop again in 20 seconds dead.
It’s a warmish day so Rose keeps both windows rolled down to try and counter the heat soak from the engine. It is hardly a quiet car, even with the windows up, because of wind noise from around the doors.
The smell inside is one of leather mixed with the hint of oil. The seats, generously sized, seem a little prosaic in shape for something so quick and don’t even pretend to keep you in your place through corners.
The four discs wipe off speed nicely when the drivers of the modern cars ahead in the fast lane start to get too close and nervously brake.
We peel off the E40 in search of more atmospheric roads and some lunch. It’s the long way round but the boat doesn’t leave ’ till ten o’clock this evening, so there’s plenty of time to play; to sample the lunging acceleration that pushes you deep into the seats to well beyond lOOmph in third gear; to hear the engine work. Symphonic on command, it delivers a noise that rumbles up somewhere between the legs, a crescendo of induction roar and complex valve gear that suggests expensiveness and could almost bring a tear to the eye of even the most jaded driver at 6ooorpm.
The gear change is pleasingly robust and satisfying, hitting home with a positive action. Somehow the little lever seems to make a direct connection to the shafts and gears below rather than giving the sensation of stirring 16 bits of rubber. It responds well to a casually blipped throttle, something I find myself doing at every given opportunity in any case.
We’re making better time than we expected so we decide to go for an earlier boat. It’s a good excuse to push the DB4 even harder. It’s responsive to throttle openings – or the lack of them – in corners. Drive it timidly on a trailing right foot and it feels a bit ponderous, unresponsive, front-heavy. Drive it through the curve with the power on, moving the weight front-to-rear, and it comes alive especially when, like this one, it is fitted with original-style Avon crossply tyres that allow generous side-slip so you can act the goat coming of roundabouts. Seats that were a little more figure-hugging would make the car that much easier to drive quickly.
Steering that feels a bit lifeless at low speeds seems suddenly alive and informative now. Even if the solid rear axle thuds and tramps a little where a good independent set-up would simply smoother a bump, it doesn’t misbehave.
As we wait for the ferry to start loading, Rose still can’t decide which of his three DB4s to keep.‘It’s one of those car-guy quandaries. This is a really rare unique thing and just unrepeatable for me, that’s what I’d have to face. But I’m so happy with my other car…’
It’s a nice problem to have.
Watch this video of Secret GT-Engined Aston Martin DB4