The prototype DB2 road car had a hectic life-, first with David Brown then with Lance Macklin the Targa Florio and Mille Miglia. This is the story of the car that wouldinfluence every subsequent Aston Martin.
It is the familiar blended with the unfamiliar. Differences are subtle yet… oh look, it’s no good, I can sense you’re distracted because I experienced similar thoughts when I first saw those big 18in wheels on an Aston Martin. Cynics might speculate that UMC 272 once appeared on an austerity precursor to Pimp My Ride, but the truth is that those 18in wires are original equipment and not down to the over-exuberance of a previous owner with a penchant for trials.
The DB2 represents a pivotal moment in David Brown’s ownership of Aston Martin. If the 2 Litre Sports – retrospectively referred to as the DB1 – saw Brown guide Aston Martin out of the primeval pottage, its successor is the next rung up on the evolutionary ladder – when Aston Martin grew legs, quickly mastered walking and deftly learnt to run.
Despite being based on chief engineer Claude Hill’s ‘Atom’ chassis from 1939 and spawning the successful one-off 2 Litre Sports ‘Spa Replica’ that took Jock Horsfall and Leslie Johnson to victory in the 1948 Spa 24-hour race, the 1948 2 Litre Sports was not a success. it lacked rigidity – 13 of the 14 cars were dropheads – and the long bonnet only covered a 197occ four-cylinder motor.
After Brown’s 1947 acquisition of Aston Martin and Lagonda his influence was quickly felt. Given his fondness for racing horses, polo, flying and motor sports, it was no surprise that Aston Martin embraced the virtues of performance, sportiness and competition under his ownership.
Encouraged by the success of the 2 Litre Sports at Spa, the new DB MkII made its debut at 1949’s Le Mans 24-hours. Even though Hill had left the company, the new model used a shortened, strengthened (by Ted Cutting) version of the 2 Litre Sports chassis and 197occ engine; but this time Hill’s legacy sat beneath a two-seater fixed-head coupe of far more modern appearance. Once again styled by the DB1’s designer, Frank Feeley, the DB Mkll (as it was then called) represented a huge aesthetic step forward for Aston Martin; Feeley had clearly been taking notes on a recent trip to northern Italy.
Three DB Mklls took part in the 24-hours: chassis LMA/49/1 (UMC 64) driven by Arthur Jones and Nick Haines (the only car to finish, achieving seventh overall); LMA/49/2 (UMC 65) driven by Pierre Marechal and Taso Mathieson (which crashed, fatally injuring Marechal); and LML/49/3 (UMC 66) driven by Leslie Johnson and Charles Brackenbury (which retired after three laps).
At Spa in 1949 Johnson and Brackenbury drove UMC 66 to an impressive third overall and Haines and Lance Macklin finished fifth. Such was the improvement that the 2.5-litre DB Mkll, or DB2, got the
go-ahead for series production.
The initially disappointing UMC 66 made the biggest impact on Aston Martin’s future. David Brown insisted on giving it the Lagonda LB6 six-cylinder engine and it was this decision, effectively
ending development of his I970cc overhead-valve unit, that had sparked Hill’s resignation.
UMC 272 is the fourth chassis, LML/49/4, and the first six-cylinder DB2 built to complete road specification. A little confusion surrounds the car’s build sheet because two are on file. The more comprehensive of the two contains particulars of non-standard equipment and states ‘Le Mans car’, but this is probably a reference to it featuring similar bodywork to UMC 66.
Completed in July 1949 just after Spa, the car was first owned by David Brown. Essentially packing almost ideal provenance for a DB2, it represents Aston Martin getting into its gentlemanly stride as a builder of bespoke sporting GTs. Moreover, you can state without any hesitation that UMC 272 represents the Aston Martin DB range’s ‘big bang’ moment.
Its first recorded trip was with Brown to the BRDC International Trophy at Silverstone, where it tackled a lap of honour with Macklin. It was also used for public relations work, Laurence Pomeroy driving it to Paris, Brussels and Le Mans for The Motor.It remained with the factory until 1950 when Macklin was invited to compete in the Targa Florio; no works car was available so he bought and entered it as a workssupported entry. Mid-journey he entered the Coppa Inter-Europa at Monza, finishing fourth at an average 85mph behind a works Alfa and two Ferraris and winning the concours d’elegance too.
The Aston was then shipped from Naples to Palermo for the Targa. But after a 3am start in dreadful weather its race ended when Macklin, co-driver John Gordon and UMC 272 plunged into a ravine at speed while chasing Alberto Ascari’s Ferrari. Luckily only the car was damaged and a new front was dispatched from England. A month of repair work meant Macklin missed the start of the Mille Miglia in Brescia by five hours, which didn’t put him off joining the event mid-course. When Macklin finally got home – after stopping off to visit his mother in Monte Carlo – the repair bill was so big that he had to sell UMC 272 to a John Watkinson to settle the account.
Several owners later (its original service record goes up to number six) it was restored at Aston Martin Works Service in 1992, then spent nearly 20 years in storage hibernation.
A generous ride height, those vast wire wheels and a roofline that’s a good 4in lower than that of a production DB2 contrive to give UMC 272 an almost street-rod feel, an effect enhanced by the rather anachronistic metallic maroon paint. Then there’s that vast clamshell bonnet, which looks like hybrid of a production DB2 and the car’s fourcylinder experimental sisters.
There’s a knack to getting in – a standard DB2 is a tight fit for a 6ft tin driver, so lower the roofline by 4in and and it’s like pot-holing. At last I’m in and experiencing a nice scalp massage from the woollen headlining, with rationed legroom dictating a driving position resembling a yogic flyer in mid-bounce. The instrument layout owes a lot to the 2 Litre Sport, and in many ways it makes more sense than the production DB2’s central binnacle; the biggest difference is that it wears wood rather than leather. Dotted with white-on-black dials and Bakelite switchgear, it’s a beautiful, understated thing. A quick try-out of the floor-hinged pedals and David Brown four-speed gearbox, a twist of the key, a stab of the starter, engage first and I’m off.
Riding on soft Dunlop Racing rubber it takes a fair few miles before UMC is riding on round wheels. Until then it’s shake, rattle and toil. But after this it doesn’t take long to come to terms with driving this car and I’m soon relaxed enough to admire the cabin’s warm, Forties ambience.
UMC effortlessly duels with black cabs, motorcycle couriers and blinkered cyclists. The cast iron I2in Girling drum brakes need a shove, but their stopping power and feedback are just-so. As for the steering, if only production DB2s had managed to come to such a pleasant compromise between the warring demands of feel and weight.
Ideally I’d be heading for La Sarthe, Sicily or the Mille Miglia circuit, but time is against me. So instead it’s only fitting that UMC should take in a few of its old haunts around Middlesex and Surrey. Property developers and councils have foiled any attempt to revisit the car’s Feltham factory, so instead I go hunting for suitable rural roads to get a feel for what this car was like in 1949 The steering box is good for its type, but there’s a horrible numb void in the middle that only serves to make driving on beaten-up motorways even more edgy thanks to tyres that yearn to go sideways.
Yet I’m highly impressed by the LB6’s ability to cope with traffic, because I can be lazy and let the torque do the hard work; the docility and flexibility of this engine are considerable, given its age.
In typical Aston style the big Smiths I20mph clockwise speedometer and anti-clockwise tachometer needles mirror one another. The 2.6-litre unit hits its sweet spot at 3000rpm and the deliciously bronchial mild-mannered engine note alters. Losing all decorum, it becomes louder and less inhibited, building up to a goosebumpcoaxing oral apogee. But I promised the car’s custodian, Nicholas Mee, that I would treat it with due care and respect, so I reluctantly select top gear; after all, Laurence Pomeroy may have written, ‘The six-cylinder Aston Martin DB Mkll stands worthily in the pedigree of real motor cars stretching back through the 4.5-litre Bentley to the 30/98 Vauxhall,’ but the LB6 wasn’t terribly reliable in period. You only have to look at UMC 272’s service record to see that it has experienced plenty of engine issues.
UMC is wieldier through bends than a DB2 on wider l6in wheels because the steering doesn’t load up as much. However, you have to take into account the sideways effect – haul on lock and the lack of sidewall rigidity means that the racing rubber won’t respond like a radial. You don’t gobble up a bend in one application of lock in this car – you nibble at it. Inch the steering around the bend, divide it into segments, wait for the tyres to settle, grip and respond, before turning the steering again and repeat until you’re finally around.
Work the engine and enjoy the gearbox – it has real gravitas and is well engineered. Understand UMC’s dynamics and the sense of satisfaction isn’t merely palpable – it’s highly effective therapy against the electrically assisted fly-by-wire this, that and the other that seems to plague modern-day machinery.
Did Aston make the right changes when it put the car into production? Yes, given The Autocar’s 1950 review of the DB2, ‘It is difficult to give too much praise to the handling and performance…’ Extra leg and headroom aid comfort, as do the wheels normally found on production DB2s (though early road tests quoted a nine per cent performance improvement using i8in wheels) because stability is boosted considerably. As for the interior, UMC’s is far more functionally and aesthetically successful, if not as flexible for left-hand drive as the production DB2’s.
UMC 272 is undoubtedly charming and characterful, but I won’t remember it purely for that – it’s stamped indelibly in my memory because it has given me a rare insight into the development of the first true David Brown Aston Martin.
I’m smitten by the end of my journey. I hope that this won’t be the last we see of this car in the UK and that its departure for a new life in Switzerland marks not a fond farewell, but merely au revoir.
1949 Aston Martin DB2 Prototype Engine 2580cc in-line six-cylinder, dohc, two SU H4 carburettors Power and torque 105bhp @ 5000rpm;1251b ft @ 3100rpm Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive Steering Worm-and-roller Suspension Front: independent, trailingarms, coil springs, lever-arm dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: live axle, parallel trailing arms, coil springs, Panhard rod, lever-arm dampers Brakes Drums front and rear Weight 1112kg(2452lb) Performance Top speed: 110mph; 0-60mph: 12.4sec Fuel consumption 17mpg Cost new £1915 (production saloon) Value now n/a
Ferguson: life after Aston Martin
Engineer Claude Hill wasn’t alone in falling out with David Brown – Harry Ferguson was another, following a disagreement over tractor sales.
After resigning from Massey-Harris-Ferguson Ltd, he established Harry Ferguson Research Ltd in 1950 with the aim of producing a family car with a four-wheel- drive transmission. This had been inspired by a vehicle nicknamed ‘the crab’ that had been put together by Freddie Dixon and Tony Rolt, who joined the new company as directors. Dixon soon left, but Hill was hired to work with Rolt as the crab progressed.
The concept was eventually abandoned and replaced by the first of the R-cars, which culminated in the R5 prototype – a ground-breaking five-door hatchback equipped with four-wheel drive and ABS brakes. Ferguson had hoped that a major manufacturer would be interested in series production, but it wasn’t to be. Only Richard Jensen showed an interest in the R5…
Ferguson collapsed and died on October 251960 while working on a new 4×4 racing car, ‘Project 99’, which went on to win the Oulton Park Gold Cup in 1961. Sadly, he never saw a production car use his four-wheel drive and ABS systems, though the technology famously found its way into the Jensen FF and the never-raced 4×41964 F1 BRM P67.vw