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Aston DB provided a memorable ride for Bond

June 05, 2005|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

With eye-popping body work and a throaty growl produced by a double-overhead-cam inline six-cylinder engine, the DB4 and its DB5 sibling are considered the quintessential Aston Martins.

During their seven-year production run (with a mere 2,406 examples built), these upscale sports cars became more than just performance benchmarks. They were equally coveted for their sheetmetal artistry. From any angle, they continue to evoke grace, style, elegance and power.

Arriving at this lofty summit, though, would not be an easy journey.

Just what was David Brown thinking when he purchased the ailing Aston Martin company back in 1947? On the surface, this successful manufacturer of tractors and transmissions was buying nothing but trouble. Founded in 1914 by Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford (the Aston part of the name originated from the British Aston Clinton hillclimb event), the company had entered bankruptcy twice before and seemed a poor prospect for any entrepreneur. However, Brown had plans to make a success of his new acquisition. Having also purchased the Lagonda automobile company, his idea was to take that marque's powerful twin-cam six-cylinder motor designed by W.O. Bentley (yes, that Bentley) and use it to propel much lighter (and thus quicker and faster) Astons.

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Brown's initial effort, dubbed the DB1 and launched in 1948, featured somewhat dated styling and was made in very limited numbers. The first real test of the Lagonda powerplant came in 1950 with the arrival of the DB2. Skinned in aluminum over a tubular frame, the racy fastback (a few convertibles were also constructed) could easily top 100 mph. Equally important were the car's luxurious appointments, including seats finished in the finest of Connolly leather hides and deep-pile wool carpets. This heady combination of speed and opulence would become the hallmark for all future Aston Martins.

During the mid-1950s, Brown introduced the DB2/4, essentially a revised DB2 with four-place seating and a stronger engine. These became popular gentlemen's tourers, promoted through a successful racing program that saw both DB2s and DB3s compete in various British and European events including the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans staged every year in the French countryside.

An extensively reworked version of W.O. Bentley's six-cylinder design would form the basis of the DB2/4's replacement in 1958. Brand new from the tires up, the DB4 moved straight into that realm of exotic sports cars already occupied by the likes of Ferrari and Maserati. It even featured a body sculpted by Carrozzeria Touring of Italy. To reinforce its Anglo/Italian breeding, DB4s had the word Superleggera, (Super light-weight) attached to their hoods.

Under the hand-formed aluminum bonnet resided a 3.7-liter DOHC I-6 that put out an impressive 240 horsepower, enough to move the 2,900-pound beauty from zero to 60 mph in about eight seconds. The company also bragged that a bone-stock US $10,000 DB4 would travel from zero to 100 mph and back to zero in a mere 27 seconds and reach a top speed of 140 mph, feats that served to enhance its supercar status.

Although equipped with great looks and plenty of horsepower, the DB4 was also blessed with an advanced double-wishbone front suspension and coil springs at all four corners. Disc brakes front and rear were also part of the package.

Inside, the leather-covered cabin contained plenty of dials and gauges that monitored every function imaginable. On the downside, headroom was at a premium, the bucket seats were too upright for comfort and the rear bench was barely child-sized.

A year after its introduction in 1959, Aston Martin created the DB4GT, basically a short-wheelbase DB4 with triple SU carburetors that increased horsepower to 266. Of the 100 GTs made during the next two years, 25 were specially produced (and Italian-styled) Zagato coupes that were a hit on the race track as well as on the street.

Also in 1959, Aston Martin would achieve its first and only World Sports Car Championship, including victory at Le Mans. Credit for the company's racing success that year was due to the brilliance of the legendary Stirling Moss, who earned most of the wins.

The DB4 gave way to the DB5 in 1963. The replacement car had similar looks, but its larger 4.0-liter DOHC straight-six could be ordered in either 282- or 325-horsepower strengths. A five-speed manual transmission or three-speed automatic could also be specified.

The DB5's greatest fame came from its feature role as James Bond's spy ride in the silver-screen flick Goldfinger. With its assortment of built-in weaponry and passenger-side ejector seat, this particular Aston Martin remains unforgettable with 007 fans around the world.

The DB-numbered series would continue until 1971 when the last DB6 left the shop floor. By that time Aston Martin was once again in financial difficulties that would result in David Brown selling his company to an investment group for the equivalent of about $200 (yes, two hundred). In 1987 the Ford Motor Company assumed ownership, thus keeping the name - and its power-with-prestige pedigree - and alive to this day.

Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' automotive history writer.

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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