Aston Martin DB3S track test: Beauty and the best

The DB3S is one of Aston Martin's most underappreciated racers. It's now time for it to claim its place as one of the company's all-time greats

by Andrew Frankel

There may be more exciting things you can do with a steering wheel in your hands than guide an Aston Martin DB3S around Goodwood, but few are more satisfying, fewer still that make you feel more lucky to earn your living this way. It is true that the DB3S was not suited to every circuit at which it raced and we’ll get to the reasons for that, but as the car flows over Goodwood’s crests you could easily be convinced that this car was made for this track, and vice versa.

You don’t need me to tell you that the DB3S is beautiful. To me its Frank Feeley body is the best of an era that provided a greater concentration of heart-stoppingly beautiful sports cars than any other: Jaguar D-type, Maserati 300S, Ferrari 750 Monza… the list is long, but while the Italian shapes were more sleek and the Jaguar’s more interesting, the DB3S tops the list for sheer, simple beauty. 

Even among Astons, it is hard to beat. Improving the preceding DB3’s flat-faced shape was perhaps not difficult, but not even the far more successful DBR1 was drop-dead gorgeous like this. But that’s not why it’s here.

It’s here because to me the DB3S has as good a claim to being the most important Aston Martin racing car as the DBR1. That I concede is some statement, given that it ranks the DB3S alongside the only Aston to win Le Mans outright and the World Sports Car Championship. But if you look at where Aston Martin was before and after the DB3S, its contribution is clear. Before the DB3S Aston Martin had never won a premier league sports car race, its best cars only ever contenders for class wins at the really big events. The DB3S not only delivered that big win, but also took second at Le Mans three times in four years.

What’s more remarkable is that the DB3S was derived from the DB3, Aston’s first purpose-built racer, a car designed and engineered so conservatively as to be deficient in almost every area: weight, power, suspension configuration and aerodynamics. What a largely unsung hero of the sport did in taking that unprepossessing raw material, and turning it into a car that made Aston Martin a credible force in global motor sport for the very first time, should never be overlooked. The DB3S was the car that gave Aston Martin the confidence it could cut it with the best, and that confidence enabled Aston Martin to go further still with the design of the DBR1, the car that finally delivered Le Mans and the title. 

“It’s a car that really has everything,” says classic car dealer Peter Bradfield, who has brought DB3S/2 to Goodwood today and recently sold another non-works car. “It looks beautiful, sounds beautiful and, as you are about to find, out, is pretty beautiful to drive.” As one of just 11 factory cars and with Peter Collins among its former owners, its value can be estimated in the many, many millions of pounds.

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The DB3S happened because, as Aston’s period competition manager John Wyer recalled, “We weren’t happy with the DB3, it was too big and too heavy and had been rather disappointing.” It had been designed by Dr Eberan von Eberhorst, whose pre-war reputation as the developer of the D-type Auto Union spoke for itself. But Aston Martin was a very different organisation and it’s fair to say that a shoestring budget and Wyer’s demands to get the car finished did not sit well with the methodical Eberhorst, any more than did its twin-cam engine, originally designed by WO Bentley for Lagonda. His natural caution and Auto Union experience caused him to select heavy gauge chassis members onto which a large, unattractive body was bolted in traditional style. When the car was finished it was late, overweight, underpowered and unreliable. So it fell to one Willie Watson, a senior designer who’d worked for Bentley before the war, to find a solution.

I’ve always thought it a shame Watson’s work merited no more than a single letter appended to the original name, for to think of the DB3S as merely an optimised DB3 is to misunderstand it completely. And unlike the DB3, the ‘S’ was done in quickly: five months from presentation of concept to a running prototype. The engine (now expanded to three litres), gearbox and front suspension survived the transition, but the rest of the car was new. Lower, narrower, shorter and with a chassis made from lighter gauge steel, it featured new sliding block rear suspension and a light alloy final drive. Feeley’s bodywork was aerodynamically stable and also efficient in rejecting hot air from the engine.

The result was clear from the very first Monza test, Peter Collins lapping about 4sec faster than the DB3 had ever gone despite having no more power. It also gave the distinct impression of being more reliable than the DB3. For the first time, it seemed Aston had built a car that could compete with the world’s best.

“The car was more than good enough,” says the voice on the end of the telephone, “but its engine never had the power to do the rest of it justice.” I’m talking to Tony Brooks who, with Sir Stirling Moss, is one only two drivers alive to have raced a factory DB3Ss regularly in period. “It was lovely to drive: strong, balanced and competitive on circuits where power was not a priority, but at places with long straights, all you could do was sit there while Ferraris, Maseratis and Jaguars went flying past.”

The car’s first big win came in its first year, at the Dundrod Tourist Trophy in Northern Ireland. Facing three fully developed factory Jaguar C-types, one with Moss on board, the car of Collins and Pat Griffith won, with Reg Parnell and Eric Thompson’s DB3S second. By contrast all three Jaguars suffered transmission problems, two terminal, the third sufficiently serious to restrict Moss to fourth.

Coming right at the end of its first season, the omens for 1954 could scarcely have been better, but that promise was not matched by results. According to Wyer, it was “A complete disaster. The principal reason was we tried to do far too much with far too little.” Le Mans provided the perfect example: Aston entered four DB3Ss, two with gorgeous coupé bodywork, and a V12 Lagonda. The Lagonda crashed first, then both coupés had accidents caused by their appalling aerodynamic instability, while the two open DB3Ss succumbed to mechanical failure. In the world championship, a single third place in Buenos Aires for Collins and Griffith was the only result of note.

But 1955 was far better. The DB3S became the car to beat in domestic sports car racing, winning at Silverstone, Aintree, Crystal Palace, Oulton Park and, best of all, the Goodwood Nine Hours. Internationally, the first of those second places came at Le Mans, albeit courtesy of the withdrawal of the Mercedes-Benz team after the infamous accident. Back at the Tourist Trophy, a DB3S was first car home behind the three rampant SLR Mercedes, and ahead of factory teams from Maserati, Jaguar and Ferrari.

As could be expected given this was its fourth season, by 1956 the light of the DB3S had started to fade, partly through age, partly because Wyer and his team had switched focus to the DBR1 with its lightweight spaceframe construction. But the 3S still came second at Le Mans and won its class, was still formidably competitive at home and was still beloved by all who drove it; but was no match for more modern, lighter Ferraris and Jaguars with their bigger, more powerful engines.

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So just how successful was the DB3S? Given where it came from and how little money was available relative to that spent by other factory teams, I think it did just fine – and there are statistics to back it up. In Chris Nixon’s superb Racing with the David Brown Aston Martins, Wyer put it like this: “In four seasons as a front-line, factory racer, the DB3S started 35 major races and scored 15 outright wins, 13 seconds and 7 thirds.” Not a bad record for a car born out of an older, failed project.

And one of those victories belongs to DB3S/2, whose chassis plate is worn by the car you see here. Crashed on its debut by Reg Parnell at Le Mans in 1953, it nevertheless went on to win the Goodwood Nine Hours later that summer and come second in the Tourist Trophy. But the following year Parnell crashed it again, this time heavily on the Mille Miglia, and its chassis was scrapped, its body bolted to another DB3S. But, as was common practice in the day, its chassis number was simply transferred to a new works car, the one before you now. It was raced as a works car at Dundrod by Collins and Griffiths, where it retired with final drive failure, but it came second at the Aintree International, beaten by less than 2sec by Masten Gregory’s monstrous Ferrari 373MM with an engine half as large again. It was then bought by Collins, who managed to race it five times in 1955, always finishing, and on the podium at both Oulton Park and Snetterton.

Being an earlier car, it comes with rounded curves and not the ‘Gothic Arch’ edges that became a feature of later works cars. Its engine has the twin-plug head that arrived in 1954 to raise power from a wholly insufficient 182bhp to a still scarcely adequate 225bhp. When you consider that the SLR Mercedes and big V12 Ferraris were beyond 300bhp, you have some idea of what the little Astons were up against. As its life as a works car ceased in 1954, it correctly lacks the disc brakes that appeared in spring 1955. Incidentally, when discs became available not everyone liked them, Collins in particular insisting his car stayed on drums.

It is wonderfully uncomplicated to drive. Bradfield explains the starting process – flick a switch and press a button – and the old twin-cam straight six spins into life, happy to idle evenly at 1100rpm. It’s a lovely sound, not symphonic like a Ferrari, nor hard edged and brutal like the Mercedes, but sweet, smooth and reassuring.

The cockpit is straightforward, too. It’s reasonably spacious for what is actually quite a small car, far more roomy than a C-type Jaguar for example. It’s dominated by a huge Jaeger rev-counter flanked by the usual scatter of minor Smiths instruments. The gearbox has just four speeds, laid out in a conventional H pattern, with reverse safely tucked away back and to the right. Bradfield has already warmed it through for me and time is short, so there seems little point in hanging about.

The engine note hardens as it sucks air through its trio of 45mm Weber carburettors, exuding a certain steeliness as you accelerate towards a conservative 5500rpm, but never quite resorting to the savagery exhibited by some race engines from this period to which modern tuning methods have been applied. It feels entirely standard, as it should, but quick enough probably to trouble one of the warmer modern Porsche 911s in a straight line.

I’ve been told the brakes are poor but, on a circuit with many high-speed straights and curves to keep them cool, they work well for a car of this performance and vintage. 

But a DB3S is all about the corners and while I’ve driven Ferrari, Jaguar and Mercedes sports racers from this era, from entry to apex to exit the Aston is the best balanced and most communicative of them all. Moss used to complain about the DB3S lifting an inside wheel and losing power, but I expect he was driving them rather differently. To a mere mortal it is simply sublime: it turns in with the merest hint of understeer and, if you like, will tackle the whole corner in this safe and secure stance. But what it’s actually inviting you to do is lift a touch just to tuck the nose back into the apex before adding judicious amounts of power with your right foot. In a less classy car, this would wrench the back loose and you’d be flailing as you tried to contain the slide. Instead the DB3S flows gently from mild understeer to gentle oversteer. This is its natural state.

The problem is that within a couple of laps it’s well on the way to convincing you that you’re not just a middle-aged historic racer, but some kind of superhero. The temptation to make like Peter Collins and start drifting it around at more than 100mph is very evident.

But I’m not Collins and this is not my car: it’s a near priceless jewel. I can see as clearly today as it must have seemed in the 1950s why the DB3S was never going to mount a consistent challenge to the fastest sports cars in the world, but almost a lifetime later none of that matters. 

Visually the car is a work of art, and as a driving machine it is something more even than that. I hope I have spelled out its importance, too. As Brooks said to me: “If you could have put the engine and gearbox from a Ferrari into an Aston Martin, the result would have been the greatest sports car of its time.” As a man who raced sports cars for both factory teams in the 1950s, his perspective is not only unique but, I suspect, spot on too.