Moody Blue

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Taking a slice out of its road car gave Aston Martin a moment of glory on the track, but it also shaped the marque’s styling approach for a decade
Writer: Richard Heseltine | Photographer: Matt Howell

When viewed through the cold gaze of the sceptic, there can be only one firm conclusion: the Aston Martin DB4GT wasn’t a great racing car. The history books will tell you that it won straight out of the box but was soon eclipsed by Latin rivals; that it was too heavy and abusive of its tyres to be a front-runner. It’s a model that matters more because of what it led to – the critically canonised DB4GT Zagato and the mighty Design Project cars – than for what it actually achieved. As such, it’s a relative footnote in marque history, you might argue.

However, when viewed in a studio, it’s a different matter entirely. The car pictured here is arguably the most famous example, the much-campaigned ex-Moss, ex-Sears, ex-people who matter chassis 0151/R, still resplendent in the familiar indigo blue and white livery of Ecurie Endeavour, which fielded the car in period. It is truly striking, a glamorous alchemy of beauty and potency. But while the outline may appear familiar, that’s only the half of it. This wasn’t just a road car, it was a blunt instrument. A surprisingly versatile one, too.

Thanks to its reduced length and smoother nose the DB4GT’s profile appears more taut and compact than a regular DB4. Touring of Milan’s Federico Formenti created a sublime outline, retaining the regular car’s elegance but infusing it with muscularity. The Perspex headlight covers, sizeable bonnet scoop and air intakes offer all the desired racer reference points, the reduction in length over the standard DB4 being mostly evident in the shorter doors. Much like a Ferrari 250GT SWB, the Aston’s outline looks just as enticing denuded of bumpers and other trinkets as it does with brightwork. While it’s easy to mistake it for a DB5 – the frontal treatment ensures this – the DB4GT undeniably has a character of its own. And dispel all thoughts of James Bond and Goldfinger; the DB4GT beat its descendant to the big screen, featuring in the wonderful Peter Sellers vehicle The Wrong Arm of the Law.

The Aston’s cabin, by contrast, appears to be from another era altogether. It feels as hand-wrought as any Newport Pagnell product should. The outline of the main instrument surround mirrors the shape of the grille, the classic white-on-black Smiths gauges proffering the desired old-school thoroughbred vibe. Three GTs received token rear seats in period, but with the boot packing a 32-gallon fuel tank and a full-sized wheel/tyre mounted on top, you really need the extra space for luggage. And while shorn of anything you might consider frivolous, what with this being a racer and all that, it really is a lovely office.

The DB4GT was conceived with the aim of maintaining the marque’s relevance in the GT category. It would also double-up as a range-topper in the road car line-up. Chief engineer Harold Beach took the existing Touring-penned DB4, which had been introduced at the 1958 Paris Motor Show, and removed five inches from its wheelbase. The new variant retained the existing Superleggera (super light) method of construction, but here with a Rizla-thin 18-gauge magnesium alloy skin rather than the regular car’s 16-gauge. Other weight-saving measures included fixed Perspex quarter windows and frameless door glazing. Distinct from the ‘lesser’ DB4, the GT also featured a sleeker new frontal treatment that would become styling shorthand for subsequent Astons to the end of the following decade and beyond.

Beauty here was more than skin deep. A new cylinder head was developed for the existing Tadek Marek-devised 3670cc straight-six, with two plugs per cylinder, timed by a pair of distributors, and the same 92mm bore and stroke. Triple Weber 45DCOE carbs were also added along with reprofiled cams (with different valve timing) in addition to a 9.0:1 compression ratio, polished conrods and other tweaks. The net result of all this was a useful hike in horsepower to 302bhp at 6000rpm, up by 62 over the standard car, although many marque experts claim this figure is at best optimistic: 280bhp would be closer, and even then only in racing trim. Transmitting the power to the road was a four-speed David Brown ’box, although contrary to popular belief this wasn’t used only in the GT and Zagato. It had the same non-overdrive four-speed unit as a regular DB4, but with close-ratio gears. It was allied to a twin-plate clutch and Powr-Lok diff. Save for revised spring rates and dampers, the suspension was carried over wholesale from the regular DB4, so unequal-length double wishbones and coils up front, and solid axle with a Watts linkage, parallel trailing links and lever-arm dampers at the rear. The rack and pinion steering was also carried over without modification. Bigger brakes – Girling discs front and rear – were fitted, although there was no servo assistance. However, despite being shorn of 185lb over the regular DB4, it still abused the scales at 2798lb.

The prototype, chassis DP199/1, was entered in the 12-lap Grand Touring Car race that kicked off the May ’59 International Trophy meeting at Silverstone. The car had yet to be homologated but, regardless, it was fielded for Stirling Moss against an assortment of four-door saloons and production sports cars, with only Roy Salvadori in John Coombs’ Jaguar MkII offering even token opposition. Autosport reported: “From pole position, Moss took an immediate lead in the DB4… There was considerable jockeying for position as the field swept under the bridge into Copse and, although no one actually shunted, there were many near misses. By the end of the first lap, Moss had pulled out a considerable lead over Salvadori and, as they came through Woodcote, the 3.7-litre Aston was very steady, while the smaller Jaguar was cornering almost on the door handles, accompanied by a characteristic ululant howl from it tyres… Moss continued to build up his lead, getting further and further away from Salvadori on each successful lap. He set up a record for the class on his third tour when he returned an electrifying time of 1min 55.8sec. Moss’s margin of victory over Salvadori was 16.8sec.”

A month later, the same car was entered in the Le Mans 24 Hours equipped with a 3-litre ‘six’ borrowed from the DBR3/1 sports-racer. Swiss privateers Hubert Patthey and Renaud Calderari were only the second driver pairing to retire from the race: while the factory DBR1s famously scored a 1-2 finish, the coupé ran its bearings just 21 laps in. Following the demise of his DBR2, Moss found himself back in a DB4GT during the end-of-season Bahamas Speed Week. On November 29, he beat Salvadori’s Austin-Healey 100S to take a class heat win in the Nassau Tourist Trophy.

The DB4GT had been unveiled in production-ready form at the Earls Court Motor Show a month earlier and its makers reckoned it was the fastest production car then on sale. What’s more, while the horsepower figures may have been massaged a little, the factory’s performance claims were more than mere PR hype. This was a graceful gentleman’s express that could reach 152mph and complete the 0-60mph dash in just 6.4sec, with driver/manager Reg Parnell cracking 0-100mph-0 – for so long Aston Martin’s promotional party piece – in just 20.8sec at the MIRA proving ground. He also set a personal best 0-100mph time of 14.2sec. This was just the ticket, therefore, for the moneyed amateur racer looking to trade in his workaday double-breasted pinstripes and bowler hat combo for a powder blue ‘romper suit’ and Herbert Johnson pudding basin helmet come the weekend.

And it would be left to amateurs – gentleman drivers in modern parlance – and privateer teams to maintain the marque’s relevance in motor sport after Aston Martin officially withdrew from sports car racing at the end of the year. Save for its stop-start Grand Prix programme, its involvement in motor sport would, for the time being at least, be of the tacit variety. All told, 75 DB4GTs would be made, five ‘lightweight’ – or ‘Build Sheet’ in factory speak – DB4GTs being built in 1960. ‘Our’ car was one of them. Precise information about this run within a run for favoured customers remains sketchy. Chiefly, there is a degree of confusion about how much additional weight was saved and from where. It would appear that the quintet were built with the same gauge of aluminium skin as the standard GT, savings being made by means of drilling the chassis, installing ally floor panels and removing what little trim remained.

Chassis 0124/R was supplied new to Tommy Sopwith, who entered it in the April 1960 Oulton Park Spring Meeting, but it failed to arrive. Intriguingly, two other DB4GTs were due to compete in the same Closed Car race and they too were no-shows. The Ecurie Endeavour car was then entrusted to Moss for the Goodwood Easter Monday meeting. The Aston was once again the dominant force over a field of saloons and small-capacity sports cars. Autosport reported: “The Closed Cars race was something of an anti-climax, providing Stirling Moss with the opportunity of proving just how rapid the GT DB4 is. Yet Roy Salvadori put up a splendid show with a perfectly normal Jaguar 3.8, and managed to keep ahead of Jack Sears in the Equipe Endeavour car, the blue 3.8 being stable-mate to the newly-acquired DB4.”

And the DB4GT was rapid; demonstrably so. Sears drove the car – then registered AM400 – in the April ’60 Aintree 200 meeting where it once again steamrollered the opposition. According to Autosport: “Sears, despite a somewhat juddery start owing to axle tramp, immediately took the lead and narrowly missed being rammed from behind by a Lotus Elite. He was chased by Dick Protheroe’s veteran XK120, now with a 3.8-litre Jaguar engine, and John Wagstaff in a works Elite.” He proceeded to “establish a clear lead, lapping in around 2min 15sec, to the horror of Tommy Sopwith who almost ‘did his nut’ in the pits, giving him various slow down signals”.

A week on, Sears savoured further glory, this time at Oulton Park where he comfortably defeated Lotus Elite man Tommy Dickson in the GT race, despite the inconvenience of an unsecured bonnet obscuring the Aston’s windscreen under braking. Then at his local Snetterton circuit he claimed his personal hat-trick and the Aston’s fourth win on the trot: on May 22, ‘Gentleman Jack’ romped home clear of Lotus ace Chris Summers, the field including cars as diverse as an Austin A40 and a Daimler Dart. Just to rub it in, the DB4GT also collared its fourth consecutive lap record.

Fast-forward to the August Bank Holiday of that year, and Sears picked up where he left off at Brands Hatch during the BRSCC’s Silver City Trophy meeting. While Jack Brabham would emerge victorious in the headline race for Formula 1 cars, Sears blasted the Aston clear of the opposition in the 10-lap Wrotham Trophy opener. He led from start to finish, comfortably beating Mike Parkes in Sir Gawain Baillie’s Lotus Elite (also entered by Ecurie Endeavour). And, just as night follows day, the Aston made mincemeat of the existing lap record.

There appeared to be no stopping the march of the Sears/Aston pairing. However, they faced fresh opposition on a return visit to Brands at the end of the month for the Kentish 100 meeting. Pitted against them in the Redex Trophy race for GT cars was Moss in the Rob Walker/Dick Wilkins Ferrari 250GT SWB; the same car in which he had vanquished the John Ogier/Essex Racing Team DB4GTs of Salvadori and Innes Ireland in the Tourist Trophy – by a lap, while famously listening to Raymond Baxter’s radio commentary of the race. In its TT report, Autosport unaccountably proclaimed that “From the result, the DB4GT can stand comparison with the Ferrari 250GT.”

It couldn’t. At Brands, Moss and the Ferrari were once again in a class of one. They came home first after 27 miles of racing at the Kent venue, some 18sec clear of ‘Gentleman Jack’ and the blue and white DB4GT. This result marked the end of 0124/R’s frontline competition career, Ecurie Endeavour concentrating on its successful Jaguar saloon campaign to the end of the season ahead of a Ferrari and E-type campaign the following year.

The DB4GT’s brief spell running at the front was over. Aston Martin pushed ahead with the Ercole Spada-styled DB4GT Zagato evolution, results for the existing car being somewhat mixed thereafter. Jim Clark and Bruce McLaren retired Ogier’s entry in that year’s Nürburgring 1000Kms, Ireland managing fifth in the Tourist Trophy aboard the same car.

Once its Ecurie Endeavour career came to an end, AM400 was re-registered 587GJB and passed through assorted owners, competitive outings being limited to a few hillclimbs and speed events. In the mid ’70s the car was acquired by David Ham, a man better known for his spirited handling of a Lister-Jaguar. Ham raced the Aston on occasion before selling it to historics veteran John Harper, who in turn moved it on to Pink Floyd’s manager Steve O’Rourke. In 1978, the car was dispatched to Richard Williams for sorting, the engine and gearbox being rebuilt (the twin-cam ‘six’ was reputedly producing 295bhp at this juncture).

The car was acquired by Hexagon Classics’ principal Paul Michaels in 2005 via broker David Clark. The former F1 team chief then entrusted David Jack of Aston Engineering with preparing the car for competition, and has since employed a roll-call of past masters to steer it. The car’s most memorable victory in historics – the Royal Automobile Club Tourist Trophy race for Pre-1963 Grand Touring Cars at the 2011 Silverstone Classic – was achieved by former Le Mans winner Richard Attwood and motorcycle GP racer turned touring car star Stuart Graham. “I consider it a great privilege to have been asked to race it,” Graham says.

“I always found the car to be fun to drive, with pleasant and forgiving handling. The Aston Engineering team prepared it well. We had very enjoyable times with it, especially at Goodwood, which suited the car well.”

Just don’t expect to see this old warhorse venturing trackside any time soon. 0124/R retains its original coachwork and its keeper is keen for it to stay that way. Given the robust driving that has come to typify historic racing in recent seasons, and taking into consideration its seven-figure value, Michaels is no longer prepared to risk it in competition. The Aston is currently in the throes of being made more tractable: it will continue to be exercised, just not at ten-tenths.

While the DB4GT had its moments, its time in the limelight was fleeting. It may have been lighter than a regular DB4 but it was heavier than a Ferrari 250GT SWB – about 25 per cent heavier. It was driven by some legendary names from the period and won races, but few of any real consequence. But that’s only part of it. This glorious machine has looks to die for and an engine note that could wake the dead. It’s a GT car in the accepted sense rather than a competition tool with only token concessions to road-going usability. It’s big-boned and brawny, but also intense and entertaining. It’s everything an Aston Martin should be, and more.

Thanks to Paul Michaels at www.hexagonmodernclassics.com