Aston Martin has just launched perhaps the most evocative so called continuation model ever in the DB4 GT Zagato. The car is tested in these pages and offers a tantalising echo of its its illustrious forebears.
But for Aston aficionados of a certain vintage the most interesting – if lesser known – element of that original car is the role it played in perhaps the most intriguing tale ever to emerge from Aston’s storied purple patch of motor racing.
It is a story that has its roots in Astons famous 1959 Le Mans victory, encompasses the great names from the era including Shelby, McLaren and Salvadori and ends with one the great ‘what ifs’ of racing. It is the story of Aston’s Project Cars.
The genesis of these remarkable-looking cars is long and is covered in detail overleaf, but the essence of it is that the cars came about after pressure came from Aston Martin dealers around the world, which by 1962 were trying to sell a no longer remotely new DB4 with no racing programme to sprinkle star dust on the Aston Martin name.
John Wyer recalled the French distributor Marcel Blondeau in particular being very vocal about the need not just for Aston Martins to be at Le Mans, but a proper factory effort. And – perhaps against his better judgement – Wyer commissioned the construction of a single car as a toe-dipping exercise.
“Project 212 went from green light to Le Mans in just five months”
It never got a proper name, and became known only by its internal code: DP212. The DP stood for ‘Design Project’ and together with the three related cars that would follow, are now known as the ‘Project Cars’.
Scarcely believable though it might seem today, Project 212 went from green light to starting flag at Le Mans in just over five months. Inevitably the job of designing it fell to Ted Cutting, who’d started work at Aston Martin in March 1949 on the car that would become the DB2. He’d worked on all subsequent racers of the 1950s and led the team that designed the DBR1. He recalled picking up the DP212 project in late January 1962, and the car running under its own power just a fortnight before the race.
It was based on the DB4GT but differed in significant ways. And if you look at its specification it might seem like every assembly was hand-picked for the job: the rear suspension of the DB3S, the De Dion axle from a Lagonda Rapide, the front suspension from a Zagato, the gearbox and final drive of the DBR2 and so on. But the truth is in the timeframe they had, they had use what was already there, and its running gear owed as much to parts-bin convenience as component optimisation.
Besides, and at least from Wyer’s point of view, DP212 was a purely experimental car. Its specification and one-off nature meant it would run as a prototype, and it went to Le Mans as, according to Wyer, “a reconnaissance as we’d been out of racing for two years.” It would be driven by Graham Hill and Richie Ginther.
As the race started Hill was first away and led the opening lap with everyone else seemingly nowhere. Though I stand to be corrected, I think that was the last time an Aston Martin led Le Mans outright (although Tiff Needell did lead briefly in the Aston Martin-powered EMKA Group C car in 1985). Wyer was optimistic but the car was underdeveloped: it was aerodynamically suspect and its engine, with a 96mm rather than a 93mm bore to expand its capacity from 3.7 litres to 4 litres, holed a piston after six hours and went out.
Even so it had done enough to justify a more serious attempt in 1963, one that required the construction of three similar looking cars, two to run as GT class entries, and one as a prototype.
“Wyer gambled the officials wouldn’t notice the ’strictly illegal‘ chassis”
And here we see Aston Martin taking a leaf out of its old rival’s book. Plenty of eyebrows were raised when the Maranello firm’s 250 GTO was accepted as a modified version of the SWB and therefore an eligible GT car. With that precedent set, it allowed not only the lightweight Jaguar E-type to race in the GT category, but also the Shelby Daytona Cobra, the car that would in time quite thoroughly cook the GTO’s goose. But perhaps the car that sailed closest to the regulatory wind was the following Aston Martin Project 214.
The irony was that the prototype DP212 really was, in Wyer’s words, “a cut and shut DB4”, while the DP214 that was to run as a production car was nothing of the sort. It didn’t even have the hefty DB4 chassis, but a new lightweight box-section frame Wyer knew and would later admit that it was ‘strictly illegal’. His bet was simply that the scrutineers wouldn’t notice, in which regard he was proven to be entirely correct.
They didn’t notice either that the engine had miraculously reversed itself over 200mm towards the centre of the car and was mounted somewhat lower in the chassis. The suspension was modified, too. The only mistake made was to specify 5.5in wheel rims in the homologation papers when shortly thereafter Dunlop produced a new tyre size that required a 6.5in rim and would provide vastly more grip.
However, the French either didn’t notice or didn’t care about the tyres, and for once the Astons were ready on time. At the Le Mans test day in April they were the fastest GTs and third and sixth fastest overall. In qualifying for the race they easily outpaced the opposition, GTOs included. With Innes Ireland sharing with Bruce McLaren in one 214 and Jo Schlesser with Bill Kimberley in the other, the stage was set.
However, that stage then promptly collapsed under their feet: while Wyer adjudged the cars as ‘perfectly capable of winning the race’ both were put out by a batch of duff pistons that were cast when they really should have been forged.
The other Project Car in the race fared even worse. This was DP215, by far the most radical of all despite its similar appearance. Boasting independent rear suspension and the transaxle gearbox from the DBR1 that not even Wyer could hope to conceal from the authorities, it was a pure prototype and with Phil Hill and Lucien Bianchi lined up as drivers it qualified a stunning fourth behind three Ferrari prototypes. But the gearbox had always struggled to cope with 3-litre DBR1 power so, as Wyer said, “why we thought it was going to do any better with a 4-litre engine I don’t know.” It barely lasted two hours.
“Without the wider tyres, the Aston’s handling became evil”
The 214s were out again in the Goodwood TT where in practice Ireland had little trouble matching the GTOs’ pace. But the scrutineers refused to let them race on the fat Dunlops they’d used at Le Mans as only the thinner rims were specified on the homologation papers, and without the additional rubber their handling became evil. McLaren bent a valve trying to control his, while Ireland made it to the finish in seventh place, and only after several spins.
But there was to be a last laugh, a race Wyer would describe many years later as “the most exciting with which I have ever been concerned”.
This was the Coppa Inter-Europa, a three-hour support race for the 1963 Italian Grand Prix in which the 214s of Salvadori and Bianchi were up against no fewer than six GTOs, on Ferrari’s home turf at Monza.
It turned into a straight race between Salvadori and the GTO of Mike Parkes. The last half of the race was so close Salvadori feared the crowd would suspect they were taking it in turns to lead past the pits. He had their support too, the locals preferring what they had been told was an Italian driver in a British car as opposed to a British driver (Parkes) in an Italian car, at least until the error was corrected and Salvadori was correctly identified as British…
The Aston 214 had better aerodynamics and so was quicker at high speed, but the Ferrari had better traction and acceleration out of slower corners. For nearly 90 minutes they traded places, the Aston overtaking on the long straights, whereupon the Ferrari would tuck into its slipstream and out-accelerate the Aston away from the next corner. Salvadori feared the race lost because the Ferrari would always be able to exit the Parabolica quicker and win the race to the line, but two laps from the end a backmarker put Parkes off line, the tow was broken and Salvadori was away. At absolutely the last time of asking, a Project Aston Martin finally won a major international sports car race.
But that was that. There had been talk of fitting a Tadek Marek V8 engine into DP215, but at the end of 1963 Wyer was asked by Ford to head up the GT40 project. After a 13-year slog, latterly as general manager and no fan of lengthy meetings with Trades Union leaders, he jumped at the chance.
It would be over 25 years before Aston produced another works racing car.
Three of the four Project Cars exist today. DP212 – pictured on these pages – went on to have a second life in historic racing; Simon Hadfield winning the Goodwood TT Celebration in it in the rain in 2013. DP215 was sold by RM Sothebys in 2018 for over $21 million, while the DP214 that won in Italy and was driven by Ireland at the TT and Schlesser at Le Mans is in a private UK collection. Its owner has retired it, unwilling to compromise its originality to make it competitive.
Tragically the second DP214 was destroyed during practice for the 1964 Nürburgring 1000km, killing its driver Brian Hetreed. While a car claiming its identity would surface in the early 1990s, the claim did not withstand scrutiny: the truth is that the wreck was broken up after the accident.
As with many Aston racers, the Project Cars tried to make up in ambition what they lacked in budget, development and luck. But they never realised their full potential and exist today more as tantalising glimpses of what might have been rather than the Ferrari-slayers they at times so nearly were.
Our thanks to Wolfgang Friedrichs and Aston Engineering, Derby
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