Grunt of the litter

No Aston lacks in charisma. But some are more blessed than others – DB4 GT and Vanquish, for example. There’s 40 years between them but, as David Malsher discovers, they both have the power to move.

Don’t think this could possible be a comparison? Look again at the pictures. There are no car manufacturers who wear their heritage on their sleeves so prominently as Aston Martin. Check out the side intakes on the front wings. Look at the grilles. See how, from the rear, their roofs taper and meld into the bootlid. Classic Aston.

You want more similarities? Aside from the visual clues, both are the most powerful models in the Aston range of their period. Both are heavily modified versions of lesser models (a relative term in AM’s case) and, most heartening of all, each were lovingly hand-crafted by experts in professional but congenial workshops.

The originality of this DB4 GT serves to emphasise this. Chassis 0124/R is the car which Stirling Moss drove to victory in the 1960 Goodwood Easter meeting. Its royal-blue-with-white-noseband Equipe Endeavour lively has been retained by owner Steve O’Rourke. Well, you wouldn’t whitewash the Sistine Chapel’s roof, would you? Its originality, however, goes much deeper than a layer of paint, and that’s what really impresses me. Impresses and scares me.

Tommy Sopwith’s colours make the DB a handsome stablemate to O’Rourke’s Jaguar E-type (see November 2001 issue). But the car from Feltham was, and remains, a very different animal from that born in Coventry. The Jaguar was an extremely quick road car that happened to make a startling track debut The Aston, in most respects, feels like it was bred for competition. Which is true. Well, sort of

DB4 was never meant to be a sportscar, rather a grand tourer, a role it fulfilled superbly, its 240bhp straight-six pushing the car past the 60mph mark in a little over eight seconds, and eventually nudging it towards 140mph. But it was too soft to hack it in competition.

That was cured in its GT form. The removal of five inches from the wheelbase immediately stiffened the chassis and halted the pretence that this was a four-seater, so the rear bench could be discarded. It was clothed in thinner-gauge aluminium, perspex replaced glass everywhere except the windscreen. Such procedures trimmed off 85kg.

These changes would have sweetened the handling, removed the wallow, but the DB needed to take on Ferrari’s 250GT SWB in a straight line, too. To this end, Tad Marek screwed more poke out of the 3670cc unit — a lot more, in fact: the outcome was a remarkable 302bhp.

The DB4 had undergone automotive liposuction, taken steroids and gone down the gym. And the prototype GT won in Moss’ hands on its debut at Silverstone in May 1959. Later that year, he secured the Nassau Cup in chassis 0103/L.

The following season, our car (we wish), 587 GJB, beat all corners in Goodwood’s Fordwater Trophy, another Stirling performance. It would also score wins at Oukon and Brands, driven by Jack Seam.

‘Pleasantly plump’ road DB4s basked in the glory of its leaner and meaner sibling.

Vanquish plays this role, to a lesser degree, for the DB7. Whereas the less powerful model can subtly blend into the traffic, this looks as though it will maul anyone who looks at it in the wrong way. Heading down the M1, I notice everyone who bothers to look in their rearview mirror gets out of the way long before it’s necessary.

Motorway drudgery and busy A-roads, though, are no way to judge a car like this — however relaxing it is (70mph at 1950rpm in top), however comfortable it is (seats adjust every which way), however it rides our patchwork road network (not brilliantly, but absurdly well considering its tyre widths). Sadly, most of the Vanquishes built will spend a large part of their life dodging dawdlers, so it is worth pointing out here that this is an extremely civilised supercar. I cannot complain about its all-round visibility, nor the way it copes with stopstart motoring. And the paddle-shift gearchange? An acquired taste.

I love the idea of keeping both hands on the steering wheel at all times, but it doesn’t quite work that way because the paddles do not rotate with the wheel, so turning the tiller through more than 90 degrees leaves you clutching thin air. Quicker steering or longer paddles would help. As for the electronic brain ‘box, the driver’s choice is restricted because it automatically changes down as you drop under 1300rpm and, more significantly, won’t let you change up when under that figure. So if you are trying to make a gentle getaway from standstill in the wet, you can’t use the huge gobbets of torque to depart in second. No, instead you flash on a quarter-turn of lock to hold the inevitable slide as you leave behind steaming rubber. Discreet it ain’t. Its traction control system seems unobtrusive to the point of non-existence, but this should make it hugely rewarding on a track, strengthening its links with its 1960 ancestor.

‘No car sold today sounds better; gorgeous from within, spectacular from without.’

Gun the DB4 GT out of a tight turn, even in second, and it feels like its Dunlop crossplies have hit ice. The 302bhp pushes the tail out and, as the weight is transferred rearward, the steering lightens enough for you to catch the slide, keep your toe in, and press on. The aural accompaniment is spectacular, but its certainly not the sweetest six ever heard, acquiring a harsh metallic ring above 4000rpm. Stick with it though, because the payback is seemingly relentless urge.

Sad then that this is offset by an abominable gearbox. Go through the niceties of double-declutching and it will sometimes reward you by flatly refusing to go into any ratio other than the one you’ve just vacated. Pausing in neutral is simply not on. The driver has to forget he is in a 42-year-old car of huge value, and ping the lever into each ratio as quickly as possible, cringeing as metal meets metal. Finally into fourth, the engine pulls hard all the way to 120mph.

But now the first corner is looming and, despite a disc at each corner, anchorage is catastrophic enough to induce the DB jeebies until they warm up. When they do, they become merely dreadful. It doesn’t dive or squirm under braking, because there isn’t enough retardation.

Somewhat faster than intended, therefore, I aim for an early apex, knowing there is more than enough power to counter any understeer, and…

And it just goes round, leaving its driver feeling foolish. Having twitched all the way down the straight—there is no play in the steering — the GT is startlingly settled in the turns, short wheelbase and all. It rolls far less than, for instance, the Equipe Endeavour E-type, which means every picojouk of pressure added or removed from the accelerator pedal alters your angle of attack, without being fudged by body movement. This is particularly handy on the snaking part of Chobham’s course, because there are wet leaves everywhere, and I want to rely on more than just eyesight to plot my trajectory.

That the Vanquish almost matches its many-times-removed predecessor in terms of steering feel is a wonderful surprise. Power steering in supercars is usually disappointing on a track, for at near racing speeds, unassisted steering should be easily light enough for the driver to twirl when necessary. Power assistance tends only to anaesthetise car-to-driver communication. No such worries in the Vanquish. Its steering doesn’t just load up at high speed, it carries on communicating every surface change, every groove, while brilliantly damping cross-course ridges. This makes it wonderfully chuckable, a doddle to place, though it does have a mild tendency to understeer.

This is highlighted upon reaching those leaves once more, when even these huge front tyres can’t hold if you get too boisterous in a second-gear corner. I’m neither brave nor talented enough to boot the power so hard that the rears can overcome the traction control. Too many trees. My answer is to turn off the traction control on the next lap and, hey presto, the Vanquish can be tickled into any line you wish.

The Vanquish devours straights, although a lift is necessary for smooth upchanges. Once this is second nature, you can revel in the boom and bellow of the 6-litre V12: gorgeous from within, spectacular from without No car sold today sounds better. And when the driver flicks the lefthand paddle to go down the box, it automatically performs a perfect throttle blip. A cheat, I know, but a joy nevertheless. O’Rourke’s DB4, with its special history, gives the greater sense of occasion. But that’s as much a reflection on the useability and competence of such a stunningly quick car as the Vanquish — the DB4 GT of its day.