Three times fable

These actual cars are Aston Martin's greatest racers ever. Andrew Frankel takes them to Silverstone with Willie Green and one rather famous gate-crasher to help decide between them...

We coasted up the pit lane, the Aston Martin DBR1 and I, engine now silent. Helmet in the passenger seat, I listened to the utter silence my ears that followed 10 laps of unsilenced mayhem as surely as night follows day. This very car won six of the DBR1's eight world championship victories including, of course, the 1959 Le Mans 24-hours.

I parked it next to the DB3S, registration 62 EMU. It saw the Le Mans podium too, the year before the DBR 1, with a fine and fighting second place despite its then five-year-old design. The visual comparison between Aston Martin's two finest sports-racing cars is utterly compelling. Yet now,no-one crowds around either of them. Everyone is standing beside the DB4GT Zagato: Jim Clark's immortal 2 VEV.

"Can I have a go?" came a voice from the throng. On occasions such as this, it is not uncommon for an on-looker to ask if a photograph can be taken with them sitting in the car but the request not simply to climb aboard but to drive away too, around Silverstone, called for more nerve than I'd imagined one man could possess. This I continued to think, right up to the moment I identified the voice and then recognised the face from which it was coming.

It was Damon Hill.

I struggled to decide whether this request said more about Hill or about these, the three greatest Astons of all. His father had not driven any of them and Damon was at Silverstone to test his rapidly improving Arrows-Yamaha. Yet he had taken time out of his presumably not slack schedule to seek us out on the Stowe circuit and ask if it was all right for him to do a few laps in the Astons.

We concluded that it probably was. He drove the Zagato as you'd expect, swiftly but without drama, returning to the pits genuinely surprised at the, speed of this 1961 GT car. Then he slotted himself into the DBR1. Later, in the now sadly characterless Green Man pub, we wondered how long it had been since a current Formula One World Champion could have been seen sliding a powerful sports-racer, or anything save their own race car for that matter, around Silverstone, just for the hell of it. We concluded that it must have been years. All I can tell you is the sight was more wonderful than any words resident in my head can describe. Damon seemed pleased too, returning the DBR1, eyebrows raised and observing with a breathless grin: "It's bloody quick, isn't it?" Coming from someone merely minutes removed from a Formula One car, this was indeed rare praise.

But then such cars deserve it. Individual slices of Britain's motor racing heritage rarely come thicker than these, and as all three were hurled around Silverstone and spat sideways out of the corners, straight-six motors howling up to their redlines, each of us was aware that this was indeed a special moment.

Much of the reason for this was the man doing most of the driving. Willie Green has been Britain's pre-eminent classic car racer for a generation and, while officially retired, has been coaxed into driving the fearsome Alfa Romeo 158 Alfetta at Monaco (see page 26). Willie is not simply an extraordinary driver able to blend almost artistic delicacy behind the wheel with total commitment, he also knows what he likes. Which, in the case of cars, is a large amount of power running through skinny rear tyres.

The Zagato was always going to be first out on to the track. Photographs of Jim Clark slithering around Goodwood in this car have lived in my head for as long as I have had memory and, now that it was mine for a while, I lacked the power to delay our meeting any longer. Besides, with its beautifully presented and trimmed cabin, map holders and ashtray, it seemed an entirely easier way to introduce myself to racing Astons than to attempt either of the starkly brutal open racers.

I wonder whether you will be pleased or disappointed to know that 2 VEV is a remarkably easy car to drive. Anyone with a brain and a driving licence could climb aboard, twist the key, select a gear and rumble off into the sunset. I was surprised. The clutch is heavy and a little sharp, but so laden with torque is its gorgeous 3.7-litre, twin-cam, 12-plug engine that getting going is never a problem.

The driving experience is dominated by that engine. Despite tin-foil-thin 18-gauge aluminium bodywork that dents as you touch it, the Zagato never feels like a particularly lithe, light car, yet with that motor pouring on the power in one solid shove from 2000 to 6000rpm, it still feels mighty quick. So broad is this band that, in fact, its four widely spaced gear ratios cope admirably, the lever swapping between them with that particular breed of well-oiled precision that is uniquely and unmistakeably Aston Martin.

It is, however, not the car I'd imagined. What I thought would prove a pure racer with only a visual doffing of the cap to the niceties of road cars

turns out to be a truly sophisticated GT car that would prove as at home barrelling down to the South of France on a sunny day as negotiating the tight turns of the Stowe circuit.

Willie concurs: "The Zagato really is a bit of a compromise as a racing car, being, as it was, a road car which was converted for use on the track. The factory, in fact, was very successful but there were problems. The chassis was never as good as that of a Ferrari 250GTO. The engines were probably a bit more powerful and they certainly had more torque.

"Even so, it's helped by its Dunlop racing tyres for track work. This car's been set up with a considerable amount of suspension offset that it would not have had when new and it has rather more grip at the back, making it push into understeer. I'd like to try it with the same size tyres on at each end, too. I remember those shots of it when it was racing in perfect four-wheel drifts. You couldn't do that in this car as it is."

And so it is. Hurtle up to a corner in the Zagato, note its fine brakes and, as you turn the wheel, you can feel the nose fighting shy of the apex. It can be driven around easily enough with a quick lift followed by a bootful of throttle, a technique which will bring the nose straight back into line, lift a front wheel and kick the tail out. Yet rather than being a natural state, it is one which is to be striven for. It seems scarcely credible that the Zagato and DB3S competed at Le Mans 24-hour races separated by a mere three years. The explanation is that while the sportscar was right at the end of its natural life, the GT was just setting out. Conceptually, there is the thick end of a decade between them. As a car to pore over, 62 EMU is the most fascinating of the lot. Though the DBR1 is authentic, it is also an actively campaigned racer, immaculately prepared and maintained in perfect condition; the Zagato has retired from racing now and sparkles, fresh from a total rebuild after an appalling road accident in 1993.

The DB3S is not like this. You will see the 62 EMU registration plate on one of the two DB3S coupes that crashed at Le Mans in 1954 and also the open 3S that came second the following year. However, it now seems that not only were these two entirely different cars but also neither is the car you see before you now, the sportscar having been destroyed in a testing accident at the end of 1956 which killed the promising newcomer Mark Lund.

This, however, takes nothing away from the 62 EMU you see here: it is unarguably the car that drove to second place at Le Mans in 1958. From its wonderfully worn interior to its factory-standard engine, the DB3S has a special aura of originality about it and you know that, as you slip behind the wheel and adjust yourself around the tight driving position, the tactile sensations you are now receiving are no different from those experienced by the Whitehead brothers during their epic drive.

How tiny it feels! Latterly we have associated the marque with such large cars but the DB3S feels smaller than a Healey. You feel exposed, vulnerable and wonder what racing for nearly 24 hours in the rain, as this car did at Le Mans, must have felt like. It is beyond imagination. Today, however, the sun shines. Flick on the ignition, press the starter, pull out the twin coil switches and prod the accelerator. With a bang, the 3-litre straight six goes to work. This engine, like that in the DBR1, grew from the twin-cam motor Bentley designed for Lagonda during the war, albeit changed beyond almost all recognition. In current form, the DBR1 is probably kicking out all of 300bhp, the 3S more likely about 230bhp. It is enough.

There is a temptation to underestimate the DB3S, especially if its more successful, quicker and more visually dramatic kid brother is in the same paddock. There is no justification for patronising it so. The DB3S is a jewel, and a startlingly quick one at that. Moreover, for a racer, it is a delightfully easy car to drive: the 'box has synchromesh to complement its lever's lovely and precise action while the engine, another Aston study in torque, pours it on from 2500rpm to the 5500rpm we are using as a limit today.

Willie is in his element, driving it ever so slightly sideways. Everywhere. "This is one of my all-time favourites. I remember John Dalton had one in Derbyshire. I was 13 and he was a hero. It's beautiful, comfortable and very light to drive. The gear-lever is well placed and the change is wonderful, with very close ratios. And that engine! It's very responsive, with an extremely light flywheel making it rev very rapidly when blipped. It's a potential problem if you miss a change and I wonder if that's the reason they broke rather than any inherent weakness in the design. The handling is very stable, with a lot of castor helping stability on the straights."

Unlike the Zagato, it turns in to corners beautifully, rolling a little but staying neutral until instructed otherwise by the throttle. It feels a little soft but will drift and slide in total security until the tank runs dry. And it sounds wonderful. With the sole exception of the brakes, which need bleeding, it's a car to spoil your senses rotten.

But if it seems hard to picture the three short years that separate DB3S from the Zagato, it is harder still to accept that, in 1957 and 1958, it was in the same races as the DBR1. This is a car to be approached with considerable respect and not a little trepidation. It sounds savage and, as Damon and Willie hurtle around the track, it is visually quicker than either stablemate. Willie returns, grinning: "It's an out and out racing car. The transaxle gearbox was always a pig but this one now works really well. The overall concept is in a different league to the others and makes it a properly balanced car. The brakes are excellent and, above all, the car is responsive: you can flick it into a corner and then back the other way and you can float it through long, fast corners in a perfect, throttle-controlled drift. People talk about oversteer. Old cars with 300bhp will always oversteer. Thank God."

Its performance today remains breathtaking. It takes me rather longer to find my way around the uncompromising five-speed dog 'box, but soon the huge central rev-counter is flicking up to 6700rpm in gear after gear. You may wonder if, say, a Ferrari F355 might keep up with it in a straight line. It would, in fact, stand no chance whatsoever.

For me, though, its performance brings its limitations, particularly here. It is a car that slides at will and, it would seem, in total security but I would be lying if I said I do not feel at least slightly cowed by hurling around such a valuable and important chapter in this country's motor racing history. It is my first drive in a Le Mans winner and the experience is, frankly, humbling. It is not a car, like the DB3S, that you can simply climb aboard and steer sideways on the first lap. It is a car that's fond of self-determination and it takes time to log on to its ways; more time, to be honest, than we have. Which means that even though I can at least drive it with confidence and without fear, by the time we have to stop, I know I am still in the steep part of the learning curve.

You drive home slowly after a day like this, modern road car doing what it does best: transporting. Willie's words, as we had plunged into a pint after it was all over, rang loud in my head. 'The Zagato is the one I'd drive on the road, the DBR1 is the quickest and the one I'd choose to race, while the DB3S is the one to which I have the greatest emotional tie and I remember from my childhood with most fondness."

I think I'd go along with that. Of the three, only the DBR 1 had come close to what I'd expected. The civility of the Zagato took me entirely by surprise; it charmed without frightening, proved swift but, ultimately, would be more at home blasting across continents than around a tight racetrack such as this.

Like the Zagato, the DBR 1 had been driven to the circuit by a man braver than I. It was all I had hoped; brutish yet elegant, manically quick yet eminently controllable, a thoroughbred racing car from one of the greatest stables of all.

And yet, sitting here, days later, it is the little DB3S to which my mind continues to return. It was a car which not only reeked most of its personal history but also one which suited rather better my driving abilities, sadly modest by the standards of Messrs Green and Hill. On the way to Silverstone that day, I had worried about the DB3S and how I might write about it. I feared its charms would be rendered invisible by the speed and glamour of other two. How wrong I was. As I headed back down the M40 to London I knew already that, if life were different and the lottery worth playing, the DB3S would be the one I would have.

Thanks to the owners of the Aston Martins and to Silverstone Circuits Ltd, Northants (01327 857271) for the use of the track.