Veteran to classic: Aston Martin DB4GT

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One of a hundred

The DB4GT was the car which set a style for Aston Martin; not only a visual one which was to identify the marque for a decade and a half, but in wider terms the car brought together Aston Martin’s impressive racing achievements and its increasingly prestigious position as a builder of luxury sportscars.

In announcing the 3.7-litre DB4 in 1958, Aston Martin had produced every schoolboy’s dream car – a beautiful and very fast 2+2, utilising a construction system novel to Britain.

Quite apart from the beauty of line which Touring was to achieve with the DB4, one of the characteristics which had caused the commission to go to the Milan company in 1957 was its superleggera construction principle, subsequently imported to Newport Pagnell. This involved a complete skeleton of the car’s shape being formed in rather fine steel tubing and clad in aluminium panelling, the whole being attached to a rigid sheet-steel chassis platform.

The system was light, as its name made clear, and made for high and lasting accuracy of panel fit – all qualities of great importance to the consolidation of the marque as a producer not only of some of the finest of British sporting chassis, but of top quality hand-built cars.

Nevertheless, the car in its 2+2 configuration was far from flimsy, weighing around 3000 lb, and as the World Sportscar Championship began to wane with the arrival of the 3-litre limit in 1958, and GT racing gained momentum, attention turned to making the DB4 a competitive racer.

With the great glories of 1959 behind it – first and second at Le Mans after ten years of effort, plus the World Sportscar title – the company switched its full efforts to Tadek Marek’s 3.7-litre straight-six engine which in DB4 form was giving 236 bhp on twin SU’s. With its twin overhead camshafts and wide 80deg valve angle, extra power was unlikely to be a problem; indeed, the unit had already proved capable of over 280 bhp when first raced at Le Mans in 1957, but to make that power stretch further the car’s weight had to be reduced.

With the hand-building involved in the superleggera system, some major filleting of the new car was easily done, with three inches taken out of the wheelbase and nearly six inches lost in overall length to produce the car revealed at the Motor Show in 1959 – the DB4GT. So subtle was this alteration that it would be hard to tell if not for the recessed headlamps smoothly faired over with Perspex covers. This feature applied to all the production GTs and was to become an Aston standard-wheelbase DB4 Vantage in 1961.

It was the International Trophy meeting at Silverstone in May 1959 which witnessed the first race of the new GT, 200 lb lighter than a standard DB4, in the hands of Stirling Moss – with an easy victory as the reward. These 272 bhp cars, made in thinner-gauge alloy, looked as if they could challenge the Ferraris if more weight could be lost; accordingly, a few super-light cars were built for the 1960 season, and John Ogier’s Essex Racing in particular made a big impact when Roy Salvadori and Innes Ireland took second and third in the Tourist Trophy at Goodwood. But it was a Ferrari which won, Moss’s 250GT, and while the closeness of the finish led the teams to view the Aston as a potential Maranello-beater, the actual result was to prove a better indication of the future.

Aston Martin’s presence in GT racing was not an official one, the company having withdrawn from sportscar racing at the beginning of 1960; the unsuccessful Grand Prix effort struggled on for a further year. Yet there continued a valuable two-way exchange between the factory and the private teams carrying the Aston Martin banner, and to follow the extra-light DB4GT, the factory next commissioned the most famous DB4GT variant – the Zagato.

Beauty and rarity often go hand in hand; a mere 19 Zagatos were assembled, all differing to some extent, and all of which have survived. Yet despite the car’s raison d’etre, less and less weight, the Zagato saved only a small degree. More surprisingly still for a car which was built on an unchanged DB4GT underpan with the same suspension and wheelbase, it was not always considered a better car to drive: Innes Ireland maintains that a standard GT was the more agreeable and predictable car to race.

Engine specifications obviously vary a great deal amongst the cars built for, or subsequently used for, racing, but in general, where the DB4 had around 236 bhp on two SU carburettors, the GT with its twin-plug head, higher compression ratio and three twin-choke 45DCO Webers churned out a bellowing 272 bhp as sold to customers for the road. This was the first 150mph production Aston – John Bolster recorded 152.5 mph in Autosport’s test car in December 1961, with 0-60 in a staggering 6.4sec, though this was one of the special lightweights. 300 bhp was a common claim for the track cars, while Zagatos boasted up to 314 bhp thanks to an even higher compression ratio.

But it was not enough. Aston Martin simply never caught up with Ferrari in every sense: as fast as the English company made one step ahead, Maranello took another. While Ferrari was winning with the 250GT, the DB4 was just maturing. When the short-wheelbase 250GT was the pacesetter, Aston was struggling to lighten the 4GT, and during the Zagato’s first year of competition, Ferrari was already planning the car which was to sweep three GT championships in a row, the GTO. The power was there, the reliability came in time, but really light weight and low-drag bodywork only successfully came together in 1963 when Salvadori in one of the slippery Project 214 cars beat Mike Parkes’ GTO fair and square at Monza. It was a great win, but it was also the end of the DB4GT; with the departure of team manager John Wyer to the Ford GT40 project, the impetus faded and the factory finally backed out of racing involvement.

In all there were 100 DB4GTs built, of which 74 were regular GT, 19 Zagatos, one very handsomely bodied by Bertone for the 1961 Geneva show, and six were the widely varying Project racers. The car pictured here, now owned by Michael Fisher, was the seventh of the “normal” GT chassis, 0107/R, and has several modifications from the original specification.

Although the car was not raced from new, it became a regular contender in Historic racing during the middle-Seventies, collecting a string of seconds and thirds. There followed a careful rebuild when it passed to a new owner, with a final engine tuning by Sean Danaher of
vintage Maserati fame, before it was ready to tackle the Coppa d’Italia, one of the new breed of retrospective events which actually stretch old cars and their drivers. Although it is such a desirable machine, the last owner decided recently that one of these loud and brawny machines was enough, and elected to pass on 9 KPL and simply keep his other DB4GT, one of the handful which were fitted with two vestigial rear seats.

Bigger 48 DCOE carburettors and faster cams ensure that there is about 300 bhp, and the twin magnetos have been replaced by a more reliable pair of distributors. There are chassis improvements, too: the less effective lever-arm dampers attached to the live rear axle have been supplanted by telescopics within the coil-springs, though the twin trailing links and Watts linkage remain unchanged. Later DB6 brakes have replaced the original Dunlop system, and the usual fat tyres have been fitted – 600 x 15 Dunlop racers in place of the 16in size of the road cars, necessitating some underarch panel-beating for clearance.

Despite its racing tune, the car rumbles lazily into action after a long pull on the starter and a couple of dabs on the throttle, and seems to need little attention to keep it on a song. New and bright blue four-point harnesses with modern competition seats hardly look “period”, but are rather more effective at gripping the crew than the original leather versions.

Behind, under the flat plexiglass rear window, is nothing more than a carpeted shelf, and many interior details (sun visors, glovebox and trim parts for example) have been left out for lightness, though carefully stored. The result is an odd contrast, with the chrome instrument bezels gleaming in an otherwise stark cabin.

As it warms up over Berkshire’s downland roads, the Aston begins to exude its character. Surprisingly compact from the inside, the car skips and thuds uncompromisingly as the big six growls under the hefty hump dominating the view over the bonnet, a bass bellow of token exhaust and sucking carburettors which reverberates through the cabin. Steering effort is heavy at low speeds, but at high velocity, firm twists of the thick-rimmed wheel translate into delicate twitches of the tall crossply Dunlops, chirping a warning before the car settles into a snarling slide. Four gears are enough with the broad span of torque, the cowled headlamps lifting as the car thunders away from corners with a sprint like an aircraft taking off.

It is not easy to talk when the Aston is cracking along; the noise and the hard ride conspire against conversation, but the brutish exhilaration makes up for that. With its obvious racing intentions, the DB4GT is a quite usable road car, not a method of transport but a treat in itself to use on special days – plus, of course, the ideal mount to go racing with the very active AMOC. GC

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