An Afternoon with an Aston Martin DB3S

The Deputy Editor airs the Midlands Motor Museum’s Works Team car

When I announced to a couple of Aston Martin enthusiast friends that I was to drive an Aston Martin DB3S – an ex Team car at that – they said knowledgeably: “A better car on the road than the circuit, you know.” They may well be right, for the DB3S was less highly strung than some of its thoroughbred sports/racing contemporaries, more akin in behaviour to a road-going sports car than many. Yet they and I were neglecting the not inconsiderable racing successes the model had in its days with the Feltham team from 1953 to 1957, of which subsequent research reminded me.

Unfortunately, then and now the achievements of the DB3S have been overshadowed by those of its Jaguar C-and D-type contemporaries. Would this have remained so had the Collins/Frere and Moss/Collins DB3Ss finished first instead of second at Le Mans in 1955 and 1956 respectively? After all, the DB3S made do with a mere 3-litres against the then 3.4-litres of the Jaguars and often beat works and Ecurie Ecosse Jaguars fair and square in British sports car events, although only occasionally in the major overseas internationals. Those who find this hard to realise need only consult race results of the day. In four and a bit seasons as a works car the DB3S model won no less than 15 firsts, 15 seconds and eight thirds in International events alone. These included victories in the 1953 British Empire Trophy in the Isle of Man (Parnell), the 1953 Tourist Trophy, Dundrod (Collins/Griffith), the Goodwood 9 hours in 1953 (Parnell/Thompson) and 1955 (Walker/Poore), no less than four consecutive clean sweeps in the big, annual Daily Express Silverstone International sports car race and two consecutive Daily Herald International Trophy races at Oulton Park, not to mention the prestigious sports car races at the 1955 and 1956 British Grands Prix. I too was surprised, for those proclamations of Jaguar supremacy through the headphones of my crystal set beneath the sheets as the Coventry marque sped to victory through the Sarthe night are not easily erased. However, a little Merit plastic model of a 1956 works DB3S which I received and built at Christmas 1957, I think, and which faces me now in my study, has always ensured the DB3S of a special place in my heart during my own long love affair with Jaguars. It has also been partially responsible for a long-standing ambition to drive a DB3S.

This ambition has now been achieved thanks to the generosity of Bob Roberts and Michael Barker, partners in the fascinating Midlands Motor Museum at Bridgnorth, Salop. I must admit, I cast covetous eyes upon their 1955 Le Mans winning D-type until I stepped back to admire the sheer splendour of DB3S chassis number 8, whose naturally beautiful and delicate lines are preserved in truly magnificent condition. This was one of eleven DB3Ss, numbered DB3S/1 to DB3S/11, built for the works team between 1953 and 1956 (DB3S/11, built for the 1957 season, was never raced by the works). Another twenty, less highly developed, production versions, DB3S/101-120, were constructed for customers between October 1954 and October 1955. Feltham also constructed an experimental 2.6-litre single-seater on a DB3S chassis, which Reg Parnell drove in several 1956 New Zealand races.

The career of DB3S/8 has been both illustrious and chequered. It was built for the 1955 season to join DB3S/6 and DB3S/7 in the works team. Registered 62 EMU and 63 EMU respectively, these two more readily identifiable cars attracted a stronger aura of fame than the unregistered DB3S/8 -a nd, to be fair, more success. Nevertheless, its career started on a splendid note: it won its first race, the 1955 Spa-­Francorchamps Production Sports Car race, driven by Paul Frere at an average speed of 107.67 m.p.h., although in standard DB3S guise to comply with the regulations.

Works modifications were added in time for the 1955 Le Mans 24-hour race: these included the replacement of the standard drum brakes by Girling discs all round; replacement of the single ignition iron cylinder head by a twin-plug, alumin­ium unit with competition distributors driven off the rear of each of the two overhead camshafts, a modification which raised the power output from 210 b.h.p. to over 230 b.h.p.; and the fitting of special, protruding rim Borrani wire wheels with three-eared “spinners” and offset spokes, which necessitated the addition of those characteristic works DB3S “eyebrow” flares on the front wings. Extra air intakes for the carburetters and the driver disfigured the nose. These modifica­tions were greeted with horror by other teams at Le Mans, where they were considered to take the letter of the regulations to the limit. Alas, Tony Brooks and Riseley-Pritchard were forced to retire after 89 laps of the Le Mans circuit for reasons which are described by some sources as a broken dynamo belt and by D.S.J. as a broken gearbox. 63 EMU, with Salvadori/Walker, blew its engine. Collins and Frere made amends by finishing second and winning the 3-litre class in 62 EMU.

Next, DB3S/8 went to BARC Aintree, where Peter Walker took it to fourth overall at 80.92 m.p.h. In the Goodwood 9-hour race Parnell lasted only three laps before a broken lock nut in a rear hub caused his retirement. But the same driver had better luck in the Daily Herald International Trophy Race at Oulton Park (not the Gold Cup, as the Aston Martin Register has it), which he won at 81.16 m.p.h. and cracked the lap record in the process, at 82.97 m.p.h. Back to Aintree again, Salvadori took third place at 80.44 m.p.h. Parnell and Salvadori paired up in DB3S/8 for the Tourist Trophy at Dundrod to finish seventh at 82.39 m.p.h.

DB3S/8 was retained in the works team for the 1956 season. Mystery seems to surround its alleged first race of the season, the Sebring 12 hours. The Aston Martin Register has it that Moss/Collins drove it and retired after three hours when lying second (Motor Sport’s brief report of the race, from a contributor, inaccurately put Moss and Collins in a Jaguar!). Photographs with Autosport’s account of the race show that Moss/Collins drove 62 EMU, which retired with engine trouble after 3 hr. 6 min. Salvadori/Shelby definitely used 63 EMU to finish fourth overall and win the class, so if DB3S/8 was there at all it was as the third team car. in the hands of Parnell and Brooks; they retired in the closing stages when lying fourth. (I have now had these facts confirmed by Aston expert Richard Forshaw, from Team Manager John Wyer’s notes at the time. DB3S/8 (Parnell/Brooks) retired at 169 laps wtth a broken oil pump drive. – C.R.)

Whatever, back in England, DB3S/8 found itself in Moss’ hands for the Daily Express Silverstone meeting. The maestro, brought into the Aston team for the 1956 season, finished second to Salvadori in DB3S/5, at 93.81 m.p.h. The drivers’ tables were turned in the sports car race which supported the British Grand Prix at Silverstone: Moss drove a Maserati 300S to victory, whilst Salvadori had to be content with second in DB3S/8 at 90.03 m.p.h., slower than Moss’ earlier Silverstone performance in the same car because of rain in the closing laps. Brooks took the helm again in the very wet Daily Herald International Trophy Race at Oulton Park; he finished second behind Moss in DB3S/9, part of a fantastic Aston Martin 1, 2, 3, 4 result, an indication of the DB3S’s marvellous behaviour in rain.

That seems to have ended the works team career of DB3S/8. The following year Aston Martin progressed with the DBR1 and DBR2. The subject of the article was sold to a United States consortium which included Joe Lubin and Carroll Shelby. There it swapped its British Racing Green for American colours of white with a blue stripe and ran as part of this sort of semi-works team along with another DB3S and two 4.2-litre DBR2s. Neither I nor the Midlands Motor Museum have any details of its competition history in the USA, nor of most of its subsequent career there. Any information would be most welcome.

What is clear is that the original works chassis had been clothed with a production DB3S body before Roger St. John Hart bought the car from Joe Lubin, who had re-acquired it, and re-imported it to Britain in 1973. Hart tells me that the owner previous to Lubin had rolled the car in a road accident. The works body had been wrecked but the chassis was undamaged; as the then owner also had a production DB3S, he robbed the body from that as a replacement. According to the Aston Martin Register, the spare car would appear to have been DB3S/118, originally registered RXK 500 and raced in Europe by Hans Davids (by coincidence, it finished fourth in the 1956 version of the Spa race which DB3S/8 had won the previous year).

The Aston Martin Register also has it that DB3S/8 was at one time fitted with a Chevrolet V8 engine. Hart disputes this. When Lubin re­acquired it in 1972, this car still carried a pukka, works, twin-ignition Aston Martin engine, albeit comprehensively destroyed. Lubin saw no signs of any butchery which would have been required to fit a V8 (DB3S/112 was raced extensively with a Chevrolet V8 engine in US West Coast races – could this be why the confusion arose?). What Lubin was sure of, however, was that sitting in his basement, or wherever, and still in its original packing case, lay a brand-new, twin-plug, works DB3S engine, an unused left-over spare from the Shelby/Lubin etc. team of the 1950s! This was fitted before Hart brought the car back to Britain. Even now, that over 20-year-old engine, reputed to be to a special Le Mans specification, has done little more than a thousand miles.

Changed personal circumstances meant that Hart, who still owns the famous Aston Martin Zagato registered 2 VEV, was destined never to drive DB3S/8: he sent it straight to RS Panels Ltd. of Nuneaton to have the bodywork restored and sold it to Roberts and Barker in 1974 before the work was complete, which was when it acquired the registration number 743 HYX. Incidentally, Dudley Coram’s magnificent, out-of-print tome “Aston Martin – The Story of a Sports Car” states that this DB3S, previously unregistered, had acquired the number NUV 926 by the time of the 1956 British GP meeting. I can find no evidence in our photographic archives of the car having carried a number plate and the Aston Martin Register appropriates that registration number to a DB2, chassis number LML/50/391.

As well as renovating the body, Bob Smith of RS Panels added the various works car details, such as the front wheel arch “eyebrows”, to the replacement production body, but Roberts and Barker elected not to reconstruct the carbureuer air box and cockpit vents. The 1955 team cars did not carry head­rest fairings, even in their 1956 season – these were restricted to the oval radiator grille, cowled headlight cars built in 1956 – but DB3S/8 was given one to mask the ugly roll-over bar added compulsorily in the USA.

Chassis renovation was entrusted to Eric Birks ofThame, whose father was a mechanic for the Whitehead brothers in their DB3S days and was able to put into practice on this rebuild some of the knowledge he acquired then. The biggest problem encountered was a nasty bend in the De Dion tube, presumably a relic of the US road smash. The kink had to be cut out and a new section inserted. Birks had a look inside the engine to check the authenticity of Lu bin’s claims – it was indeed brand-new. Barker reflected to me that Birks’ restoratlon of the Aston chassis was one of the best rebuilds the Midlands Motor Museum has had carried out.

Now DB3S/8 sits in the Midlands Motor Museum in a fully race prepared (and M.o.T.’d!) state, aired occasionally to keep the cobwebs out. Thus no special fuss was required to ready it at very short notice for this writer to exercise it round the Shropshire lanes in an afternoon of exhilarating nostalgia. Unfortunately, there was no opportunity to try it on a circuit – I was interested to compare it with its Maserati 300S contemporary. At Le Mans this year “my” 300S had been considerably quicker than Clive Aston’s ex works DB3S/5, which Martin Hilton has since acquired. Michael Barker hopes to race the car in occasional Group 1 Historic races next season.

Firstly a general look round this very pretty David Brown “racer” which replaced the too heavy DB3, of which ten were built in 1952/53. The aluminium bodywork clothes a ladder type tubular chassis suspended on torsion bars, with trailing arms and piston­type shock absorbers at the front and a De Dion rear axle with tubular shock absorbers. It has a wheelbase of 7 ft. 3 in., front and rear track of 4 ft. 1 in. and weighs in at something over 17 cwt. In original single and twin plug form the in­line, twin-overhead camshaft, triple Weber carburetter, wet-sump, six cylinder engine had a swept volume of 2,922 c.c. (83 mm. x 90 mm.). The works twin-plug engine gained eventually an extra 70 c.c. by increasing the bore to 84 mm.; DB3S/8 was the first car to run this 2,992 c.c. engine, when Brooks drove it in that wet 1956 Oulton race. On that occasion it gave 237 b.h.p. at 5,800 r.p.m., compared with 230 b.h.p. at 6,000 r.p.m. for the standard size 1956 works engine. Short of asking Michael Barker to dismember it, I cannot state which capacity the current engine boasts. Exploring the works specification further, it transpires that a triple-­plate clutch (single in the production DB3S) was fitted, along with a ZF limited slip differential in place of the standard David Brown spiral bevel unit. What with disc brakes, twin-ignition, aluminium-headed engine and special transmission, no wonder the works DB3Ss upset the racing owners of production versions, who could obtain none of these bits from the factory!

Interesting detail features are those unusual, protruding-rim wheels, unique to the works cars to clear the polished alloy brake calipers – separate ones for the handbrake – and a neat “window” in the tail with a view of the fuel level through another “window” in the 35-gallon aluminium tank. Dunlop Green Spot racing tyres take the place of the Avons fitted in the car’s works career.

With lunchtime drizzle abated I climbed into the one operative seat, the other being hidden by a metal tonneau cover. The sensation was of sitting in a single-seater, surrounded by the wrap-around Perspex screen and with the Smiths instrumentation and switchgear grouped purposefully with only one occupant in mind. Engine revolutions, oil and water temperature, oil pressure and dynamo charge have separate clear dials. Two flick switches on the left control each of the two ignition coils, another on the right operates both ignition and fuel pumps.

The engine is best started by catching it with the ignition switch and throttle with the engine already turning. The resultant noise, for which the straight-six Aston racing engines were renowned, is a glorious, crisp and raucous bark despite being muted by road silencers. Little temperament is apparent, save for the abrupt racing clutch and a tendency to kangaroo if the clutch isn’t depressed at slow speeds.

How right my friends had been about this racing Aston’s road-going attributes. Everything is so positive, the handling so well balanced and the car so compact that I felt at home right away. The driving position is straight-armed, though the seat is upright with a tendency to slide its occupant towards the pedals. The ride would win no awards for comfort, but it is not in the·farm cart class and perfectly tolerable for road use. Strong leg muscles are needed to persuade any effect out of the hard racing brake pads, which don’t get hot enough in road use and have no servo to help them. Aston changed from a five­-speed gearbox on the DB3 to a four-speed on the DB3S. I was pleasantly surprised by this David Brown equipment, with a light and precise action, a bit of notchiness and three-speed syncromesh which actually works – well, a little bit weak on top gear – and much better than Jaguar gearboxes.

Full throttle, four wheel drifts were the order of the day when this Aston was built, as the photograph of Moss shows. I couldn’t indulge in this on the road and wouldn’t have dared on the circuit thanks to current values. Yet the sensation of mild, balanced oversteer at speed, the response to the steering and throttle put real zest into my afternoon drive round the Shropshire lanes. I could take liberties with this car which I could never have done with the less forgiving though tauter 300S. The steering was smooth, relatively light and very precise, finger grip on the wood-rimmed wheel aided by protruding rivet heads.

Barker had given instructions not to exceed 5,500 r.p.m. -a nd the tachometer had a tell-tale – which is a few hundred revs below peak power, so I don’t know what the ultimate performance would feel like. The amazing thing about the engine wasn’t so much its performance as its flexibility (happy at 2,000 r.p.m.) and lack of temperament, a credit to whoever set up the Webers. I was surprised that it wasn’t much more “cammy”, although it could be felt to come strongly on song above 5,000 r.p.m. The MMM don’t know which of the four alternative final drives is fitted, but 5,500 r.p.m. in top came up very easily, probably 130 m.p.h. plus.

All too soon I had to return DB3S/8 to the peace of its museum, my ambition satisfied and not disappointed. – C.R.