One hell of a company car

Aston Martin owner David Brown drove this DB2 to work every day – after it had finished third at Le Mans and won its class in the Mille Miglia.
And nobody’s messed with it since
By Ed Foster

The Aston Martin DB2 is often overlooked as a successful competition car, which isn’t surprising given the existence of the DB3S, DBR1 and more recently the DBR9. But it’s the DB2 that got Aston’s post-war Le Mans quest in gear, leading directly to the zenith at La Sarthe with Salvadori, Shelby and the DBR1 in 1959.

With this in mind I set off to drive the most successful DB2 in existence – in 1950 and ’51 it won its class at Le Mans and in the Mille Miglia, and also won the 1951 Alpine Rally outright. Remarkably it hasn’t been altered since 1957 when Aston Martin company owner David Brown was using it as his everyday car. The paint is original –various dents and scrapes give away its age – the interior hasn’t been touched and the scrutineering pass from the 1951 Mille Miglia still hangs around the steering column.

The steering is heavy – I’m amazed that anyone could drive the car for 24 hours – and I’m asked not to rev the engine too high, but it doesn’t matter one bit. VMF 64 might be a little rough around the edges, but this is a real piece of Aston history: most of the parts on the car today were there when it finished third overall at Le Mans in ’51.

During World War II Aston Martin stayed afloat by making Avro Wellington bombers and control columns for training aircraft, but in 1944 a direct hit on the factory by a V1 flying bomb coupled with worn out machinery left the car manufacturer in serious financial trouble. That year Gordon Sutherland bought his father’s shares for £5. Three years later David Brown, who had made his money building gears, gearboxes and tractors, saw an advert in The Times for a ‘High Class Motor Business’, which he duly bought for £20,000. It was a pricey sum when you consider that Aston Martin had only one current model – the experimental Atom – which had been designed before the war. Undeterred, Brown went on to buy Lagonda the following year for more than double the price.

Reluctant to interfere with the job of actually producing a car, Brown was nevertheless persuaded to enter the 1948 Spa 24 Hours as a way of showing the world that Aston Martin was still in business. However, his initial coolness soon turned into an unparalleled enthusiasm, as remembered by DB2 driver Eric Thompson: “He never interfered, he always left everything to [team manager] John Wyer. But in the background he was enormously enthusiastic, always at the races.”

Four cars were sent to Belgium equipped with an Atom-based chassis, an Aston Martin four-cylinder engine, David Brown gearbox and a tourer body with cycle wings. Against all odds, and formidable opponents, the car driven by St John Horsfall and Leslie Johnson covered the greatest distance – even if there was no official winner due to the results being based on a class system. It didn’t take long for Brown to decide to run a works team the following year.

By 1949 the Aston Martins looked vastly different from the previous year’s tourer-bodied racer. The DB2 featured a saloon body with a chassis slightly shorter than the DB1, its 2-litre engine wrapped in a more curvaceous body than the Spa ‘winner’. The matt green cars, understood to be prototypes for a 1950 production model, didn’t have a particularly satisfying debut at Le Mans, with two DNFs and a seventh-place finish. Only two cars were sent to the Belgian 24 Hours Touring Car Grand Prix – one running with Lagonda power, the other with an Aston four-cylinder – but here the DB2s fared better. The Lagonda-powered car driven by Johnson/Charles Brackenbury covered the third-highest distance, while the Aston-powered car, driven by Horsfall, finished fourth.

As planned the DB2 went into production, but designer Frank Feeley had only a few months to ready the first cars. So little time in fact that the car was built from full-scale drawings rather than small-scale models. VMF 64 (LML/50/8) was the second car off the production line – Aston had decided to take the first three cars to Le Mans in June. All three had 2580cc production engines with slightly larger-bore SUs and larger fuel tanks (32 gallons), producing 125bhp as opposed to 105bhp in the road cars. Tragedy struck when Jack Fairman crashed LML/50/9 en route to Le Mans, badly injuring his wife. The fact that he turned up at the circuit still wanting a drive only maddened the easily ruffled Wyer. Thompson, however, has fond memories of the boss: “He was exacting and had a wonderful dry sense of humour. He was meticulous in everything he did. A great man to race under.” Fairman didn’t drive for Aston again until 1959.

Thompson, the other driver for LML/50/9, was placed in the 1949 six-cylinder car alongside John Gordon, but on the eighth lap the crankshaft broke and Thompson never got to race. This was also the year that Brown himself tried to race one of his cars. “He had ambitions to drive in 1950, but the RAC turned him down,” recalls Thompson.

VMF 64 (or ‘64’ as Thompson calls it) rescued what had been looking like a dismal outing for the works team. The car, driven by George Abecassis (who would marry Brown’s daughter Angela in 1956) and Lance Macklin, was delayed briefly on the Sunday morning due to a sticking throttle but went on to finish fifth overall, first in the 3000cc class and, most surprisingly, tied in the Index of Performance with a Monopole Panhard. The last car (LML/50/7) came home a respectable sixth.

When Macklin was injured, Wyer brought in Grand Prix star Raymond Sommer to drive ‘64’ in the Silverstone Production Sports Car race that August. Never one to go anything but flat out, the two-time Le Mans winner politely told Wyer – now employed full-time by Aston – that there was no point giving him signals to either speed up or slow down as he could not do the former and would not do the latter. The Frenchman duly finished second in class.

From there the car went to Northern Ireland for the RAC Tourist Trophy at the 7.14-mile Dundrod circuit. The recovered Macklin drove it to third in class behind the other two Aston works cars. To round off its first season, Charles Brackenbury took ‘64’ up Shelsley Walsh in 50.46 seconds and finished sixth in class.

The DB2 might have been gaining results, but Wyer knew that to score an overall victory a proper sports car was needed. Brown engaged the services of Professor Robert Eberan-Eberhorst of Auto Union fame for the job. But if it was a rush to get the DB2 ready for Le Mans in 1950, preparing the DB3 for the ’51 race was a step too far. Wyer fell back on the DB2 and had two special lightweights built with 200kg shaved off, thanks in no small part to getting rid of the standard seats, each weighing 20kg.

Tom Wisdom had taken ‘64’ to 11th overall and first in the over 2-litre Vetture Veloci class (six minutes ahead of Salvatore Amendola’s Ferrari) at the 1951 Mille Miglia before it too was prepared for Le Mans. ‘64’ underwent a similar weight loss process (it had been 1149kg with full tanks after the previous year’s 24 Hours) and was taken as a back-up. As well as reducing the weight, Webers replaced SUs, more power was eked out of the engine and the axle ratio was raised to make the most of the Mulsanne Straight.

Macklin and Thompson drove ‘64’ this time, maintaining a higher average speed than Rosier’s Talbot which had won Le Mans in 1950, even though on race day the weather was atrocious. The car outraced not only the other lightweight Astons, but also most of the rest of the field.

It finished first in class and, amazingly, third overall. Thompson: “We certainly made up some places thanks to the weather, because it rained through the night. The previous year the other two cars came in fifth and sixth, and Wyer aimed at hitting a bit higher, which we did.

“The car was stationary for 11 minutes in the whole 24 hours – it took longer to change the tyres those days – and we were only 9km or so behind the second-placed car, so the race went remarkably smoothly. I absolutely loved doing it – three-, four-hour stints at a time. There was also a great atmosphere in the team, although one never really saw Macklin because he was usually with a bird…”

From its Le Mans success ‘64’ went on to victory in the Alpine Rally, winning four stages in the hands of Wisdom and his wife Elsie, better known as ‘Bill’ – a nickname she’d earned from her six elder brothers for being a tomboy.

The following year three cars were entered for the Mille Miglia, including ‘64’. Co-driver Anthony Hulme was taken ill and replaced by Fred Lown – one of the mechanics who took the cars out to Brescia – but Wisdom still finished 12th overall and first in class. The last time the car competed was later in 1952 at the Alpine Rally, where it finished 15th overall and fifth in class with Wisdom driving once again.

In September 1955 the Hon Gerald Lascelles – who worked in the Aston Martin purchasing department in the early ’50s and later became president of the BRDC – approached Brown in order to buy the car. Gerald’s son Henry still has Brown’s reply, which includes the following: “Up to now we have felt that we should keep this car as a sort of museum piece.
Therefore, at the present time I see no possibility of our disposing of VMF 64.” However, in July 1957 Aston seemed to change its mind about the importance of heritage and sold it to Lascelles for £500. The car has remained in the family but hasn’t been raced since. “My father had no intention of racing her, as he felt she’d earned an honourable retirement,” says Henry.

Squeezing my 6ft 7ins frame into ‘64’ was a struggle, but the car is extremely accommodating once the wheels are turning. Although the steering is at best vague in a straight line and very heavy when cornering, Thompson doesn’t remember it being much different from other cars of its era: “In those days one was used to heavy steering, it wasn’t anything exceptional. ‘64’ was a wonderful car to drive and really excelled in the long-distance events.”

Although the interior is in road trim, one can see why the car made such a good long-distance racer. “It didn’t have a weak spot at all,” says Thompson. “John Wyer gave us a rev limit for most of the race – but for the last 12 hours he lifted the limit by 500rpm, which helped us along the way.” Now back on more tractable SUs, the engine still pulls well and you can imagine what the exhaust must have sounded like when the car was in race trim, something that Gordon Wilkins described as a “sonorous scream between 4000 and 5000rpm” when he road-tested it straight after Le Mans in ’51.

VMF 64 is one of the most historically important racing Aston Martins. Whether or not you agree that it had “earned an honourable retirement” when Lascelles bought it, there’s no questioning its originality. It’s not often you find a car that has been so unmolested, and rarer still that it should also have such a successful and interesting past. The car will be auctioned at RM’s London sale on October 28 and we wouldn’t be surprised if it sailed past its £300-400,000 estimate.

Back in 1955, when obsolete racing cars were disposed of without a thought, David Brown considered ‘64’ important enough to keep. It was history’s good fortune that when he did decide to release it, this significant car went to a buyer who had the good taste not to ‘improve’ it.

Thanks to RM Auctions and Henry Lascelles for their help with this feature.