1956 ASTON MARTIN DBS3/10
IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN A STROLL IN FREDDIE MARCH’S
park. After all, hadn’t Jaguar’s works trio recently covered 7532 miles, at more than 104mph, to score a superb 1-2-4 at Le Mans? And hadn’t they beaten Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Lancia in the process?
And this, remember, was the ground-breaking C-type’s second success at La Sarthe: lighter, more powerful than its 1951 counterpart-and now fitted with ever-improving Dunlop disc brakes it was in its prime. Nine hours barrelling around Goodwood, basically unchallenged, at an anticipated average of just 80mph, would be a breeze, surely?
Aston Martin had had three works cars at that Le Mans, too. But all of its brand-new, i.e. unsorted, DB3Ss retired. Which is why the upcoming headto-head between these British marques in the second Goodwood Nine Hours appeared to be a mismatch. But there was a twist XK120C (‘for ‘Competition) was designed and built to win one race Le Mans; one race highlighted the top-speed shortcomings of the new Aston like no other -Le Mans.
DB3S was Feltham’s antidote to the ex-Auto Union designer Eberan von Eberhorst’s unloved and unwieldy DB3 of 1952. Ex-Invicta designer Willie Watson chopped 6in from its wheelbase and lowered it (by cranking the chassis rails). Frank Feeley then memorably clothed it in 16and 18-gauge soft aluminium. The end result was a car still 500cc shy of the 3.4 C-type, but lighter and more nimble, and blessed with superior traction. Goodwood was going to be difficult for Jaguar. At 2.4 miles, the track was the shortest to host an international endurance race, its continuous-corner
layout tougher on tyres and drivers than the long straights of Le Mans. Harder on brakes, too. Jaguar and Dunlop were pioneering discs on the C-type, and these were just the ticket for Le Mans and Reims, where they had time to cool between applications. Goodwood allowed no such breathing space.
The warning signs were there. Reg Pamell’s prototype DB3S had beaten the C-type of Stirling Moss in the Isle of Man’s British Empire Trophy one week after Jaguar’s Le Mans triumph. And in the sportscar race that supported the British GP in July, Reg led a 1-2-3 for the DB3S. It was clear that Jaguar’s old girl was under threat from Aston’s young buck.
She was no pushover, though, especially as she was still smarting from her defeat by Aston in the first Goodwood Nine Hours, in 1952. Darkness had descended, and Sir William Lyons was at Goodwood House being congratulated on a sure-fire win for his cars, when Moss brought the leading C-type in with broken A-bracket on its rear suspension. Which was doubly annoying because the sister car of Tony Rolt/ Duncan Hamilton had shed a wheel 30 minutes earlier while running in second place. Which is how the DB3 came to score its only notable win.
John Wyer, Aston’s fastidious team manager, rightly pointed out that reliability, consistency and finishing were more important than outright speed in endurance racing. In troth, however, DB3 did not provide him any option other than ‘steady away’; DB3S would allow him to go on the attack. He did, but Jaguar’s works squad were ready. The latest C-type was 901bs lighter than its predecessor, its live rear axle was now better tied down (by cast
torque arm and Panhard rod), and its XK straightsix had better mid-range punch courtesy of three Webers in place of the two 2-inch SUs. And they had Moss, who hustled into his usual early lead.
Parnell was meant to be Aston’s ‘hare’, and the car he was sharing with Eric Thompson was fitted with a lower final drive for this purpose, but the Jaguars, booming down Lavant Straight and past the pits, appeared to have Reg and the rest covered. As in 1952, however, Goodwood caught up with them.
Another eighth-hour defeat was assured when, within minutes of each other, the Moss/Peter Walker and Rob/Hamilton cats retired with broken engines, oil surge on Goodwood’s sweepers the culprit. The third works C-type of Peter Whitehead/Ian Stewart was in no position to take up the cudgels, its donefor brakes glowing red in the dark, its oil pressure gauge deep in the red, too. Which meant the almond green Astons enjoyed another midnight feast, Parnell/ Thompson and Collins/Pat Griffith scoring a 1-2.
An era was over. As if to emphasise this, Aston scored a 1-2 in the IT at Dundrod in September, costing Jaguar the first world sportscar championship.
There was no Nine Hours in 1954. Britain’s first night races had provided plenty of excitement (for the drivers), but the crowds were small, generally unsighted and mainly unmoved. So it came as a surprise when the race was revived in 1955. By this time, D-type had replaced C-type and Aston’s big hope, the Lagonda V12, had bombed. As always, Le Mans was Jaguar’s only real goal, and so four privateer Ds faced three works DB3Ss at Goodwood. The Ecosse D -type of Desmond p+
Titterington/Ninian Sanderson finished a closing second to the Aston of Walker/Dennis Poore, but Feltham clearly held the hex over Coventry here.
Yet remarkably, DB3S was only ever intended as a stopgap while the Lagonda was made ready. “But the Lagonda was never ready,” says Ted Cutting, then-design assistant to Willie Watson. “DB3S did sterling service it kept us out of serious trouble and in the public eye. Constantly updating that car was the final piece of my racing education. It was my Masters, if you like, having been guided through my Honours by Eberan on the DB3.”
Aston’s hard-pressed, Lagonda-focused comps shop somehow kept DB3S simultaneously competitive. It was frantic stuff. Cutting oversaw the design and build (in three weeks!) of an updated De Dion rear axle after the car’s Le Mans debut The Salisbury centre unit of the DB3 had been replaced by a David Brown spiral bevel on the S, but this retained the inboard &tun brake anangement until Cutting feverishly set to. His hard work first hit the track in the 1953 Tourist Trophy at Dundrod, where the sole outboard-brake car finished second. Watson updated a previously unsuccessful alloy head for 1954. This (now) twin-plug unit replaced the cast-iron item from the original 2.6-live Lagonda straight-six and, when allied to a solid-billet crank (in place of a forged one) and new conrods (loz heavier, 200 per cent stronger!) eventually pushed power beyond 240bhp (out of a block originally designed to cope with 110bhp). This was twice the output that the S430 four-speed gearbox (a to-hand replacement for the DB3’s awful five-speeder) had
been designed to cope with, which is why it went through 23 evolutions in four years.
By 1955, having briefly tried Lockheed discs on the front the previous season, DB3S was equipped all-round with Girling disc brakes. These were still not a cure-all, some drivers preferring the handling on drums as the unsprung weight was reduced.
Despite these improvements, it was clear to Cutting that DB3S was dead in the water at international level by 1955, even though it had finished second at Le Mans that year — and would do so again in ’56 and, incredibly, in ’58. The Mercedes 300SLR had upped the stakes, and Ted was working on his DBR1 masterpiece before August was out.
This car made its debut at Le Mans in 1956, but still DB3S was holding the fort, Moss/Collins finishing second behind an Ecosse D-type. Even as late as 1957, Aston wanted a fall-back in case DBR1 did a lagonda’. Which is why DB3S /10, featured here, is a little bit different.
The last works version of this model made its debut in the 1956 Rouen Grand Prix, where Roy Salvadori finished fifth. He then raced it at Le Mans — until co-driver Walker shunted in the wet. The following year it became the first, and only, DB3S to be fitted with wishbone-coil spring front suspension (designed for the DB4). It was also the only car to feature CAV direct injection, Noel Cunningham-Reid so equipped while finishing fifth in the British Empire Trophy at Oulton Park. The Whiteheads then drove it to ninth place in the Niirburgring 1000Km. It was apt that this last works outing for a DB3S should coincide with the DBR1’s
first big win. The baton had been handed over.
From the driving seat of DB3S/10, Feeley’s keynote ‘Gothic arch’ wings rise prow-like, cleaving a safe passage through puddles that would later cause the C-type to skip alarmingly. Horror stories of Aston gearboxes are soon dispelled, too. Even though this is not the last-of-the-breed straight-cut item, it snicks more smoothly and more snappily than you have any right to expect a 50-year-old synchro unit to.
This is beguiling, purposeful stuff.
Through the matt-black spokes of a thin-rimmed wooden wheel, a large Smiths rev-counter sits plum centre, its needle punching around the dial as the power is fed in. The Webers (45 DCO3s replaced 35s in the middle of 1954) spit in the unseasonable cold, but it’s clear that this is a very tractable unit.
But not as tractable as the C-type’s amazing XK. Larger ports, new cam and crank, solid-skirt pistons and 8:1 compression gave the racing version an extra 40bhp (up to 204bhp) over its road-going forebear. Further adaptations were conservative and power had risen to just 220bhp by 1953 — but it is in all the right places. No matter what the gear, or revs, the tug of torque is always there.
Which is a good job because the Moss ‘box is terribly, terribly slow. The car’s custodian for the day, Win Percy, advised a one-pause-two approach to changes. But it isn’t until I add an approximation of his Devon burr to my count that things start to mesh. From the driving seat of the Jaguar, the rolling waves of aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer’s beautiful bonnet act as a metaphor: this car is more rounded, softer in every respect, than the Aston — from the
plump seat cushion to its supple ride, from the brakes (discs, though Win had climbed out convinced he was running drums) to the way the needles (yep, it’s got a speedo) float around the larger gauges, from the surprisingly light rack-and-pinion to the walk of the SUs. But it’s here that you must remember there is a four-year gap between these cars.
Indeed, this C-type, chassis 004, is the oldest in existence. (The 1951 Le Mans cars were broken up.) Hamilton took delivery of this first privateer car in May 1952 and raced his pastel-green acquisition in the IoM’s British Empire Trophy. He then whisked it to Le Mans, where it was cannibalised by the works as they attempted to cure, in vain, the overheating problems of its long-nose cars.
From Le Mans, Hamilton drove 004 to Oporto for the sportscar race. He retired, a result he was to repeat in 1953, albeit in a far more comprehensive way. The hospital he was taken to was at a loss about a sudden power cut Duncan wasn’t 004 had scythed down a pylon.
The car was returned to the factory, rebuilt, raced once more by its up-and-at-’em owner, and then sold. Which is where its competition history stops. Now in the ownership ofjaguar enthusiasts Nigel and Naomi Webb, 004 oozes gentle patina. In contrast, DB3S /10 shrieks hard-edged race preparation. Which is no surprise as, barring a spell in the 1970s, its competition history is continuous. The opposing backgrounds of these two cars serve to accentuate the difference between these two models. In the C-type, you sit over that big back axle and ease and caress (in the wet at least), that live
Salisbury unit threatening to overtake the unwary, those long torsion bars at the front twisting and flexing; in the DB3S, you sit ahead of that solid De Dion tube and point and harry, its ZF limited-slipper (a 1955 development taken from the V12 Lagonda) keeping you on the straight and narrow, its wishbone front direct and positive.
It’s night and day.
Of course, this performance gap (then in jaguar’s favour) was much smaller during the day and night of the 1953 Goodwood Nine Hours, but already these were two cars on divergent paths; one at the end of one, the other at the beginning of another. There is no doubting that I would choose the Aston here and now, but there is no doubting either which made the greater impact in its day.
“C-type was the catalyst for sportscar development generally,” acknowledges Cutting. “A lot of people sat up and took notice when it appeared. It’s what made us do the DB3S.”
The latter laid the foundations for DBR1’s Le Mans win and sportscar world title in 1959, successes for which Aston deserves huge credit. But AM boss David Brown would have swapped these achievements for jaguar’s five — perhaps fewer of them — Le Mans victories of the 1950s.
jaguar began that decade not yet an accepted part of the establishment. It ended that decade a global brand. Crucially, it took Aston nine years to build a Le Mans-winner; it took jaguar nine months (work only began on the C-type in October 1950). And this is a gap that Aston Martin has never completely closed. 1:1
6-cylinder, in-line, DOHC, iron block, aluminium head, 2 valves per cylinder, 2 plugs per cylinder 2992cc 84 x 90mm 240bhp @ 6000rpm 2201b/ft @ 4200ipm 3 Weber 45DCO3s wet sump ENGINE Capacity … Bore x stroke Max power… Max torque… Carburation… Oil system … DRIVEIRAIN Transmission Clutch … Final drive … CHASSIS Type Suspension (f) Suspension (r) Brakes (f)
Tyres … DIMENSIONS Wheelbase … Track (f& r)… Weight … DB, S430, 4-speed, synchromesh (barring 1st), needle-roller bearings Borg & Beck, dry, single-plate 3.875 to 1 ladder frame independent, double-wishbone, coil spring-over-damper De Dion tube, torsion bars, separate dampers on trailing arms Girling, hydraulic, discs, 12.5 x 5/8in (f), 11.5 x 1/2in (r) rack-and-pinion Avon, 5.50 x 16 (f8cr), 7ft 4in 4ft 2in 17.5cwt
ENGINE Type … 6-cylinder, in-line, DOHC, iron block, aluminium head, 2 valves per cylinder Capacity … 3442cc Bore x stroke 83x 106mm Compression 8 to 1 Max power… 210bhp @ 580Orpm Carburation… twin 2-inch sandcast SUs Oil system … wet sump DRIVETRAIN Transmission Moss, 4-speed, synchromesh Clutch … Borg & Beck, dry, single-plate Final drive … 9.86 to 1 CHASSIS Type . . spaceframe Suspension (f) independent, double-wishbone, torsion bars, Newton hydraulic dampers Suspension (r) live Salisbury axle, torsion bars, trailing arms, Newton hydraulic dampers Brakes (I) … Dunlop, hydraulic, discs Steering … rack-and-pinion Tyres … Dunlop, 6.50 x 16 (f & r) DIMENSIONS Wheelbase … 8ft Track (f& r)… 4ft 3in Weight … 18.Scwt