4 May 2016

Unrestorables: 1954 Aston Martin DB3S/5

Racing cars frequently have checkered careers, but the fifth of 11 Aston Martin DB3S/5 factory cars has one of the most impressive. It will be auctioned at Bonhams May 21st AM Works sale with a pre-sale estimate of $6-7 million.

DB3S/5’s career encompassed competition triumph, operatic tragedy, and even a movie role as the “Bellini” in the 1960 British comedy, School for Scoundrels. The car’s central integrity was preserved throughout its adventures, but like “George Washington’s axe” has its original head, the Aston Martin has had a lot of ‘handles’.

Originally built for Aston Martin owner David Brown, the DB3S/5 was fitted with an experimental fiberglass body, which reportedly lacked sufficient hardener. That sticky situation was resolved when two unstable DB3S hardtops crashed at the 1954 Le Mans 24 Hours. The DB3S/5 immediately received the DB3S/2’s alloy roadster body, and went racing.

In its new form, the roadster enjoyed a spectacular couple of years in Sir Stirling Moss, Roy Salvadori, Reg Parnell and Peter Collins’s hands. The DB3S/5 won multiple races (such as Crystal Palace and Aintree) in their hands and usually helped its drivers to the podium. Other factory DB3s were equally successful: Collins and Paul Frère finished second in the disastrous 1955 Le Mans 24 Hours, Frère and Moss placed second in 1956. However, by the end of 1956, Aston Martin was concentrating on the new DBR1 and felt that the DB3S was past its prime (however the Whitehead brothers did manage a second at the 1958 Le Mans 24 Hours, after the DBR1s failed).

Eventually, the DB3S/5 was rebodied at the factory to Carrozzerie Touring design and subsequently appeared in the aforementioned British comedy. The film starred Ian Carmichael as a hopeless nerd who learned the Art of One-Upmanship or “How to Win Without Actually Cheating” from tutor Alastair Sim. The villain of the piece was the raffish Terry-Thomas, and the DB3S was featured as the new “Bellini”, complete with a rear fin. Terry-Thomas attempted to seduce Carmichael’s girlfriend Janet Munro, but in this story he was unsuccessful, and not even the Bellini helped.

Fitted with the Touring body, the DB3S/5 passed through the hands of several enthusiasts, finally re-configured as a factory alloy-bodied roadster by collector Bill Lake. By 2011 it belonged to Swiss resident Erich Traber, who sent it back to Aston Martin’s Heritage Center to be restored for the Mille Miglia, in which it had twice raced unsuccessfully in the 1950s.

By this point, many parts were in boxes, while others were missing. The frame was cracked and needed repair. The 225hp DOHC six-cylinder engine needed a new block and cylinder head. The Heritage Center analyzed the distressed shell and built a factory alloy body, fitting new chassis tubes and rebuilding all the car’s mechanical parts. In a documented reconstruction, the car was rewired, re-trimmed and reassembled, repainted in the correct olive green color in time for the 2014 Mille Miglia.

As a former factory racer with celebrated drivers, and an extensive competition history, DB3S/5 is eligible for all-important historic races, including those remaining events it first competed in 60 years ago. The repairs performed on the Aston Martin are the equivalent of multiple surgeries performed on a championship bull-rider – he’s still Larry Mahan the next time he comes out of the chute at a rodeo. Even the car’s appearance as the ephemeral Bellini in the School for Scoundrels only adds to its history, as if Mahan himself had played an outlaw in a Western film, between rodeos.

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