If it isn’t the most famous Aston Martin, then surely 2VEV—the ex-Essex Racing Stable DB4 GT Zagato—is one of the most recognizable. In 1961, fresh out of the factory, it ran at Le Mans 24 Hours, and although it (and its sister car, 1VEV) retired with blown cylinder-head gaskets, 2VEV went on to have a short but starry career. Among its drivers were two-time F1 world champion Jim Clark and (later, in 1992) F1 world champion Denny Hulme at Silverstone.
The history of Aston racing cars in the 1960s is one of glorious failure. Few Astons won anything of note, but if 2VEV's race career wasn't over-endowed with silverware, after 47 years in the ownership of the St John Hart family, this glamorous automobile could stand alone when it goes under the hammer at Bonham’s Goodwood Festival of Speed sale on July 13. Some are predicting it will become the most expensive Aston Martin ever sold at auction. The current record is held by the first DBR1, sold last year at RM Sotheby’s Monterey sale for $22.55 million.
"It's a great name, a British GTO," Bonhams Motoring Department Chairman Jamie Wright says of the the DB4GT. He will wield the gavel at the the July sale. "It's the most famous and most important of the Zagatos, and it's been in the same family since 1971, so it's a great privilege to have this car consigned to us."
Knight downplays the talk about auction records, saying the media has "found a hook or two on this car," including the idea that it will sell for more than $20 million. "I don't know where they got that from," he says, "but we're hoping for over $14 million. We want to keep our feet on the ground and certainly don't want to scare away prospective bidders, but the last [auctioned] Zagato, a standard car, went for $14 million in 2015."
If Ercole Spada's gorgeous coachwork gives the 19 original DB4 GT Zagatos their visual appeal, the extra value of 2VEV (chassis 0183/R) comes from just how many lives this old charger has touched. (An additional four Sanction II models were built in 1988 and two more in 2000.) With hand beaten—rather than wheeled in—coachwork, not a single Zagato was built like another. The cars were delivered as rolling chassis to Zagato in Milan, where they were bodied and trimmed, then sent back to Aston Martin at Newport Pagnell to be finished. Power from the twin-plug, straight six-cylinder engine was claimed to be 314 horsepower, though Anthony Pritchard in his authoritative Aston Martin — The Post-War Competition Cars reckons the actual horsepower was more like 285, which is similar to that claimed by rival Ferrari's 250GT. The Aston featured lightweight components, including a magnesium gearbox casing, but it was at least 25-percent heavier than the Ferrari.
"The Ferrari had better road holding and better steering," Pritchard wrote, "but DB4GTs were almost theatrically noisy, could be chucked about with abandon by skilled drivers, hold dramatic opposite-lock drifts, and had an immense appeal to British drivers and entrants, as well as spectators."
Essex Racing Stable was owned by John Ogier, a wealthy poultry farmer. He had campaigned a couple of standard DB4GT models and then purchased 1VEV and 2VEV, which came with a bit of factory support, as canny Aston Martin proprietor David Brown covered his 1960 withdrawal from endurance racing. Ian Moss, former Aston Martin works mechanic who'd been poached by Ogier, was sent to pick up 2VEV.
“I was taken into the racing department and there she was, with straight-through exhaust pipes—you’ve never heard a noise like it,” Moss recalls. “That night I drove it on the road to where I lived in Datchet, and the following day I had to take her to Clermont-Ferrand in France; it was an ear-bending experience.” In those days it was quite usual to drive cars to events and Moss, who was a first-rate driver, didn't hang about. “Jim Clark always said the cars had done a race meeting before they got to the track,” Moss told me. Such was the nature of dual-purpose sports cars like the Aston—they were driven hard and fast nearly everywhere.
After the 1961 Le Mans, Lex Davison drove 2VEV to victory in the GT support race for the 1961 British Grand Prix and Clark drove it at Goodwood's Tourist Trophy race in August, where it was scuppered by its weight and prodigious tire wear, placing fourth behind 1VEV and two Ferrari 250GTs.
And apart from an undistinguished performance at Montlhéry in October, that was 1961 for 2VEV. The following year bought the first of three major crashes, this one involving the controversial loan of 2VEV back to Aston Martin to be fitted with an experimental 3,995-cc development engine for what became known as the Project cars. Ogier again lent the car to Aston Martin for the Spa Grand Prix meeting, but it was comprehensively wrecked by Lucien Bianchi. What Ogier eventually got back from Aston Martin was actually a different car, an experimental DP209 lightweight car, but bearing the same chassis number as the old 2VEV, built up with as much as they could salvage from the original. It had a restyled body with a lower roofline, broader rear wings and longer overhangs.
Ogier entered Tony Maggs in a non-championship GT race in France in July where 2VEV came in seventh. Clark drove it again at the '62 Goodwood Tourist Trophy and spun at Madgwick, collecting the leading Ferrari 250GTO of John Surtees and landing both in a ditch, where both cars were then hit by a spinning Ferrari 250SWB. So 2VEV was completely rebuilt for a second time and entered for Clark and Whitmore to race in the Paris 1,000km where it retired with a holed piston but still managed to classify in sixth place.
That was the end of 2VEV's top-line competition career and, like all ex-racers, it was sold off for a song. This DB4GT eventually ended up in the hands of talented gentleman racer Nick Cussons, who campaigned it in club meetings. In 1971, after a night in the pub with Roger St. John Hart, he agreed to sell it for £3600 (about £51,120 today, the equivalent of $71,049). Hart reportedly telephoned Cussons the following morning to sportingly ask if, in the cold light of day, he wanted to withdraw his offer.
I came across 2VEV in 1990 where its owner, St John Hart's widow, Toni, had lent it back to Cussons to drive in a pursuit sprint on the closed-road Willaston Circuit on the Isle of Man, where he lived. In a thrilling and deafening battle with Geoff Harris in his standard-bodied DB4GT, Cussons, despite local knowledge and a faster car, eventually had to settle for second. Cussons was a larger-than-life character, and two years later he persuaded Harris, a precision engineer, to help prepare 2VEV for that year's FIA Historic European GT Championship. It was a colorful addition to Harris' workshop, and I would take Fergus, my two-year old son, over to help Harris, who is his godfather. One sunny day they pulled 2VEV's old leather bucket seats out front and sat together, eating their sandwiches. Cussons had a swansong of a summer and after visits to Monza, Nurburgring, and Silverstone (where Hulme was his driving partner), he won the championship.
So what was it like to drive? "Very fast and very skittish," says Harris, himself a very skilled driver. "But it was another man's racing car and I'm not an ex-world champion..."
Another point of view comes from Graham Gregory, whose father owned the Zagato twin, 1VEV, for 22 years between 1968 and 1990, when it was sold for £1.4 million (about £3,206,000 million / $4,455,859 today) by Brooks, a forerunner of Bonhams. "My father bought it for between £1,500 and £1,600 ($34,816–$37,137);, it had been advertised in Motor Sport magazine by Essex Racing Stable for some time," he recalls. "They were all absolutely hopeless racing cars in their day and at that time they were unsaleable; they even threw in the Roy Nockolds painting of the car at Le Mans, which I still have."
Gregory senior ran 1VEV as his Stentorian daily driver and it was regularly parked under the control tower at Silverstone Circuit, where he worked as a scorer. "It could be a bit unpredictable and temperamental, oiling its plugs and so on, but on the whole it wasn't too bad," says Gregory, recalling that 2VEV was offered up at auction at one point, but was withdrawn before the sale.
Not long after winning the GT Championship, Cussons had a serious accident and 2VEV required its third complete rebuild. At that time, Aston Martin chairman Walter Hayes was launching his “Car For Life” program and offered to "put 2VEV back into the condition she deserves to be in."
With contributions from the St. John Hart family and a bit from Aston Martin, 2VEV was painstakingly rebuilt. The body was consigned to Clive Smart, a brilliant panel beater at Shapecraft in Northampton, who teased out the special lines of its DP209 configuration under the watchful eye of Works Service managing director Kingsley Riding-Felce.
There was a small ceremony at Newport Pagnell when the car was finished, and Walter Hayes confessed he'd had only the vaguest idea what it would cost to restore a historic Aston Martin. "When I saw what we'd spent, I rather wished I'd never made the offer," he confided. Fittingly, Toni Eyles (neé St John Hart) and her husband David Eyles declared that 2VEV's competition life was at an end, save the occasional demonstration run.
"In many ways it [the third crash] was quite fortuitous, as it enabled the family to fully restore the car back to period 1960s specification,” Bonhams' Knight says. “The car needed restoring, as it was very much an historic racer at this point—it even had a cream interior that wasn’t period correct—and the restoration enabled the car to be restored fully to the specification of its heyday and continue the next chapter of its life attending festivals and concours events."
So there it is: fast, beautiful, noisy, and fragile (the body work is gossamer-thin), with a distinctly chequered history, but worth too much to race these days even in vintage events. Hopefully this lovely old war horse has had the last total rebuild of its life and will just be enjoyed for what it is. When I told Fergus that 2VEV was up for sale, he suggested we buy “his” car. When I told him the price, he thought we’d just stick with the photo.
If you want to play, you'll likely need $14 million or more—and a set of ear plugs. Good luck.