Behind the wheel of a “new” Aston Martin DB4 GT
The saying goes that the only difference between men and boys is the size of their toys. Perhaps the cost, too. At more than $2 million, this faithful factory-approved recreation of a 1959 Aston Martin DB4 GT is for the serious collector only, although a man-math alternative perspective might be that, since a real one costs upwards of twice this figure, perhaps Aston Martin’s “fake” is something of a bargain.
Bargain or not, a wet January at Silverstone circuit in Northamptonshire, England, isn’t the most welcoming place to be driving something that’s worth this much and is clad in tissue-thin, hand-beaten aluminum. The weather is damp, cold, slimy, and misty. Simon Dickinson, Aston Martin’s development driver, advises much caution and eschewing the greasy racing line. “They haven’t had a race meet here for over a month,” he says, “and all the oil and crap in the Tarmac has risen to the surface. It’s unbelievably slippery; you’ve got to follow the wet line where’s there’s more grip.”
The door shuts with that traditional Aston flappy crash and I’m alone in the cockpit of… well, what exactly? Before turning the Wilmot Breeden key in its slot, it might be worth going through some history here.
The DB4 GT was a cut-and-shut version of the Aston Martin DB4, a homologation special if you like, designed to give competition-minded customers something to race while the company was busy winning the 1959 World Sports Car Championship with the beautiful DBR1.
Essentially, the GT was a DB4 two-door coupé with five inches out of its wheelbase and its Superleggera Touring of Milan aluminum coachwork adapted to suit. Its 3.7-liter, straight-six engine was uprated with three twin-choke Weber carburetors, wilder cam timing, a 9:1 compression ratio, and twin-plug ignition. Aston claimed it produced 302 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, which was somewhat optimistic. The gearbox was an all-synchro, close-ratio four-speed David Brown unit, the solid rear axle had a Powr-lok limited slip differential, and there were Girling disc brakes at all four corners. The headlamps were cowled under Perspex covers, and most cars received a 30-gallon fuel tank with twin fillers. Some cars were clad in 18-gauge aluminum magnesium alloy coachwork, with aluminum replacing steel in some non-stressed parts of the chassis.
Aston’s competition manager, John Wyer wanted a car that was “a little closer to the edge,” and so the short wheelbase proved to make a sharper and pointier car. It was also quick, out of the box with a 3.54 axle, it could sprint from 0–60 mph in just over six seconds and 0–100 mph in just over 14 seconds, with a top speed of 153 mph. With the standard DB4 costing £4,000 (£86,000—or $119,734—today), Aston wanted £4,500 (£96,750 / $134,701) for a DB4 GT. And those gorgeous 16-inch Borrani wire wheels were optional extras. In total 75 were built, plus 19 Zagato derivatives, one Bertone-bodied car and several Project endurance-racing cars.
“I’ve worked out that in total there were exactly 100 of all shapes and types built,” says Paul Spires, commercial director of Aston Martin Works at Newport Pagnell, which is building 25 of these Continuation cars.
Back to the original, though, and while it was damnably good looking and generally acknowledged to be one of the most Stentorian cars in the paddock, in racing terms the DB4 GT was far from competitive. In its short racing career during 1959 and ’60, the Aston Martin was consistently blown away by cars like the Ferrari 250SWB and early racing Jaguar E-Types. The DB4 GT prototype, DP199/1 made its racing debut at the International Trophy meeting at Silverstone on May 9, 1959. Stirling Moss drove it and wasn’t impressed.
“It was a bit of truck,” Moss told me in an interview four years ago. “Might be worth a lot of money now, but I’d take the short wheelbase [Ferrari], which is what it raced against. That was such a lovely car—light, powerful—it made the Aston’s lack of breeding stand out.”
After that inauspicious start, the same car was fitted with a 3.0-liter engine from a DBR3/1 and run at Le Mans that June with Swiss drivers Hubert Patthey and Renaud Calderari. It lasted just 21 laps, but Aston has painted Swiss colors on the Continuation model we’re driving to commemorate the occasion.
In 1960, the Aston Martin factory built five lightweight cars, with one going to Tommy Sopwith’s Équipe Endeavour and two to John Ogier’s Essex Racing Stable. Moss drove the Sopwith car to victory at the Goodwood Easter Monday meeting and Jack Sears drove that car, winning at Aintree, then Oulton Park, Snetterton, and Brands Hatch against fairly soft opposition. Ogier’s cars faced a tougher test at the Goodwood Tourist Trophy in August, in the form of six Ferrari 250GTs, including Rob Walker’s example with Moss at the wheel. Moss the maestro finished a lap ahead of Roy Salvadori and Innes Ireland in DB4 GTs. And it was largely the same story for the rest of the year, when the DG4 GTs proved to be heavy, slow, outclassed, and with a heavy thirst for tires, but beautiful.
That’s all in the past, while the DB4 GT I’m sitting in offers more immediate nostalgia. Stop thinking and turn the key. The engine roars, spalling and splintering against the deserted Silverstone grandstands. Spires’ team has included some more modern updates on this unit, but avoided over-tuning it. Bored to 4.2 liters, running a sensible grind on the camshafts with reasonably advanced spark timing, it produces about 340 horsepower and lots of torque. Permission was sought from the David Brown Organization for this car (as it has from the family of Lady Paul Brown, Sir David’s widow, and Touring of Milan for use of the Superleggera badging). Approvals aside, in truth the original four-speed wasn’t a technical high point of the original car, so the recreation comes with a set of new gears, with dog-engaged ratios ensuring strength and robustness if not refinement.
The scream of those straight-cut gears fills the uninsulated cabin as I pull away up the pit road. Crash through to second and feather the throttle as the new, vintage-spec Dunlop L-section race tires try to slide off into the Armco on the exit. Good grief, the wet track is indeed slippery.
Out on the open sections of Silverstone it’s possible to push a little, and right away it’s clear that the new DB GT is a stiffer, more of-a-piece car than an original based on my experience sprint-racing one back in the Nineties. A full FIA roll cage with front strengtheners, better steel, a jigging process, and rose-jointed suspension help, of course. Spires says the rear dampers are standard Armstrong Selectaride units, but the front dampers are hand built and re-valved. Turn the slightly smaller-than-standard riveted wooden steering wheel and the response is as fast and accurate as the Dunlops and the track allow. Slip, slither, slide, catch it, grip, and begin the process again. Progress round Maggots Turn is slow and stately, but line it up on the back straight and you can savor the engine’s grunt in full.
Always an aristocratic wailing unit, the straight six designed by Tadek Marek is lovely if fragile, but modern engine techniques have given this car an unbreakable feel and the noise is simply epic. As the gears get something to do, their scream deepens, overlaid with a basso profundog rowl and a roar like a fighter aircraft is stuck in the trunk. Crash the gear shift through to fourth and the big engine pulls down towards Luffield corner like a bolting Clydesdale, the rear tires starting to weave as the torque tears at their slender contact patches. This is horribly addictive (I’m still listening to the sound track recorded on my phone).
The brakes are lovely, too, which is in some way a testament to modern pad materials and an all-new remanufactured Girling system. On grippier tires than this with dry conditions they’d be even more effective, but today, the Dunlops lock up if you go for anything approaching enthusiastic braking.
“Darren Turner (Aston’s works driver) has done 2500 kilometers in this car at Nardo,” says Spires, confirming these Astons’ prodigious thirst for tires when he notes that they got through 40 sets in so doing. Poor Turner must be deaf.
And while you wouldn’t want to crash in one of these, the safety cage, fire extinguishers, brakes, self-sealing fuel tank, seat belts, and construction are all exemplars of their type. “Driver safety was absolutely key,” Spires says. “We accepted no compromise and this car is a safe as it can be.”
So this DB4 GT is lovely, but then so is an original. The new car handles better than a standard original, but then again it should after all that the Spires team put into it. They did their homework, using the required skills at their disposal and painstakingly touring Europe, gaining permissions and reawakening manufacturers for things like the door handles and the enamel bonnet badges, the latter of which are made in the jewelry quarter of Birmingham—where they used to be—and come complete with slight imperfections just like the originals did.
Perhaps the bigger question with the continuation DB4 GT is not how well it was built, but whether it should have been built at all. The risks are that these cars will find their way onto historic racing grids where they’ll enjoy a modern advantage over originals, that they’ll be categorized (or even disguised) as originals and that this is just a sacrilegious, money-making scheme, a kind of fantasy retro garage for folks who don’t really care about history. What’s more, the exorbitant purchase money doesn’t buy a chance to drive on the open road, as these are all track cars and virtually impossible to register for the highway.
“Yes I’ve had to search my conscience,” Spires said. “But in the past there have been too many standard DB4s changed into something they are not and people don’t know what they are buying anymore. At least these cars are built by the factory in a controlled way and everyone knows what they are.”
He also says that the 25 owners—yes, they’re already sold out—are all enthusiasts, all committed to driving their cars on the track and not keeping them in a box for investment purposes. “It’s done well in the U.S., where they get [as in, understand] new/old cars like this,” he says.
I stayed up late on the night after my test drive, and I’m not sure I’ve drawn any firm opinion on whether or not continuation cars are a blasphemy. As one who has scrimped and saved and spent years lying under an old Aston on cold, damp garage floors to keep it going, this kind of checkbook history seems disrespectful. But frankly the historic racing authorities have much bigger problems about the authenticity of so-called original cars than these 25 examples, which will bolster racing grids while more owners convert originals back to standard. And with continuation owners aged as young as their late 20s, there’s also the point that if young folks aren’t given a chance to see and enjoy these old cars, their appeal will die out. We need another generation to revere, drive, enjoy, and look after these 1960s chargers.
And unsuccessful as it was back in the day, today a DB4 GT is an utterly beguiling thing. I mean, just look at it.