Master Aston Martin’s sublime DB4, and you’ll be intoxicated

Matthew Howell

Forget Bond’s Silver Birch Aston Martin DB5; surely the DB4 is the best-looking of all the DBs? More sophisticated and less vintage in feel than its predecessors, better proportioned and prettier than its successors. But the crucial question is: What it’s like to drive?

Best to park all conceptions of the DB4 being an out-and-out sports car. It’s really not. The same is often said of the E-Type, but even that is considerably more sporty than the Aston.

So what is the DB4? At best it’s a sublime GT that intoxicates with its performance, its soundtrack, its smell, and its looks. At worst it feels heavy and slightly cantankerous, particularly in tight corners. What separates the two extremes? Steering geometry setup, quality of restoration (it’s a rare DB4 that hasn’t been completely rebuilt at least once), tires, and modifications, which can be for better or for worse.

What doesn’t change is the appearance. Before the DB4, Aston Martins were good-looking if a little clunky in some of the detailing, but handing the design of the new DB4 to coachbuilder Touring of Milan propelled Aston Martin to new heights of stylishness by which it’s still judged today.

Aston Martin DB4 side profile action
Matt Howell

It’s become the definition of a 1960s GT: the clean sweep of the lower body work, interrupted only by the side vent and strake in the front wing and the delicate door handle; the discreet tail fins, the delicate pillars; and, of course, that defining, Aston Martin front grille. The DB4 is delicate without seeming fragile, pretty but utterly masculine. Only the placement of the rear window edges is awkward, the glass seeming to sit too high in the roof line. But we’re getting picky.

The panels are aluminum alloy, built on Touring’s patented superleggera lattice of steel tubes. Superleggera means “super light,” but the hefty steel platform chassis offsets much of its weight advantage. It was never meant to be that way—the original design was for a perimeter frame that Touring quickly dismissed as unworkable.

No biggie, though, because it’s a straightforwardly decent base that was made even simple when it became clear that the chassis-mounted differential needed for the planned De Dion rear suspension setup was going to transmit too much noise into that lovely cabin, which would have been completely off-message for this great grand tourer. The setup reverted to live rear axle and the interior was spared a few decibels.

Aston Martin DB4 rear three-quarter driving action
Matthew Howell

That’s quite a relief, because it’s a lovely place to be. Like so many cars of the era, but in a DB4’s case more so, it usually smells of aged leather and fuel and oil and perhaps a whiff of tobacco smoked long ago. The backs of the seats are low, the glass area expansive thanks to those thin pillars, and the dashboard surprisingly plain—arguably dated, even for the early 1960s. But who doesn’t feel special when sat behind an array of chrome-bezel Smiths instruments, warning lights, and switches? If you were expecting the clichéd wood trimmings to complement the leather you’ll be surprised, because only the steering wheel rim makes use of timber, satisfyingly riveted to the metal frame.

Of course the ignition key feels small in our hands now, so accustomed as we are to huge key fobs. It slips into the ignition switch in the middle of the dashboard and, if you’ve got a good example, the straight-six engine churns,, then fires quickly. It’s not loud but there’s a rumble that tells of power and torque, which is backed up by the hefty feel of the clutch pedal and the slim, chrome gear lever, which needs a firm hand.

Matthew Howell

Of the many differences between the DB4 and its DB5 successor, the earlier car’s four-speed gearbox is also one of the most obvious. The DB5 received a ZF five-speeder, but the DB4 gets away with its four speeds thanks to high gearing and plenty of low-down torque. The performance figures perfectly demonstrate the effect of that gearing: 140-mph top speed, but a 0-to-60 run of around 9.5 seconds. There’s no synchromesh on first, but second gear will usually suffice for slow-speed work; first is needed only for standing starts. It’s not a gearbox to be rushed but it feels satisfyingly mechanical in action.

The six-cylinder engine was as important as Touring’s bodywork and the company’s new Newport Pagnell factory in the transformation of Aston Martin. Designed by Tadek Marek, it was all-aluminum and couple-overhead camshaft, neither of which was new even immediately post-war, but it was still special, as was the 240 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque.

Aston Martin DB4 engine bay
Matt Howell

Though peak power is at 5500 rpm and maximum torque above 4000, this isn’t an engine that feels desperate to rev. It just builds up to its peaks with a muscularity that shoves the DB4 forward without drama or fuss. It’s not quiet, but then very few cars of this era would ever be described as being quiet. It feels strong and no-nonsense, in the very way that the on-screen drivers of the DB5 would later be portrayed. It’s very … English.

Aston Martin DB4 front driving action
Matt Howell

You have to work at the DB4, too. There’s natural play around the straight-ahead position of the steering, and then it weights up in the corner, just as, say, that of an unmodified MGB does. Except this is a much heavier car, so the steering wheel needs a really strong heave in tight bends, and the brakes need a similarly muscular shove to bring the car to a prompt halt. In a well set-up DB4, it’s something that becomes learnt and part of the experience, but subtle steering assistance, upgraded brakes, and some additional engine cooling modifications (particularly on overheating-prone early DB4s) can help things along without taking anything from the character.

In fact, character is what the DB4 is all about. There’s a satisfaction in mastering it, and then the rumble of the straight-six, just audibly accompanied by the whine of the gearbox below the growl of the twin exhausts becomes a heady soundtrack that sits perfectly with the view down the long bonnet and wings. Point the DB4 down a twisting A-road and it does everything you’d expect it to do, the ever-so English version of a Ferrari 250GT Lusso or Maserati 3500GT. It leans controllably through the corners as you pull on that thin steering wheel rim, and if you happen upon a tighter corner and you’re feeling brave, then an armful of lock and a gentle poke on the accelerator pedal on the way out will show off why DB4s were so good on the race track. It lets go and laps up the treatment, proving that actually there is more sports car in this GT than we might have given it credit for.

Aston Martin DB4 rear driving action
Matt Howell

Generally we think in terms of DB4 and the shorter, lighter DB4 GT and DB4 GT Zagato variants, but there were a surprising five series of DB4 between its unveiling in 1958 and its replacement by the DB5 in 1963—even though there were only just over 1200 built in total.

There’s not much difference between the first four, except for the addition of frames to the door windows from the Series II onwards, which cut down the wind noise. The Series IV gained the option of the famous Vantage-spec engine, with triple instead of twin SU carburetors and reworked cylinder heads, pushing power up to a claimed 266 bhp (270 hp). And then came the Series V, with its longer, taller body, and smaller wheels to compensate for the gain in height. It’s more practical, more akin to the DB5 that soon followed, but less attractive. A convertible was also introduced with the Series IV, many of which were ordered with the Vantage engine.

Sometimes, recalling great drives, the words rush out in a way that conveys the sheer excitement of certain cars. But a DB4 doesn’t do that, and don’t believe the words that say it does. Driving one demands a slower build-up, a gentle but satisfying learning curve until suddenly—like a golfer hitting a ball just right—you’ve matched gear change to torque characteristics, learnt not to over-compensate the steering and to allow for the weight of the car going into the corner, using the power to sweep you out through the exit. Just as suddenly, you’re in love with the DB4.

David Lillywhite is editorial director of Magneto magazine, which offers fresh perspectives on the world’s greatest cars.

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