It's Aston Martin's centenary year - and we want to celebrate a British icon
In 1915 the first Aston Martin, dubbed the Coal Scuttle, was registered
1922 - and two Aston Martins enter the French Grand Prix. Both retire
Two Astons also enter Le Mans in 1929. Again, both retire
In 1933 Aston Martin was bought by Sir Arthur Sutherland, and its motorsport fortunes turn
1934, and Aston Martin's Ulster is introduced
In 1947 the company is bought again, this time by David Brown who also buys Lagonda
One year later, in 1948, the DB1 wins the Spa 24 hours
The DB3 wins the Goodwood nine hours
The DB2/4 MkIII was introduced in 1957
The short wheelbase DB4GT had a 302bhp engine
The DB4 Zagato was introduced in 1960
1963 - and the DB5 earns a starring role in Goldfinger
The 1969 DBS also had a film role in Her Majesty's Secret Service
The first iteration of the V8 Vantage was bought to market in 1977
1982, and Aston Martin returns to Le Mans with the Nimrod, which places seventh
1988, and the Virage is introduced to tepid reviews
Aston returns to Le Mans again with the Group C AMR1, which finishes 11th
The DB7 is introduced in 1993, production is based in a former Jaguar factory
2000, and Ulrich Bez is placed in charge of Aston Martin
The DB9 is introduced in 2004 alongside a new platform strategy
2004 also sees the launch of the Vanquish S
The V8 Vantage is introduced in 2005, along with more motorsport models
At Le Mans in 2007, the DBR9 wins the GT1 class
2009 also sees the launch of the Lagonda concept car
The Lagonda is debuted alongside another concept, the Rapide
The £1million One-77 hypercar wows crowds wherever it is seen
The V12 Vantage is introduced in 2011
Old and new - Aston Martins side by side
Plus the future - the CC100 concept
The history of Aston Martin is so inordinately complex and, at times, dysfunctional and precarious that it makes the British monarchy look positively straightforward and well adjusted.
There have been times in the past 100 years when Aston Martin has been the most coveted brand on earth, and others when the boss has gone to work in the morning fully expecting to lock the gates for good by sundown. The late Victor Gauntlett told me it was once even helped out by Saddam Hussein – whose troops were good enough to torch all of the Astons belonging to the Kuwaiti royal family in 1990, their replacements paying the wages for a few crucial months.
The name may not be quite as blue-blooded as Rolls-Royce, or as steeped in competition success as Bentley or Jaguar, but I’d wager that if you ask the world to name Britain’s most coveted car brand, more would say ‘Aston Martin’ than any other.
Watching these four cars getting slowly soaked on a concrete runway in the middle of a vast V-bomber airfield in Leicestershire, I’m not surprised. We’d have struggled to find worse weather or a more featureless location and still, individually and collectively, they look utterly gorgeous. They are here, plucked from across time, to tell us more about this most enigmatic of marques and to see what traces of the character of the originals have been preserved in this centenary year.
About now, you’ll be wondering about the cars that are not here. There are so many: there’s no 2-Litre Sports, the car retrospectively entitled the DB1 – the first of the David Brown Astons. And there are no racers. Nor is there any representation of the V8s built in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. If I could have had one more (given that the DB7 is examined elsewhere on these pages), it would have been an ‘Oscar India’ V8 Vantage from the late 1970s. But four was the limit and the brief to illustrate the phases of Aston’s existence. They were never intended to be a neatly spaced chronology of Aston Martin history. Instead, we wanted simply the best from each phase.
We had to have a pre-war car and, once that decision was made, it was only ever going to be an Ulster, the ultimate development of technical director Augustus ‘Bert’ Bertelli’s design for a proper British sports car.
Next, we needed the ultimate development of the original David Brown Aston Martin and the last of the cars built at Aston’s home in Feltham. Technically a DB2/4 MkIII but universally known as the MkIII (and never to be described as a DB3), this is the least well known of the Astons here but, as we shall see, our story would be incomplete without it.
Then comes the DB5 – the very car last seen being driven by Daniel Craig in the Bond movie Skyfall, and if I need to explain its presence here, you might have clicked onto the wrong website. Of all the cars produced by Aston Martin during the ups and downs of the Newport Pagnell era, it is the one that’s considered to epitomise all that an Aston should be.
Which brings us to the present day and the new Vanquish, wearing its centenary paintwork and sterling silver badging. Sitting on the apron, it doesn’t look contrived, awkward or out of place. It can’t be easy with all those ancestors peering over its shoulders, but it seems comfortable in such illustrious company. And that’s the first test passed.
It may have been the pre-war cars that put Aston on the map but, on every level, these cars are quite unlike the others that followed. And not just because even quite a young one like this is homing in on its 80th birthday.
Early Astons were small, compact sports cars powered by single-cam, four-cylinder engines, usually of 1.5-litre capacity. For their speed, they relied not on brute force but light weight. An output of 80-85bhp was all you could expect from even the quickest – the ‘Ulster’ road-racing versions, of which this is one of just 20 built for private sale.
The Ulster would have been a wet dream to a schoolboy of a certain era, a car cut from the pages of Boy’s Own. It would have been driven by a dashing cove called Archie at improbable speed, accompanied by a girl of impossible beauty wearing a polka dot scarf, their destination invariably the slung-back canopy of his trusty Spit. Today, the airfield is all we can manage.
Even so, all you need to do is slot yourself behind that vast wheel to be transported back in time. Dials appear everywhere, in haphazard order. There’s a bank of switches that seems to go on forever. But to start it, you just flick down the first two to activate the magneto and fuel pump, retard the ignition with the big lever on the steering wheel, thumb the starter and, in an instant, it fires. It sounds coarse, but loud and full of purpose.
There are challenges everywhere. The gears have no synchromesh and are the wrong way around, so third and fourth lie to the left of first and second. It’s the same with the pedals: the brake is on the right and the accelerator in the middle – not a mistake you want to make.
And yet the Ulster is easier to drive than this suggests. The engine is docile, and although I’m sure that this race-prepped example would be safe to 6000rpm or more, even using a very defensive 4500rpm there’s more than enough torque to ensure unabated progress through the gears. As for the gearbox, as long as you’re prepared to move your hand and foot as fast as they’ll go, remembering to dip the clutch twice for each change and blipping the throttle for each downshift, it’ll swap gears quicker than any other car here, with the possible exception of the Vanquish.
That’s how the whole car feels: an exquisite jewel of precision engineering, utterly mechanical in its every action and far more precise in its handling and steering than its antediluvian appearance might suggest. Only the brakes feel their age, although I expect this car has race linings that require more heat than I could generate. That aside, the car is magical.
1958 DB2/4 MkIII
After the war, Aston Martin found itself with a decent chassis that would have been light years ahead of its time had it gone into production when it was designed, in 1939, but it had no compatible engine. Its new proprietor, David Brown, cracked this nut with the sledgehammer that was buying Lagonda outright, for whom none other than WO Bentley had just designed a 2.6-litre, twin-cam straight six motor. And so by marrying his chassis with Bentley’s engine, the DB2 was born in 1949.
Over the next decade, the car was subjected to a process of continuous evolution, scoring a 3.0-litre version of the engine and the world’s first hatchback on the way. The engine had started life with 105bhp, but for the MkIII introduced in 1957, a choice of outputs was available all the way from 160bhp to 214bhp, more than double the original.
So although this actual car is a mere three years younger than the DB5, its engineering comes from another age entirely. Indeed, and despite all appearances to the contrary, its character is closer to that of the Ulster than to the DB5’s.
This is no grand tourer, designed for wafting along the Boulevard des Anglais. It is a blood and thunder sports car designed to thrill to the core. It’s a job that it does well. This car’s engine is in fine fettle and flings the Aston past 100mph on the shortest of straights, accompanied by a joyously loud and rude bark from those twin pipes. The gearshift is slow and somewhat agricultural, but at least the controls are around the right way. Even the brakes are good; this was the first Aston to have discs and they stop the car well.
But the MkIII’s magic is in its handling. It is designed to drift, drift and drift some more, and the only limit to your fun is the frankly rather lousy lock. It seems something of a liberty to hurl someone else’s valuable 54-year-old car into a wet curve on a trailing throttle and then stamp on the gas to break the back loose and power it through, but inside it feels like the most natural thing in the world. If you want your driving pleasure to be delivered with full opposite lock, it is the most fun car here.
I won’t be treating the DB5 like I did the MkIII. As previously mentioned, this is the Skyfall car and I’m told that the suggested insurance value for our day was £3 million.
I almost didn’t want to drive it. Road cars make for poor spectator sport, but the DB5 is an exception. Its beauty is transcendental and I was terrified of being disappointed by it. How can a car subjected to half a century of hype possibly live up to expectations? The DB5 is happy to show you.
It is so different from the MkIII that it is hard to know where to begin. On the most basic level, it has a Superleggera spaceframe construction, whereas the MkIII has a quite clever but still essentially ladder chassis with a body bolted on. The DB5’s engine is still a twin-cam straight six but is unrelated, designed by Tadek Marek, not WO Bentley. It also has five gears rather than four.
But it’s when you drive the DB5 that you realise that it’s more different even than this suggests. The interior is spacious and lavishly appointed, the engine smooth and quiet. And the ride is exceptional.
It also feels fast, even by modern standards. In the day, its 4.0-litre motor would have had about 285bhp. I don’t know what state of tune this car comes in, but it propels you forward on a surge of torque more like that of a modern Aston than its immediate forebear. The DB5 was said to be good for more than 140mph and this one feels like it would go straight there without delay.
But it is not a sports car and is actually the least involving of the four to drive. Instead, it is a long-distance tourer, the perfect device for a fortnight touring the most glamorous parts of Europe, still able to dismiss most modern traffic with a snort from its exhausts before delivering you to your destination without a hair out of place. If this is your idea of all an Aston should be, the DB5 is better even than you might imagine.
Where, then, does this place the modern, flagship Aston? It is, of course, somewhat redundant to point out that, in terms of speed, grip and braking, it lives not so much in a different postcode as in another universe from the others, but so does the DB5 compared with the Ulster. This is about how these cars feel, about their character.
And pleasingly, the Vanquish fits in where I feel it should, somewhere between the MkIII and the DB5. Its handling is responsive to your every command, biting aggressively into the apex with little body roll, and although you could never expect it to handle as progressively as an old car on skinny tyres with no grip, it is certainly far from blind to requests from your right foot. And that engine, designed last century and derived from a pair of Ford V6s as it may well be, is still magnificent – the great beating heart of the car, and exactly as it should be.
Which would you choose? This is not a comparison test where there must be winners and losers, but I will say that I’d take the Ulster for track work, the MkIII for the lanes and the DB5 on holiday. And it is a testament to how well Aston Martin still understands the qualities and values upon which its brand was built that you could take the Vanquish, drop it in any one of those environments and emerge impressed.
We all know that Aston has now to take the next step. On the basis of what we have found out today, it needs to be neither to the left nor to the right but one giant leap straight ahead.