Driving a painstakingly recreated $3m Aston Martin DB4 GT classic
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Without a factory fire and missing chassis numbers à la Jaguar XKSS and Lightweight E-type, there's no spurious historical justification for Aston Martin building 25 replica DB4 GT models at £1.5 million a pop. Well, other than raw commercialism.
I'm sitting in one now, a new/old car, beautifully made at the original factory in Newport Pagnell. Snug in a modern racing bucket seat and a full harness belt, staring down at an array of full-deflection gauges and then out through the windscreen at a wet and lonely pit lane at Silverstone, the place where the original DB4 GT made its competition debut almost 60 years ago. Stirling Moss drove it at the International Trophy meeting here on May 9 1959.
“It was a bit of truck,” he told me a few years ago. "Might be worth a lot of money now, but I’d take the short wheelbase [Ferrari 250 GT SWB], which is what it raced against, that was such a lovely car, light, powerful, it made the Aston’s lack of breeding stand out.”
In the Nineties my old friend Geoff Harris leant me his DB4 GT for a competitive sprint at Goodwood. The night before he came to supper and placed a pen on the table.
"This," he said, "is where you take it if you bin it."
The pen was from Bodylines of Olney, masters in metal. I noted at the time that if I sold my house three times it wouldn't quite reach the price of Geoff's lovely car, which still holds the course record for a standard GT at most UK circuits and hillclimbs. In a coincidence of property/classic-car price inflation, the finances of replacing today's mount would be roughly the same.
Count in the specials, the Zagatos, the Bertone and the Project cars, and there were exactly 100 DB4 GTs according to Paul Spires, commercial director of Aston Martin Works at Newport Pagnell, which is building these 25 “Continuation” cars.
The GT was a DB4 with a five-inch shorter wheelbase and that lovely Touring of Milan Superleggera coachwork adapted to suit. The Tadek Marek-designed 3.7-litre, straight-six twin-cam was uprated with three Weber carburettors, wilder compression ratio and cam timing, and twin-plug ignition, though Aston's claim of 302bhp at 6,000rpm was highly over-optimistic.
The engine drove the rear wheels via a four-speed, close-ratio David Brown gearbox and a 3.54:1 differential with a Power-Lok limited-slip function. All-round discs were from Girling, the headlamps were cowled under Perspex covers and most cars got a 30-gallon fuel tank with twin fillers, with some clad in gossamer- thin 18-gauge magnesium aluminium.
Aston's competition manager John Wyer wanted a car that was "a little closer to the edge" and so it was, with the shorter wheelbase and (relative) light weight making it feel sharper. Out of the box, it was good for 153mph, 0-60mph in just over six seconds and 0-100mph in just over 14sec.
At that time a standard DB4 cost £4,000, and the DB4 GT cost £4,500, which equated to about £2.60 for each one of the 190lb saved. The 16-inch Borrani wire wheels were extra.
In 1960, the Aston Martin factory built five lightweight cars with one going to Tommy Sopwith’s Équipe Endeavour and two going to John Ogier’s Essex Racing stable. Stirling Moss drove the Sopwith car to victory at the Goodwood Easter Monday meeting and Jack Sears won at Aintree, then Oulton Park, Snetterton and Brands Hatch against fairly soft opposition. Ogier’s cars struggled at Goodwood's Tourist Trophy in August, with overwhelming opposition from six Ferrari 250GTs including Rob Walker’s example, with victorious Moss a lap ahead at the flag.
It was pretty much the same story for the rest of the year when the GTs proved heavy, slow, outclassed and with a heavy appetite for tyres, but noisy and beautiful.
So why build a load more? Ferrari doesn't do this sort of thing, but Jaguar does, with last year's six “missing” lightweight E-Types priced at about £1.2 million each. And Aston has previous here, too, with four Sanction II DB4 GT Zagato models in 1988 priced at more than $1 million each and then, in 1992, another two.
They've swapped the David Brown gears for a dog-engaged, straight-cut ratios; strong, but short on refinement and even at a standstill you can hear the teeth whining and chattering. The clutch isn't outrageously heavy and with a burst of revs I'm splashing down the pit lane, the rev counter needle swings wildly round its dial and then falls dead - oh well, I'll change gear by ear then...
Dickinson wasn't wrong, it's an ice rink and the cold, L-section Dunlop racing tyres, never the grippiest things, are struggling. The tail swings right and left as the torque hits - this is driving in its purest form; no traction control, no anti-lock brakes, nothing in fact, to help keep it on the circuit. I roam all over the Tarmac looking for the wettest bits with the most grip.
The car feels stiffer and more-of-a-piece than a standard original, hardly surprising with an eight-point FIA roll cage, made of better steel, jigged into the right shape and with rose-jointed suspension, making this a much stronger and more direct-feeling chassis. What they never say is that you have to leave one rubber-and-steel bush in there or you won't be able to refit the radius-arm-located solid rear axle and Watts linkage. Spires says the rear lever-arm dampers are standard Armstrong Selectaride units, but the telescopic fronts are hand-built and revalved.
Certainly, the steering has more precision and, conditions notwithstanding, there's a good initial bite when turning. Maggots is a majestic sweep and with the tail hanging out, I nail it as much as I dare and mentally thank Spires for the slightly smaller-diameter riveted wooden steering wheel.
The gears shriek and the engine note deepens and strengthens. It's a lovely, evocative noise and addictive to the extent that I run too hard up the pit straight, turn into Copse too fast and pirouette.
At least the rev counter starts working again, and I begin the search for grip anew. Thankfully the brakes (remanufactured Girling discs and calipers all round) are terrific, and with Mintex 1144 pads they provide sufficient grab on first push but good progression and a stout resistance to fade.
"Darren Turner [Aston's works driver] has done 2,500km in this car at Nardo," says Spires, who says that even at this notoriously baking Italian test track, the brakes held up. In fact the whole car is pretty safe, with that cage, a seven-outlet fire extinguisher and a self-sealing fuel tank.
"Driver safety was absolutely key," says Spires, "we accepted no compromise and this car is a safe as it can be."
In fact the whole car is simply lovely, just as you would expect it to be with such a painstaking build by people who know their stuff and care. Does it feel better than an original? With better bits and using more accurate construction techniques, you'd be surprised if it didn't, but that's not the point. If you want a DB4 GT Aston Martin produced a perfectly acceptable example between 1959 and 1963.
And what will become of these Continuation models? They can't be registered for the road so will forever be track-day specials, or will they be passed off as originals, or raced against originals with an in-built advantage?
"Yes, I've had to search my conscience," says Spires. "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 any more. At least these cars are built by the factory in a controlled way and everyone knows what they are."
He adds that all 25 owners are enthusiasts, committed to driving their cars on the track and not keeping them in a box for investment purposes.
I'm still not so sure. Old thoroughbred cars have a patina that speaks of the ages they've lived through, their mechanics' bloodied knuckles and curses, the damp garage floors they've been fixed on and the sweat and courage of the drivers who drifted them through Maggots or Madgwick. This cheque-book car-collecting seems somehow disrespectful to all of that.
Yet with originals fast disappearing into air-conditioned collections, at least these Continuation cars will help bolster dwindling grids and besides, historic racing's administrators have more of a problem with the authenticity of original cars than they'll have with these easily identifiable replicas.
There's also the point that if young folk aren't given a chance to see and enjoy these old cars, their appeal will die out. We need a new generation to revere, drive, enjoy and look after these old Sixties chargers.
Perhaps I'm just suffering from a bout of jealousy. For all my qualms I'm pretty sure that if I could afford it, I would.
Aston Martin DB4 GT Continuation
TESTED 4.2-litre straight-six-cylinder twin cam, four-speed dog-clutch manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive
PRICE/ON SALE £1.5 million, limited to 25 and all sold
POWER 340bhp @ 6,000rpm
TOP SPEED 150mph
ACCELERATION 0-60mph in 6.5sec
FUEL ECONOMY n/a
VERDICT A fantastic replica of an evocative and beautiful, if largely ineffective, GT car. It's been painstakingly done in the factory where the originals were made, by the descendants of the people who made them. With the 75 originals now costing twice the price and fast disappearing into private collections, we're promised that these track-only cars will at least keep the spirit alive, but does that dispel the slight whiff of cynical cashing in here?
- Telegraph UK