Aston Martin is the quintessential British maker of elegant, low-volume performance cars. Lionel Martin and Robert Bumford, who had been selling Singer-brand automobiles, founded the car maker in 1913. Racers at heart, the pair drew on the Aston Hillclimb event for part of the name of their new enterprise.
Their company's early cars dominated English auto "trials" and speed events. But competition success didn't spell financial security and in 1947, British industrialist David Brown bought the company, creating the DB1 and DB2 models, which we'll talk about first.
Tiny Aston Martin was in financial trouble by the time industrialist David Brown bought it in 1947. Of course, the firm already had a checkered history. The very first Aston Martin was built in 1914, though sales didn't begin until 1921, while the 1930s brought hard times, several changes of ownership and no radically new models.
But by 1947 there was a new design, laid down during and after the war by Claude Hill. Code-named "Atom," it featured a box-section multi-tube chassis with all-coil suspension — independent trailing arms at the front and a live rear axle located by radius rods — plus a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with pushrod-actuated overhead valves. Trouble was, the old Aston Martin company (then based at Feltham in Middlesex, near London's still-small Heathrow airport) couldn't afford to tool up for production.
But the David Brown takeover made fresh funds available, and the Atom duly arrived on the market in 1948 as the Aston Martin DB1, the designation obviously standing for "David Brown, first model." However, it was only intended as an interim offering. Brown had also acquired Lagonda in 1947 and was busy getting out an all-new Lagonda sedan whose twincam engine would power a forthcoming new car.
Though nicely engineered, the DB1 chassis was suited to only very limited production. This undoubtedly made the car quite expensive to build. It certainly wasn't a profitable project, but that didn't seem to matter. As Brown later admitted, he'd bought Aston and Lagonda merely to "have a bit of fun."
In truth, the DB1 was underpowered and just 15 were sold. Its 2.0-liter engine produced a respectable 90 horsepower (SAE), but this was largely negated by the heavy four-seat convertible bodywork fitted to most examples.
However, there was one light — and successful — DB1: a sparsely equipped two-seat sport racer that won the Belgian Spa 24-Hour race in 1948 in the capable hands of "Jock" Horsefall and Leslie Johnson. No replicas, however, were ever created.
The standard shell was styled by ex-Lagonda employee Frank Feeley, who had been responsible for such luscious creations as the 1930s V-12 Lagondas and the new 2.6-liter Lagonda sedan then reaching production. The Aston Martin DB1 bore the characteristic front-end treatment that would be carried forward on the more famous DB2 and had long, sweeping lines.
The Aston Martin DB1 engine was never used in any other Aston or Lagonda. And since no tooling and few spare parts were ever produced, keeping this British rarity on the road won't be easy or cheap. Such is the price of history.
Also known as Two-Liter Sports, the first David Brown Aston was handsome in its way and not that fast, but it bridged the gap between prewar Astons and later DBs.
Aston Martin DB2
The Aston Martin DB2 that was the first real David Brown Aston, despite the fact the DB1 also bared his name.
What Brown inherited with these acquisitions were a fine new Aston Martin chassis and a splendid 2.6-liter twincam six-cylinder engine from Lagonda. The engine had been designed under the guidance of the legendary W.O. Bentley, Lagonda's technical director since 1935. In an inspired move, Brown had the Aston DB1 chassis modified to accept the Lagonda engine and transmission. The result was an excellent new car, the Aston Martin DB2.
Three DB2 prototypes were built in 1949, given smooth fastback coupe bodies and entered at that year's Le Mans 24-Hour race in France. Two ran the four-cylinder DB1 engine, the other the new Lagonda six. The racing team didn't win that first time out but, two weeks later, the six-cylinder Aston Martin DB2 prototype finished third overall at the Spa 24-Hour race in Belgium.
Conceived as a rather spartan open and closed two-seater, the Aston Martin DB2 was more civilized when it went on sale in 1950. Its multi-tube chassis was an evolution of the DB1 design, still with trailing-arm independent front suspension but revised rear axle location.
Like all the best British sports cars of the day, it also had center-lock wire wheels. The engine produced 105 horsepower in standard form, but a 125-bhp "Vantage" version was later offered at extra cost. The 4-speed manual gearbox was available with either steering-column or floor-mounted shifter.
Though undoubtedly beautiful, the DB2 was initially more a competition car than a full-fledged road machine. Its aluminum body, with panels handcrafted at Feltham, featured a hinged front section — hood, nose and both fenders — that tilted forward for engine access, handy for the track.
The coupe's rearward vision was restricted by a small backlight, and there was no exterior access to the luggage space. The only opening rear panel was a top-hinged lid covering the spare tire compartment. Some thought the drophead coupe looked even better than the fixed-top model, but only 49 of the 409 DB2s built were open.
Pundits, owners and magazine road testers all agreed that, though an expensive proposition, the Aston Martin DB2 had a superb chassis, great performance, and an immense amount of character. Even better, it became progressively more civilized over its four-year production run.
Original racing-oriented features like engine bay-louvers were abandoned in favor of more and better-quality trim and improved seating. The simple, three-piece grille was displaced by a more stylish one-piece design in 1951.
At Aston Martin, however, there was never much time for a design to settle in. Thus, the Aston Martin DB2 was displaced in 1953 by an even more refined version, the DB2/4.
Aston Martin DB2/4
The Aston Martin DB2/4 bowed in the autumn of 1953 to replace the DB2 and was an altogether better version of it. The designation tells the main story, for this was still the "David Brown" Aston, only now with four seats. Of course, squeezing in those extra seats required a good deal of shuffling, including a smaller fuel tank repositioned above the spare. In fact, there was really no room for a rear passenger's legs with the front seats pushed all the way back.
As before, there were coupe and convertible body styles, but the coupe's appearance was subtly altered. A one-piece windshield replaced the previous divided glass, and the rear roofline was bulged for those who had to ride in the new back seat. The biggest improvement was a new top-hinged hatchback — the first ever fitted to a sporting car. Under the hood, the more powerful 125-horsepower Vantage engine was now standard.
The result of all this was an exciting sport tourer that was more practical and versatile than ever. Independent tests showed the DB2/4 capable of 111 mph maximum and 12.6 seconds in the 0-60 mph sprint, making this a fast car by early-1950s standards. No wonder sales surged.
Passion for the DB2/4 swelled even more beginning in mid-1954 when a larger 2922-cc engine with 140 bhp became available. A third body style arrived in 1955, a notchback coupe version. With this change came a conventional hood and front fenders fixed to the chassis.
This second-generation DB2/4 became known as the Mark II and was built for two years. It was capable of 120 mph, and 199 Mark II models were created. It's very collectible today, but Brown had an even better Aston in the works, the DB Mark III.
Aston Martin DB Mark III
The Aston Martin DB Mark III appeared in March 1957 and was produced until 1959. Almost everything about its technology, equipment and marketing was logical except the name. It should have been called DB2/4 Mk III, but it wasn't.
So, the short-lived DB Mark III carried a name that made little sense in the progression of Aston Martins built before or after. But that doesn't detract from the last, excellent flowering of the basic DB2 design.
The nose and grille were more delicately sculptured and graceful. At the rear were modestly revised fenders incorporating the taillamps of the Rootes-built Humber Hawk. Inside, a new instrument panel designed by Frank Feeley grouped all gauges directly ahead of the driver instead of in the center.
But the most notable improvements on the DB Mark III were in the engine, transmission and brakes. Standard horsepower increased to 162, and a more efficient twin exhaust and dual SU carbs were optional to boost that to 178 bhp.
In 1958, both gave way to a final version of the 3.0-liter "Bentley/Lagonda" engine with triple Weber or SU carbs and higher compression (8.68 versus 8.16:1) for 180 or 195 bhp. Girling front disc brakes were optional through the first 100 cars, then standard, while electric overdrive for the manual gearbox and a new Borg-Warner automatic transmission also became optional extras.
Although the DB Mark III was primarily intended as a fast road car, you could buy it with all types of technology: special engine, close-ratio gearbox, engine oil cooler, competition clutch and suspension and an extra-large (33.6 U.S.-gallon) fuel tank. It was the sort of car that racing team drivers like Stirling Moss were proud to use on the road.
Aston Martin DB4
The Aston Martin team had been selling the DB Mark III for years when finally released the DB4 in 1958. Every major component in the DB4 was new, and there was never any thought of compromise by using carry-over parts.
The DB4 chassis was simpler and more rigid than the DB2. The wheelbase was an inch shorter, but tracks were wider, and improved packaging allowed more reasonable four-place seating. The previous multi-tube design was abandoned for Aston's first pressed-steel platform-type frame, which in one form or another would persist through the 1960s and 1970s.
Conventional coil-spring/double-wishbone independent front suspension was retained along with rack-and-pinion steering. Under the DB4 hood was a big, rugged, and visually beautiful twincam six inspired by, but altogether larger than, the Jaguar XK engine.
Displacement was 3.7 liters even in its original form, good for a dead-reliable 240 bhp, though a lot more was possible (and realized in future models). Because this was much too lusty for the existing DB2 transmission, a new 4-speed unit was produced to suit. A few automatic-transmission cars were also produced toward the end of the model run. Naturally, there were disc brakes all-around. A good thing, too, for even early DB4s weighed nearly 3000 pounds and were capable of 141 mph.
DB4 styling and body construction were "imported" from Italy. Carrozzeria Touring of Milan, which had already produced several Aston specials, was hired to design the car and supply bodies for it built according to the firm's patented "super light" principles. This Superleggera construction employed aluminum panels over a lattice of small rubes laid out to define the body shape.
Initially, the DB4 had a Mark III-like grille flanked by single headlamps on the corners of the front fenders, but the team changed this look. DB4 running changes also encompassed mechanicals. Overdrive was added as an option beginning with Series 2, while the Series 4 offered a tuned 266-bhp option called Vantage.
Though the DB4 was much larger, heavier and costlier than the DB Mark III, it was the first truly modern Aston and very popular. A total of 1,113 were produced — a new high for the team — before the innovation of the DB5 took in late 1963.
Aston Martin DB4GT and DB4GT Zagato
In 1959, fans could choose a modified version of the DB4 called the DB4GT. A prototype had already won a production-car race at the British Silverstone circuit earlier in 1959. Trimmer than the original DB4 size and weight, this new high-performance car rode shorter in the wheelbase. Its cabin was cut down accordingly with shorter doors and no rear seats.
It also was more visually distinct with a more rounded nose and front-fender ensemble. Trim and equipment were simplified, dropping from the DB4's 2,885 pounds to 2,705. Under the hood was a new version of the all-alloy 3.7-liter six with high-lift camshafts, higher compression (9.0:1), and three dual-choke Weber carburetors. Output was a smashing 302 horsepower at 6000 rpm, enough for a top speed of a confirmed 140 mph.
A handful of super-light DB4GTs was also produced for favored racing teams. In long-distance contests they proved almost as fast as the Ferrari 250GT Berlinettas. Still, the DB4GT was too heavy to be a competitive racer.
Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato
What emerged was a curvy new Zagato-bodied variation, logically designated DB4GT Zagato in late 1960. They couldn't do anything to reduce chassis size and weight, but the Italian coachbuilder produced a very light fastback coupe shell that was quite unmistakable.
The DB4GT Zagato body was completely different from the DB4GTs. Its overall appearance was marked by the curious combination of curves and angles. Normally the car models came without bumpers, though they could be added.
As for its engine, the DB4GT Zagato was treated to a new-design cylinder head with twin spark plugs for each cylinder and still higher compression (9.7:1), which pushed peak power to 314 bhp at 6000 rpm. As the body weighed about 100 pounds less than the normal DB4GT's, and likely suffered less air drag, the Zagato was that much more competitive on the track. Had Aston Martin mounted a serious competition program for this car, it might have had the measure of Ferrari.
Aston Martin DB5 and Volante
By fall of 1963, the DB4 had evolved so far it got a new name: the Aston Martin DB5. But it retained the basic chassis, body and running gear of late-model DB4s. Despite being built for just two years, the DB5 became one of the most famous of all Aston Martin cars. That's because a specially equipped DB5 served as James Bond's spy car in the film "Goldfinger," thus instantly making this model an international star.
The best way to begin describing the Aston Martin DB5 is to start with the DB4 from which it was developed. The solid, 98-inch-wheelbase pressed-steel platform chassis and the basic DOHC six-cylinder engine were retained, as was the choice of four-seat coupe and slightly less spacious convertible models.
However, a 4-mm bore increase swelled engine displacement from 3670 to 3995 cc. In original standard form (with three SU carburetors), the DB5 thus carried a rated 282 horsepower. The coupe, complete with headlamps recessed behind sloping covers, looked almost exactly like the last of the DB4s, while the convertible now adopted this treatment. A detachable steel hardtop remained optional.
Initial DB5 transmission choices were as for late DB4s: 4-speed David Brown manual gearbox, the same with extra-cost electric overdrive and optional 3-speed Borg-Warner automatic. But there was also a third option now, an all-synchromesh ZF 5-speed manual (also used in six-cylinder Maseratis of the period) in which fifth gear was effectively an overdrive. It became standard by mid-1964 and the 4-speed and separate overdrive vanished.
Autumn of 1964 brought a more powerful engine as a new Aston Martin Vantage option. Breathing through a trio of twin-choke Weber carburetors, it was rated at no less than 325 bhp, and was to be the most popular Aston "Big Six."
By this time, the Aston Martin DB was not only faster but significantly heavier than ever. The typical DB5 coupe weighed nearly 3300 pounds, 400 more than the DB4 of five years earlier. Even so, it was still good for about 140 mph. But the extra heft showed up in heavier fuel consumption, and most owners found they could do no better than about 15 mpg.
Though definitely a hand-built thoroughbred in the best British tradition, the DB5 was a dinosaur in some respects. For example, drivers didn't have benefits like air conditioning or power steering. But the DB5's combination of Italian styling and oh-so-British appointments was undeniable. Correcting those shortcomings was the team goal for Aston's next-generation car, the DB6.
Aston Martin DB6 and Volante
Bowing in late 1965, the DB6 retained Aston Marin's then-seven-year-old basic chassis design, but with a 3.75-inch longer wheelbase and a relocated rear axle. The platform stretch was given over entirely to additional rear seat space. Running gear and suspension were virtual DB5 carryovers, but all drivetrain combinations now cost the same and "Powr-Lok" limited-slip differential and chrome wire wheels were standard.
From the front, the DB6 looked much like the DB5, but was quite a departure from the cowl back, if still recognizably Aston. The designers aimed to provide more passenger space, especially in the small "+ 2" rear and improve aerodynamic stability.
Accordingly, the DB6 windshield was higher and more vertical than the DB5's so the roofline could be raised for increased headroom. The familiar coupe remained a fastback, but rear quarter windows now swept up instead of down, and the tapered tail of old gave way to a modern, abruptly chopped Kamm-style treatment much like that of the Ferrari 250 Berlinetta Lusso or 275 GTB.
Other recognition points included the return of front-door quarter windows, an oil-cooler air scoop low on the nose and quarter-bumpers at each comer. Inside details were dazzling — and rather haphazardly placed — instruments, sweet-smelling leather upholstery and top-quality British carpeting.
Though overall length was up 2 inches, the DB6 weighed about the same as the DB5 even though Aston now abandoned Touring's patented Superleggera construction. Henceforth, all Astons would have conventional bodies, with aluminum skins, steel floor and inner panels.
The DB6 was slipperier than the DB5, for top speed was up to 148-150 mph in 325-bhp Vantage guise, making it the equal of the more charismatic Ferraris and Maseratis of these years, at least for all-out speed. In fast touring, the British car was still somewhat "trucky" compared with its Latin rivals — more work in spirited driving, though easier to manage than previous Aston Martins.
Per recent practice, a new Volante convertible arrived about a year later. Unlike the "interim" Volante built on the DB5 chassis with a DB6-style rear end, this one had the longer wheelbase and a new power-operated top mechanism. Both body styles then continued with virtually no details changed through the end of the series in 1970.
Aston's next generation, the DBS, had been on the scene three years by then, but the DB6 had one last hurrah beginning in the autumn of 1969. That's when an updated Mark II version appeared with flared wheel arches to accommodate fatter DBS-type wheels and tires. At the same time, AE-Brico fuel injection arrived as a new option, but it was a very unreliable system and found few takers. Almost all DB6s so equipped have since been fitted with carburetors.
With the end of DB6 production in November 1970 came the end of the great line begun with the DB2 in 1950. The torch had already passed to more modern Aston Martin models.
Aston Martin DBS and AM Vantage
David Brown's Aston Martin concern held out for every possible sale before discarding a car design, thus hoping to realize maximum return on investment. This helps explain why the DB2 family lasted seven years and the DB4 generation lasted 12.
Thus, when the Aston Martin DBS arrived in September 1967, it was only the third truly new Aston Martin in 18 years. Even then, it wasn't all-new, for many of its details came straight from the existing DB6.
Work on the Aston Martin DBS began in 1966, a year that saw Aston's fortunes at a low ebb. Touring, the firm's Italian design and body contractor, suffered a financial collapse just after it had completed a pair of promising prototype coupes now known as DBSC, while a government credit squeeze in England deflated expected demand for costly cars like the DB6. Brown, however, could still afford his "bit of fun" and put the rush on yet another new model.
This styling assignment was handed to the ambitious, young William Towns, who'd been hired at Newport Pagnell only to design seats. Towns knew that Brown wanted not only a new Aston coupe but also a new Lagonda sedan as well, so he conjured up two closely related proposals, one for each model, differing mainly in wheelbase and roof and nose styling.
By sheer persistence, Towns got his coupe approved. (The erstwhile Lagonda only progressed as far as a couple of prototypes.) Towns left plenty of under hood space for a brand-new V-8 then in development, though it wouldn't materialize until 1969.
Because capital reserves were low and the sense of urgency high, the new DBS (the "DB7" designation was ruled out to emphasize just how new) rode the DB6 chassis, albeit with an extra inch of wheelbase and a significant 4.5 inches of front and rear track.
Front suspension and the still-optional power steering were remained the same, but engineer Harold Beach finally won his battle for a De Dion rear suspension. Running gear — standard and Vantage engines with manual or automatic transmission — were also per DB6.
Though the new fastback coupe body showed familiar Aston shapes in its grille and side window openings, it had a crisp, clean "extruded" look, with curved bodysides and a rather angular superstructure that nevertheless harmonized well. Quad headlamps were set within a full-width eggcrate grille and center-lock wire wheels were on hand — or rather, on ground — as usual.
Overall, there was no trace of Italian influence, yet the DBS was as smart and modern as anything from Turin and offered significantly more passenger space than the DB6.
Because of its bulk, the Aston Martin DBS was unavoidably heavier than the DB6 — by a whopping 510 pounds — so its performance and gas mileage were predictably worse. Still, it could do nearly 150 mph flat out, 0–60 mph acceleration remained respectable at 8.5 seconds and roadholding was excellent.
On the downside, handling was cumbersome without the optional power steering. In fact, all controls — shifter, steering, brakes — demanded somewhat "masculine" effort, a good description of Aston character if plainly sexist. Fuel consumption declined to an appalling 10 miles per U.S. gallon, though few worried about it much because gas was still plentiful and cheap.
The promised V-8 duly appeared in a companion model called DBS-V8 (which later prompted some to dub the six-cylinder version "DBS-6"). However, the DBS continued, albeit with no significant changes, until 1972.
That just happened to be a watershed year for Aston Martin Lagonda, as David Brown stopped having "fun" and sold his interests to Company Developments, Ltd. At that point, the DBS was renamed Vantage and received the 325-bhp engine as standard equipment. It also got a mild facelift, with larger dual headlights flanking a narrowed grille bearing a simple black mesh insert.
The Vantage died after 14 months, lasting through July 1973 and accounting for a mere 70 of the total DBS-series production run of 857 units. With it died the splendid Aston Martin twincam six, sad to say. All subsequent Astons have used the 1969-vintage V-8.
Aston Martin DBS V-8/AM V
Drivers with a passion for Aston Martin had waited a long time for something like the DBS V-8 and they weren't disappointed. It was — and is — a magnificent powerplant: very muscular and torquey, and quite reliable with proper servicing. It's also quite expensive — built mostly by hand.
You could distinguish between the six-cylinder and V-8 DBS by the latter's standard cast-alloy wheels — and much greater performance: 0–60 mph was now a mere 6.0-second affair, top speed a blistering 150 mph. The V-8 transformed the DBS from being very fast to stupendously fast — one of the two or three quickest cars in the world. Because rival makers often claimed optimistic (and sometimes unbelievable) power and performance figures in the late 1960s, Aston refused to quote any at all, stating only that the V-8 DBS was "sufficient" and allowing its performance to speak for itself.
Nevertheless, the V-8 initially delivered an estimated 350–375 horsepower with standard Bosch electronic fuel injection which, as experience soon showed, was rather finicky to service. As with the six-cylinder model it was offered with 5-speed manual (ZF) or 3-speed automatic transmission, only the latter was now the well-known Chrysler TorqueFlite. Chassis specifications were as for the six-cylinder car except that its optional power steering was standard.
The DBS V-8 has been in production nearly two decades now, surviving several management and ownership changes in the process. Today's version doesn't seem all that different from the original, but it' s seen a fair number of changes over the years.
The first came in 1972, when David Brown sold Aston Martin Lagonda to Company Developments, Ltd. The DBS V-8 was renamed Aston Martin V-8 and received the facelifted six-cylinder model's new two-lamp nose with narrowed black-mesh grille and a hood "power bulge" (replacing the former scoop). From summer 1973, the engine reverted to carburetors, a quartet of twin-choke Webbers that actually improved both performance and drivability.
These continued into the 1980s, when fuel injection — a more modern system — returned. (Incidentally, there was a six-month period in 1974–75 when no Aston Martins of any kind were built, pending the arrival of new management and fresh capital.) Power was boosted by an advertised "15%" in 1977, and though emissions controls have since taken a toll, recent official figures list output at 309 bhp net.
That same year, 1977, brought a souped-up Vantage V-8, a British reply to Italian supercars like the Lamborghini Countach and Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer. It was easily identified by a deep front air dam with engine-cooling slots, big Cibié driving lamps ahead of a blanked-off grille, fat Pirelli P7 tires and added-on (later faired-in) rear lip spoiler. Suspension was modified to suit to the new tires and the higher performance of a V-8 tweaked to 400 bhp initially; current output is 406 bhp. Given the right conditions the Vantage can exceed 170 mph, thus vying with the legendary V-12 Ferrari Daytona as the world's fastest-ever front-engine production car.
Aston hadn't offered a new Volante model for sale since the last DB6 model in 1970, but June 1978 brought a new drop-top version of Bill Towns' original DBS design, looking just as good as — maybe better than — the fastback coupe, which by that time was an elderly 11 years old. Supplied with most every luxury appointment, the Volante was first offered with just the normal-tune V-8 but has been available with Vantage power since 1986.
Aston Martin DB7
Introduced in Europe in 1995 and in America in 1996, the Aston Martin DB7 was the first Aston Martin developed under Ford Motor Company, which took control of Aston in 1987. Ford also owns Jaguar and the DB7 shares with the new Jaguar XK8 a Jaguar XJS central floor pan; its engine block is also of Jaguar origin. Ford money helped develop, test and certify both cars, but the DB7 was designed by Aston Martin to carry on its defining DB series.
Thus, it has a refined dohc inline-six enhanced by an Eaton supercharger. Acceleration is best described as rapid; the DB7 is too heavy to be quick. It feels sportiest with the Getrag 5-speed, though virtually all U.S. cars get a General Motors 4-speed automatic.
Ride is composed on every surface, braking is strong and, despite uninvolved steering, the car is balanced, sticky and predictable in turns. This is a sporting machine that makes few demands on its driver, but it is not the DB7's performance that will compel a purchase.
The stronger lure is the voluptuous body. The mix of steel and composite panels is unique to the Aston Martin DB7, despite a visual similarity to the XK8. Styled by Aston's Ian Callum, formerly of Ford's Ghia studio, the shape is contemporary but respects the magnificent DB4, DB5 and DB6, especially in the charismatic grille opening.
Combine that look with exclusivity — production of just 650 per year, a scant 200 for America — and the DB7's nature is revealed. The new sports car from Aston Martin represents discriminating taste, a certain passion. It is not Italian, and it certainly is not German. In a realm where price is irrelevant, a car must make its owners feel special. The DB7 does.
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