‘All I ever hear is “When are you going to finish it?”’ says Don Rose as he guns his DB2/4 MkII along the California coastline.
You can see the problem. This car’s clearly a wreck, the bare aluminium and grey primered steel panels showing every scar of their 60-odd years. But listen to the engine note and there’s not a hint of mechanical sloppiness; it’s perfectly smooth, all the noise coming from the gobbling carburettors and the rorty dual exhausts. Later we lift the bonnet and peer under the car to find that the engine bay and running gear are as shiny as a concours winner’s. What a very good trick.
‘I work in the car business and I go to all the shows,’ explains Don. ‘At some point I got burned out by all the concours cars. Anyway, 2/4s are fairly ordinary and I didn’t want to do yet another concours Aston – what’s the point? I bought the car stripped and I liked the way it looked, so I had the idea of doing it mechanically and leaving the body alone. The idea evolved conceptually.’
It’s a great concept, which Don calls ‘destored’. He’s not the first to do it – recreating patina on historic race cars in particular is more popular than ever and ‘rat look’ hot rods, air-cooled Volkswagens and even modern hatchbacks are a worldwide phenomenon. But there’s a good chance that Don is the first to do this to an Aston.
It’s easy to think it’s a cop-out, ‘not bothering’ to restore the bodywork. Sure, it’s easier than a full respray, but it’s the detailing that’s gone into this 2/4 that makes it what it is. There are funny little badges and stickers, all with tales to tell, the roof light, the black stove-enamelled wire wheels and, of course, ‘Press on regardless’ painted onto the roof – the ‘make-believe race team’ slogan that Don applies to all his cars.
Don’s owned the DB for three years but, ironically, it was the previous owner’s lack of time and skill that helped to shape its current form. He’d stripped the paint off the car in the first stages of a home restoration, and started to repair the bodywork. At some point rectangular indicators had been cut into the front wings, and he’d repaired these areas roughly to allow the correct round units to be refitted. The alloy bonnet had suffered electrolytic corrosion where the metal ‘spear’ trims had been riveted in place, so he’d cut away sections on either side and welded in new aluminium – not an easy job.
But time was not on his side and, with the target of an entry in the week-long 2003 So-Cal TT rally looming ever closer, he refitted the grille and whichever bits of trim he deemed necessary and took part in the event amongst Sprites, GTIs and other less distinguished company.
After that, it seems little else happened to the DB2/4 during the following years, because in 2007 Don was, as he calls it, ‘drunk driving’ through eBay one evening and spotted the car. He had to have it!
‘I just fell in love with it,’ says Don. ‘I got myself real excited about it; I’d never had a pre-DB4 Aston, and I wanted this for the Mille Miglia.’ So he bought it unseen, and shipped it straight off to California Aston Martin specialist Kevin Kay Restorations who, with years of high-level restorations to his name (including a beautiful Graber-bodied DB2/4 drophead that came third in class at the 2010 Pebble Beach concours), had to readjust his instincts when he heard the brief from Don.
‘Kevin kept sending pictures saying how shitty it looked but he got into it after a while,’ laughs Don. ‘He kept saying things like, “If my guys spent a day on that roof we’d have it looking great,” and I’d say “No-one’s allowed to touch the bodywork, just leave it alone!” I wouldn’t even let them polish the chrome!’
Says Kevin: ‘I thought he was crazy! So did everybody else in the ’shop. The MkII is a rare car, they built only 199 of them. I’d had one years ago, one of my first ever cars that I did a full concours job on, and here I was doing this to Don’s car. But when it was finished we kind of got it.’
It’s not like Kevin and his team didn’t have much to do. The six-cylinder engine was fully rebuilt to standard specification except for electronic ignition and DB Mark III-style exhaust manifolds and twin exhausts (the MkII had a single exhaust). In its day, the exhaust modification was reckoned to release an extra 10% more power.
The transmission was also rebuilt, with Don sticking with the four-speed ’box, resisting the temptation to invest in one of Kevin’s popular five-speed conversions. Brakes were rebuilt, and suspension components replaced for safety: the DB2/4 uses cast-alloy front spring turrets, which weaken over time, so these were replaced with new items cast in a stronger alloy. The front hubs had a design fault that can allow them to part company with the stub axle – with disastrous results – so Kevin also changed these for re-engineered replacements. The new hubs use a smaller bearing to allow more room for the locating circlip, which in the original design is too close to the wheel spinner threads. At the rear, the trailing arms are another weak spot, but new arms machined from aircraft alloy are available, which Don sensibly chose to upgrade to. The springs were kept at standard rate and length because, as Don says, ‘The stock ride height is good, and there’s little travel anyway.’
But this is standard DB2/4 fare, and Don was happy to leave Kevin to get on with that side of the build while he spent his own time sourcing the unusual parts that give the car its character.
‘I have a friend, Cally, who is an aficionado of eclecticism. He collects threepenny bicycles, has a Jensen 541, a Crosley… and it was him who inspired me and who came up with the term “destoration”. So I followed his lead: I went shopping on eBay!’
The GB tag was already on the car and the AMOC shield was on Don’s DB4. To these Don added the ‘Mk2’ badge from a Jaguar, the David Brown tractor badge (‘That was on a Buy it Now!’ laughs Don), the Touring Club of France badge, the stickers (some of which Don rubbed on the ground to prematurely age them), the door-mounted Raydyot mirror and lamp, and the rare Lucas Flamethrower roof-mounted spotlight, mention of which makes Kevin chuckle.
‘I told Don that fitting that spotlight on the roof was permanent, like a tattoo. It sat there for a year before he decided to put it on.’
It’s inside, though, that the policy of conscious eccentricity shines through. The Halda Speedmaster is fair enough, and it’s impressive that it’s number 31, one of the first made and a rare find. But an altimeter?
‘It works!’ defends Don, before admitting that you need to know the atmospheric pressure to make sense of it. And then there are the two buttons, ‘Eject’ and ‘Panic’, on the dash, a nod to Don’s love of Bond movies.
It’s all great fun, and that’s how Don treats it. After a career in the record industry, he now works for RM Auctions as one of the all-important car experts, specialising in Aston Martin, and he deals with some of the most important cars in the world, including the Bond DB5 sold last year. So his DB2/4 is the antidote to all the precious metal, and he loves driving it.
‘It has that comfortable old car feeling,’ says Don. ‘It pulls nicely, handles nicely. It’s fairly agricultural – the Feltham-built cars are very vintage in feel. The steering is the biggest anachronism. Some people graft on rack-and-pinion, but I didn’t want that.’
He’s happy to hand over the keys, and we head off along the coast road towards Monterey. It’s an easy drive, the big, torquey engine masking the heavy controls, so that even fluffed changes on the slow-acting gearbox aren’t too obvious, and the exhaust rasp and intake roar make progress feel much faster than it really is. Sure, the steering is heavy at low speeds, but there’s plenty of leverage afforded by that big wheel, and the play in the steering box fits in well with the long movement of the spindly gearlever. It feels relaxed rather than sloppy, characterful rather than hard work, and it’s easy to see why Don’s so taken with it.
We pull up after a great blast along the coast and an easy crawl through the busy Cannery Row area, packed with tourists soaking up the John Steinbeck attractions. For a few minutes the author is forgotten as they stare instead at the Aston gently throbbing in the traffic.
So what next for Don’s ‘destoration’? ‘More driving!’ says Don. ‘I did the California Mille when it was finished, and I wanted to do the Mille Miglia – I applied for last year’s but I got put on the waiting list. Maybe next year…’
Who knows what the Italians will make of a destored Aston Martin.
Thanks to Don and to Kevin Kay Restorations, +1 530 241 8337, www.kevinkayrestorations.net