London on the late August Bank Holiday Monday is deserted. In the early morning sunshine the elegant streets of Kensington, Chelsea and Mayfair are empty and whisper-quiet. The neo-Georgian townhouses and mansions gleam in the soft light and the beautiful parks overflow with verdant, aromatic greenery. Can there be a more enchanting city in the world than this?
Add the elegance of a Touring-designed 1959 Aston Martin DB4 Series I to this visage and you know it is going to be one of those perfect days. Aston is quintessentially English and represents the very best in automotive taste. As such, this car fits the elegant architecture of the best parts of London with insouciant entitlement. It is a conveyance fit for a gentleman, an individual who understands discreet good taste and eschews vulgarity. But Astons have an underlying pragmatism and strength of purpose that add real engineering character to the frippery of devilish good looks.
Indeed, the company started in 1913 by Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford soon changed its name from Bamford & Martin to Aston Martin in honour of the famous Aston Hill speed climb near Aston Clinton in Buckinghamshire, where the marque’s founders competed. The first Aston Martin was an effective racing special and later models were tough endurance racers with many national and international successes recorded, including Brooklands, the Mille Miglia and Le Mans. Post-war, the firm was resurrected by David Brown in 1948, and in 1955 he established the firm at Newport Pagnell’s Tickford works, where the DB series of Aston Martins were handcrafted.
The fresh Aston DB4 was launched in October 1958 and represented the ‘new’ Aston ethos of engineering. While the previous DB MkIII had done well with the WO Bentley-designed Lagonda engine, the DB4 arrived with Tadek Marek’s new all-alloy 3.7-litre twin-cam straight-six, producing 240bhp. This magnificent powerplant was developed directly from the racing DBR2/370 unit that made its Le Mans debut in 1957, and features seven main bearings, an 8.2:1 compression ratio and an equal 92x92mm bore and stroke. When launched, the DB4 was priced at a substantial £3967. Its close rival, the Jaguar XK150, was a rather more modest £1764.
With its race-derived mechanicals the DB4 deserved striking coachwork, and the elegant styling by Carrozzeria Touring of Milan certainly caused a sensation when first unveiled. Not only beautiful-looking, the Superleggera (‘super lightweight’) construction was advanced for the time.
It involved integrating the featherweight superstructure of thin steel tubing with the stiff platform chassis, which was then clothed in lightweight aluminium panels, clinched into place around angle plates with interposed graphite pads to prevent corrosion. This method of construction ensures rigidity with weight-saving and almost perfect styling.
As well as the advanced engine and chassis construction, the DB4 features independent front suspension boasting wishbones and coil springs. The solid rear axle is suspended on coil springs and located via a Watts linkage. Steering is by rack and pinion; brakes are Dunlop discs front and rear, with servo assistance. The four-speed synchromesh gearbox has a final drive of 3.54:1 for the British market, promising a top speed of 139mph. The American-market cars are fitted with a lower 3.77:1 ratio, and a long 3.31:1 is an option for very high top-speed work.
So, when new in 1958, the DB4 promised great things for the well-heeled motoring enthusiast: it was a superb-looking GT with a race-bred engine from a marque of distinction. Today the DB4 is probably even more desirable, if you take into account the price that fine examples now command. Only 1113 DB4s (Series I-V, including convertibles) were produced, so they remain rare and highly collectable.
In today’s world the Aston looks fantastic. You hear the deep burble of the big straight-six reverberating off the cityscape before the gleaming DB4 swings into a cobbled mews for our early-morning rendezvous. Finished in tasteful and original Almond Green, this example is as good as it is possible to get. Owner Bryan Smart, company director and ex-CFO of Mercedes-Benz UK, is a serious classic car aficionado and numbers an immaculate Porsche 911 Carrera RS 2.7, Jaguar E-type roadster and 1933 Aston Martin 1.5-litre Le Mans in his collection, as well as a patinated Lotus Elan S3, which he assures drives beautifully.
As the DB4 draws up you are struck by that particular Aston essence: the heavy industrial sound of the engine, even at low revs. It emits a deep and mellifluous tone very different to the Jaguar XK’s, which is softer and quieter. Switch off and, as early-morning silence resumes, you cannot fail to be engaged by the Aston’s gorgeous form.
‘I always wanted a Series I DB4 because of its purity and beautifully proportioned lines,’ says Smart. ‘It is so spare. You will notice how it does without the later heavy bumper over-riders and that the side windows are unsullied by polished surrounds. The later cars were stretched and heightened as they evolved towards the DB5, a design I feel is less well resolved than this original Touring concept.’
He is totally correct. The man in the street will inevitably go for a Silver Birch ‘James Bond’ DB5, but the pared-down DB4 is the purist’s choice. Open the slender door and savour the delicious smell of soft leather as you slide into the surprisingly comfortable and well-stuffed driver’s chair. The high-mounted wood-rimmed 16-inch steering wheel is a work of art, and the big Smiths instruments, grouped directly in your line of vision, are clear and legible. The dashboard is devoid of wood and is instead crafted in alloy and painted a lovely dove grey.
‘This car was fully restored 22 years ago and is standing up well. The paintwork still looks great and the interior is just beginning to mellow,’ observes Smart. It’s absolutely, totally, completely immaculate.
We pop the bonnet to reveal the physically huge engine. The twin alloy cam covers and regiment of head studs march from well forward of the axle line all the way back to the bulkhead. This non-Vantage engine’s SU carburettors look relatively modest, but the prominent oil filler cap is right where you need it: engineering design of the industrial school of symmetry and order.
Some early examples of these engines suffered failure because of the different expansion rates of various components; issues overcome by improvements Aston soon implemented as well as by modern engine rebuilds. ‘This Aston remains in totally original specification and has not been upgraded in any way other than being carefully restored,’ says Smart. ‘It retains a dynamo, the cooling system is original, and so are the early Dunlop brakes. Everything is correctly assembled from new old-stock – which is far superior to cheaper, newly manufactured components – and the Aston runs superbly, never overheating.’
Encouragingly, he adds: ‘I drive the DB rather hard because, if there are any potential faults, I want to find them.’
The big 3.7-litre mill fires quickly and settles down to an even idle. The long-throw clutch is firm and the delicate-looking gearlever selects first with a mechanical click. Easing off, the Aston needs some revs because of the high-ratio first gear. The cogs swap with precision but the shifter won’t be rushed. Visibility from the driving seat is unimpeded as the A- and B-pillars are slim and the glass area generous.
Through London, the steering feels precise and fingertip-light. This is helped considerably by the DB4 running on correct, slim, 16x6in Avon Turbosteel tires. The disc brakes are sharp, thanks to servo assistance, though there is a touch of lag before they bite, a trait you soon learn to finesse with your dancing shoe. On the move the Aston feels light and airy. The cabin remains cool and the controls are tight and slop-free. At 1311kg, the DB4 is not all that superleggera but it is noticeably lighter than the 1465kg DB5, which in effect is carrying the weight of two passengers.
The throttle pedal travel is long and, once you start to exploit its deeper recesses, all the 240bhp comes on strong. The engine is peppier, if less torquey, than an XK’s, with less flywheel effect, so it revs to 5500rpm with enthusiasm. Around a deserted Belgrave Square – on the opposite side to the machine gun-toting ambassadorial police – it is possible to get the Aston into an easy and controlled slide, at almost legal speeds! That’s the joy of predictable but largely grip-free crossply tires.
Having behaved impeccably in town, with no stuttering from the well-mannered SU carbs, when it’s then taken out onto a clear section of motorway and given its head, the DB4 comes into its own as a fast, comfortable and capable GT. It’s certainly not quiet thanks to an almost free-flow exhaust system, but the Aston picks up pace with an ease that suggests it will breach 60mph in the claimed 8.5 seconds and reach its 139mph top speed without drama. Thanks to communicative steering, a rigid chassis, compliant suspension and powerful brakes, it remains superbly predictable through high-speed corners.
It is no wonder the elegant DB4 was met with such a rapturous reception when launched in 1958. And it is no wonder these superb motor cars are now highly prized by discerning collectors.
What is most satisfying, following the drive around these scenic enclaves of London, is that Bryan Smart’s immaculate example of what a DB4 should be is even better on the road than you might imagine.
Sure, it is a true classic of the 1950s, but it is still a driver’s car of the first order. Gorgeous looks aside, this DB4 exemplifies the best of British engineering, thanks to Aston Martin’s lineage of quality and enviable motor-racing provenance.
Thanks to Bryan Smart for his superb DB4.