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One of a kind - Aston Martin DBR4-250/3

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No-one has ever uncovered the true story of this Aston Martin Formula 1 car - until now. In an Octane exclusive, Tony Dron unpicks the complex history of Aston's glorious F1 failure

Something didn’t add up. It took me weeks to puzzle out this old Aston Martin warhorse. A beautiful and rare machine, it’s the third of four works DBR4 Grand Prix cars built in 1959 and it has been in the late Tom Wheatcroft’s Donington Grand Prix Exhibition for 39 years. Now restored to excellent condition by Hall and Hall, it runs perfectly, as I found out at Donington recently. It’s for sale, so I was given a brief blast in it.

Settling into the cockpit, I felt on top of the world. Well, just look at the way I stick out of it. How did the 1959 works drivers, Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby, cope with that? Both are tall men. This car should not be like that, as we shall see.

Right now, DBR4-250/3 is warmed up and ready for action photography with ace snapper John Colley. The clutch pedal, well to the left, works smoothly and the right-hand five-speed gearchange is easier to operate than expected. Although a rear-mounted David Brown transaxle is fitted, it has a Maserati gate but no sequential locking mechanism. The brake and throttle pedals are well placed and the steering feels superb: really alive, accurate and direct.

The car runs straight and true towards the corners and, typically of Astons of that era, the disc brakes are exceptionally good. Back in 2006 I discussed DBR4s with Roy Salvadori, Aston’s quickest works DBR4 driver:

‘As I remember,’ Roy told me, ‘it was underpowered and too heavy. With the 2.5-litre engine there was very little torque but it had fantastic brakes.

The 2.5-litre Cooper just had the edge on it and the DBR4 didn’t improve as we went along…

‘Today, I think, the 3-litre is the only one to have, as the slightly larger engine gave the DBR4 the performance it needed. But those brakes… I do remember them as being really superb, with a good, firm pedal. Once you could hear them whistling – I remember it now – you knew they were really working.’ Unfortunately, the F1 rules then specified 2.5 litres. The larger engines came later in DBR4 history.

The 2.5-litre straight-six may have been underpowered then but it feels very responsive, a real thoroughbred racing unit. A new cylinder head had to be made from scratch by Hall and Hall, and the result of this work is a very fine engine which gave 268bhp on the dynamometer. The exhaust pipes on the right indicate that it’s a ‘95-degree’ head of the correct type.

Initial throttle action is perfectly smooth, the engine reacting instantly for ideal power-oversteer control. This car likes to be driven like that and the driver needs to respond quickly and accurately to the rapidly sliding tail. But it’s not tricky – the basic handling is sublimely predictable. Only the uncomfortably high seating position mars an otherwise perfect driving experience.

As every Aston Martin diehard knows, the team from Feltham was enjoying dizzy success as the reigning World Champion Sports Car Manufacturer of 1958 and, to cap that, the factory won the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1959 in magnificent style, with works DBR1s finishing first and second.

Designed by Ted Cutting, who had risen to become chief racing designer in the Special Projects office at Aston Martin, the exquisite DBR1 was almost entirely his work and was, without doubt, the best sports-racing car of its day. In contrast to such triumphs, the simultaneous effort in Formula 1 with the DBR4 single-seater was an absolute flop.

As Ted wrote in the AM Magazine in spring 1993: 'The GP car got less than half the development effort it needed… There just were not enough people in the Experimental workshop and the two design offices for all the programmes. Twelve-hour days, often seven days a week, were the normal way of doing business that year for the competition personnel…' It was hopelessly over-ambitious.

Aston Martin’s Formula 1 car would have been superb in 1956, but they weren’t able to construct it until late 1957 and then it lay around because they hadn’t the resources to run it. Through 1958 the DBR4 sat under a cover in the workshop, unused. By 1959, when the firm finally got round to campaigning it, the mid-engined revolution was taking full hold in Formula 1. Running the DBR4 then, as team manager John Wyer famously remarked later, was: 'Too little, too late.'

As Ted later commented: 'We found ourselves doing in 1959 exactly what we had decided not to do in 1958; that is, competing at top level in both Sports Car and Grand Prix races.'

Aston Martin’s foray into the Grand Prix scene was, undeniably, a terrible failure but fascinating nevertheless.

In DBR4/3 we see a rare survivor which, in its present form, is representative of that effort 50 years ago. What still puzzled me, though, is that it’s not as it raced in its first event, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in 1959.

This car is no fake. Everything on it is 100% genuine Aston Martin DBR4, but it isn’t what DBR4/3 was or should be. Pondering over that, it seemed possible that it is one of those timewarp machines that represents a fixed point in the past: not 1959 when it was made, but ten years on when it was being run in VSCC Historic Racing Car events by its then owner Peter Brewer.

But that theory didn’t hang together, either. Something was decidedly weird here and I could not put my finger on it. This is not the first DBR4 I have driven. Three years ago I did a couple of days testing in its sister car, DBR4/4, checking it over for its present owner. The car featured here should have been very similar to that, but it wasn’t. Both were delightful to drive, but very different.

I decided to start again and trace the story right through, hoping something would turn up. Towards the end of 1958, Aston boss John Wyer instructed Ted to get the GP car out from under its sheet and redesign the front suspension for the 1959 season. That was completed in six weeks and a second car, DBR4/2, was built to the same design.

The first DBR4s to race made their début at the 1959 BRDC International Trophy race on Silverstone GP circuit in May, driven by Salvadori and Shelby. Although Shelby’s car retired, Salvadori broke the lap record with DBR4/1 and finished a promising second. His skill had flattered the outdated design and the DBR4 never looked that good again.

Those first two DBR4s were fitted with five-speed David Brown CG537 transaxle gearboxes, as then used in the DBR1 two-seater. In the single-seater, it meant that the central propshaft ran directly under the driver. That transaxle was too big and heavy for a GP car anyway, and a further snag was that it was a pig to use. It was a problem – the team knew that already in mid-1957 but, as David Brown had been able to buy the company thanks to his wealth and reputation as a gearbox manufacturer, they had to make the best of it.

Two years on, it was so obvious that this box was holding them back that Ted Cutting was allowed to buy in a different transaxle. He spent a week in June 1959 at Maserati in Modena, working with Dr Alfieri on a modified version of the 5M-60 transaxle also found in the Maserati 250F GP car.

Apart from being relatively compact and 50lb lighter than Aston’s existing unit, the Maserati transaxle was easier to use and, as it had the input shaft offset to the left, it placed the driver two inches lower in the DBR4, alongside the propshaft rather than over it. As Ted told me: 'Once the drivers had used that gearbox, they never wanted to go back.'

To suit the new transaxle, the car had to be modified. The engine was mounted differently, angled in the tubular spaceframe chassis to suit the new propshaft line. The rear suspension remained by de Dion tube, but Ted devised a lighter arrangement. A new body was designed, narrower than before and with its centre section fixed to the chassis. It's sometimes referred to as the 'semi-stressed-skin chassis', although Ted prefers to call it non-detachable.

This revised GP car was known within Aston Martin as the DBR4B and the earlier model was referred to as the DBR4A. In mid-1959 two cars were built to this new specification, DBR4/3 and DBR4/4, the latter retained as a spare.

Thanks to the new transaxle and detailed improvements the DBR4B was nearly 80lb lighter than its predecessor, but it was no more successful. At that time Aston Martin was committed to front-engined cars. The racing programme was, after all, intended to promote sales of front-engined road cars. There might even have been a feeling within the company that building and racing a mid-engined car was not quite the way that a gentleman might conduct himself, but anyway, as we have seen, Aston Martin couldn’t afford a radically new design.

The brand-new DBR4B turned out for the Italian GP in September 1959 with Salvadori at the wheel. Despite his best efforts, he qualified 17th, five whole seconds off pole but two seconds quicker than Shelby in the older model. Autosport reported: 'Both Aston Martins were putting up a brave show, but were scarcely quick enough to trouble the opposition.'

Salvadori retired on lap 45 with transmission failure. Shelby trailed home in tenth place. The future was clear: even at the ultra-fast Monza circuit, thanks to his brilliant driving in Rob Walker’s Cooper-Climax, Stirling Moss had beaten the front-engined Ferraris on home ground. It stung Ferrari hard.

Some say that the uncompetitive DBR4 effectively ended Roy Salvadori’s GP career when he had the ability, in the right car, to become World Champion. I agree with them, but he did choose to go with it. It’s an article of faith in Aston Martin legend that, had the firm come out and raced the DBR4 in 1958, it would have been competitive. That romantic notion collapses when you compare F1 lap times through 1958 and 1959. It doesn’t stand up to analysis, I’m afraid.

That 1959 race at Monza was DBR4/3’s sole attempt at a Grand Prix, and collectors of the ‘matching numbers’ persuasion would probably feel that it should be restored precisely to that configuration. However, retrieving the right parts might not be so easy now.

Unexpectedly, it wasn’t the end of DBR4/3’s story as a works F1 car. For the non-championship International Trophy at Silverstone in 1960 Aston entered two of the new DBR5s. In a wet qualifying session, Moss made a rare error, losing his Cooper in a puddle and hitting Roy’s new Aston, which was standing in the pits. The engine and transmission from the DBR5 were swapped overnight into DBR4/3. This engine had the improved ‘80-degree’ head, with the exhaust emerging from the left. Roy started the race but retired after four laps because of a misfire.

Aston Martin soon abandoned F1. Three of the DBR4s were converted to ‘300’ specification, with 3-litre engines for Australian owners racing to their local rules. Lex Davison had DBR4/1 first and then DBR4/4, and maybe those two cars were curiously merged for a time. Meanwhile, DBR4/2 was cut up by the works and number 3 was sold to another Australian, Bib Stillwell. The factory converted it into DBR4-300/3 and Bib raced it in that form, still with its Maserati gearbox.

Bib Stillwell, incidentally, later married Gillian Harris, former competitions secretary of the works Aston team in 1957-’60. Bib sold his DBR4 to New Zealander Lionel Bulcraig, who raced it in 1963. All of these cars then returned to the UK, bought by Wilmslow motor dealer Peter Brewer. His mechanic Wilbur McKee collected them from Liverpool docks. Wilbur, now 84 and still living in Stockport, told me last October:

'One came from New Zealand [DBR4/3] and one from Australia [DBR4/4].' It’s significant that throughout Wilbur’s time of preparing these cars for British events they retained their Maserati gearboxes. Peter Brewer began racing DBR4/4 and enjoyed some success, but the emerging man to beat in those VSCC events was Charles ‘Luke’ Lucas in his Maserati 250F.

At this point Neil Corner appears in the story. A canny chap, he felt that a well prepared DBR4 could beat Luke’s 250F, so he bought DBR4/4 from Brewer and set about preparing it. The more modern Aston, he reasoned, had the advantage of excellent disc brakes. Corner also had the driving ability required to take on an ace like Lucas, who was seriously quick.

Corner won first time out at the 1968 Martini meeting, Silverstone. Some splendid battles followed, with Corner frequently taking the chequered flag first. His success raised the status of the DBR4 to previously unknown heights.

Meanwhile, Brewer continued racing DBR4/3. At the end of the 1969 season both cars changed hands again. In a complicated deal between several parties, managed by Neil Corner, Tom Wheatcroft was able to acquire DBR4/3 from Brewer for his rapidly growing collection of Grand Prix cars. Neil sold his DBR4/4 to Alain de Cadenet and bought the famous ERA R4D to replace it.

Neil told me that some 40 years ago he took his ex-Ecurie Ecosse transporter to Peter Brewer’s place in Wilmslow to collect both R4D and DBR4/3, delivering the Aston to Tom Wheatcroft on the way home. The Aston looked complete but the body was 'grotty'. A pile of spares came with DBR4/3, including three David Brown five-speed gearboxes and two 2.5-litre engines which Neil also delivered to Tom Wheatcroft. There was no Maserati transaxle in the car and Tom did not want one. Neil retained the Maserati gearbox from DBR4/3.

Researching these cars now is a right maze and, if you want the truth, don’t even think of Googling them. There’s a perfect mine of misinformation waiting there and it’s best ignored, believe me.

How Tom Wheatcroft coped in those days is beyond the understanding of ordinary mortals. He was running his large building company, he bought the land on which the then-derelict Donington Park circuit stood and he was managing its planning and reconstruction. At the same time he was acquiring a staggeringly big collection of historic GP cars, in varying states, and he had a team of men working full time on their restoration. They were led by the talented John Cole, a particularly brilliant bodywork specialist.

Wheatcroft had DBR4/3 restored along the lines of the original DBR4/1 or DBR4/2, complete with a representative new body by John Cole. Doug Nye remembers seeing this work in progress, and he told me that Cole had photographs of the two early cars all around the walls, for reference. Completed in 1971, it has even been suggested that DBR4/3 eventually went on display described as DBR4/1.

It remains in that specification to this day.

There is evidence of some minor repairs to the chassis and it would be interesting to know the stories there. Some people say that Brewer had an accident in it at Oulton Park around 1966. I don’t believe that now. His former mechanic Wilbur McKee says there was definitely no accident to DBR4/3 then, and he should know. I went through all the race reports, years of them, and found that Brewer went harmlessly down an escape road at Oulton on just one occasion. There was no accident.

One big question remained. Why was this car restored to the wrong specification back in 1970/’71? Nobody could answer that and there seemed to be surprisingly little paperwork. My Eureka moment came in an unprepossessing file of correspondence. It contained a letter, on Wheatcroft & Son Ltd notepaper, dated 2 February 1966 and signed by Tom Wheatcroft’s son Kevin. This attracted my eye, mainly because Kevin was six years old then.

The letter was to Andre Bloom, the Staffordshire-based Aston Martin specialist. It included these words: ‘…the car did come via Peter Brewer of Wilmslow Garages. He, in turn, bought it from Lex Davidson [sic]. Looking back at Peter Brewer’s old letters of December ’66 when we acquired the car, he maintained it was chassis number 2. The reason I thought it was number 1 was because of the research Doug Nye had done for our book Great Racing Cars of the Donington Collection. However, on searching the car we have found that it carries chassis number DBR4/250-3. This is on the underside of the chassis tubing….’

So there’s the answer. Plainly visible today, the number stamped on the chassis was once obscured by thick paint. It reads DBR4/3, simple as that. That’s the Stillwell/Bulcraig/Brewer/Wheatcroft car. I rang Andre Bloom and established that the letter dated from 1996 and was simply mis-typed 1966. Then I rang Kevin and he explained that Bloom had a possible buyer enquiring after the car at the time, but that came to nothing. Then I rang my old friend Doug, who is a thoroughly honest and diligent man. He was quite open about this matter. All concerned were mystified and mistaken about this car when he wrote that book about 35 years ago.

A mystery has been solved. Frustratingly, I believe that Peter Brewer now lives in the South of England but I wasn’t able to find him. Mind you, the first man on my list to give the full gen on what these cars were in 1959 was Ted Cutting, who built them all. I wonder why no-one else ever gave him a ring.

Thanks to Andre Bloom, Neil Corner, Ted Cutting, Brian Joscelyne, Rick Hall, Wilbur McKee, Doug Nye, Bob Owen and Kevin Wheatcroft. DBR4-250/3 is for sale at Speedmaster, see www.speedmastercars.com or contact James Hanson on +44 (0)1274 623212.

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