Aston Martin is building 25 brand new examples of the legendary DB4GT. Octane tests the very first at Goodwood
It’s the romance.’ Seriously? When asked why Aston Martin set out to build the DB4GT again, it’s the reason given by Paul Spires without hesitation. Spires is the father of this extraordinary project. Meet him and you’ll instantly be infected by his enthusiasm. As the managing director at Aston Martin Works in Newport Pagnell, he is steeped in the great marque’s history.
‘It’s ten years since the last Aston Martin was built here in Tickford Street,’ he explains. ‘Since then, the Works business has grown into a significant centre of restoration excellence as well as being a service and sales location. We have so many skills here, I thought it would be tremendous if we could show the world what we can do. There is so much heritage here. I could only see it as a good thing to have a newly-built Aston Martin from Newport Pagnell once again driving down the road.’
Or, indeed, at the track. For here we are at Goodwood, scene of where the original DB4GT established its legend, and where we are driving this, the prototype for a limited series of 25 more new DB4GTs to follow. Preconceptions of such tests can be a real impediment to an objective assessment, but the fact that this is a car of both 1959 and 2017 vintages has the effect of clearing the mind. It has covered nearly 1000 miles, though that is actually not much for a prototype. The last DB4GT was sold 55 years ago, yet here is a new one: a ghost has been stirred and now there’s a great piece of Aston Martin history in the re-making. It draws more attention than most cars and even those close to the project keep staring at it with incredulity.
Romance is one thing but this project had to look like it would be commercially viable, otherwise it would never have got the green light. And why remake the DB4GT when, surely, the DB5 has the widest appeal now?
Spires explains: ‘Until quite recently the DB4GT was understood in Aston Martin circles but less so in the wider world. The fact of the matter is that it’s a great car, one of the best that Aston Martin has produced. It’s terrific to drive and looks the part.’
In 2016, DB4GTs were selling for around £2.5m. Today they are worth more and the first prototype, DP199/1, sold in August for a hefty $6.7m. From this we might conclude that the cognoscenti have woken up to the fact that the DB4GT is a rare and fine car, certainly a car for which there is much more demand than available supply. Interest in the Aston Martin brand worldwide has never been greater. The value of the heritage models has risen significantly over the past decade – heritage models being loosely defined as any model up to the DB7. And the value of the original cars suggests that the new cars could be sold viably.
But there’s much more to it than business. Automotive technology has developed hugely since the last Vanquish left Newport Pagnell in July 2007. In short, it would have been very difficult to re-create a run of heritage Astons back then. And if it’s paradoxical that forward-looking Aston Martin should begin building such an old model, then it is another paradox that modern technology would be essential in enabling the company to achieve it – and in the old way.
Yet this is an incredibly faithful continuation, so much so that every component can be swapped with an original’s. That was one of the principles of the project: originality defined by interchangeability. Some might have expected to see a DB4GT skin on a modern chassis. Well, they’re in for a surprise. You have to look very closely to work out whether this car was built in 1959 or 2017.
Given that production of the ultimate DB4 descendant, the DB6 Mk2, finished in 1971, re-starting production would never be straightforward. The old Aston Martin factory has been knocked down and there is nothing left on the Sunnyside site (as it is known there) apart from a housing estate and a few derelict buildings. But within the Works site, a special DB4GT build area has been created.
Then there is the brand question. Aston Martin has grown in stature over the past decade and its products are increasingly sophisticated, diverse and – above all – overtly modern. So why would Aston Martin wind back the clock nearly 60 years and start again, building a car that was first announced in 1959 and ceased production in 1962 – especially when short production runs are not noted for profitability?
In fact, Aston Martin looked with interest at what Jaguar had done with the XKSS, a continuation car with a run of only nine cars. Aston’s target was 25 DB4GTs, a nice round number given that 75 were originally built, but it’s also an ambitious number. And these cars are not sold to be used on the road; today’s construction regulations simply don’t permit that.
Spires, with the small team around him, pulled together a costing and production plan for the DB4GT. It was approved in December 2016. The investment required needed the support of CEO Dr Andy Palmer. It’s an interesting thought that both the Valkyrie hypercar and – in stark contrast – the new DB4GT were under consideration at the same time early in 2016. The Valkyrie is, of course, closely linked with Red Bull and Adrian Newey who, by coincidence, also has one of the more important, original DB4GTs. Faith in the investment was essential but so too was faith that the project could be achieved. In two years, so the plan goes, all 25 will have been built.
Walking up to the car in the early autumn sun brings to mind Dorothy Draper’s oft-appropriated quote: ‘If it looks right, it is right.’ Its stance on original-type Borranis (still being made in Italy) is perfect: the DB4GT has a poise with a muted but clear purpose to it. From every angle it emanates latent speed. The faired-in front lights, a work of genius from a Tickford artist, give the impression that the car is rushing through the air. Though I am a fan of the original GT with bumpers, this car looks perfect without. The rear arches have very subtle flares, as seen originally on the Essex Racing Stable car, 17 TVX, when driven by Innes Ireland.
In Almond Green (the 1953-1961 works racing colour) it looks every bit like DP199/1, the car that appeared at Le Mans in 1959. This new car is chassis DP199/2, the prototype of the new series of cars, and it acknowledges the history of DP199 by wearing the Swiss ‘Trois Chevrons’ racing team stripes on it. Subjectively, then, it looks so stunning that I’m happy just to stand looking at it rather than getting straight in.
But I must delve further. A peek under the rear reveals a very original-looking chassis and a pair of lever-arm dampers. It must have been tempting to fit telescopics, as many GTs race with them today. Running a hand along the body further reveals the perfect line and the obvious thinness of the panelling. Lean (gently) on the body and there is some spring compliance, but not much. The side and rear windows are correct in plastic and all the exterior fittings look like they are from the 1960s.
Under the bonnet it appears incredibly correct. All the wiring, plumbing and so on are as original; only the fire system, if you can spot it, betrays some modernity. The breathers feed into a catch tank, actually an idea that came after 1959 when oil leaks were an occupational hazard. Then there is the all-new GT engine, detectably so thanks to the fine finish of the castings.
Open the boot and the correctly black-painted aluminium tank just about leaves room for a spare Borrani on top. The tank wisely contains a safety fuel bag and the caps conceal proper anti-spill seals within.
Two things happen when you open the door. First its lightness catches you by surprise, then you are greeted by the generous waft from the Vaumol Connolly leather. This is a little surprising given that the hide extends only to the gearbox tunnel and quilted pads on the seats but it’s so redolent of Aston Martins of old. The removable safety cage is the most impressive that I have seen in a DB Aston; it’s a real work of art and certified should an owner wish to race the car. Though comprehensive and clearly very strong, the cage does little to impede entry, which is just as well given that the race seat is an unyielding bucket to clamber into as opposed to a 1959 leather cushion to slide onto.
In here it feels very track-orientated: looking out into the Goodwood paddock seems right rather than theatrical. On top of the dash, where the ashtray would normally sit is a row of switches for battery and fire system control. The facia is exactly right: has there ever been a better-looking dash? The racing seats are very stiff, which is great for holding the occupants, and the only concession to comfort is a set of diamond-quilted pads. However, these are very clever anatomically-designed seats and they are very comfortable. They can also be adjusted so that the positioning of all controls is perfect. Ergonomics are excellent and the fitting of a 15in (rather than the original 16in) wheel makes the steering feel just that little more manageable. Though it’s strictly a two-seater, the cabin feels roomy and airy thanks to the ample glazing.
Of course, we should remember that back in 1958 the DB4 was easily the world’s most advanced GT car. At its Paris launch the local distributor urged John Wyer to build a racing version and so work began with Harold Beach and Ted Cutting. Wyer told Ted to ‘cut 5in out of a DB4 and produce a cheap and cheerful GT car’. That 5in chop was in the doors. Cutting (who also designed the DBR1) considered that ‘the DB4GT was in fact a return to the specification of the 1950 DB2. That is, a long-distance, very fast, two-seater touring car’.
The DB4GT was designed with two seats and a luggage platform in the rear. The doors were lightweight aluminium and the boot was occupied by a 30-gallon fuel tank with the spare wheel on top. The engine was uprated with a twin-plug head and triple 45 DCOE Webers. A front oil-cooler scoop was added and the car ran on Borrani light-alloy wheels with uprated Girling brakes. The changes to Touring’s DB4 design were all carried out by Aston Martin at Feltham, including the closed headlights.
The engine, with its higher compression ratio of 9:1, larger inlet and exhaust valves and uprated camshafts, had a claimed output of 302bhp at 6000 rpm. And so the DB4GT could reach 60mph in just over six seconds and reach a quarter-mile from a standing start in 14 seconds, hitting a speed of 98mph. Flat-out it would pull just over 150mph.
The prototype, DP199/1, first ran in March 1959. Its first public appearance was at Silverstone in May 1959. In order for the car to be accepted for the race, John Wyer had to sign an undertaking that the prototype would go into production. Stirling Moss put the car on pole position, won the race and set a lap record. DP199 also made the DB4GT’s only Le Mans appearance in 1959. In 1960, DP199 was tested at MIRA by Reg Parnell, who was able to go from rest to 100mph and back to rest again in 20 seconds.
Press reaction was positive. Dennis May drove DP199 and wrote in Car and Driver: ‘It does our English ego good to doubt whether this Englishman’s car is in much danger of having its feat eclipsed by foreign rivals of comparable rating. Or any rating.’
Aston Martin would go on to build 75 DB4GTs, and a further 20 were bodied by Zagato. Eight of the DB4GTs were built at Feltham to lightweight specification, the most famous of these being the Equipe Endeavour/Tommy Sopwith car and the two Essex Racing Stable cars, 17 and 18 TVX, raced with success by Innes Ireland and Roy Salvadori. The last two were built not only as lightweights but as part of a run of five cars with DB5-style front and rear ends. Today the DB4GT is acquiring increasingly mythical status and is enjoyed as one of the most important and impressive post-war Aston Martins. Not bad, given John Wyer’s almost throw-away line to shorten a DB4!
The engine fires first time every time, making its presence heard but not intrusively so. The clutch is weighted perfectly but the gearbox feels quite different to a standard DB’s. The throw is shorter, the changes quicker. First gear engages with little more than a ‘click’ as dog meets dog. With the reduced interior trim of the lightweight car I expected more interior noise; yes, it is louder than a standard GT, but acceptably so. The gearbox is all but silent, and while the back axle can be heard a little, as so often on Astons, it is not run-in yet and once on the open track it’s not noticeable.
It would be all to easy to come over as blasé but this is a real ‘pinch yourself’ moment. Throttle response from the 4.2-litre engine is instantaneous and it revs willingly to 6000rpm. In its current state of tune the power levels off at 5000rpm but this is not an issue; the gearing is very good for Goodwood and the torque is so strong that the top end ‘peak power’ that racers so crave is not really required. This is a superb, easy, tractable engine that delivers huge pace with little effort and no drama. I see 130mph on the Lavant straight, and it feels effortless.
With its short throw, the gearbox is very quick to get around and for each gear the changes up and down are easy, with a double-declutch for the downshifts. Purists might have expected a synchro box but this is a better option for this type of GT, and even on the road it would be easy and more fun. On cold tyres, even when giving the rear end some encouragement, traction is outstanding for a live-axle car and, indeed, for a DB4GT. Everything about it feels like an old Aston but with greater sharpness.
Under load, especially through the medium-speed corners, the rear really bites and gives the car a secure line. Through St Mary’s on the slight off-camber the rear slides naturally and delightfully: this car will give make owners smile. The steering is tight and positioning on the track is no problem. That said, I would set the car up for a bit more neutrality and dial-out any understeer; the weight distribution is always there to serve understeer if you need it. The brakes are as I would expect of the original car: heavy without any servo help, but all there and helped by the lack of weight to arrest.
The DB4GT shone many times at Goodwood in its heyday. It’s a spiritual home for the marque and the new GT flows around the Sussex track as if it had been made for it, tackling the fast and slow corners and the significant undulations with correct aplomb.
Having driven a dozen or so of the original cars, in various states of tune and weight, meant that I had a benchmark to work from. Therefore I was a little nervous that Aston Martin might somehow have got this new DB4GT wrong. But I need not have worried. It’s a new masterpiece but still an old master.
2017 Aston Martin DB4GT specifications
Engine 4212cc six-cylinder, DOHC, twin-spark, three Weber 45 DCOE4 carburettors
Power 350bhp @ 6000rpm
Torque 330lb ft @ 5000rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel-drive, LSD
Steering Rack and pinion
Suspension Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, Rear: live axle, coil springs, lever-arm dampers
Brakes Dunlop discs
Top speed 152mph
0-60mph 4.9sec (est)
Words: Stephen Archer // Photography: Matthew Howell