|It is set up for the road so the damping is a bit soft, calling for care in the fastest bends, but it likes a bit of sideways style|
Whoever was responsible didn’t quite have the gall to desecrate the handmade Zagato body by drilling an aerial hole through it but, as Richard Williams told me: ‘Concealed aerials were available then. Perhaps it had one of them.’
The pair of Aston Martin DB4GT Zagatos, registered 1 VEV and 2 VEV on May 19, 1961, and campaigned by John Ogier’s Essex Racing Stable, have long been a legendary part of Aston Martin history. Heroically, they went into battle against the dominant Ferraris after the Works ceased racing officially. First they faced the 250GT SWB but then along came the fabulous 250GTO, which of course turned out to be one of the greatest GT racing cars ever made.
As the Astons were about 12% heavier than a 250GT SWB, they became instant underdogs. The DB4GT Zagatos were magnificent thoroughbreds but they just weren’t quick enough. When the GTO appeared in 1962, it got worse: the Astons were then 18% heavier than the opposition. To be brutally honest, the position became steadily more hopeless for the Astons.
Nevertheless, Ogier gave it his best shot. He ran a superb team, he hired the best drivers and 1 VEV and 2 VEV came out fighting. Unfortunately the account opened very badly when the brand new pair retired early in the 1961 Le Mans 24 Hours. Both suffered head gasket failure because the heads had not been properly tightened down. But that simple cock-up made no real difference to the race result. One hour in, Ferrari held the first four places and the new Astons were fading away without ever being near the top ten.
A couple of outdated DBR1s were lying seventh and eighth early on, but not one Aston Martin finished the race – a sorry tale after the Works team’s glorious outright one-two with the DBR1s in 1959.
Ogier’s team got a great boost in their next race, the GT event supporting the British GP at Aintree. In damp conditions, Australian driver Lex Davison, in 2 VEV, gambled on the right tyres and seized the lead from Jack Sears on the very last lap to win by just 1.2 seconds. Jack should have been driving a Ferrari 250GT but an unfortunate mechanic had smashed it up, driving to Aintree on the road. Different days indeed! Jack raced an E-type instead,
a near-standard car with its soft-top raised, and very nearly won. The famous Lightweight E-types, which certainly were a match for the 250GTOs, were yet to come.
In fact, there was no Ferrari opposition in that 1961 Aintree race, the other 250GT also having been crashed before the start. One of our most respected magazines then made a blunder by reporting: ‘Whitmore brought the other Essex Aston Martin Zagato home third.’ John Whitmore did finish third, but he drove the Essex team’s standard DB4GT, not a Zagato, and he was on dry tyres. It had looked like the smart choice but he was out of luck.
As things turned out, 1 VEV was never beaten by its team mate, 2 VEV. Back then, the chief mechanic in the Essex Racing Stable was Ian Moss. Now 70, and still extremely active – he’s a keen badminton player – Ian recalls the 1961 and 1962 seasons clearly:
‘1 VEV was the car we used for most of the work. When testing, it was 1 VEV that we normally took. Those cars were perhaps half a hundredweight lighter than standard as they had no bumpers, lightweight racing seats and some interior panels had been left out in the build. The Ferraris were much lighter, had better traction and a much stiffer chassis. The way I saw it, Ferrari made a racing car and adapted it for the road while Aston took a road car and converted it for racing.’
Half a hundredweight equates to 25.4kg: in other words, not a lot. A DB4GT Zagato was lighter than a standard DB4 but, as we have seen, it was always an overweight racer. There was also plenty of bullshit over horsepower. Ian says:
‘Despite official claims, 1 VEV never had more than 270bhp in those days. Horsepower figures sell cars, but torque wins races!’ Aston Martin tweaked its straight-six 3670cc engine up to a compression ration of 9.7:1 for the Zagato and claimed 314bhp but nobody today denies the true figure was well short of that. Ian says they did see 310bhp from one engine much later on but it was a 3.9-litre, which went into the second 2 VEV after the original was wrecked at Spa in 1962.
Perhaps 1 VEV’s finest moment came in its second race, the 1961 RAC Tourist Trophy at Goodwood. Roy Salvadori gave chase to the Ferraris and after 108 laps he finished a mere three seconds behind Mike Parkes’ 250GT. It was a glorious result, even though he was ‘only’ a close third because Stirling Moss, in another Ferrari 250GT, finished a lap ahead of the entire field. That sort of performance was rather expected of Stirling then.
Recalling it, Roy says: ‘Compared to a GTO or an E-type, the Aston Zagatos were much heavier to drive. You had to really thrash them to get the times down, but it was a wonderful team to be part of. We worked hard at our pit stops but somehow we always seemed to be stationary a little longer than opposition, and that car was really hard on tyres.’ He wasn’t kidding:
I looked it up and found that Roy had 14 new tyres fitted during that Goodwood race, and no punctures! Behind him, and another lap down we should note, were Jim Clark in 2 VEV and Innes Ireland in a normal DB4GT.
But stop a moment, this is known history. What are we really talking about when we consider such famous, well-documented cars today? What is there new to say? Nearly 20 years ago, when I was on another magazine, we published the definitive history of 1 VEV and 2 VEV. It was a superb piece of work by Doug Nye. Writing about it now we can give a progress report on 1 VEV and, surprisingly enough, there’s plenty of new information, not the least of it being our driving impressions after pushing it hard round Castle Combe circuit.
If this car looks great, it goes even better. Fresh from its absolutely perfect, wonderfully sympathetic rebuild, it’s as good as new, if not better. We’ll get to that but, first, let’s take to the track. The car is waiting, in sunshine in the paddock, all ready to go, and the new owner, Adrian Beecroft, has invited us to take him round as fast as we like. Call him mad if you like, but we go back a few years and he trusts me for some reason.
There are no belts but the old bucket seats are comfortable, the engine starts instantly with a fabulous, deep, eager roar and we trickle away in first towards the circuit. Apart from the steering, which is heavy, it’s as easy to potter around as a Morris Minor. Even the clutch is fairly effortless to manage and there’s nothing harsh about 1 VEV. Out on the circuit, however, the performance is utterly stunning.
On our second lap we came up behind a gorgeous new Aston Martin; it was being driven well so I can’t imagine what that bloke thought when we appeared alongside, coming out of the tight righthander at Quarry, and released 1 VEV with full throttle in second gear. It took off with a trace of opposite lock and wheelspin. There was just no contest. We had gone. On the longer straights, it fairly leaps ahead and the acceleration above 120mph is still very strong.