Light Fantastic cover story DB4 GT celebration. Lighter, faster, more agile… a drive in this freshly restored DB4 GT kicks off our celebration of an Aston Martin icon. Words Richard Meaden. Photography Gus Gregory.
DB4 GT: LEGEND Exclusive celebration of Aston’s immortal ’60s road-racer. For many Aston Martin aficionados, it’s the Zagatobodied GT that’s the most seductive of all the DB4s. It’s certainly the most glamorous and, of course, the rarest and consequently the most valuable. But unthinkable though it is to imagine looking the siren-like Zagato in the headlights and resisting its beguiling charms, I have to confess it’s the earlier DB4 GT that’s always had me under its spell.
Maybe that’s because it’s the less obvious choice. Perhaps it’s because the shortened Touring bodywork placed its emphasis on function – albeit perfectly proportioned – over Ercole Spada’s more indulgent, sculptural swoops. Whatever ‘it’ is, there’s a deliciously pugilistic aura about the GT. Something about its stance and squat form that betrays its purpose as a no-nonsense road-racer. A dagger to Zagato’s sabre.
Right and top. Precious metal: the GT used a thinner-gauge alloy for its bodywork than the regular DB4. With other weight-saving measures such as Perspex side and rear windows, it shed more than 80kg overall. Just 75 were built: this is DB4GT/0117/R – 850 PPG UK.
Such is the daftness of life as a motoring journalist, I’ve been lucky enough to try two DB4 GT Zagatos over the years – one of those being Simon Draper’s car featured elsewhere in this issue – but I’ve never so much as had a sniff of a ‘regular’ GT. Until now. This, then, is the fulfilment of a long-held dream. That it happens to be with what renowned Aston specialist RS Williams describes as the ‘ultimate’ DB4 GT is the icing on the cake.
In the same ownership for a decade or more, this car originally went to the Surrey firm for engine work and a general once-over, but, as is often the case, when the owner saw another GT nearing the end of a full restoration, he couldn’t resist going the whole hog. It would be a little over a year before he would drive his beloved car again.
One of the great joys of visiting a company such as RS Williams is meeting men like Graham ‘Mac’ McKenzie. Blessed with a humble matter-of-factness that comes from a lifetime’s experience working at the very highest level, Mac has been an integral part of the RS Williams operation for more than 20 years. It’s not that he doesn’t see the specialness in what he and his colleagues do. Rather he prefers to describe the process and let you decide on the quality of the end results.
And what a process it is. Beginning with complete deconstruction, where the car is effectively drawn and quartered, Mac and his team (comprising Mac’s son, Alex, and fabricator Matt Farrant) set about carefully removing every component – glass, trim, brakes, suspension, engine, gearbox, the lot – until they’re down to the body and chassis. So far as the restoration is concerned, this is the moment of truth.
‘This car was pretty tidy, actually,’ he tells me. ‘It was unusual in that, when new, it was fitted with bumpers and a pair of small air intakes instead of the more usual single, central intake. The customer wanted to go bumperless and have the single intake, but we saved the bumpers and intakes, so the car can easily be returned to original.
‘Once we started taking the body down to bare metal, we could see the back of the car had been painted before and also suffered some damage. The bodywork was so thin it had started to crack in places, too. The material used for the GT’s bodywork was thinner-gauge to save weight. If you rub it down to shape it, you can be through the metal before you know it, so you have to be ultra-careful, especially at the top of the rear wings [known as ‘Cathedral arches’ due to their spire-like points]. That’s where this car’s bodywork was cracking. If a GT has had any accident damage you usually end up making a new section of panel and welding it into place. There’s no other way, really.’
While the bodywork, engine and transmission are being worked on in dedicated areas of RS Williams’ Cobham premises, Mac and the boys focus on meticulously dismantling, refurbishing and rebuilding all the remaining components. Those parts that can’t be fettled or bought from Aston Martin are fabricated in-house. It’s a painstaking process that can take three or four months to complete.
Left and right. Classic combination: Avon Turbosteels on Borrani wires with three-eared spinners. The shorter wheelbase (by 5in) gave the GT its pugilistic aura.
Once fabrication, preparation and painting of the body and chassis are completed (over a period of five to six months), Mac can begin the task of rebuilding what surely must be the ultimate DB4 GT model kit: better-than-new parts waiting to be reunited with better-than-new bodyshell. It’s a labour of love that upon completion fosters mixed emotions amongst the RS Williams team – immense pride at what’s been achieved, but also a certain sense of loss. ‘It’s like a part of your life leaving you when the customer comes to collect their car,’ says Mac, wistfully. With so much emotional energy invested into every project, that’s no great surprise, but the results are spectacular, as we’re about to discover.
Reverence. Awed silence. Deep, unholy lust. Call it what you will. The moment you see a car of this quality is something you won’t forget in a hurry. No wonder Mac prefers to let the cars do the talking. It’s a real honour to be allowed to drive a car like this, not least because the trusting owner is yet to drive it himself. In fact, our test drive to Goodwood and back will actually speed that process a little, for only when Mac and RS Williams managing director Neil Thompson are 100 per cent happy will they hand the car over. Our test is another small step towards that momentous sign-off. It’s a tough job, etc.
Those soaring cathedral lights are aptly named, for they suggest the DB4 GT is a place of worship. If you put your faith in the gods of Newport Pagnell (and Cobham), that’s exactly what it is. Open the door, settle into the plump leather seat and pause to let the silence and the beauty of your surroundings soak in. Then savour the moment as you finally reach for the small key dangling from the dashboard, and smile as the engine catches with a snort and quickly settles into a smooth, potent idle.
It’s wonderful in here. The roof headlining has recessed panels that look like sunroof apertures but serve the purpose of increasing headroom. There are no door mirrors, nor regular seatbelts, as we’ve unclipped them for the photos. It feels a bit disconcerting to drive ‘naked’ as you feel pretty vulnerable without the comforting embrace of a belt on your shoulder, but it certainly completes what is a vivid snapshot of the more carefree days of the late ’50s and early ’60s. I really ought to be smoking a Wills Woodbine for full devil-may-care effect.
The view down the bonnet is beautiful and evocative, the smooth arc of the full-length bonnet scoop encased in a glassy carapace of flawless silver paintwork, while just ahead of you sits a beautiful array of immaculately restored Smiths gauges set neatly into the Pearl Black dashboard.
The engine – fully rebuilt and uprated – is an absolute masterpiece. The bank of Weber carbs snort gruffly around town; impatient but not intolerant of small throttle openings. A bank of SUs would display better manners, but they wouldn’t deliver the occasion or the emphatic response when you floor the throttle. Their softer nature certainly wouldn’t suit the GT.
Mindful that we’re in a car worth circa £3 million and yet to be delivered to its owner, it seems prudent not to work it too hard, but the occasional foray into the upper reaches of the rev range is, frankly, irresistible. Thus stretched, it really does romp down the road, pulling hard and smooth to the 6000rpm redline. That sounds like a modest limit by today’s standards, but, as there’s plenty of poke all the way from 2500rpm, you never want for more. In truth it has such breadth of performance you simply don’t need to wring its neck, though since need and want are two very different things it’s good to know this mighty straight-six has all bases covered.
The gearshift responds best to firm, accurate inputs. It has a tight, short throw and a slightly knuckly quality as each gear engages that’s wonderfully mechanical. The Bakelite gearknob sits satisfyingly in the palm of your hand, small and smooth like the hilt of a walking cane, and it’s incredibly satisfying to blip-blip down through the gearbox as you roll your right foot across from floorhinged brake to polished organ-pedal throttle. If you love to be part of the process, this is what driving is all about.
Above. This car has had its engine breathed on by RS Williams but its enhanced performance is very much in keeping with the DB4 GT’s essential character. In short, it’s an absolute joy to drive.
You sense the GT’s shorter wheelbase in everything it does. Glance over your shoulder and the C-pillars are close enough to touch; turn the steering wheel and you feel it’s keener to turn in and more nimble through the corners than a regular DB4 or 5. This is a DB with added agility and a hunger for corners, though I’m sure it would be a bit more of a handful if you were to brim the huge 110-litre tank that occupies almost the entirety of the boot.
Thanks to that inherent agility, plus the RS Williams tweaks to the roll centre and anti-roll bar thickness and the careful attention paid to corner weights and set-up, the seats are a bit too flat to hold you against the cornering forces. Carry speed through a sequence of corners and you find yourself holding onto the steering wheel for support, which is never ideal. A pair of DB4 Zagato buckets would do a much better job, but would doubtless incur the wrath of the originality fundamentalists.
The brakes – bigger in GT spec than a regular model’s – remain unservoed. They’re up to the job; in fact they’re very impressive for a car of this age, but you need to make allowances if you’ve stepped from a 21st Century performance car. The upside is fabulous feel and progression. There’s stopping power beneath your foot without you having to stand on the pedal, but if you need more retardation you simply squeeze harder and deeper into the firm, feelsome pedal. It’s sweetly judged stuff.
I can’t speak with authority on what this exquisite and sympathetically amplified DB4 GT offers over a freshly restored but completely stock example, simply because I haven’t driven one. Still, I’m sure it’s fair to assume that while this car offers considerably more – and, perhaps crucially, moreaccessible – performance, the essence of the original car remains very much intact. Sharp, keen and intense, it’s a DB4 with more urgency and athleticism. What I can tell you, absolutely and without hesitation, is that it’s as good to drive as it is to look at, which, as you can see, is pretty darned special.
Whether or not a car as significant as a DB4 GT should deviate from factory standard is the hottest of hot potatoes in the classic car world. The purist in me respects those for whom factory standard is the gold standard. I understand why they believe cars of such rarity should remain as they were in period. But when I reflect on the fact that this particular customer has owned and enjoyed driving this car (in period specification) for the last ten years, then spent upwards of £300,000 having it restored and, yes, improved, with the express intention of enjoying it for at least another decade, the enthusiast in me rejoices.
Good on him, I say. To do anything less with a DB4 GT – one of the most exciting and charismatic Aston Martin road cars of all time – would surely be a travesty. As I’ve finally discovered, there’s only one thing better than looking at a DB4 GT. And that’s driving one.
‘ONE OF THE MOST EXCITING AND CHARISMATIC ASTON MARTIN ROAD CARS OF ALL TIME…’
TECHNICAL DATA 1960 ASTON MARTIN DB4 GT
ENGINE In-line 6-cyl, 3670cc
MAX POWER 302bhp @ 6000rpm
MAX TORQUE 240lb ft @ 5000rpm (all figures for standard specification)
TRANSMISSION Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential
SUSPENSION Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: live axle, trailing arms, Watt’s linkage, lever-arm dampers
BRAKES Solid discs, 305mm front, 270mm rear
WHEELS 5 x 16in front and rear
TYRES 600 x 16 front and rear
POWER TO WEIGHT 242bhp/ton
TOP SPEED 153mph
PRICE NEW £4668 in 1960 (£97,664 in today’s 2016 money)
‘SOMETHING ABOUT THE GT’S STANCE BETRAYS ITS PURPOSE AS A NO-NONSENSE ROAD-RACER’