DB4-play Road-test pilot Ben Barry gets intimate with a DB4 Vantage Series 5 as he takes it on a whistlestop tour through Aston country. DB4 Vantage On tour through Aston country Endowed with Vantage upgrades in period, this Aston Martin DB4 Series 5 is our chosen partner for a whistle-stop tour of Aston country. Time to fire up the straight-six. Words Ben Barry. Photography Alex Tapley.
Ben Barry finds the perfect Vantage point from which to view Aston country.
Feel how much heavier this World War Two British machine gun is than the German one,’ offers Desmond J Smail. This curious invitation is one I’m presented with shortly after arriving at one of the UK’s leading independent Aston Martin specialists, based in Olney, Buckinghamshire. The nerve centre of Desmond’s eponymous business is a treasuretrove of an office, but for now I’ve got some serious ground to cover and a hectic schedule to adhere to. I’ll be doing it all in one of Smail’s own Aston DB4s.
Just 1204 DB4s were built in total, and ‘my’ car is one of only 90 series 5 models to be fitted with the more powerful Vantage engine. This added three SU carburettors to Tadek Marek’s 3.7-litre straight-six, along with a revised cylinder head with larger valves and a higher compression ratio. Power increased from 240bhp to 266bhp, and externally these Series 5 Vantages are differentiated by the faired-in headlights shared with the short-wheelbase DB4 GT, and the later DB5 and DB6.
‘The gearlever slips easily through the gate with a clink, like sherry glasses being lightly tapped together’
The DB4 will transport me over 100 miles on a figure-of-eight route that loops across country, crawls through market towns and lets me stretch its legs on the motorway. Along the way I’ll drop in at Langford Performance Engineering, and show my face at Aston Martin headquarters, Gaydon, before high-tailing it along the Fosse Way, a challenging road on which modern Astons are tested today. Finally, I’ll return to Desmond’s to have a poke around the premises.
Smail hands me the keys, and I walk out to the car park full of nervous expectation. This is a beautifully original car, one that wears its five decades lightly while recounting the stories of all those years – the stone chips that are delicately touched in with original Desert White paint under the front grille, and the black Connolly leather with light tortoiseshell creases like laughter lines.
Smail explains how the Aston scene has evolved; Ben’s curious about the picture top right. Smail’s faithful DB4 GT Zagato recreation takes shape. DB4 GT’s crude face transplant undergoes corrective surgery. DB6 popular in ‘Bond’ Silver Birch. Dick Langford explains how F1 expertise can be transferred to old Astons. Ben meets Aston’s new engineering whiz, former Lotus man Matt Becker. A Newport Pagnell icon visits the replanted roots of the family tree. Revised rear light clusters with individual reverse lights and reflectors in the bumper tell you it’s a Series 5. Vantage upgrade brought triple SU carbs and an extra 26bhp. Soft handling forces you to relax into it.
The driver’s door swings open, and I sink down into the plump leather seats. They’re already positioned low on the floor, but gravity takes me a good couple of inches further as I settle into the deeply padded cushions. Ahead there’s a broad three-spoke leather steering wheel, a slender gearstick – autos were also available – and a long bonnet that leads off into the distance.
I turn the key in the centre of the dash and the straight-six quickly fires, settling smoothly to a warm, cultured idle. I can’t say I feel entirely at ease at piloting half a million quid’s worth of Aston down the network of narrow back streets that lead from the car park, but this DB4 proves easy enough to pootle around in. The clutch is relatively heavy but eases up progressively, and the engine is so tractable you need barely any revs to pull away. I slide the gearlever into the second of its four ratios, and it slips easily through the gate with a clink, rather like sherry glasses being lightly tapped together.
I edge south out of Olney on the A509, skirting past Newport Pagnell, the former home of Aston Martin, and on through Milton Keynes, which hadn’t even been invented when this car first rolled out of the factory. Then I’m out into some wide-open space on the A422, heading towards Banbury.
It’s the Aston’s engine you fall in love with first. It sounds potent and willing whatever the revs, and responds eagerly to every burst of throttle. But squeeze it past just 2000rpm and it takes on an even more determined blare, the exhaust note soaring like there’s a brass section balanced over the front axle and playing their hearts out. Keep the long-travel accelerator pushed into the carpet and the revs quickly wind beyond 5000rpm, the noise and speed amplifying exponentially. Press the clutch, slice back that gearlever, and all the fury repeats itself over again.
It’s a great engine, one that was already optimised for motor sport in the day. All aluminium, it features double overhead cams and was first raced in the DBR2 in 1957. It helped the DB4 become the first production car to record a sub-30-second 0-100-0mph run.
As we head further west, so the A422 becomes more challenging. It bucks constantly across the landscape, riding over crests, the arc of corners sometimes tightening as the road tumbles back into compressions. It’s an early reminder that as much as the DB4 has the power to blitz past modern traffic, the chassis is a weaker link in the chain. Head into a corner and the steering – feelsome though it is – suddenly feels a bit too leisurely to respond, and there’s a lull as the weight of the body topples over the outside wheels. Thankfully the brakes are servo’d and there are discs all round, providing stopping power that’s almost – almost! – a match for the power.
Eventually I start to feel more at ease, remembering to apply more steering earlier, and to expect the delayed weight transfer. I wind back the pace a little, and just enjoy driving a car this evocative – blipping the throttle on downshifts to match the revs at every opportunity, feeling the large woodrim steering wheel shift around lightly in my palms.
At Banbury I take the M40 up to Gaydon, slotting the DB4 into fourth and flicking the overdrive toggle to relax the revs a little. I cruise at 70mph, modern traffic swarming all around for a closer look: even the driver of a BMW i3 offers us a thumbs-up.
Off the M40 and I head past the Heritage Motor Centre, then swing in down Aston Martin’s long drive. Aston has been based here since 2003; the cars are built here, new boss Andy Palmer comes to work here, and so too does chief engineer Matt Becker, who recently joined after a lengthy career at Lotus, where he followed in his father Roger’s footsteps.
He walks out of the main building with a huge smile on seeing the DB4 and quickly jumps inside. Becker has just finished work on the new DB11, which follows in the DB4’s tyre tracks half-a-century later. He admits that while the old-timers aren’t really a consideration in development these days, they do still play a role. Aston Martin has recently announced the DB4 GT continuation programme of which 25 will be built, and Becker will feed into development at some point. These new cars will cost £1.5m.
Becker also reveals that he recently spent a day with legendary F1 engineer Adrian Newey, the pair driving a selection of Astons including Newey’s own DB4 GT, incidentally bought from Smail. ‘It was a chance for us to find some common ground ahead of working on the AM-RB001 hyper-car,’ reveals Becker. ‘Adrian likes a mechanical feel from his car, so it’s combining that with all the high-tech systems.’
No matter where that car is tested it’ll also be assessed on the nearby Fosse Way, just like all modern Astons. ‘There are some great sections for low-speed ride, some higher-speed stretches, and also a lot of heave moments – the big compressions,’ says Becker, gesturing to show the forces exerted. ‘It’s a great test for the chassis.’
Turn left out of Aston Martin and you pick up the Fosse Way with a left at the first roundabout. Again the DB4 is dominated by its engine and again the chassis feels a little floaty, but by now I’m far more at ease, and I flow down this challenging route, squeezing the brakes as the road tangles and falls, pushing the throttle to the floor as corners ease into straights. I can’t help but wonder what Becker could do with a car like this, giving Harold Beach’s original chassis a little more composure while retaining its original character and compliance. It’d be a great combination, and no doubt something we’ll experience on those continuation DB4 GTs that will start arriving at their new homes this year.
I head back towards Banbury, then off on the A43 through Northampton and on towards Wellingborough as the winter afternoon light begins to fade to darkness.
On the edge of town I park up at Langford Performance Engineering to meet boss Dick Langford. Where Smail’s workshops once undertook all engine rebuilds but subcontracted machining, all work is now outsourced to Langford.
That’s unsurprising when he modestly recounts his impressive CV. After working for Mike Costin and Keith Duckworth at Cosworth Langford struck out on his own, but continued to produce Cosworth V10 F1 engines. He supplied DFR engines to Ligier, Tyrrell and Onyx; HB F1 engines to Jordan, Lotus, Fondmetal and Simtek. He’s partnered with Desmond J Smail for the past three years. ‘I kept driving past Desmond’s showroom in Olney thinking I really must go in and introduce myself,’ he remembers. ‘A few years back I did, he gave me an engine to do and we’ve been working together ever since.’
Several examples of straight-sixes similar to our DB4’s are currently in build on the clean, orderly workbenches. As standard, these engines grew from 3.7 litres in the DB4 to 4.0 litres in DB5 and 6 models. While some customers do prefer originality, it’s surprising to learn that eight out of ten opt for Langford’s 4.2-litre conversion with around 280bhp/290lb ft. ‘It’s smooth and very driveable with lots of torque,’ he says.
The 4.7-litre six is Langford’s ultimate specification, and involves some serious re-engineering. ‘We use Arrow conrods, lighter pistons and an all-new billet crankshaft to get the larger capacity and make the engine even more responsive,’ explains Langford. Power rises to 335bhp with 345lb ft torque, and I’m assured the original engine’s inherent refinement and flexibility is retained.
‘Modern traffic swarms all around for a closer look: even the driver of an all-electric BMW i3 offers a thumbs-up’
There’s even one unit that appears to be running triple Weber carbs, but is actually fuel-injected – the Webers are effectively just air intakes, while the fuel-injection rail is plumbed into the intake manifold and hidden below. Clever. All engines are tested on the same 20,000rpm dyno that Langford used for running F1 engines, with owners invited to attend and receive a video of the run. So far, an estimated 25-30 engines have been completed since the partnership began.
We say our goodbyes and I make the short, eight-mile trip back to Olney. Smail welcomes me back, and I apologise for the hours I’ve been away and the rack of miles I’ve just added to his car.
‘I prefer to see them used,’ comes the reply. ‘Ten years ago owners would use an Aston more, but since values have gone up they tend to get mollycoddled. Driving them is what it’s all about.’ As we leave the DB4 to tick cool, Desmond opens the green wooden door to the tiny workshop. Inside sits one of 75 Aston Martin DB4 GTs, once raced, crashed and bodged with a DB5 front end in the United States, but now deep into a year-long, ground-up restoration that will return it to its original configuration.
When Smail first opened that garage door in 1984, he was a 24-year-old mechanic on the rebound from redundancy having started as a trainee with Aston specialist Peter Austen Smith.
Smail soon began to specialise in Astons himself, and has since sold hundreds and restored approximately 150. He estimates the DB4 GT was worth £16k back then; you’d pay £2.5-£3m now. And yet, in some ways, little has changed. ‘Only the toolboxes are bigger these days,’ he jokes.
Over the same period Smail’s business has blossomed almost beyond recognition. He’s one of the UK’s leading independent Aston Martin specialists, with sales, servicing and restoration of post-1958 models and a queue of customers who, as Smail has it, ‘tend to come back’. Also incorporating Aston Sales Kensington and Aston Service London, the company now has 28 employees.
‘We test the DB4’s chassis on the Fosse Way, where Aston’s engineers assess its descendants’
Despite the growth and the change it has inevitably brought, the strongest of links with tradition persist. When Aston Martin closed its production line at nearby Newport Pagnell, Smail recruited many of its staff. And when you walk up the green metal stairs from that original workshop, the tools of a trimmer’s trade lay strewn across a table – among them a bottle of wine, its label specially dedicated to Joe Dorrill, wishing him well on his 80th birthday. He’s part-time and away today, but Dorrill was born in Newport Pagnell, began work at Aston in 1960, and trimmed Bond’s Goldfinger DB5. If you lift the rear seat cushion on a pre-1984 Aston and find a ‘301’, Dorrill trimmed it.
‘Little has changed – only the tool boxes are bigger these days’
That same small workshop now leads into another some ten times larger. Inside, Sixties Astons await attention from bustling mechanics – a plum DB4 has been sent in by a client based in the Cayman Islands, and I swoon over a silver DB6 with Smail’s popular 4.2-litre-capacity engine. The perfect blue DB6 Mk2 came in for interior refurbishment 20 years ago, returning recently for another interior spruce-up.
A separate room holds a project that’s particularly close to Smail’s heart: a DB4 GT Zagato recreation engineered to his own spec. The aluminium body is made by Bodylines of Olney – as are all Smail’s replacement panels and floorpans – the straight-six engine is one of Langford’s, and everything is hand-fabricated as close as possible to original Zagato specification, right down to the seat frames and window mechanisms. The aluminium dashboard alone accounts for two weeks of the build. But there’s also aircon, power steering and a modern six-speed gearbox.
‘Values of the real thing are now £8-£10m,’ says Smail. ‘This’ll be closer to £1m.’
The hardest project he’s ever undertaken was a DB4 convertible that broke in half when he loaded it on to the trailer, though the restoration was still successfully completed. Most recently he’s restored a short-wheelbase DB6 Volante, which won the Aston Martin Owners’ Club concours award in September.
A few minutes’ walk down the road, Smail’s showroom displays a 1966 DB6 Vantage Volante, one of only 50 Vanquish S Ultimate Editions produced in 2007, and a modern Vantage GT2 racer. The latter is a nod to his passion for motor sport. Framed pictures recount his drive with World Touring Car star Rob Huff at the Goodwood Revival, and show a Smail-prepared DB5 that finished 11th on the 1997 Paris-Peking rally. I then lap up tales of him heroically taking a DB6 to the North Pole on the Arctic Winter Trial in 2003. With the tour at an end, Desmond’s about to embark on another journey – dashing off to London in his 185,000-mile 2002 Vanquish for dinner with a client who’s flown in from Hong Kong. It’s all a long way from the 20-something mechanic scratching a living in 1984, but the passion, the dedication and that little workshop round the back seem little changed.
Desmond J Smail is currently offering this Aston DB4 for £495,000.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE 1962 Aston Martin DB4 Series 5 Vantage
Engine 3670cc, straight-six dohc, triple SU carburettors
Power and torque 266bhp @ 5750rpm; 255lb ft @ 4200rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion Suspension Front: independent, with wishbones, coil springs/telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: live rear axle, coil springs, lever-arm dampers
Brakes Discs front and rear, servo Assistance
Weight 1308kg (2884lb)
Fuel consumption 17mpg (est)
Cost new £3976
Values now £300,000-£650,000