Ambition and agony. In the early 1950s, David Brown hatched plans for a V12-engined race car to beat Ferrari at Le Mans. This is the story of what might have been. Words Stephen Archer. Studio photography Antony Fraser.
LOOKING BACK – ASTON’S FIRST V12
LAGONDA V12 RACER In the ’50s, David Brown commissioned a V12 to beat Ferrari. It didn’t go well…
The aim couldn’t have been clearer. I want us to build a racing car that can take on the big-engined Ferraris,’ said David Brown. At the time, Aston Martin had no real basis for such a car so this was a huge ambition, but then ambition was never something Brown lacked. What follows is a salutary tale, but also evidence of the immense skills and capability that would lead Aston Martin to its many successes – with other cars. Success rarely comes without heartache along the way and the V12-engined Lagonda provided plenty of that.
Brown had bought Lagonda in 1947, chiefly to acquire the WO Bentley and Willie Watson-created LB6 (Lagonda Bentley) 6-cylinder engine that would later power the DB2. But there was more to the acquisition than the engine. Lagonda was once a marque spoken of in the same breath as Bentley for its grand style and pace. If Aston Martin was transport for the gentleman, then Lagonda was the carriage of the aristocracy.
‘DENNIS POORE CLOCKED 172MPH ON THE MULSANNE IN PRACTICE FOR LE MANS’
To David Brown it was a name worth building upon, and with the company also came some fine technicians plus the much under-appreciated body designer, Frank Feeley, who went on to design all Astons and Lagondas up to the DB4. (It’s easy to forget that from 1950 to 1963 Lagonda models sold in good numbers and the marques were of more equal prominence than they are today.) What’s more, Lagonda also had a good pre-war racing heritage, having won Le Mans, and so reviving the Lagonda name on a racing car made sense – especially if a new, large-capacity engine could be used in a road car as well.
While David Brown was the patron, the architects of the car were Robert Eberan von Eberhorst for the chassis, Willie Watson for the engine (Watson having been hired for the project in 1952) and Frank Feeley the body. The brief was simple: to build a Ferrari-beater, a car that could run at the very front at Le Mans and the other major events, for which it would require a new engine of at least 4.5 litres capacity, power of over 350bhp and the potential to be a road engine. On paper, the power target should have been achievable because the engine was quite advanced. It was certainly an imposing looking thing.
‘THE V12 HAD TO HAVE 350BHP-PLUS – AND THE POTENTIAL TO BE A ROAD CAR ENGINE’
The thinking was to derive the V12 design from that of the LB6, so essentially two LB6s arranged in a ‘V’. But, unlike the LB6, there would be no use of iron in this new ‘DP100’ engine. The heads were alloy with two overhead cams per bank and twin plugs fired by Scintilla magnetos, with three 40mm four-choke downdraft Webers sitting in the ‘V’ of the engine. The crankcase was alloy, too, and this was the first post-war Aston design with dry sump lubrication. It had a modern short stroke of 69mm to allow it to achieve higher revs and therefore power.
It all sounds so good, but now to the ‘but’. The engine carried over the LB6’s lower crankcase design with its seven ‘cheeses’ sandwiching the crankshaft main bearings, this arrangement being inserted into the very strong block as a single assembly from one end. Whereas the iron block kept the aluminium cheeses in place when the latter expanded more with heat, the aluminium block could not do this. As a result, the bearings ‘grew’ away from the crankshaft with heat, which meant a consequent loss of oil pressure. This is undesirable in any car but in a racing car it is, as we shall see, a big problem.
It was anticipated that power would be 350-375bhp at 7500rpm. But from the outset the engine was handicapped by its oil pressure issues, forcing the revs to be capped at 6000, at which point peak power was only 312bhp. By the end of 1952 the engine had consumed 7400 man-hours and been tested to 7700rpm but the restriction had to stay.
The engine sat in a chassis based on that of the 1953 DB3S, the work of Eberan von Eberhorst, a German refugee who had designed much of the pre-war Auto Union GP cars. The DB2, DB3 and DB3S inherited their trailing-arm front suspension with highly efficient and compact torsion bars, and the Lagonda had the same. The wheelbase was lengthened from 87in to 100in, which led to a loss of rigidity – unhelpful in such a heavy (1140kg) and powerful car. The all-round drum brakes were assisted by a Plessey servo that operated from the back of the gearbox and was mated to a Jaguar-type full-flow hydraulic system. This power assistance only operated on the front brakes but the rears were larger to compensate.
The gearbox was the David Brown S532 five-speed unit, which later gave very good service in the DBR2 and DP212. Built at the group’s Park Works, it was in fact derived from a Mercedes-Benz design (just one example of how British industry enjoyed many technical advances thanks to the sharing of German technology after the war). The differential was a ZF unit with limited-slip and sat inside the de Dion suspension. Frank Feeley then clothed the car in a DB3S-style body, albeit rather larger and with a three- piece front grille, later enlarged to a one-piece item to allow more air in to try to cool the engine.
The V12 Lagonda, known as DP115, was first tested around March 1954 at Chalgrove airfield in Oxfordshire, with Brown himself the first to drive the car. At some point there was an engine fire. As team director John Wyer, who was never a fan of the Lagonda, later put it in typically caustic fashion: ‘Nobody was hurt and the car, unhappily, also escaped serious injury.’
DP115/l’s racing debut was at Silverstone in May 1954 where in Reg Parnell’s hands it finished 5th. A decent result but the pace was modest and crucially the oil pressure was low; revs had to be cut to help the engine last even this short race. Next would be the rather more demanding Le Mans 24 Hours…
The plan was to build two cars for Le Mans but with two new DB3S Coupes also being built for the race plus a supercharged DB3S it was another act of great ambition and perhaps over-commitment. The supercharged DB3S ran rapidly but the engine failed; both Coupes were wrecked in accidents and the final DB3S entry had axle failure. The sole Lagonda had never really hit its stride when Eric Thompson backed it into the bank in the Esses. He got the mangled car back to the pits after two hours but it was retired, officially due to a rear light being broken. One suspects that Wyer preferred to prevent any more embarrassment and called it a day rather than try to press on and fail again in a bent car. The one high point was Thompson’s co-driver, Dennis Poore, clocking 172mph on the Mulsanne in practice. Wyer simply described 1954 as ‘a complete disaster’.
In fact Le Mans was so distressing that Wyer had a breakdown on his return and was not intending to field an entry at the British GP support race a month later due to a lack of useable cars. But Brown’s view was that ‘this is the time when you get back into a race as quickly as you can’. So it was that at Silverstone the works DB3Ss came 1st, 2nd and 3rd with the second Lagonda, DP115/2, now featuring a strengthened chassis, a strong 4th. Morale was restored and the gloss put back on Aston’s image.
For 1955, Wyer’s plan was to do ‘more with less’, but Brown was keen to prove that the Lagonda could be a success and see a return on his substantial investment. An engine redesign was not possible in the time or with the budget, so the emphasis was placed on the outdated ladder-type chassis, which was replaced by a central-backbone spaceframe designed by Willie Watson and Ted Cutting. Disc brakes were fitted all-round and the body was evolved to incorporate a tilting front end for easier access to the substantial engine. The VI2 itself had tighter bearings fitted to reduce the expansion issue but this necessitated the water and oil being pre-heated to enable the engine to turn. This is not unknown on racing cars but was hardly a solution for a road car, which had been Brown’s dream, now rapidly-receding.
The new car, DP166/1, appeared only at Le Mans in 1955. It was retired after 93 laps with a fuel leak caused by a careless ACO ‘plombeur’ but its oil pressure had been plummeting and it’s unlikely it would have lasted the distance anyway. With the DBR1 planned for 1956 and plenty of other projects in hand, the Lagonda was allowed to retire quietly. DP166/1 was dismantled and its chassis, along with two other DPI 66 chassis frames, gathered dust until 1957 when they would form the basis of the rather more successful DBR2s.
The two 1954 Lagondas, DP115 /1 with a new chassis fitted and DP115/2, were later pressed into service to star in the movie Checkpoint, which was filmed during the 1956 Mille Miglia. After filming, they were sold to George Abecassis, who in turn sold them to Noel Cunningham-Reid and ‘Jumbo’ Goddard, who raced them in minor UK events. Both cars and associated spares were acquired in the 1960s by Maurice Leo, who campaigned them in club events. Recently the two cars passed to a new owner and both are currently being restored in the UK.
In recent years a third Lagonda has been seen competing with great success in the hands of Darren McWhirter. This fine car – pictured on these pages – runs as DP155/R (R for recreation) and uses many original parts. The body is said to be the one that ran at Le Mans in 1954 and was traced to someone who had salvaged it from a scrapyard in London many moons ago; at one point it had been fitted to a Tojeiro chassis. An original engine was found in a Jensen 541 (!) and the chassis was built to factory drawings. With the help of Ted Cutting, the engine underwent much reworking with more modern treatment of the top end and crucially the main bearings being mounted on conventional caps rather than the ‘cheeses’. Now the engine delivers the originally hoped-for 360bhp and the car has many race victories to its name.
So, the V12 Lagonda is a tale of grand ambition, mixed fortune, and sadly too little to celebrate, though it did lead to the DBR2. David Brown was disappointed in the racing venture but perhaps even more so that the magnificent engine could not be used in a road-going Lagonda GT. But then John Wyer may well have cautioned that if a Lagonda were faster than an Aston, it might harm the latter’s sales. Having heard the 1954 cars running unsilenced in the 1960s, I can attest that a road car with that engine would have been rather special. Another ‘what if’ to ponder in Aston Martin’s extraordinary history.
ENGINE V12, 4486cc
MAX POWER 312bhp @ 6000rpm (in period; this car now c360bhp)
MAX TORQUE n/a
TRANSMISSION Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential
SUSPENSION Front: independent, trailing arms, torsion bars, lever arm dampers. Rear: live axle with de Dion tube, trailing links, torsion bars, telescopic dampers
STEERING Worm-and-roller, unassisted
BRAKES Drums front and rear
WHEELS 6 x 16in, wire-spoke
TYRES 600 x 16 Dunlop Racing
POWER TO WEIGHT 278bhp/ton
TOP SPEED c170mph
Below: modern harness and roll protection for this car, which has raced regularly in recent years Left and below: The V12 nestles between the massive legs of the stretched DB3S chassis and, below, with the early bodywork in place (well, most of it). Three-grille front would become one larger grille to help cooling. Main image: this car created around one of the original engines and a body believed to be from the car that crashed at Le Mans in 1954.
Above and left: Lagonda 4.5-litre V12 engine on the test bed at Feltham. It would be installed in a chassis adapted from that of the Aston DB3S and given very similar – and very pretty – bodywork by Frank Feeley. Above right: That’s Eric Thompson, hammering away at the crumpled bodywork, as cars hurtle past just feet away. The V12 Lagonda was bigger and heavier and its chassis not as stiff as the DB3S’s, which made it somewhat less wieldy. Far right Viper’s nest of plug leads from twin distributors. Opposite and this page: ‘Would you like the bad news, or the slightly less worse news?’ Eric Thompson on the phone to the pits after crashing DP155/1 in the 1954 Le Mans 24 Hours. He would eventually get it back to the pits, but it was retired shortly after. Above: the V12 certainly looked the part with its triple four-choke Webers and four overhead camshafts.