No Mr Bond, I expect you to drive! Ahead of James Bond’s return, this is the story of 007 and Aston Martin, celluloid’s most enduring partners in crime-fighting. Words Richard Heseltine. Photography Olgun Kordal/MOVIESTILLSDB/GETTY/IMCDB
BOND’S ASTONS From DB5 to DBS V12, the cars that built the 007 legend
‘Never in motion-picture history has a fictional character been more closely associated with a brand than 007 and Aston Martin’
DOUBLE-OH HEAVEN Richard Heseltine packs his tuxedo and Walther PPK to play Bond in a quintet of Aston Martins with movie links.
The orange projectile looms large in the rear-view mirror. It’s a McLaren, and it’s being driven with gusto. It must be Ernst Stavro Blofeld, or one of his murderous henchmen. No matter, you have a licence to kill. Well, strictly speaking, it’s a TV licence, but you have a vivid imagination. In reality, you know perfectly well it isn’t gun-toting wrong ’uns that will kill you – it’s high cholesterol and checking your text messages while crossing the road – but back in the unreal world, you’re spoiling for a rumble. Yes, an Aston Martin DB5 is geriatric in comparison to a bleedingedge hypercar, but remember that time you bested Xenia Onatopp’s Ferrari F355 on the mountain roads above Monaco? You can do this. Actually, you can’t. It turns out the fuel gauge works after all, and we’re running on fumes. The chap in the McLaren waves in solidarity before disappearing into the distance. This never happened to the other fella. But then you’re not James Bond. No, you’re the idiot stranded on a test track in Surrey of a Wednesday wondering where the fuel filler cap release is located.
When confronted with a DB5 resplendent in Silver Birch, it’s hard not to look on in a state of emotional arousal. When that DB5 is accompanied by four of its descendants from the Bond canon, the impulse to romanticise is heightened all the more as memories of watching 007 on screens big and small blend and blur. Never in motion-picture history has a fictional character been more closely associated with a brand, and that connection has helped maintain Aston Martin’s standing on the world stage.
‘Like fiction’s most celebrated secret agent, Aston Martins represent a world that is alien to most but nevertheless embraced’
When the DB5 was ushered in at the 1963 British International Motor Show, the reflective glow of on-track success was starting to ebb. Into the breach stepped a new breed of Aston-driving righter of wrongs, and it wasn’t a comic-strip superhero. James Bond was flawed; a blunt instrument, but a suave one at that. What’s more, he was British to the core, a protagonist who in time would be played by Englishmen, a Scot, a Welshman, an Irishman and an Australian. The storybook Bond was first introduced to Aston Martin in Goldfinger. He was provided with a ‘battleship grey DB III’ by the secret service. Except in reality there was no such model, the assumption being that author Ian Fleming was referring to a DB MkIII coupé as opposed to a DB3 sports-racer.
In the 1964 movie adaptation, however, 007 was armed with the latest DB5, loaded to the gunwales with gadgets courtesy of special-effects guru John Stears. While the first film in the series, Dr No, had been a huge success, the second instalment caused a furore.
‘Our’ DB5 Vantage, fresh from restoration at Aston Martin Works, doesn’t come equipped with an ejector seat and assorted armaments, but it is a work of singular beauty. That said, it’s the cabin that feels particularly special. While the Federico Formenti-penned outline was of its time, the ambience inside is redolent of a different era. It could easily be from an earlier decade, the classic white-on-black Smiths instruments clustered in the signature fascia that mirrors the outline of the radiator grille. There are levels of comfort and civility here that befit a proper GT.
Autocar recorded 43mph in first gear and 66mph in second with a, cough, ‘media-friendly’ Vantage-spec DB5 in 1964. Driving somewhere south of ten-tenths, you can still make satisfying progress. The 3995cc straight-six sounds glorious, thanks to its twin-cam induction roar, and it has plenty of torque. It’s relaxed pulling from low down the rev range, which is for the best because you cannot hurry the ZF five-speed gearbox. The clutch is on the heavy side, too, as is the steering at low speeds. It loads up accurately on fast sweepers, but in tighter bends inputs are transmitted via your shoulders rather than your fingertips. It’s a physical car to drive, but a captivating one, nonetheless.
So is the DBS, but for different reasons. By the late ’60s there was a new Bond, as Sean Connery made way for used-car salesman turned model George Lazenby. Aston Martin, meanwhile, had undergone a metamorphosis of its own. When the DB6 was announced in 1965, its replacement was already in the throes of creation. However, styling partner Carrozzeria Touring was bleeding red ink and would soon founder.
Touring’s misfortune would prove a career-maker for stylist William Towns, who was instructed to follow the brief for a three-car range: a standard-length fastback (the DBS), a short-wheelbase coupé and a stretched four door.
Given the go-ahead in autumn 1966, the Midlander had a year in which to perfect the outline for the former. A prototype was up and running by July ’1967, the first of the DBS breed being given the firm’s enduring straight-six until the new V8 came on stream. A role in a Bond film for this latest strain of Aston was a PR boon. While Lazenby’s performance in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was mauled in period, it has been critically reappraised in recent decades.
He certainly mastered walking and talking without falling over, even if his decision to decline a seven-picture deal proved calamitous (the highpoint of his post-Bond career was a role in the Emmanuelle franchise). And though appearances of the gadget-free DBS were fleeting, its scenes in OHMSS bookended a narrative that begins with a suicide attempt and ends with the most downbeat finale in the Bond firmament.
‘Our’ DBS Vantage, in Bond-spec Olive Green, represents a heady blend of British sophistication and muscle-car brawn (Towns admitted to having been influenced by Detroit fare). Inside, it’s a world away from prior DB Astons with its rocker switches and deep-dish steering wheel. On the move, the DBS feels big – even if by modern standards it’s positively dainty. It sounds sublime under load, too. The familiar ‘six’ emits an aggressive bark from the back pipes that can only be blue-blooded. The car’s heft is all too obvious and the dog-leg five-speeder is lethargic, but the ratios are near perfect and the power-steering is light, with decent feedback through the wheel. The ride is firm without being harsh, too. It’s an urbane GT in the truest sense, and it’s utterly beguiling. So much so that you’re no longer running laps of a tree-lined circuit in the south of England. Instead, you’re chasing a Mercury Cougar along the Estrada do Guincho at dusk in pursuit of a beautiful, but troubled, countess.
The DBS V8 was belatedly launched in September 1969, but the sale of the firm to Company Developments in late ’1971 inevitably brought with it changes. The DBS tag was a casualty as the new keepers sought to exorcise the link to previous owner David Brown. Through seemingly endless turmoil, the ‘Towns’ Aston lived on until 1989 when it was finally replaced by the Virage, but not before it made one final appearance as a Bond vehicle. After Lazenby’s departure, his replacement Roger Moore went through 007’s ‘Lotus period’.
The fourth official Bond, Timothy Dalton, was a more caring, sharing – and less bed-hopping 007 – but a few genre staples remained. Nevertheless, the decision to use an Aston came late in the day. As such, there were inevitable problems sourcing vehicles (as many as 11 were used during filming, some of them mock-ups). At the beginning of 1987’s The Living Daylights, the car is introduced as a V8 Volante. It subsequently appears inside Q-branch being ‘winterised’ (being kitted out with a roof). In a later scene, the V8 sprouts skis, missiles, rocket propulsion and the mother of all kill switches…
Up close, this unarmed 1984 Vantage looks suitably menacing with its blanked-off grille and deep front spoiler, although ‘purposeful’ may be more apposite. Inside, it’s all burr walnut, burgundy leather and comfort, albeit with a few ergonomic quirks. Despite the wood and hide, this is no lounge lizard. It weighs in at around 1780kg, but it’s still brutally quick. In period, Fast Lane rocketed the demonstrator from rest to 100mph in 12.2 secs. Without trying too hard, forward thrust nevertheless seems relentless. The classic 5340cc bent-eight is smoothness itself, even if the gearchange is slow-witted.
The power-assisted steering here is superb, though, with plenty of feel through the thin-rimmed wheel. That said, you are always aware of the car’s bulk. It grips well, even if the enormity of the tyres inevitably leads to a degree of bump-thump over calloused asphalt. There is plenty of body roll but it doesn’t feel skittish, at least in the dry. It changes direction faster than you expect, too, though you could never accuse it of being nimble. Great fun, but never nimble. If rumours are true, the ‘Towns’ Aston is also to make a comeback as 007’s wheels of choice.
Pierce Brosnan’s fourth and final appearance as Bond in Die Another Day heralded the emergence of a new breed of Aston. Project Vantage wowed visitors to the ’1998 North American International Auto Show, and the production version of the Ian Callum-styled V12 Vanquish emerged at the 2001 Geneva Salon. It boasted the first carbonfibre crash structure to meet worldwide regulations, mated to the aluminium extrusions and sheet metal that formed the body. The car’s 5.9-litre engine was borrowed from the DB7 Vantage, but with what insiders called a ‘second-generation’ makeover. It produced 460bhp at 6500rpm, plus 400lb ft of torque at 5000rpm.
Autocar said it was ‘Britain’s finest supercar this side of a McLaren F1’. With a claimed top speed of 196mph, and 0-60mph time of 4.6 secs, there was little to touch it in its segment, but Aston Martin wasn’t done. The Vanquish S emerged at the 2004 Paris Salon with discreet styling tweaks and a hike in power to 514bhp, making it a genuine 200mph proposition. At no point, however, did Aston officially offer ‘adaptive camouflage’. In a nod to Bond’s DB5, the film version also boasted front-firing rockets and an ejector seat; 007 used the latter to great effect when he needed to right the ship after his car was tipped onto its roof on a frozen lake.
Meanwhile, back in Surrey… The Vanquish hasn’t lost the ability to thrill. This 2003 example is epically quick for something weighing 1845kg, but that’s not the surprising bit. That the Vanquish copes so well with changes of camber, direction and elevation is remarkable. Turn-in is ultra-precise, the speed-related, power-assisted steering being light at dawdling speeds but firm enough when it matters. The fly-by-wire paddleshift set-up works well when up and running, albeit with a slight ‘ker-klunk’ between changes when worked hard. The familiar knot in the stomach feeling you get when driving something really quick kicks in the moment the exhaust bypass valves open. It’s intoxicating.
The arrival of Daniel Craig for Casino Royale in 2006 brought with it a change of direction. That, and a new car. In much the same way as the Bond franchise got a 24-nodding, Bourne-winking reboot, Aston’s new flagship acknowledged the marque’s past without getting bogged down in historical reference points. The first model styled under Marek Reichman, the DBS V12 borrowed cues from the DBR9 and DBRS9 GT racers. Despite the lack of warpaint, the Le Mans orientation is palpable, not least in the front splitter, bonnet vents and aggressively bulging haunches. There is no olde-worlde charm here.
That isn’t to say there isn’t an element of craftsmanship: the 6-litre, 48-valve V12 was assembled by hand, and produces 510bhp at 6500rpm. Despite abusing the scales at 1696kg, the DBS sprints to 60mph in 4.3 secs and on to 191mph if the factory figures are to be believed – and there’s no reason not to. If nothing else, the DBS is certainly capable of outrunning Alfa Romeo 159s, as in Quantum of Solace.
With its undulating leather and Alcantara upholstery, brushed-aluminium centre console and chrome-laden switchgear, the DBS represented the essence of contemporary chic when it entered production in 2007. Upon inserting the ‘Emotion Control Unit’ (yes, really), a software-controlled blip signals your presence. Equipped with Aston’s Touchtronic transmission, gear swaps are immediate and barely perceptible, and there’s no driveline shunt when crawling. This is patently a gran turismo yet it steers with alacrity and the ride quality proves reasonably supple despite the massive 20in rims and ultralow-profile rubber. Play around with the DSC settings and it requires a certain degree of provocation to get it to do anything unruly. That, and bravery. This is a big car and, once it gets jiggy, you will need 007’s skillset to tame it.
When all is said and done, you could argue that James Bond is a venerable but irrelevant remnant of the past, yet that is to miss the point. 007’s spell has never diminished. The same is true of Aston Martin, which, like fiction’s most celebrated secret agent, represents a world that is alien to most but nevertheless embraced by the wider populace. These days, Bond driving anything other than an Aston seems unthinkable. So much so that the DB10 used in Spectre was built specifically for Bond (see panel). As to which of our Astons is the finest, it’s like arguing who was the best Bond. What is incontrovertible is that Connery set the template.
Similarly, every new Bond Aston – including the Valhalla, which is due to appear in next year’s No Time to Die – will be measured against the most famous car in film history. The DB5 has appeared in eight Bond flicks spanning 55 years, plus guest roles in everything from Cannonball Run to Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. (which also featured a cringe-inducing cameo from Lazenby). Its maker has even announced plans to produce 25 replicas: the appeal of Bond’s DB5 – like 007 himself – is unperishable.
Thanks to the Aston Martin Owners’ Club (www. amoc.com); Hexagon Classics for the V8 Vantage (www.hexagonclassics.com); Aston Martin Works for the DB5 (www.astonmartinworks.com)
From top: interior feels more bespoke than Vanquish; DBS name revived for new flagship; storming V12; Alfa pursues battered DBS in Quantum of Solace; aggressive super-GT. After the wilderness years, when Bond drove German, the Vanquish was a return to form. Inset: Zao’s Jaguar XK chases ‘invisible’ Aston. Below: cabin dips into Ford parts bin; V12 was loosely based on two Ford V6s. Clockwise from main: aggressive bespoilered nose; Aston dispatches chase Ladas in The Living Daylights; heavily updated cabin; mighty V8 offers 400bhp; slow ’box; Vantage promises quad Webers. Vantage chases its Towns-styled DBS predecessor. Left: the full Bond Aston collection, less the super-rare DB10, is soon to be added to with the Valhalla. Sleek shape by William Towns signalled a new era for Aston. Inset: George Lazenby takes the role for OHMSS. Above, clockwise: clean, spacious cabin; early cars had triple-carb ‘six’; vent gills in rear pillar. Clockwise from main: 007 links add to the allure of gorgeous shape; DB5 has starred in eight Bond films, here Thunderball; dash apes grille shape; glorious Tadek Marek-designed ‘six’; classic wires; famous badge.
FIVE TOP BOND BADDIES’ CARS
It was once the norm for movie cars to fall off a cliff and, if it was an exotic, chances are it would be swapped for something cheaper that looked similar. But a ’39 LaSalle hearse? In Dr No, Bond’s Sunbeam Alpine is chased up and down Jamaica’s Blue Mountains by the ‘Three Blind Mice’ in just such a vehicle, only for it to morph into a funereal Humber as it exits the road.
ROLLS-ROYCE PHANTOM III
Goldfinger remains one of the great Bond films, with Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) the prototype super-villain. But not for him some super-exotic. No, he had a Rolls-Royce with Barker Sedanca de Ville body and a chauffeur, Oddjob, who could do awful things with a razor-edge bowler hat. The Rolls was said to be made of gold, to be melted down after being smuggled abroad.
Surely the most grotesque car to appear in a Bond flick, the Corvorado in Live and Let Die featured a gun sited in its driver’s door mirror, which put a crimp in Roger Moore’s safari suit as he suddenly found himself in a car steered by a dead man. By Dunham Coach of New Jersey, the Corvorado clothed a Corvette chassis with Cadillac Eldorado panels; seven were made.
The Man with the Golden Gun was a lesson in product placement from AMC. Bond steals a red Hornet from a Bangkok dealership to chase multi-nippled assassin Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee). Cue that corkscrew jump before Lee’s AMC Matador coupé sprouts wings to turn into a plane. (Spoiler alert: it was in fact a radio-controlled model.)
The tragically stillborn Jaguar C-X75 made a surprise appearance in the 24th instalment of the franchise, Spectre. Aside from the fact that the car only ever existed in prototype form (the vehicles used were clones), you had to suspend disbelief that killer and man mountain ‘Mr Hinx’ (wrestler turned actor David Bautista) could even fit in the car, let alone drive it.
DRIVING THE DB BUILT FOR BOND
James Bond’s only bespoke car was a rebodied 4.7-litre Vantage with, at the insistence of Spectre director Sam Mendes, a manual ’box included. I say ‘a’ Vantage, but in fact 10 were made for the film and its promotion, and turned into everything from sacrificial stunt units to flawless hero cars. None was registered for the road, which meant driving the DB10 required a private test track. It looked stunning inside and out, though on closer acquaintance it wasn’t hard to spot that what you were looking at was a film prop, not a production car. Neither the windows nor the boot opened, and if you wanted to turn off the traction control you had to go ferreting around in the passenger footwell to find the switch.
But it drove as you’d expect. I even recall strapping some timing equipment to it to test my theory that, with more traction from fatter tyres and a lighter, all-carbonfibre body, it would actually be quicker than the Vantage from which it was derived. Fat chance: it also had a slightly slipping clutch and an inoperative rev-counter, so gearchanges had to be timed by ear. That and the fact I was driving a very rare and special car with a value best expressed in millions meant that I was rather gentler on it than I would be a production car. Even so, the 5.7 secs 0-60mph time achieved was so far from the 3.2 secs claimed for the car in the film, I wondered whether even if I’d been brutal it would have managed the 4.6 secs recorded by the Vantage. No matter – it was a privilege to drive and fun, too, because no one tried to limit what I did in it at all. But once I’d determined it was aerodynamically stable beyond 150mph and slid as easily as any other Vantage, I thought it best to give it back. Incurring the wrath of Q-branch by bending it was not a proposition I was prepared to countenance. Andrew Frankel