The List - Your dream drive made real Martin Gee likes the idea of a competition-honed Aston Martin tourer – he owns a V8 Vantage N400. How will he fare driving an ex-Monte Carlo Rally DB MkIII? Words: Emma Woodcock. Photography: Rob Cooper.
The List – Drive-My user/reader Martin Gee tries out an Aston Martin DB MkIII with a rallying past
‘This is not your average Aston’
Martin Gee is standing in front of a 1958 Aston Martin DB MkIII, staring. ‘It’s unmistakable. The grille, the dash, the overlay lines – they’re all styling cues that carry through to the DB4, 5 and 6. The proportions are just ideal – see a DB MkIII and you think, “this is a classic Fifties British sports car.”’
Owner Bruce Wellings is equally effusive. ‘I’ve always thought Astons were fantastic but the point is to drive them – and enjoy driving them.’ Today, we’ve arranged for Martin to do just that. Right now, however, all attention is on the car’s paperwork. When you read ‘2/1/1959: Monte Carlo rally plates fitted to front and rear of car’ and it’s clear that this example is special, even by MkIII standards. Bruce also reveals a single image from the car’s Monegasque adventure, unveiling a photograph of original owner Count Charles de Salis driving the Aston to class victory. The DB MkIII sports wing mirrors, a central grille-mounted spotlight, and rally plates with the number 103 but it’s indisputably the same car. ‘The history brings some extra weight to the day,’ says Martin, smiling. ‘Details like these add to the uniqueness of Bruce and his car. There’s a little bit of gravitas to match my anticipation.’
‘It turns the DB2/4 shape into something whose styling cues carry forward into the DB4, 5 and 6 ’
Back outside, Martin crunches to his knees, crouching prone as he inspects the single-piece bonnet. It’s not the first time he’s experienced the Aston up close – that came yesterday evening, when he and Bruce snuck into the garage. ‘Straight away, the car struck me. The DB MkIII is so much more beautiful in person. It’s the forerunner of so many Aston Martins. Bruce mentions that his car doesn’t look perfect – and it does have marks here and there – but I can’t agree. It’s the ideal grand tourer.”
‘Though it’s incredibly heavy at first, the steering is reasonably light now we’re travelling at higher speeds’
Early exposure has done nothing to dim today’s enthusiasm. ‘I woke up five times in the night – I knew I wouldn’t sleep! To spend time with the car today is little boy at Christmas stuff and very exciting.’ Conversation eddies to a halt, Martin breaking into a grin as he spots the telltale he’s been hunting. ‘There it is! That’s the hole where the Monte Carlo spotlight would have sat!’ The MkIII wears its beguiling history with pride in each scuff and spider line.
Under the bonnet, however, the 2922cc Lagonda inline-six is pristine. Originally designed by WO Bentley, it produces 162bhp in basic DBA specification and a claimed 178bhp with the optional twin-exit exhaust fitted to this car. Bruce has also worked with Four Ashes Garage to perfect the power unit, raising the compression ratio, adding a subtle oil cooler, and fitting a flowed and ported cylinder head, steel conrods and forged pistons. Says Martin, ‘It’s so tidy and they’re all modifications Iwould make myself.’
Better still, the as-original twin SU carburettors and polished cam covers give mechanically minded Martin a visual feast. ‘It’s beautifully put together and laid out. I’m entranced by the smallest mechanical details, like the way the plug leads arc individually through the head casting, really appeal.’
The offer of a short passenger ride snaps the DB MkIII into action. Crackling down the gravel driveway, Bruce behind the wheel of the car that’s he owned for 42 years, Martin is intently focused on each and every movement. ‘There’s a deliberate nature to Bruce’s driving,’ he comments. ‘It doesn’t take long to see how early he’s braking, how heavy the steering appears to be, how he’s deliberate with the gearshift. Above anything else, though, I’ll try to take his advice to just enjoy the moment!’
The Aston Martin soon comes to a halt, its Peony coachwork thrumming to a steady idle as Martin prepares to take over. As he emerges from the passenger door, a nervous smile catches his lips as he skirts around the boot. ‘I’ve owned a few cars that I thought were very nice – and I’ve been passionate about them – but to drive something this exceptional is something else. I’m in disbelief that there’s someone who owns such a thing of beauty and is prepared to let me take the reins. You can’t help but want it to go well!’ Before we pull away, Martin takes a moment to settle into the cabin. ‘You sit with horizontal legs, and I love that. Once you’ve brought the seat forwards, it’s a good driving position, though the pedals are offset to the right because of that large central tunnel. It’s easy to get comfortable here and more spacious than I ever expected; there’s certainly more space around the rear seats than I anticipated. The visibility is great too, thanks to the slim pillars. You can see exactly where the corners of the car are, and I’m confident in exactly where the rear hatchback ends.
‘The period features add to the interior too,’ Martin continues. ‘It’s little things like the Perspex sunvisors, the extra piece of glass that’s worked into the quarterlights and the single, central rear view mirror. You can see the join, the connection around the edge, and there’s a real sense of history to looking in it.’ As he sits in the fixed back bucket seat, relaxing into the cracked, black Connolly leather, it’s history that once again intoxicates Martin. ‘The fact that it’s all so original stands out above everything else. It’s so nice to know that this is still the interior this car had 61 years ago.’ First gear slots into place, Martin eases the clutch through its bite point and the Aston glides away into Woodton, flanked on both sides by the brown-yellow of a maturing harvest. ‘It’s the noise that strikes you first. There’s gear whine as you pull away, then there’s just this nice burble.’ Heavy, round and bass-led, the exhaust note quickly permeates the cabin but it’s not the only thing to impress Martin. ‘There’s real torque here. It’s tractable and there’s an ease to how the engine drives, plus the gearbox has clearly been rebuilt and rebuilt well.
‘The clutch is heavy at low speeds. If you did a lot of in-town driving, it would certainly help to build your left thigh muscle!’ Before long the speed and assurance of Martin’s movements rise, his left foot rolling to full extension in a continuous movement. ‘On the go, the entire process works perfectly; the trick is to use all of the clutch pedal travel, which unlocks a lovely action.’
The fancy footwork is matched by a robust left hand. Every time he takes the semi-conical gearknob in hand, it’s clear that Martin is no stranger to classic sports cars, having owned an Austin-Healey, TVR and Triumph. ‘The Aston actually has a nicer gearbox than some of those models, though first gear doesn’t have synchromesh and can’t be rushed. Second, third and fourth engage well and I don’t feel like there’s excessive travel between them.’ Swift, simple movements evidence his growing confidence in the car.
Car and driver are operating together now, the studded wooden rim breathing in time with the chassis as we float over the crests of the B1527. ‘The wheel is a delight to hold and the rivets on the back give you a welcome bit of register.
Though it’s incredibly heavy at first, the steering is pleasant and reasonably light now we’re travelling at higher speeds.’ The Aston has defied Martin’s expectations. Having researched its Marles worm-and-roller steering box, he was anticipating something far less precise.
‘This gearbox was also used in a truck so I expected the worst, but I had a little nudge of the steering when I first climbed aboard and there’s feel on either side – and there’s no play. That gave me confidence before I’d even travelled a mile.’ The feeling isn’t misplaced. As our speed rises, so does Martin’s contentment. ‘The chassis is stable and it copes with every pothole or undulation.’ Aided by substantial tyres, the chassis is a key component in the Aston’s composure. ‘The greatest compliment I can pay is that I haven’t once thought about the ride.
It’s just right. Comparing it to the two big ’Healeys I’ve had, I expected a lot of crashing and banging but there’s none. The roads around here really need to be relaid but the car is coping admirably.’ Within minutes, the road opens out into a landscape of open, sweeping bends. Perfect Aston Martin country.
‘Modern cars let you get away with anything but the MkIII needs a bit of forward planning. Give it that and it performs faultlessly.’
To prove his point, Martin pushes into the brakes well in advance of the next, tightening turn. Every DB MkIII after the hundredth chassis wears Girling front discs which give remarkable performance for the era. ‘I fully expected them to be a hard push, to be a system of their era, but sit in a car like this and you instinctively know what to do. They perform very well.
‘Brake in a straight line, change down in a straight line and power out, again ideally in a straight line,’ Martin continues, taking the wheel in both hands and leaning into the corner. ‘Drive like this and it’s a well-sorted car. We aren’t doing great speeds but it certainly doesn’t wallow or dip. I’m not worried in the slightest – I’m confident in the car and that’s all the Aston’s doing, not mine.’
A long straight presents an opportunity to further enjoy the engine and its cultured, ululating exhaust note, and Martin is only too happy to oblige. ‘It’s a lovely thing to listen to. Any straight-six has got a very particular noise and this one has that nice, deep sense to the sound. If it were my own car, I’d rev it harder just to hear it. On the flip side, it’s got a useful band of torque too. You could be lazy, leave it in fourth all the time and not need to enjoy the gearbox.’ Martin elects to take a more active role, lifting the engine time and again to the tuneful zone above 3500rpm.
Time runs low and, before too long, Martin aims the Aston’s bonnet towards Norwich Road, a busy arterial route which leads straight back to Bruce’s garage. ‘This is a car in which you can feel confident pulling out of junctions. It accelerates nicely and modern traffic isn’t a problem; you don’t feel the front surge but you certainly know the car is getting going. Up around 60mph, it makes a bit more noise and really comes alive. It’s an absolute joy at this speed. I could drive like this all day and be very comfortable.’ With the optional overdrive clicked into action, the final miles melt by in a series of subtle, considered movements. With the Fifties machine parked next to his V8 Vantage N400, Martin ponders the lineage. ‘There are some shared styling cues yet there are so many dissimilarities too. They sound different, and they are different, but both give a real sense of driving and provide a bit of drama.’ There’s a lot to be said for a cosseting interior and a stirring exhaust note.
‘I arrived with expectations today, but the DB MkIII hasn’t been quite what I expected. It’s performed faultlessly and drives so well; I’ve loved every moment and can’t thank Bruce enough. It’s a well-sorted, well looked-after car that wears its scars with pride. Finances aside I’d love to own it. And I’d use it too.’