As soon as I set eyes on Design Project 193 I’m taken. Clearly well-used, with little blemishes and the odd crack in the blue paintwork, it looks so original, so honest. The impression is even stronger inside, from the the crumpled carpets and sagging headlining, held in check by assorted number plates from its past, to the control knobs, their worn-away lettering more subtly marking the passage of time. And being aware of this Aston Martin’s ex-Works provenance – the unique rear disc brakes behind the wire wheels are just one sign – enhances the impression.
1956 Aston-Martin DB Mark-III road test. Unacceptable problems on a £3000 luxury grand tourer. Prototype rear disc brakes weren’t used on production MkIII.
The reclining navigator’s bucket seat, and a dashboard-mounted button in front to operate the auxiliary Marchal airhorns, reveals another story. This prototype of the transitional DB Mark III, the last in the line of the Feltham-built models, was also a factory entry on the 1958 Monte Carlo Rally.
One-off louvres at the bonnet’s rear edge to direct engine heat onto the windscreen also remain. Similarly fitted specially for the Monte, and visible under the roof headlining, is where an auxiliary wiper was mounted at the screen’s top.
Inside, too, there is evidence of the Aston’s original grey paint and, through cracks in the black leather seats, I can see some of their original green.
After 33 years in America it’s back in England ahead of Bonhams’ Festival of Speed auction at Goodwood, giving me the chance to drive it at Longcross track, near Chobham in Surrey. This is the former Forces Vehicle Research and Development Establishment where, three months short of 60 years ago, Aston Martin carried out development work to finetune engine cooling with the MkIII’s new-style radiator grille.
The 3.0-litre straight-six fires up easily and, as I head off onto the test track, the Aston at once feels strong and solid. With no synchromesh on first gear it pays to engage second beforehand to avoid baulking, and as we gather speed the race-bred twin-cam pulls strongly, with the well-spaced pedals enabling easy heel-and- toeing for rev-matched downchanges. Acceleration is keen – despite the MkIII being the heaviest Feltham-built model, it could reach 0-60mph in an impressive 9.3 seconds, with a 120mph top speed (and better still in optional 178bhp, twin-exhaust form), marking it as the first DB2/4 model to outpace the original DB2.
Ride is firm and the chassis feels taut. The steering is light yet precise with good feedback – though less so on its Pirelli Cinturato radials than on original crossplies – the combination allowing near neutral handling. With power on through faster turns the liveaxle rear will step into mild oversteer but it does so in an almost gentlemanly fashion – like everything else about the car – allowing easy steering correction to maintain momentum. Certainly, DP193’s exclusive all-round disc brakes (the sole series production Aston so-equipped until the DB4) is superior to the normal DB Mark III’s front-only discs, and braking from speed is impressive.
This much modified DB2/4 MkII, chassis AM300/3A/1300, was built in late 1956, records showing that it was undergoing testing by October the 8th. It would form the basis of the DB2/4 MkIII, or DB MkIII as it would become more commonly known, which would replace the MkII the following year. DP193, however, painted Moonbeam Grey with green leather interior, wasn’t officially road-registered, as 63 KMY, until the March 11, 1957, during the same month that DB MkIII production commenced. Within days DP193 would be on hand as the MkIII demonstrator for the public launch at the Geneva Motor Show; records state it had also served as a demonstrator at January’s Brussels’ Motor Show, although this was eight weeks before the Geneva launch.
It was amidst duties as the MkIII prototype/development hack that DP193 made its competition debut, one of three Worksentered cars in the 1958 Monte Carlo Rally. It was driven by BBC radio and TV broadcaster, Spitfire ace and rally driver Raymond Baxter. The other two were piloted by Aston factory race drivers Reg Parnell and Geoff Duke. Setting off from Glasgow, DP193 faced some of the worst weather in the rally’s history. While a blizzard engulfed much of Europe, Baxter and co-driver Jack Reece battled through dreadful conditions and close shaves to bring DP193 to the finish – albeit unclassified after running over time on the final leg. It was one of just 59 survivors from 302 starters.
But for the combination of failing headlights near Grenoble, and overlooking an easy fix, the pair would no doubt have been well up the order. ‘We made the next control,’ recalled Baxter in his biography Tales of My Time, ‘and should have realised that our problem could have been a slipping drive belt, which it was. When the Lucas service team fixed it in about three minutes, I was ashamed.’ He made some amends by winning the high-speed manoeuvrability test on Monte Carlo’s harbour, but after the rally his sense of shame led him to write ‘a profuse apology to John Wyer, the celebrated competitions manager of Aston Martin.’
On the following year’s Monte a MkIII would take a class win. Although no evidence has yet been found, there are suggestions DP193 also took part in the 1958 Tulip Rally the following May, when Jack Reece finished third in a MkIII. DP193 was also used a general crew/support vehicle for Aston’s DBR1 works entries at Le Mans in 1957 and/or 1958.
The following year a similar Aston made an entry, albeit fictional, when Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger was published. ‘Bond had been offered the Aston Martin or a Jaguar 3.4. He had taken the DB III. Either of the cars would have suited his cover – a well-to-do, rather adventurous young man with a taste for the good, the fast things of life. But the DB III had the advantage of an up-to-date triptyque, an inconspicuous colour – Battleship Grey – and certain extras which might or might not come in handy.’
Such was the little-known first introduction to Britain’s most famous GT marque for the world’s most famous secret agent. Although in the film version in 1964 the Aston had morphed into a DB5 – the ultimate rendition of the DB4 – the DB MkIII that preceded it was no less an accomplished car in its own right.
Aston Martin retained DP193 until June 17th 1959, a full year after its rigorous development duties ended – records show it was discharged from these on July 8th 1958. It became the first production MkII with standard front discs, rear drums and and optional overdrive, chassis AM300/3B spec’ having taken over. Registered first to Bockholes Motor Company near Huddersfield (with 20,000 miles recorded), the prototype subsequently passed through nine owners, including Aston specialist Four Ashes Garage between 1970 and 1974, during which time it was campaigned by both Simon Moss and Stephen Bamford. Results included Moss taking a win at the AMOC’s Wiscombe Park Hillclimb and third at the club’s Curborough Sprint in 1970, and Bamford another Wiscombe victory in 1974; Bamford also raced DP193 at least once, at Silverstone.
By 1975 the prototype had been bought by Switzerland-based collector Jean-Marie Santal who had it resprayed in its current French Blue and the interior leather re-Connollised in black by Aston specialist RS Williams; such was its presentation that it was awarded third at the 1979 AMOC’s Birtsmorton Court Concours. Its owner for the past 33 years is Oregon-based Dave Adams, since 1973 a specialist restoring, importing and dealing in classic cars. He bought it in 1984 from Derek Green Sports Cars at Hampton Court, Surrey, as part of his inventory. Within a very short time, though, he became totally enamoured, the Aston joining his personal collection and mainly being used for local rallies and shows. Two years ago it spent six months at Oregon’s World of Speed Museum.
‘When I do display it I have so much fun because people love it,’ says 64-year-old Dave Adams, who in 2013 took the $440,000 auction record for a fixed-head DB MkIII he’d restored. ‘It’s always a universal response; people find it so charming and endearing that it looks like a used old sports car. I’ve just so loved owning it. I adore the old girl – it’s her soul. I hope it ends up in the UK; I’ve always felt kinda guilty about having it here. I really felt when I brought it home I was sneaking a national treasure out of the country. It’s just time for somebody else to have it.’
Within DP193’s large history file are 21 original Experimental Department report sheets, still in the original Aston Martin folder. These detail how DP193’s engine underwent several rebuilds and extensive testing to resolve customer complaints about excessive oil consumption, with an assortment of drivers using it to highlight variable driving conditions. It’s why all subsequent DBA engines had new-specification piston rings. Another document points out that the prototype’s nearside rear wheelarch is 1.65in higher than the offside rear.
The DB MkIII was the ultimate version of the 1952 DB2, the first in a long line of DB grand tourers that could compete on equal terms with the most exotic and exclusive high-performance sports cars. With sports saloon coachwork by Lagonda stylist Frank Feeley, the DB2’s svelte two seater body differed considerably from any previous Aston, endowed with curvaceous lines that were notably modern in contemporary company, and the whole front of which hinged forward. Using Claude Hill’s revolutionary Atom chassis, reworked by gifted young racing designer Ted Cutting, the performance of its LB6-designated 2,580cc twin-cam was matched by agile handling and strong roadholding. Having bought Aston Martin in 1947, David Brown acquired Lagonda the same year for its straight-six engine, which had already taken a DB2 prototype to third in 1949’s Spa-Francorchamps 24 Hours.
Ground clearance and weight were reduced when Cutting redesigned the chassis with a cruciform structure in place of crossmembers. Front suspension was independent, via coil springs, traling links and transverse torsion bar. The coil-sprung live rear axle was located by parallel arms and Panhard rod. Brakes were hydraulic drums and maximum power 105bhp at 5,000rpm, sufficient for 110mph and 0-60mph in 12.4 seconds through a four speed David Brown gearbox.
The limitations of two seats and minimal luggage space affected sales, so Feeley redesigned the car with an occasional double bench seat, the back of which folded down for luggage storage. At the same time he raised the roofline to increase headroom and fitted a larger rear window in an opening lid – creating the world’s first genuine GT hatchback. Other obvious changes to the 6in-longer body included a single piece windscreen and more substantial bumpers incorporating over-riders.
With a capacity increase to 2,992cc first used in the DB3 sportsracer, power of its otherwise DB2 Vantage-spec VB6 engine, increased to 140bhp, giving a top speed of 120mph, and 0-60mph reduced to 10.5 seconds.
The similar-looking DB2/4 MkII followed in October 1955, distinguished by numerous detail changes including squared-off, raised rear wing ends with the sidelights now mounted on the top rear edge. The chromed front wing strip concealing the line of the one-piece bonnet moved to the top of the wheel arches and a similar strip across the windscreen top indicated a 0.75in increase in headroom. Inside was more supportive bucket seats. Again with Saloon and Drop Head Coupe bodies, the slightly heavier car was still good for 120mph and 0-60mph in 10 seconds; a 165bhp Special Series engine was optional.
The MkII marked a move to in-house body production at Aston Martin’s newly acquired Tickford coachbuilding arm in Newport Pagnell and was heralded by Tickford badges on the front wings. With the arrival of DP193 came a shallower and more modernlooking radiator grille, similar to that of the production DB3S sports-racing model, complemented by a more curvaceous, sculpted bonnet. Minor coachwork changes included deletion of the chrome strip above the windscreen and opening rear quarter-light windows, while all but the earliest production cars have re-contoured rear wings with new lamp clusters replacing the DB2/4-style small single lights. Inside, the instruments were moved from the dashboard’s centre to a hooded binnacle behind the steering wheel, its shape mimicking the radiator grille and retained for all Aston road cars up to the DB6.
Completely redesigned by Aston’s chief designer, Tadek Marek, the now DBA-designated twin-cam featured a new and strengthened cylinder block, plus new crankshaft and cylinder head modifications inspired by the power plant of the DB3S sports-racer; it resulted in 162bhp at 5500rpm and 180lb ft at 4000rpm. After 100 examples had been built, on which front disc brakes were optional, they became standard, but production cars never received DP193 rear discs.
What makes DP193 particularly special, and a remarkable survivor, is that it retains all the original components from the day it was built. It is a car that oozes character inside and out, its charm apparent in every detail. Despite being weathered it feels dependable and impressively engineered.
Dave, who regards it a blessing that he was never tempted to do so, hopes that whoever buys DP193 doesn’t restore it beyond, perhaps, returning it to the original paint and seat colours, instead sympathetically tidying it up. To that end, he has in the last few months fitted a complete new wiring harness, ‘I wanted whoever got it to not feel forced to do something drastic, so whoever gets it can absolutely continue to enjoy the car as it is. If they do that then I guarantee they’ll have way more fun than having a show car.’
Thanks to Bonhams, which will auction the car at Goodwood Festival of Speed on June 30: bonhams.com
The snagging list revealed
Aston Martin’s experimental department report sheets on DP193 highlight the rigorous and detail development programme Design Project 193 underwent between October 1956 and July 1958. Apart from tackling overheating and finetuning engine cooling with the MkIII’s new-style front end, another major issue was combatting excessive oil consumption reported on production DB MkIIIs. The engineers managed to decrease usage from 850mpg to a minimum of 2,300mpg.
Minor but significant problems included fuel starvation under acceleration with under half a tank of fuel because of the main fuel pickup was at the front; this was overcome by modifying the reserve fuel switch unit to allow the main pick-up to be moved one inch rearwards of the tank centre line.
Excessive exhaust and road noise when accelerating above 50mph was rectified by increasing insulation on the inside of the roof and in the boot’s rear, with testing again at Chobham.
The snagging list also included dim indicator warning lights in daylight with no audible warning because of the relay position; the gear lever too loaded by rubber bushes towards third and fourth gear positions; a perceptible clonk when letting in the clutch and when driving in fourth below 25mph, solved by increasing the rear axle’s rubber insulation; an excessively noisy heater motor; a driver’s seat squab badly fouling the floor sill and a lack of full travel on the runners; and a tendency for the driver’s foot to catch the brake pedal when operating the throttle, and catch under the chassis member.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1956 Aston Martin DB Mark III
Engine 2922cc in-line six-cylinder, twin-overhead camshaft, twin SU H6 1¾ inch carburetors
Power and torque 162bhp @ 5500rpm; 180lb ft @ 4000rpm DIN
Transmission 4-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Worm and roller
Front: independent, wishbones, coil springs, transverse torsion bar lever-arm dampers
Rear: live axle, coil springs, parallel arms, transverse Panhard rod, leverarm dampers
Brakes Discs all round
Weight 1270kg (2800lb) (production car)
Performance Top speed: 120mph; 0-60mph: 9.3sec
Fuel consumption 18mpg
Cost new £3076 (production car)
Price now £300,000-£500,000 (this prototype)
Attacking the Wiscombe hill climb in 1974. DP193 at Silverstone in 1974. Baxter on the way to winning the Monte high-speed test in 1958.
Interior retains rally navigator’s seat and previous number plates.
Cracks in leather reveal original green colour. Ex-Spitfire pilot Raymond Baxter’s view of the Monte. Keep that patina or reinstate original colour? Cylinder head modifications for the MkIII inspired by DB3S racer.
Colour changed from grey to French Blue in the Seventies. Organised spares essential on a rally, but a failed fan belt defeated Baxter on the Monte.
‘It was like sneaking a national treasure out of the country’
Light steering offers lots of useful feedback. Aston corners in a gentlemanly manner. The prototype’s globetrotting history includes ownership in Switzerland and 34 years in the USA.
‘If the new owner enjoys it like it is, they’ll have way more fun’