The Aston in beautiful Queenstown
The NZCC team takes a trip to Queenstown to check out a ’50s Aston Martin that has recently been returned to the road after an extensive 10-year restoration.
Words Tim Nevinson Photos Jared Clark
In 1952 any young nobleman, having celebrated his society wedding and sired a couple of offspring, would have found it impossible to reconcile his desire for high performance motoring in the utmost magnificence — irrespective of price — with the necessity of carrying his heirs at the same time. A gentleman would have to consider going ahead on his own in the Aston, leaving his wife to convey their young successors in the Rover. Or, God forbid, conduct the Rover himself. Dash it! Would he have to purchase a Bentley and consider getting used to a more sedate pace? Not quite what he had in mind when he had been racing about in fast cars courting young debs prior to settling down in the family mansion.
In production between May 1950 and April 1953, the Frank Feeley-designed DB2 coupe was built after three prototypes had raced at Le Mans
That very quandary may have faced the not yet noble, but rather nouveau riche, Mr David Brown after he’d used the vast resources of his David Brown Machinery Company to develop the very magnificent Aston Martin DB2.
In production between May 1950 and April 1953, the Frank Feeley-designed DB2 coupe was built after three prototypes had raced at Le Mans in 1949, two with true Aston Martin pushrod engines and one with a 2.6-litre, six-cylinder twin overhead camshaft engine designed for Lagonda during the war. The great WO Bentley was Lagonda’s chief engineer at the time; however this engine design was, in actuality, the work of Willie Watson. The 2.6 ohc engine was chosen for the new DB2 production car, much to the chagrin of Aston’s own engine man, who promptly handed in his resignation.
With a tall, rigid rectangular tube chassis frame, the new car’s front suspension was by coil springs on short trailing links and a torsion bar acting in an oil-filled cross-tube damped by Armstrong double-acting shocks. The live rear axle was located by parallel trailing linkages and a Panhard rod, the coil springs being damped by Armstrong lever shock absorbers.
The DB2 turned out to be fast and nimble for the time, but although it was well received throughout the world, the market in this price range for a car with two seats and limited luggage space proved insufficient to satisfy Mr Brown.
In 1952, Mr Brown — later to become Sir David Brown — ordered DB2 chassis (LML/50/221) to be modified by removing the cross-bracing above the rear axle, enabling two occasional rear seats to be accommodated. The roofline was changed to give more headroom towards the back, and the small rear window was replaced by a larger window in an opening tail-gate.
The capacity of the fuel tank was reduced from 86 to 77 litres (19 to 17 gallons), allowing it to be set lower, and the spare wheel was housed in a hinged carrier below the fuel tank. These modifications considerably improved the luggage space, which could be further increased by folding down the back of the rear seat.
Now satisfied this was a viable option, Aston Martin went ahead with styling changes to make the new DB2/4. The windscreen became a one-piece moulding, the quarter light windows were reshaped, the headlights were repositioned higher in the bonnet and the overall length was increased by 152mm to 356. Improved bumpers could now absorb a bump without damaging the body.
In the same year as Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation — 1953 — the DB2/4 was shown at the London Motor Show. It became known at the time as the fastest shooting brake in the world, but Aston Martin had in fact developed the first hot hatch. An English gentleman could now travel in the manner to which he was accustomed, with little Lord Fauntleroy and Lady Sarah twittering away in the back. Said gentleman would happily part with $1850 plus purchase tax for this pleasure at a time when a Standard 10 was £409.
Initially, the DB2/4’s engine was to 93kW (125bhp) DB2 Vantage tune — sufficient to propel the car to 96.5kph (60mph) in 11.2 seconds. In mid 1954, engine capacity was increased from 2580cc to 2922cc, which raised power and reduced the 0-60mph time to 10 seconds. With the same compression ratio (8.16:1) as the Vantage 2.6-litre engine, the 3.0-litre power output was quoted as 104kW (140bhp) at 5000rpm. Three DB2/4s — LML/784, 855 and 857 — were prepared as works entries for the Monte Carlo Rally in 1955, and won the team prize. The latter two started in the Mille Miglia in the same year, but a mistake in the specification for their clutches led to complete failure.
Although theDB2/4 was never campaigned on the race track by a works team due to the arrival of the purely race bred DB3 and DB3S, many privateers successfully took their DB2/4s racing. A gentleman could now drive a genuine thoroughbred racing car with his progeny on board, and should Sir seek to satisfy himself on the aspect of the 3.0-litre’s absolute maximum speed, he would find it to be 190.7kph (118.5mph), as compared with 187.3kph (116.4mph) for the 2.5-litre. Some 523km (325 miles) could be covered before resorting to the 13.6-litre (three-gallon) fuel reserve, thus reluctantly allowing the little blighters in the back to uncross their legs after a good 644km blast.
The DB2 turned out to be fast and nimble for the time, but although it was well received throughout the world, the market in this price range for a car with two seats proved insufficient
Even with their slightly less graceful appearance, the 2/4s have always proved more popular than the two-seat DB2s. Whilst outwardly similar to the DB2/4 MkI as previously described, with the MkII came many detail changes. Externally, the roof-line was raised and a chrome strip extended from the top of the windscreen wrapping around to above the side windows. What had been side panels of the bonnet now remained fixed to the body behind the front wheel arch, with chrome strips separating the two pieces of the body. A chrome strip extended around the rear of the body below the rear door. More noticeable were vestigial tail fins with taillights from the Hillman Minx.
The MkII was first shown at the London Motor Show in 1955, and production ran to 199 cars over two years before making way for the DB MkIII in 1957. The MkIII grille was influenced by the DB3S sports/race car which would become the Aston Martin trademark, reiterated by the shape of the new instrument panel. The MkIII was also the first Aston Martin to be available with front disc brakes as standard during the production run. The Lagonda engine for the MkIII was substantially redesigned by Tadek Marek before he started work on his own engine for the DB4.
Aston Martins of this shape and era would become known as Feltham Cars with ‘Lagonda’, or less accurately ‘WO Bentley’ engines. David Brown had bought the Tickford Coachbuilding Works in Newport Pagnell in 1954, and DB2/4 body production was moved to Newport Pagnell. Although the second generation of post-war Aston Martins are generally referred to as the Newport cars, this is not entirely true as the first batch of DB4s were actually built at Feltham — with Aston Martin production not moving over to Newport Pagnell in its entirety until 1963.
An Aston in Queenstown
Our featured Imperial Crimson Aston Martin DB2/4 Mk1 is chassis No LML/658, engine number VB6E/50/1387, the original engine according to Aston’s records for UPF 6, the car’s original British registration plate. It was sold new in England in 1954 and registered its main claim to fame by finishing third in the British Automobile Racing Club’s Brunton Hill climb in the hands of Mr Justeson during 1955.
Although the DB2/4 was never campaigned by a works team many privateers successfully took their DB2/4s racing
Not much is known about the remainder of the car’s history, other than it found its way to North America and was rescued from oblivion by an Auckland collector 10 years ago. He sent the Aston to Barney Tansley of Queenstown, with instructions for a complete rebuild. Barney trained in panel work in Invercargill, and has since set up his own business — Tansley Panelbeating — in Queenstown, where the results he achieves are simply astonishing. A true craftsman, Barney’s work is to be found under the paint of some of New Zealand’s and, indeed, the world’s best restorations.
He can pick and choose his work and trades via an enviable reputation. Vehicle engineering work for this and many other of his projects is undertaken by Eric Swinbourn of Autospeed Engineering, a company also based in Queenstown. This rebuild of the DB2/4 took 10 years, although that is not typical. Barney still remembers the initial stages of the car’s restoration. “My initial thoughts about the car were that it wasn’t too bad, but as we pulled it apart I realised its time in England on salty roads had caused a lot of corrosion and rust, and it had just been patched up.”
Aston Martins are not conventional in any sense, and being originally hand-built the same exacting methods had to be used as the car was rebuilt from the ground up, and that included the engine and running gear. Most parts were supplied by Aston Services in England, or machined by Eric Swinbourn. “We bought a new hide of beige Connolly leather for the upholstery, which was handled by Mark Sexton — a Queenstown local who now lives in Southland.” After years of surgery the Aston is a going concern, looks beautiful and feels as right as a bespoke Saville Row suit.
“The highlight for me has been getting it going and driving it around,” says Barney. I could see why when my chance came to drive the Aston. The car is a thoroughbred, through and through. The engine has a superb note, and whilst not quick by today’s standards certainly has plenty of useable torque. The handling is very good, with little play in the steering, and a well sorted chassis which does not rattle and wander, perfectly matched to its spoked wire wheels. They provide an interesting lateral damping effect on road imperfections, allowing spirited cornering without vagueness or massive kick-back.
The seats, whilst beautifully restored, do not help much with lateral support, so most of that is done by holding the steering wheel, which is thankfully well sprung and remains in a single plane when used to maintain one’s decorum. One can, however, see how the car could be used for lengthy journeys at high speeds, the gearing well suited to high performance motoring. The gearbox presents very few problems for such an old car, the brakes being the only thing that really show this Aston’s age.
It’s a shame more people don’t get a chance to drive cars like this, because it would certainly reduce the tailgating so prevalent on today’s roads.
Speaking of tailgates, the rear load platform is immensely practical. I had a look at David Brown’s two rear seats, but made no attempt to get into them. Whilst Aston Martins were generally referred to in official literature as saloons, the rear occupants would likely describe their environment as snug. Folding the rear seat back forward, however, makes it a very practical tourer, in a similar vein to the E-type coupe. The Aston Martin DB2/4 is every bit as much a gentleman’s express today as it was in the ’50s, and has an all-pervading aura of a time when the empire was great and British — but rather in the Winston Churchill sense than that of Tony Blair.
Aston Martin Type: DB 2/4 mk I (1953—55)(vantage 3-litre)
Engine: Six, in-line
Max power: 104kW (140bhp) at 5000rpm
Fuel system: Two, SU HV6
Valves: Two per cylinder, dohc
Comp. ratio: 8.16:1
Transmission: David Brown four-speed manual
Final drive: 3.73, Salisbury hypoid bevel
Suspension: Front: coil springs and trailing parallel links
Suspension: Rear: coil springs and rigid axle located by radius arms
Steering: Marles cam and double roller
Brakes: Girling hydraulic drum, diameter 12ins
Tyres: Dunlop Road Speed 6.00×16
Length: 4293mm (14ft 1.5ins)
Width: 1651mm (5ft 5ins)
Height: 1359mm (4ft 5.5ins)
Wheelbase: 2515mm (8ft 3ins)
Track F/R: 1372/1372mm (4ft 6/4ft 6ins)
Unladen kerb weight: 1194kg (2632lb)
Max speed: 190.7kph (118.5mph)
0-96.5kph (60mph): 10.5 sec
0-160.9kph (100mph): 30.0 sec
Standing 1/4: 17.9 sec
Economy: 12.28l/100km (23mpg)