As­ton DB4 pro­to­type

What sounded like a myth told by Welsh hill­walk­ers turned out to be a long-lost pro­to­type As­ton Martin DB4 guarded by cows – and a for­mi­da­ble chal­lenge

Classic Cars (UK) - - Welcome - Words SAM DAW­SON Pho­tog­ra­phy ALEX TAPLEY

Some­one told me that they’d seen an As­ton Martin in a shed on a hill­side in Wales – it was a ru­mour among the lo­cals,’ says long-term mar­que spe­cial­ist and restorer Roger Ben­ning­ton. It sounds more like the open­ing lines of a myth that led to the dis­cov­ery of a Bronze-age Celtic hoard, rather than a clas­sic-car barn-find, but se­rial col­lec­tor and restorer Ben­ning­ton couldn’t re­sist in­ves­ti­gat­ing it fur­ther. In 2006 he sent one of his Strat­ton Mo­tor Com­pany col­leagues to check it out, and he came back with news of a very early DB4, and an Ord­nance Sur­vey grid ref­er­ence – 50 22 21 21 – rather than a post­code.

‘Its owner, Nevill Al­bert Rees, bought it slightly dam­aged in 1962, did it up, then he and his wife used it as a run­about un­til 1982, when it dropped a valve and de­vel­oped a mis­fire. In­tend­ing to fix it one day, he pushed it into a cor­ru­gated tin cow shed on his farm, where it stood, pro­tected only by a pile of rub­bish on top of it, for nearly 25 years. There wasn’t even a door on the cow shed, there was no in­su­la­tion, the wind blew straight through it, and the cat­tle would go and stand in there when it rained.

‘When we found the car, it had a vinyl roof that had been fit­ted in the Sev­en­ties, and a tow bar – Rees had used it to pull his car­a­van. In his own­er­ship it had changed colour sev­eral times. It had been ma­roon, then blue – he’d change its colour on a whim in the space of an af­ter­noon. It wore lime-green Six­ties vinyl seat cov­ers, but it was clearly a very early car on ac­count of its frame­less doors and rear-hinged bon­net. But cru­cially, it was all-orig­i­nal un­der­neath.

‘Ac­cord­ing to its chas­sis plate it was the tenth of a pre-pro­duc­tion batch of 12 cars built in 1958. It was first reg­is­tered in May 1959 to Cal­lan­ders in Glas­gow, which used it as a demon­stra­tor be­fore it was sold to John Richard In­shaw of New­ton Mearns, Ren­frew­shire, on De­cem­ber 23. After a mi­nor ac­ci­dent he sold it to Rees via Brook­lands of Bond Street.

‘How­ever,’ says Ben­ning­ton, fish­ing out a 1958 DB4 brochure and a copy of As­ton Martin’s fac­tory records from the time, ‘we think that prior to all this it was used for pro­mo­tional work as one of the very first cars to be com­pleted. On the orig­i­nal build sheet this car is listed as its only non-stan­dard equip­ment be­ing fully chromed wire wheels, and fin­ished in Prim­rose Yel­low – the rem­nants of which could be seen in the door jambs. Only three of the first 12 were Prim­rose. The first off the line was in­com­plete, not even fit­ted with head­lights, and reg­is­tered to the David Brown Com­pany which was usu­ally a sign that it was a test car, given lots of stick and driven hard – of­ten by Brown him­self. The only other Prim­rose car was ap­par­ently left-hand drive with white­wall tyres, clearly built for the US mar­ket. Which points to this car be­ing the one used on the launch brochure’s cover.

‘It’s dif­fi­cult to know how many cars were made in 1958 – As­ton used to list de­liv­ery dates rather than com­ple­tion dates, and many of the early cars hung around the fac­tory in a half-fin­ished state un­til they were bought. The sec­ond right-hand-drive car in the coun­try wasn’t reg­is­tered un­til De­cem­ber 31, 1958, so all the data we could find pointed to this car be­ing one of these pro­to­types, and one of if not the ear­li­est sur­viv­ing DB4 in the world. We had to save it.

‘Rees was re­luc­tant to sell it at first – after all, he had in­tended to fix it up again – and it took a cou­ple of vis­its to per­suade him, but he sold it to us on the prom­ise that we’d re­store it rather than sell it. We stored it for five years, keep­ing it dry but just look­ing at it, won­der­ing how on Earth we’d go about start­ing the restora­tion. Peo­ple who came in to see it said we’d be mad to try, but given how im­por­tant the car was, we had to. I promised Rees a drive in it once we’d fin­ished, but sadly he died just be­fore we com­pleted it.’ Chas­sis and body hor­rors ‘Much of the body and chas­sis sim­ply had to be cut out – it was just too far gone,’ Ben­ning­ton sighs, ‘but to us it was im­por­tant to use as much of the orig­i­nal body­work as pos­si­ble. Some of the Su­per­leg­gera tub­ing was com­pletely rot­ten through, but once the body’s off it’s ac­tu­ally quite easy to get to and work on – just cut out the old tub­ing and weld in new metal. Most of it could be reused, be­cause it’s well-pro­tected by the alu­minium body, but the chas­sis was very bad. There was a hole in the boot floor so big that a cou­ple of old golf balls had rolled out through it and got lodged in­side one of the sills!

‘After shot­blast­ing the chas­sis, we re­alised the floor wasn’t quite so bad as we’d feared, but it had gone ter­ri­bly frilly around the wheels and front cross­mem­bers. It needed new metal, but we don’t take the old bits out straight away, be­cause for a be­spoke car like an As­ton Martin, they act as a guide when cre­at­ing new chas­sis sec­tions. Only once you’ve cre­ated the re­place­ment sec­tion do you cut the old part out, so you only ever weld new metal to old metal.

‘In or­der to get the body­work just right, I got Alan Pointer of Body­lines in­volved. He was an As­ton Martin ap­pren­tice when he was a boy, and learnt his craft work­ing on later DB4S.’ Ben­ning­ton’s care in en­sur­ing any rot­ten chas­sis sec­tions were repli­cated be­fore they were re­moved proved es­pe­cially pre­scient in this DB4’S case, as Pointer ex­plains. ‘Be­cause it’s one of the ear­li­est cars, it has an un­usual chas­sis,’ he says. ‘It’s the only one I’ve seen with a re­mov­able panel in the boot

Low point ‘We inched the seat cov­ers off slowly, catch­ing chunks of old leather trim and rats’ nest as it fell out, ter­ri­fied that a rat might still be in there’

floor so the ex­haust pipes can be ac­cessed from above. It would’ve been part of the pro­to­typ­ing process, play­ing with var­i­ous dif­fer­ent ex­haust sys­tems to see which one worked best. There were strange sec­tions near the sills, run­ning un­der the pas­sen­ger­side seat, and also a pair of gus­sets un­der­neath where the prop­shaft emerges. I sus­pect it was all done to strengthen the chas­sis – stiff­ness was a real con­cern with early DB4S, the Se­ries I and II cars had over­lap­ping box sec­tions to cre­ate the floor­pan.

‘The vinyl had ac­tu­ally pro­tected the old roof by ef­fec­tively sand­wich­ing it. That prob­a­bly saved it – it was slightly marked un­der­neath but no worse than if it had been left out in the rain for a cou­ple of years.

‘Un­for­tu­nately the same couldn’t be said for the rest of the body­work, be­cause cor­ro­sion was ex­ten­sive. It wasn’t a com­plete bas­ket­case – the rot was in all the usual places – but it was in ev­ery sin­gle usual place, and it was bad. Sills, floor­pans, boot floor, around the engine bay – it was all rusty and needed re­plac­ing.

‘Body­work-wise, we needed to re­make the front and rear ends and re-skin the doors. Thank­fully, de­spite be­ing a pre-pro­duc­tion car, its body­work di­men­sions were the same as the pro­duc­tion cars so it was fairly straight­for­ward to cre­ate new pan­els around the ex­ist­ing bon­net and bootlid. It’s a good thing Roger kept it as it should be, be­cause many of the early cars were mod­i­fied in pe­riod and are still like that even to­day. Es­pe­cially the bon­nets, which were fron­thinged soon after this early run.’

Karl Fran­cis was tasked with re­turn­ing the As­ton to its orig­i­nal shade of Prim­rose Yel­low. ‘He primered it, rubbed it down, primered it again, gave it a base coat then two coats of clear lac­quer, then promptly left the busi­ness and gave it to me to fin­ish off!’ laughs body­work restorer Cliff Warner.

Lucky with the engine

Paul Bel­lenger was tasked with much of the car’s re­assem­bly and also tack­led the engine, but he had an un­likely stroke of luck. ‘There was a lit­tle bit of oil left in there from 1982 that had kept the in­ter­nals from cor­rod­ing,’ he says. ‘It was a real re­lief when it came to keep­ing ev­ery­thing as orig­i­nal as pos­si­ble, and in the main it wasn’t too dif­fi­cult to re­build.

‘How­ever, chang­ing the cylin­der liner seals was a tricky job – they’d seized them­selves in there and they needed gen­tly heat­ing up in or­der to take out – al­ways a risky task when there’s alu­minium nearby. After we re­moved the lin­ers, we soda-blasted the engine in­ter­nals, and were able to re-use ev­ery­thing, pretty much – it only needed new bear­ings, valve springs and a cou­ple of valves.’

The ex­ter­nal parts of the engine hadn’t fared so well, which posed a risk to the car’s orig­i­nal­ity and unique­ness be­cause the de­sign of the cam cov­ers – slightly nar­rower than usual and with As­ton Martin’s old pre-war-style ‘AM’ lo­gos cast into them – hadn’t been car­ried on into pro­duc­tion, but the soft al­loy sur­face had started to cor­rode.

‘We had to paint them in the end,’ says Bel­lenger. ‘It was the only way to keep them. Orig­i­nally they would have had a pol­ished al­loy fin­ish, but had we done that we might have dam­aged the metal it­self and there wouldn’t have been any hope of sourc­ing spares – new tim­ing chain ten­sion­ers were dif­fi­cult to find as it was. So we painted them with a hard gloss fin­ish in­stead, to give a sim­i­lar ef­fect – they’re a bit too shiny now, but at least they’re well-pro­tected. Else­where we were lucky, be­cause we man­aged to re­use most me­chan­i­cal parts – engine, gear­box, rear axle – after all, it had only done 50,000 miles. It did need a new clutch though.’

When re­build­ing the engine, Ben­ning­ton didn’t even fit hard­ened valve seats to cope with un­leaded fuel, on the no­tion that it wouldn’t be cov­er­ing a huge mileage, and to con­vert it would de­tract from its true orig­i­nal­ity.

Rat-eaten in­te­rior

The As­ton’s thor­oughly rot­ten in­te­rior was tack­led by Phillip Wat­son, who’s worked at the Strat­ton Mo­tor Com­pany since 1973. Says Wat­son, ‘We ob­vi­ously tried to keep it orig­i­nal, but it needed com­pletely re­mak­ing. All the foam pad­ding in the in­te­rior was com­pletely de­stroyed so it all needed re­mak­ing from tem­plates drawn up from an­other DB4, but be­cause it’s a pro­to­type ab­so­lutely noth­ing fit­ted, and kept fall­ing off. There were no orig­i­nals from which to make tem­plates, be­cause they’d all been eaten by rats.

‘I stripped the in­te­rior with my son; he’s an ap­pren­tice here and it was his first job. The seat frames and springs were OK and the side-hinges could just be sand­blasted and rechromed, but the leather was gone com­pletely. Un­der­neath those lime-green seat cov­ers there was ev­i­dence of rat in­fes­ta­tion. We inched the cov­ers off slowly, and were ba­si­cally catch­ing chunks of old leather trim and rats’ nest as it fell out, ter­ri­fied that a rat might still be in there ready to come scur­ry­ing out. I’ve still got the vinyl trims ac­tu­ally – they’re in strangely good con­di­tion! ‘The door leather was mounted on wooden cards, which had rot­ted although enough sur­vived to form a tem­plate for re­place­ments. It was a sim­i­lar story with most of the in­te­rior. Only the rooflining was stan­dard – fit­ting a new one was just a case of pulling it across and tuck­ing it in.

‘The rear arm­rests had com­pletely dis­in­te­grated. We ended up tak­ing an­other DB4 apart to get to an­other set, mould some re­place­ments in glass­fi­bre, up­hol­ster them and fit them to this car.

‘Sadly we also had to fit a new steer­ing wheel, be­cause this one had snapped even be­fore it had started rust­ing. When peo­ple push As­tons around they tend to take hold of the wheel to avoid press­ing on the soft alu­minium body­work, and end up break­ing the spokes.’

High point ‘There was a lit­tle bit of oil left in the engine from 1982, which had kept the in­ter­nals from cor­rod­ing.’

Elu­sive body­work

Although the fun­da­men­tals of the car were com­ing to­gether nicely, thanks largely to its re­mark­able orig­i­nal­ity, Strat­ton’s parts man­ager Robert Chap­man was hunt­ing fran­ti­cally for un­usual early DB4 parts, work­ing out what could be sourced and what needed to be made from scratch. ‘It was a case of track­ing down, duck­ing, div­ing and fol­low­ing leads,’ he says.

‘Bumpers are no longer avail­able, and the front one was too rusty to re­use. These early DB4 bumpers were com­pletely smooth-edged, and the only spares avail­able are the types the later cars had, with lit­tle flat plinths to screw the num­ber­plates to. So we had to use DB5 bumpers, cut them into three sec­tions, straighten the mid­dle sec­tion out, weld them back to­gether and rechrome them – some­thing we had to get done by a firm over the bor­der in Suf­folk, be­cause a lo­cal health and safety by­law pro­hibits the use of the chem­i­cals nec­es­sary for rechroming in Nor­folk.

‘Sourc­ing brake parts was hard work, in or­der to keep them as orig­i­nal. The early DB4 has calipers made of mul­ti­ple sec­tions, and while we could re­use the outer parts, the main caliper and pis­ton assem­blies and the discs them­selves needed re­plac­ing. We had is­sues with the front grille too – in the end we had to buy a re­place­ment from As­ton at great ex­pense. But the front body­work was sub­tly re­shaped early on in the DB4 pro­duc­tion run, so even this had to be re­cut to fit. That said, it was a walk in the park com­pared to so-called ‘log­book restora­tions’ where ba­si­cally a new car is cre­ated from scratch. At least we had ev­ery­thing to work with as a start­ing point, which was par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant be­cause it’s unique – it just didn’t fit!’

It all pays off

‘Usu­ally a DB4 restora­tion would take us two years – this one took us five,’ says Roger Ben­ning­ton, whose car now takes pride of place in his per­sonal col­lec­tion. ‘We thought we had all the time in the world, but we had to rush the last six months be­cause the As­ton Martin Own­ers’ Club found out about it and wanted it for a show. We hadn’t fin­ished the seats, boot floor or engine, so we quickly put the orig­i­nals back in the car. It still came sec­ond in the con­cours!’

It only comes out on spe­cial oc­ca­sions now, des­tined to cover min­i­mal mileage and em­body the DB4 in its ear­li­est form. ‘I’ll never sell it, I’m hon­our­ing the prom­ise I made to Nevill Rees,’ says Ben­ning­ton. ‘I knew ex­actly what it was when I first saw the chas­sis num­ber, and now it’s re­stored as close to its orig­i­nal form as pos­si­ble, it de­serves to be cher­ished.’

‘We had to buy a brand-new grille from As­ton Martin at great ex­pense – and then cut it up’

Res­cued from a Welsh cow­shed. Where to start?

Re­stored as close to its pro­to­type spec as pos­si­ble, the DB4 is in now back in the Prim­rose Yel­low it shared with two of its pre-pro­duc­tion sib­lings

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