Simon Draper, former Virgin Records boss, has one of the great Aston collections, including the trinity of DB4 GTS
It’s always fun to spend time with Simon Draper. I could happily spend a day just listening to him talk about his life in the music business: how he arrived in Britain from South Africa in the early ’70s fresh from uni, joined second cousin Richard Branson at his fledgling mail order business that became Virgin Records, and ran the creative side of Virgin for some 20 years, working with everyone from Mike Oldfield to the Sex Pistols to Simple Minds.
Alternatively we could explore his impressive collection of modern art. Or chat about Palawan, the company he set up post-virgin to publish high-end books, including several weighty tomes on Astons. If there were time, he could walk us around his fabulous collection of cars, ranging from pre-war racers to current supercars.
But today we’ve come to talk about his passion for Aston Martins, and to focus on three cars in particular. In fact they’re only one small part of his Aston collection, but, in this special celebration of the DB4 GT, the three cars you see here are surely the holy trinity… DB4 GT, GT Zagato and Project 214.
We’ve come to his place in Sussex, not far from Goodwood, where a string of garages ring a huge paved courtyard. Draper, now in his 60s but as sharp and fit as ever – he has always been a keen recreational tennis player – watches as the cars are manoeuvred out into the sunshine. Where to begin? How about with the start of his Aston obsession.
‘Like everyone, the cars that are the most exotic and desirable when you’re ten years old
are the ones that really resonate with you,’ he says. ‘Living in South Africa, we didn’t see many exotic cars, but at my prep school one of the fathers had a DB4. And I can’t tell you how exotic that was. To have a DB4 in South Africa in 1961 you had to pay double what you’d pay in the UK – it was 100 per cent duty. To me it was just amazing, out of this world.’
The flame was really ignited, though, when he came to England. ‘Roger Taylor [the Queen drummer] had a V8 Volante,’ Draper recalls, ‘and I had occasion to go in it. It was a fantastic car and I really, really wanted one after that!’
It was the public flotation of Virgin Records in 1986 – ‘suddenly there was quite a bit of money floating around’ – that allowed him to begin to scratch his Aston itch. The car he wanted was a V8 Vantage and Rod Vickery, later marketing director of Benetton F1 but then Virgin’s fleet manager, was tasked with finding him one. ‘Roger Bennington [Stratton Motor Co] had a Vantage X-pack. It was red, which was certainly not my number one choice. But I just wanted an Aston Vantage! I had it repainted…’
Did it live up to the dream? ‘Yes,’ says Draper. ‘Yes it did. It was fast, beautiful, powerful. And it was a handbuilt British car, which I liked.’
He was hooked. Collecting Astons, he admits, soon became an obsession. ‘I wanted to assemble a definitive collection of the best Astons. In fact I wanted an example of every car they’d made.
’I must have had fifty at one point. I had examples of all the post-war cars, special-bodied cars by Touring, Bertone and Zagato, and examples of all the Team cars: the DB3 that won the Goodwood Nine Hours in 1952, the DB3S that won the Nine Hours in ’55, the DBR1 that came second at Le Mans, DBR4 chassis no1, and then Project 214, after which Aston stopped racing for many years. I was tempted to get an AMR1 [the Group C car that marked Aston’s return to Le Mans in 1989] but that was much later and I resisted the temptation. DP214 was a natural place to stop.’
And that sounds like the perfect cue to focus on the three fabulous cars now glinting in the Sussex sunshine.
So, how rare do you like your DB4 GT? Seventy-five examples of the original were built. But that’s positively mass-produced compared with the Zagato, of which a mere 20 were made in period. Then again, the ‘Project car’ DP214 makes even the Zagato look common. Just two were built, and only 0194/R survives.
The DB4 GT was the first he bought, in 1990, ‘right at the height of the last price boom’. Simon prefers not to talk figures, but this was a vivid snapshot of what was happening in the market at that time. ‘I paid half a million for it,
which was a world record,’ he says. ‘The next time it was valued, it was £120,000.’ And today? Probably around £2.5 million.
It’s a lovely, very correct example, repainted since Simon bought it in original Deep Carriage Green. ‘It’s the second to last one built,’ he says. ‘The last few are different to all the others, so it doesn’t have the big bonnet scoop, it has a slightly different bevel on the headlamps, and it has different rear lights.
‘In researching the book [a Palawan book on the DB4 GT will be printed later this year] we discovered it has a number of extra lightweight bits: drilled chassis, aluminium floorpan and doors… so that was a nice discovery.
‘When we had to partly dismantle it to fix the heater, we discovered that every single part is labelled with the chassis number, so we know it’s all original and correct.the only thing that’s not right – and I’m going to get them replaced – is the spinners should have a domed centre, where these are slightly concave.’
How does it compare with a regular DB4? ‘It’s much more lively,’ he says. ‘What I particuarly like about this car – and it’s quite unusual these days – is that it still has its original 3.7-litre engine. A lot of people were persuaded to have their engines bored out, or sometimes the engines failed or were badly corroded and the factory could only supply 4-litre blocks.
‘There’s something about the 3.7-litre engine; its response. It’s probably got a little less torque but it responds nicely and loves to rev. I’ve done a road rally in it and it was great fun. In fact my mechanics drove it all the way down to Barcelona for that event, which was great for it.’
Whereas 7979 TD was the second-last built, the Zagato, bought in 1992, was by contrast the very first. Not only was it the 1960 British motor show car, it was also extensively raced in period, including by Stirling Moss at Goodwood and Mike Salmon at Le Mans.
‘A lot of the details are unique to this car,’ says Draper. ‘The obvious thing is the chrome strip down the side, but it’s also got a different roofline, lower and more tapered.
‘Originally it had a longer nose, very sharklike. The reason it doesn’t have that nose any more is that it was crashed by Brian Hetreed at Goodwood in 1963 and went back to the factory to be repaired, and I don’t think they were too bothered about putting it back the way it was.
‘Stephen Archer [co-author of the DB4 GT book andvantagecontributor] thinks we should return it to the way it originally looked – and we do have a template, so we could do it – but I can’t make up my mind because most of its life it’s looked like this!
‘It’s been raced pretty much all its life and has undergone several changes to the bodywork. In club racing in the early ’70s it even had huge flared ’arches. I had it returned to its original look, as it was on the motor show stand.
‘It’s also had a lot of different engines. When it was raced by Mike Salmon at Le Mans it was a quasi Works-supported drive, so it had Works engines, and at one stage a Project engine in it.