TRACK TEST: DB4 LIGHTWEIGHT
In the ’80s, RS Williams turned unloved DB4S into fierce racers. We drive one
Looking at our two wonderful Series 1 DB4S in the paddock at Donington Park, it’s hard to believe they are brothers separated at birth. Almost sixty years later, both have led interesting lives since they left Newport Pagnell, but their destinies could hardly have been more different.
The road car, DB4/218/L, has had the life that one might have expected. Exported new to the US, it passed through a number of hands until a young and enthusiastic owner acquired it in the 1970s for a mixture of everyday use and the odd bit of competition. A notable excursion was to the Bonneville Salt Flats, where a top speed test ended with a burnt piston. Undeterred, the owner blanked off the inlet and exhaust ports with bits of flattened Coke can and drove home. In fact he drove it like that for a year!
More recently, the car returned to Europe, where it has been enjoyed by several keen Aston enthusiasts. It has recently had a major restoration and yet remains relatively standard. Its exquisite condition makes me grateful that these cars are now being so well preserved. On the other hand, part of me can’t help feeling nostalgic for the days when such a car could be thrashed at Bonneville and then used for runs to Walmart on five cylinders and be allowed slowly to decay with little concern. How times have changed.
But then we take the racing brother. And, oh brother, what a difference! DB4/123/R, the 23rd DB4, was built in 1959, the year that Britain’s first motorway opened. Over the years it’s been enjoyed by a number of enthusiastic owners (see page 130) and in the 1970s was campaigned in AMOC hillclimbs and sprints, though still in largely standard road-going form.
Then in 1976 it was acquired by Paul Shires (confusingly the godfather of Paul Spires, boss of Aston Martin Works). Shires ran it for a while as a standard car, but this was the heyday of racing modified DB4S – for the simple reason that scruffy DB4S weren’t worth restoring. At that time, cars tended to fall into one of three categories: those that had been well-maintained throughout their lives, tenuous survivors, and wrecks rusting in sheds. Faced with a car in need of an unaffordable restoration but too good to scrap, there were few choices. And what’s the most fun you can have in a DB4? Race it, of course!
RS Williams had proved the potential of the DB4 Lightweight with Viscount Downe’s car (see separate story on page 127). So ‘123’ was entrusted to RS Williams and became the third Lightweight to be built solely for racing.
In design and build, it differed little from the first car, and in fact has hardly changed since its original build 33 years ago. The original engine was of 4.2 litres, as was the norm at the time when these hot rods were built. That gave a more than useful 350bhp, but when the current owner acquired the car in 2000 the engine was uprated to 4.5 litres. The output now is around 410bhp, which is a pretty astonishing figure.
If only this day with the DB4 brothers could have been shared with Tadek Marek, who designed the engine in the 1950s and struggled initially to get it much above 200bhp, and with Harold Beach, who designed the DB4 and struggled to stop it! They would, I am sure, have been enthralled by what has become of their designs and, of course, must take huge credit.
So one of these Astons still feels like a late1950s car – those very early DB4S, though ahead of their time, had a few years to run before they were thoroughly developed and sorted. But the 1959 racing brother? This is a transmutation into something almost beyond comparison – and yet, perhaps surprisingly, it still feels like an Aston Martin…
These days, chassis ‘123’ isn’t seen on track as much as it used to be: the opportunity to race these lightweights has sadly diminished. But it couldn’t be anything other than a racing car. Whereas in the regular DB4 you slide onto a plumped-up leather seat in a cosy but sumptuous lounge, entering ‘123’ is like stepping into a machine. The door itself seems to weigh nothing and, having negotiated the roll-cage, slotting yourself into the unyielding bucket seat and pulling the harness tight feels very much like strapping the racing car on.
This is a machine in which the driver and machine are close to being at one: whatever the driver does is met with an immediate response; whatever the car does, the driver knows instantly. And of course you wouldn’t want it any other way. But the work that has gone into the car to make it like this is quite exceptional. Looking around – and under – ‘123’, you can’t help but marvel at the depth and the detail of the engineering. As with any competition car, its effectiveness is the sum of many things: some big, some quite small, some seemingly inconsequential.
Starting has its own idiosyncrasies. The large Webers supply a lot of fuel and, with no air filter, the risk of a blowback causing flames on start-up is significant. ‘It’s happened a few times,’ says Nathan from 22GT Racing. So, no flapping the fast pedal when the starter motor is busy then. Sure enough, the straight-six leaps into life – and what a noise! The bare shell, thin plastic windows and total lack of soundproofing mean that, even with silencers, earplugs, a closed helmet and an open mind, the noise is just brutal. And the full assault is yet to come.
The instruments are jarringly small in such a large, airy cockpit, but perfectly placed and clearly visible through the small, nicely shaped steering wheel. As I edge down the pit lane, the clutch, as with so many modern racing clutches, is almost as easy as in a road car. The gearbox, too, with its David Brown casing but Hewland internals, is a delight – clearly built for the track, each gear slots home with ease and precision.
Even in the first few turns, there’s already a rich stream of information from the chassis and the steering. The Lightweight has a standard DB4 steering rack but so keen is it to change direction that in the Craner Curves it’s almost a matter of thinking it through rather than steering it. At the Old Hairpin, the tyres are working hard to balance braking, power and traction: while the DB4 finds decent grip, it never feels less than alive under you.
It feels happiest when you can power through the corner, making minor corrections with the steering, the supension taking surface changes in its stride. Body-roll and tyre wall movement are minimal, yet the handling remains forgiving. Not so benign is the noise. Some low-volume
noises can be uncomfortable due to their nature and harmonics. Some really loud noises can be almost agreeable. This is the worst of both. Noisy, boomy, eardrum-assaulting, chestshaking and downright violating. I love it.
Flat up the hill to Mcleans, I wonder how the DB4 will manage the off-camber-left braking zone and quick right turn-in. Easily this time – though it would be easy to get it wrong, too. At the edge, the DB4 shows its limits readily – but the edge is also the inefficient slow zone; smoothness equals speed. The uprated discs pull the car up with reassuring heft but the narrow tyres have their own limitations. Respect and a light touch get the best results.
Some cars you can throw through the chicane, but this one prefers a calmer approach to keep it on line, within the limits of grip and with the power propelling you forwards rather than in any other direction. Of course, when you’re not chasing laptimes, it does have its fun side. Like a teasing mistress, it wants to play, be adventurous and yet look after you. It feels safe, strong – and properly fast.
The 4.5-litre engine is just epic. Its power and
appetite for revs are both immense and the revlimit is reached surprisingly quickly, though it should be mentioned that the car is set up with low ratios from a previous outing.
I’m left with two overriding impressions. The first is the noise – this really is the beast that lurks within the DB4. The other is the connection between the throttle and the rear tyres, so direct that even a small movement of the pedal seems to produce a proportionate movement of the rear of the car. The way it can be placed anywhere on the track simply by using the throttle is quite remarkable.
The DB4 Lightweight is an engineering achievement beyond imagining in 1959, and the fact that so many of these cars are still around in their modified form makes them a significant category of DB4 in their own right. Indeed, some have suggested they should be classed as Series 6. Long may they have a place to play and be enjoyed by all. Beautiful beasts indeed.
Above and right Attended by the crew from 22GT Racing, DB4/123/R, the third of the 1980s DB4 Lightweights, prepares for a test session. Engine is 4.5 litres, good for a ferocious 410bhp
Above Racing bucket and harness, bare aluminium and a hefty roll-cage, which adds stiffness as well as safety, make the Lightweight almost unrecognisable from the standard car