TRACK TEST: DB4 LIGHTWEIGHT

In the ’80s, RS Wil­liams turned unloved DB4S into fierce rac­ers. We drive one

VANTAGE - - Contents - WORDS STEPHEN ARCHER

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.

PHO­TOG­RA­PHY TIM ANDREW

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

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