DBS AT FIFTY
This year sees the 50th birthday of the DBS. We take an early, Vantage-spec example for a celebratory drive
The original six-cylinder DBS is fifty this year. We go for a celebratory drive
MODERN CAR SHOWROOMS smell of fresh tyres, that indefinable but unmistakable ‘new car’ aroma and occasionally the salesman’s aftershave, but not this one. There’s a gleaming display of Lotus’s latest in the main showroom, but the scent is decidedly old school. It’s the smell of carburettors and fuel tanks venting to atmosphere and, sure enough, around the corner from the sunlit main showroom at the Stratton Motor Company is the source: a pulse-raising collection of classics, mostly Aston Martins.
While MD Roger Bennington searches for keys, photographer Andy Morgan and I scan the collection, spotting cars Top Trumps-style, pointing and trying not to shout like excited kids. In one corner is an example of the car most commonly associated with the classic DBS, a V8, and in the centre, glowing red, the car we’ve come to drive: an original, six-cylinder DBS.
It was the six-cylinder version that was revealed to the press and potential customers at Blenheim Palace on September 25, 1967. In truth, the fact that it didn’t have the V8 engine that it was conceived to carry under that wide bonnet was probably a slight disappointment. It had been a poorly kept secret that Aston was developing its own V8 and at the Racing Car Show at Olympia in January that year Aston had wowed the crowds with a handsome dark blue Lola-aston, a Lola T70 coupé fitted with the new engine. The intention had been to prove the V8 in the heat of competition, but it became a baptism of fire with lots of failures and poor results, hence the engine’s delay. It would be another couple of years before it finally arrived.
Bennington has found the keys and, after a bit of preflight, fires up the DBS. It sounds utterly glorious. Andy and I turn to each other and simultaneously ask: ‘Why would you want a V8?’ There’s something very English about a straight-six, which is probably a legacy of years of straight-six Astons and Xk-engined Jaguars. They have an unmistakable character and a certain class, and this one, breathing a little hesitantly initially through a trio of twin-choke Webers, is among the best I’ve heard, even though it has a pair of tailpipes so modest that their combined diameter would be less than one of the four pipes on a current Audi S1.
Out in the daylight it’s such a handsome car, though it seems odd that it’s on wire wheels. My first exposure to the six-cylinder DBS – though I didn’t realise it at the time – came from the early-70s TV show, The persuaders! I adored the opening credits, the split screen that rolled to John Barry’s theme tune with its plink-plonky-plink piano and swirling, oozing bass line. Hearing it was my cue to hot-foot it to the TV to see the two main protagonists – not Tony Curtis and Roger Moore, of course, but the Ferrari Dino 246 and the DBS. Moore, as Lord Brett Sinclair, drove the Bahama Yellow DBS, wearing the appropriate plate BS1 – used with the permission of circus owner Billy Smart – and wearing the GKN alloy wheels of the V8. In fact underneath it was a six, but as the V8 had just been launched and Aston wanted to promote it, they dressed the DBS to look like the new model.
Whatever, it was perfect casting: a handsome, confident Brit and a highly strung Italian, though in fact the Aston very nearly came from an Italian styling house itself. Touring of Milan had proposed evolving its DB6 into a sleeker, lower-snouted and sharper-edged two-seat coupé with a long, sloping rear screen like a hatchback. Two prototypes were built but development stalled when the Italian firm ceased trading soon after. Happily, Aston had an alternative proposal, and it came from a recent recruit its design department, one William Towns.
Towns had worked for Rootes and also for Rover, where he designed the body of the Rover-brm Le Mans racer before joining Aston in 1966, ostensibly to design seats, though William always had bigger ideas. His proposal for the DBS was a crisply drawn four-seater, designed to accept the V8. Logic says it should have been called the DB7, but Touring’s proposal had been touted around various shows and established the DBS name, coined to indicate it would be a limited-run special. And so this was adopted for the Towns design, a car that proved so special it would be the basis of Aston Martins for the next two decades.
It’s an imposing, beautifully proportioned shape that looks great from almost every angle. And it looks just as good with the original, four-headlamp treatment as with the later, more sculpted, twin-lamp design. Recognise the tail lights? They’re the simply styled units from the Hillman Hunter, while the triple vents on the rear pillars are one of the defining details of the early DBS – and a nod to the Touring design. These early cars also went without a chin spoiler, introduced later to improve high-speed stability.
The doors are very long, which is great for getting access to the rear sofa – sorry, seats. Indeed, the doors are so long they have an ashtray at both ends, the ones at the rear for those sitting in the back. The plump front seats look unpromising in terms of support but, unlike modern seats, they compress when you sit in them so the cushion cups and supports you quite well. Their lack of head restraints is mildly concerning, as is the lack of an inertia reel seat belt, basic things we take for granted in modern cars.
The driving position is impressively square, with seat, wheel and pedals in line, but for me the non-adjustable steering wheel is a tad low. Its large diameter helps manoeuvering though – despite power assistance (a £133 option on the six-cylinder DBS) it’s still pretty heavy at parking speeds – and its slim rim has a flat front profile that gives a good, ergonomic grip.
Road tests of the day conveyed slight disappointment