A DB2/4 ‘notchback’ fixed-head coupé is rare enough, but it’s what lurks beneath the bonnet that makes this one unique
This beautiful DB2/4 ‘notchback’ has a very special secret under its bonnet
Even without its guilty secret, this would be a rare car. And by rare I mean sufficiently scarce to make even other 1950s Astons – cars not exactly noted for their ubiquity – seem positively common. This is a DB2/4 MKII fixed head coupé, a unicorn among horses compared to the far more familiar saloon – for which read hatchback – and convertible 2/4s. In all just 34 were constructed. Ferrari made more 250 GTOS than that.
But there is something else about this car that makes it, so far as some quite learned folk can tell, unique. ‘I’ve done all the research I can, spoken to all the people, looked in all the books and I’ve not come across another like it,’ says Ed Barton-hilton, sales and marketing manager of Nicholas Mee and Co, whose happy lot it is to find the Aston a new owner. There is a big clue on the outside and I’ll come to that in a minute, but the secret itself lies within.
One of the games Barton-hilton has played is to open the bonnet to reveal the gleaming motor, and ask Aston aficionados to see if they can spot anything thereunder that might strike them as unoriginal. And they have examined various clips, cables, brackets and bolts before it occurs that they might just be looking all the way past the elephant in the engine bay. Yes, that’s unmistakeably a 1950s twin-cam straight-six engine, but it is this very familiarity that provides such a shockingly effective disguise. This is indeed an Aston Martin engine, correct down to the very smallest detail. It’s just hiding in plain sight under the bonnet of the wrong Aston Martin.
The moment it’s pointed out, everyone sees it at once. This is not the 3-litre straight-six motor designed for Lagonda by Willie Watson under the close supervision of WO Bentley during the war, that powered all DB Astons up to and including the MKIII that went out of production in 1959. It is in fact the similarly configured Tadek Marekdesigned powerplant that succeeded it and was used by every Aston from the DB4 until DBS.
How the engine got there is, frankly, a mystery. There’s a story attached to it but so far as I am aware it is uncorroborated and I am diffident about telling it without attaching the relevant hygiene notices because I’ve seen before what happens when opinions, half-facts and optimistic speculation are lifted from the pages of publications like this and repeated as fact. History is created, all, some or none of which the car in entitled to.
So, with disclaimer duly placed, it seems the car was delivered to its new owner in France with Sea Green over Deep Carriage Green paintwork in 1956 but returned to the works not once but twice with apparent terminal engine failure. It would be logical, therefore, to conclude it was after this second failure that the car was fitted with the DB4 engine it retains to this day. And you might choose to attach more credence to this view when you learn that its engine number is not that of any DB4 sold to a customer, but comes with a ‘PP’ stamp, suggesting that it was a preproduction motor. And this, so the story goes, is because the car was retained by the works as a development vehicle, what today might be called a mule, for Aston Martin’s brand new engine. If this is the case, which it may
well be, that would add greatly to the historical significance of the car and, presumably, therefore, its value. The only problem is that there is no documentation of any of this taking place in period. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1987 when the information appeared in the Aston Martin Owners Club Register of Cars, that knowledge of its alleged earlier life was made public. Suspicious? Quite possibly not. Aston Martin was not the most assiduous compiler and collector of individual car records in the 1950s and not all that were made have survived. So we don’t know.
What is surprising is how naturally the engine sits in a bay for which it was never designed. If there are signs where the structure has been altered to accept it, my eye is too inexpert to spot them. Unlike so many sports cars of the ’50s that turned up in South America with enormous pushrod Chevrolet V8s where once aristocratic overheadcamshaft European motors had lain, the 2/4 looks born to have this engine which, clearly, it was not. The only oddity is the throttle linkage crossing the top of the cam covers, and that only because this is a left-hand-drive car.
I’ll not deny that I was itching to give it a go. Having had a spell in black and silver paintwork, the car is fresh back from Aston Martin Works, where it’s had a bare metal repaint to its original colours and a general titivation to make sure everything is exactly as it should be. But happily for me the engine has not just been freshly rebuilt, so, within the bounds of prudence, I can stretch its legs a little.
But the real reason I’m fascinated to drive this car is to find how it reacts to DB4 power. The escalation in engine outputs at Aston Martin in the 1950s was fairly astonishing. The standard 2.6-litre DB2 engine developed 105bhp at the start of the decade, but this 3-litre MKII 2/4 would have had 140bhp in 1956, or 165bhp with a high compression ‘Special Series’ engine. But the new 3.7-litre engine as fitted to the 1959 DB4 was claimed to yield a mighty 240bhp. What would that feel like in a chassis whose origins could be traced directly back to the Atom prototype designed before and in the early years of the war?
The only modification I can find to help the car cope with an entire 100bhp more than when new is the front brakes. Discs were optional on early DB2/4 MKIIIS and standardised soon after, but MKIIS all retained drums up front.and I have to say a set of Dunlop discs to complement the Alfin drums at the rear are a welcome sight.
Inside, everything is as original specification, including the Bakelite steering wheel, so no obvious clues to the car’s secret here, though if you were to start the engine and press the little button that on the original car would have made the fuel gauge needle briefly register oil level instead, you’d find the function no longer operational.
By then, however, you’d have received a rather larger clue by way of the deeper, richer note of its all-alloy engine. One of the greater follies of my life was to sell a MKIII some years back, yet I can remember the enchanting howl of its engine as if it were yesterday. But this motor sounds smoother, more complex and mellow. The clutch judders a bit as the MKII moves away but it eases up with use. The DB4 gearbox that comes with this engine seems heavier than that in my old MKIII but the driveline is impeccably taut so seamless shifting requires no effort at all.
We ease out onto the track. We’re on a closed facility today because I know how much money has been spent on paint alone, and Nick Mee is understandably keen for the car to be returned without so much as a speck of stone damage on its immaculate nose and gleaming flanks.
At first it’s good just to drive slowly. You’d not open
a 25-year-old Islay malt and just knock it back: this is an experience to be savoured. Besides, cars like this respond best to being properly warmed, not just until the correct water temperature has registered, but until the gearbox oil has thinned a little in the heat, the dampers warmed through and eased off and the oil pressure dropped a little at idle to indicate the lubricant is now doing its job.
Now it could almost be any other 2/4. The ride on Avon Turbospeed crossplies is firm, a little harsh and even knobbly at times. You might like it for the character it imbues, you may hate it for the comfort it removes, but there’s no questioning its authenticity. Even at these speeds you notice the brevity of its gear ratios. DB4S nudged 140mph, but this motor would run out of revs long before its true potential was realised without the fitment of an overdrive or a taller back axle ratio.
But such short gears should at least give it some zip in a straight line and, when the time comes, it does not disappoint; and it’s not just the raw power you notice. Sure it accelerates like no Feltham Aston I’ve driven, but really it’s the mid-range response you notice most. This is a car that needs no downshifts nor other incentive to give its best. If the quoted outputs are to be believed, Marek’s engine is in a far higher state of tune than Bentley’s despite its extra capacity, but this one is fully on song at just 2500rpm whereafter it just pours on the power until the extremely conservative 4500rpm rev-limit I’ve imposed on myself. It is genuinely effortless.
All of which takes a little acclimatisation. It’s not that the performance is so electrifying you need to build up to it: though scintillating by ’50s standards, ultimately, of course, it’s not that quick. The problem is more conceptual: to me Feltham Astons are pure sports cars, while the Newport Pagnell machines that were designed to take this motor are more Grand Tourers. And at first I wasn’t sure I wanted a Feltham Aston to be effortless. I wanted it to be urgent, of course, but to make the driver work and thereby involve him or her further in its actions. I wanted what I got out to be in some way commensurate, or at least related to, what I put in. It shouldn’t be this easy. Should it?
Some of me still feels that; but with time and laps to feel how the engine’s extra torque also brings the chassis to life without changing its balance (thanks doubtless to the relatively lightweight alloy block in its nose), I can see the later engine brings far more than it takes away. Indeed the car forms an interesting bridge, between those ‘lesser’ post-war Astons and their immensely famous offspring. In reality, I don’t know if this car is the actual missing link between Feltham and Newport Pagnell era. What I do know is that, even if it did turn out to be no more than a curio, that does not make it a less than fascinating Aston or me less than delighted to have made its acquaintance.
‘The engine’s extra torque brings the chassis to life, but without changing its balance’
Above and right Beautifully restored by Aston Martin Works and currently for sale at Nicholas Mee & Co, this DB2/4 MKII fixed-head conceals a secret beneath its pristine Sea Green over Deep Carriage Green coachwork. Cockpit detailing includes a handy toolkit between the front seats. As with the more common hatchback 2/4, the rear seat-back folds flat to provide a useful increase in luggage carrying capacity
Above and left Distinctive – and extremely handsome – profile of the fixed-head DB2/4 is complemented by two-tone paintwork. The real interest in this car, however, hides under the bonnet (left). In place of the original 140bhp 2.9-litre straight-six, this car was fitted with the 240bhp 3.7-litre engine from the DB4
Above The original Aston Martin ‘Q-car’? Certainly there few outward clues to the fact that this 2/4 can harness an extra 100bhp…