DB2/4 ‘HYBRID’

A DB2/4 ‘notch­back’ fixed-head coupé is rare enough, but it’s what lurks be­neath the bon­net that makes this one unique

VANTAGE - - Contents - WORDS AN­DREW FRANKEL PHO­TOG­RA­PHY GUS GREGORY

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.

V

‘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…

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