PROJECT DP208: THE VOLVO-AS­TON

John Simis­ter drives a unique Volvo with a four-cylin­der As­ton en­gine

VANTAGE - - Contents - WORDS JOHN SIMIS­TER PHO­TOG­RA­PHY MATTHEW HOW­ELL

AVolvo in Van­tage? Well, As­ton Martin and Volvo were bed­fel­lows in Ford’s Premier Au­to­mo­tive Group not so long ago, and be­fore that there were ten­u­ous con­nec­tions via TWR. But what you see here is some­thing else al­to­gether, some­thing that dates right back to 1961.

It’s As­ton Martin project DP208. At least, part of it is, and orig­i­nally the whole of DP208 looked just like this. See the bulge in the bon­net? That’s be­cause there’s too much en­gine for the space orig­i­nally in­tended for one. Were this a Volvo pro­duc­tion car, as was once the ten­ta­tive in­ten­tion, it might have been called the Volvo P2500. In­stead his­tory and fi­nance got in the way.

The en­gine might look fa­mil­iar to the As­ton-fancier, yet strangely ab­bre­vi­ated. That’s be­cause it is ef­fec­tively two-thirds of a DB4 en­gine, a meaty, mus­cu­lar twin-cam four-pot of a lit­tle un­der 2.5 litres. It uses as many of the DB4 en­gine’s com­po­nents as pos­si­ble and shares its 92mm bore and stroke, so it’s odd that As­ton quoted the new en­gine’s ca­pac­ity as 2499cc. Ac­tu­ally, at two thirds of the DB4’S 3670cc, its cylin­ders amount to 2447cc.

But that’s de­tail quib­bling. Much more im­por­tant is the key ques­tion: why does the en­gine ex­ist? Be­cause As­ton Martin thought there could be money to be made by sell­ing en­gines to other car com­pa­nies: smaller, more-af­ford­able en­gines that nev­er­the­less car­ried the As­ton Martin ca­chet. First, though, trial en­gines had to be built to check that the de­sign worked, af­ter which one would need to be tried out in a suit­able car.

Ever strapped for cash, As­ton Martin al­lo­cated just £3000 to the project. En­gine de­signer Tadek Marek cre­ated a new block and head rather than cut­ting and re-weld­ing DB4 com­po­nents, plus a new five-bear­ing crankshaft and suit­ably phased camshafts, but the de­sign phi­los­o­phy was car­ried over along with what­ever DB4 com­po­nents could be in­cor­po­rated. Work be­gan on March 9, 1961, and on July 29, 1963, one of the three com­pleted en­gines was in­stalled in a Volvo P1800.

Why the Volvo? That was the sug­ges­tion of Charles Singer, whose Lex Group was not only an As­ton Martin dealer but Volvo’s Bri­tish im­porter. The en­gine was duly squeezed into what be­came DP208, and the com­bi­na­tion worked well enough that, af­ter test­ing, it be­came Mrs Marek’s daily driver. The busi­ness case, how­ever, was less con­vinc­ing. So labour-in­ten­sive would the en­gine be to build, judg­ing by ex­pe­ri­ence with the six­cylin­der ver­sion, that sell­ing it at a price low enough for those likely to use it would be im­pos­si­ble. The project duly died, Mrs Marek had to sur­ren­der her Volvo-as­ton and that was that.

What hap­pened to the Volvo is un­known, apart from the fact that it had its Volvo heart re­in­stated. All three en­gines seem­ingly went to ground, too, un­til one resur­faced in the 1970s, as re­ported by Jonathan Wood in a 1974 edi­tion of Clas­sic and sportscar. As­ton spe­cial­ist Richard Wil­liams re­mem­bered own­ing one of them, which he sold to As­ton en­thu­si­ast Craig Dent. Robin Hamil­ton, fa­mous As­ton racer and spe­cial­ist, later bought a four­cylin­der, Db4-de­rived en­gine from Dent and it was this unit – likely the one that Wil­liams had owned – that Wood spot­ted in Hamil­ton’s work­shop and which prompted the ar­ti­cle. Hamil­ton later used it in a race car.

In that mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle, Wood also talks of the sub­se­quent con­ver­sa­tion he had with As­ton Martin’s en­gi­neer­ing chief dur­ing the DB4 era, Harold Beach, who said that the orig­i­nal wooden pat­terns for the DB4’S block and head cast­ings were get­ting ‘a bit ropey’. So there was no ob­jec­tion to cut­ting them down to cre­ate the pat­terns for the four-cylin­der en­gine, in the process sav­ing the cost of cre­at­ing new pat­terns.

The new en­gine, fed by a pair of mas­sive We­ber 50DCOES, re­port­edly worked well, but it put an ex­tra 30kg over the front wheels de­spite its alu­minium con­struc­tion. That made the steer­ing very heavy, so a pro­duc­tion ver­sion of the Volvo-as­ton would have needed some de­vel­op­ment here. That never hap­pened, and the ex­is­tence of a four-cylin­der Marek en­gine grad­u­ally faded out of mem­ory apart from that brief reemer­gence in the 1970s. Un­til now.

Swiss As­ton spe­cial­ist Beat Roos, of Roos En­gi­neer­ing fame, came by the ex-wil­liams/dent/hamil­ton en­gine in Cologne, Ger­many, in 1998. Three thou­sand Deutschmarks later, it was his, and he had a plan. Which was noth­ing less than to recre­ate DP208 as ac­cu­rately as he could.

First, he had to find a suit­able P1800. Early ex­am­ples were built in Bri­tain by Jensen on Volvo’s be­half, us­ing bodyshells made by Pressed Steel in Lin­wood, across the road from where the Hill­man Imp fac­tory was un­der con­struc­tion, and Beat’s 1961 P1800 is one such car. ‘We started work in 2001,’ he re­calls. ‘To get the en­gine to fit we had to mod­ify the steer­ing, so in­stead of the steer­ing box there’s a rack from a Tri­umph TR4. We made new en­gine mount­ings and of course the bon­net bulge. As stan­dard, the Volvo en­gine is tilted back a bit, but this one is tilted a lit­tle more.’

Other changes in­cluded dual-cir­cuit brakes, for wise rea­sons of safety, and the clutch is a Lay­cock di­aphragm-spring unit – a new de­sign in the early 1960s – with hefty 9in-di­am­e­ter plates. ‘We made a spe­cial ra­di­a­tor and oil cooler,’ says Beat, ‘and we used a short­ened DB4 air­box be­cause that’s what As­ton Martin would have used.’ Also from a DB4 is the sep­a­rate header tank for the cool­ing sys­tem, needed be­cause the top of the ra­di­a­tor is be­low the high­est point of the water’s flow.

As for the en­gine, it didn’t run at all well on the 50DCOE car­bu­ret­tors. So Beat aban­doned that piece of his­tory and tried gen­uine 1960s 45DCOE9S as fit­ted to a DB4 Zagato. He started with the jets and choke sizes rec­om­mended for the Zagato by Ted Cut­ting, As­ton Martin’s fa­mous rac­ing en­gi­neer, but, says Beat, ‘The re­sult was quite bad. What we’ve ended up with is very dif­fer­ent from any DB4 set­tings.’

Maybe that’s some­thing to do with in­take and ex­haust res­o­nances, fir­ing or­ders… who knows? As an aside, the DP208 en­gine uses an un­usual fir­ing or­der of 1-2-4-3, rather than the 1-34-2 of most in-line four-cylin­der en­gines. Why is hard to say; even in the early 1960s that fir­ing or­der was largely dis­cred­ited be­cause it con­cen­trates loads se­quen­tially at one end of the en­gine and then the other, in­stead of dis­tribut­ing them equally, although Ford’s con­tem­po­rary straight-fours also fired 1-2-4-3.

Beat’s early dy­namome­ter tests of the en­gine, once re­built, pro­duced less power than As­ton Martin recorded back in the day, one run record­ing 132bhp at 4998rpm and 143lb ft of torque at 4501rpm. How­ever, with the car­bu­ret­tor set­tings sorted out, it peaked at a healthy 148bhp and 5497rpm, at which speed it was also pro­duc­ing a mus­cu­lar 142lb ft. That sug­gests a peaky power de­liv­ery, but ac­tu­ally the torque curve proved quite flat with 138.5lb ft avail­able at 3500rpm and 134.5lb ft at 3000rpm.

Thus op­ti­mised, the en­gine was in­stalled in the Volvo and the com­pleted car made its pub­lic de­but in 2005. Since then, Beat has en­joyed us­ing it of­ten. And now it’s our turn.

APART FROM THE BULGE and the Minilite wheels, shod with gen­er­ously broad 185/70 HR15 Vre­destein Sprint Clas­sic tyres, this not-p1800 looks much as you would ex­pect a beau­ti­fully re­stored ex­am­ple of Volvo’s very pretty coupé to look. Ex­am­ine it more closely, though, and there’s a give­away to what lies within: badges pro­claim­ing ‘Pow­ered by As­ton Martin’ adorn each side of the bon­net bulge.

With that bon­net open, I can see how the As­ton twin-cam is al­most burst­ing out of its bay. Beat points out the cam-cover re­tain­ing nuts, ar­ranged singly as in a DB4 rather than the pairs used in later Marek straight-sixes, and I also spot the mod­ern 123 dis­trib­u­tor with its elec­tronic ig­ni­tion map. Down be­low is a typ­i­cally-marek large sump, here con­tain­ing eight litres of oil.

I start the en­gine. It’s rorty and snorty in char­ac­ter­is­tic twin-cam, one­choke-per-cylin­der fash­ion, gob­bling

away like a big Alfa or Lo­tus twin-cam: hard to rec­on­cile with the Volvo shape and the gen­tler note that usu­ally emerges from it. We’re head­ing for the hills be­yond Roos’ Safen­wil base, the weather is not look­ing promis­ing and, good­ness me, this steer­ing is se­ri­ously heavy. Mrs Marek must have de­vel­oped im­pres­sive shoul­der mus­cles back in 1963 although, to be fair, her ver­sion of the Volvo wouldn’t have had such broad tyre treads as this one has. (The orig­i­nal also wore wire wheels, in­ci­den­tally.)

As soon as DP208/2 (as we can un­of­fi­cially call it) is mov­ing, all that changes. The steer­ing be­comes sur­pris­ingly light, even more so as the per­fo­rated-spoke wheel is turned far off-cen­tre, at which point it does that old-volvo, ge­om­e­try-re­lated thing of ‘wrap­ping on’ – pulling it­self onto lock in­stead of re­quir­ing ef­fort from the driver. As we ven­ture into the coun­try­side, it’s clear that the shift of the stan­dard Volvo gear­box is quite stiff, the ride over bumps is re­ally rather good and the heater is ex­tremely ef­fi­cient, as a Swedish heater should be.

All that is down to the Volvo part of DP208/2. The view past the bon­net bulge, and the sounds and foot-pounds emerg­ing from be­neath it, are As­ton Martin’s do­ing. I’m driv­ing what feels like a Volvo hot rod, a touch lugubri­ous in the cor­ners thanks to that added nose weight but crisp both un­der the ac­cel­er­a­tor foot and to the ears. Loud, too; the en­gine mount­ing rub­bers are clearly hard, given the booms and vi­bra­tions find­ing their way into the cabin. A pro­duc­tion ver­sion would have had to be bet­ter here; as well as that car­bu­ret­tor data, Beat’s con­ver­sa­tion with Ted Cut­ting re­vealed that the vi­bra­tion (per­haps con­nected with that fir­ing or­der?) was one rea­son why the project was dropped.

Yes, yes, but how well does it go? Is this a kind of pri­mor­dial Porsche 944, a lusty front-en­gined coupé with a big heart and big bangs from four big cylin­ders? That’s ex­actly what it is. Pace up hills is a bit less en­thu­si­as­tic than I would ex­pect from 148bhp, but on the flat the Volvo lopes along keenly – the over­drive helps lengthen the legs – and the am­ple torque makes for a re­laxed, con­ti­nent-munch­ing drive.

And now it’s snow­ing. I’m driv­ing the only Marek-de­signed four-cylin­der pro­to­type en­gine known to have sur­vived, in a car semi-uniquely adapted to house it, and I could slide off the road any minute. Luck­ily the steer­ing is both pre­cise and in­for­ma­tive of the state of grip un­der the non-win­ter tyres, so I just have to tread care­fully and keep a space be­tween us and the other traf­fic.

There’s noth­ing like a sense of jeop­ardy to help you bond with a car. What a shame that As­ton Martin and Volvo de­cided not to build more. And where, we won­der, are the other two en­gines?

‘AM­PLE TORQUE MAKES FOR A RE­LAXED, CON­TI­NENT-MUNCH­ING DRIVE’

Pres­tige Paint­works pride them­selves in be­ing ex­perts in high-end au­to­mo­tive restora­tion. Their com­mit­ment to ex­cel­lence and high stan­dard work­man­ship is ap­par­ent in all work they do, gain­ing them a rep­u­ta­tion in the in­dus­try as the ‘go-to’ com­pany for restora­tive, re­fin­ish and fab­ri­ca­tion work. Past projects in­clude a 1955 XK 140 OTS body off restora­tion, a Se­ries 1 XKE road­ster for a lo­cal E Type spe­cial­ist, a 1972 As­ton Martin DBS for a body off body and paint­work restora­tion, a 1955 As­ton Martin DB 2/4 Mk1 Drop­head for a body off body and paint­work restora­tion to con­cours.

Cur­rent projects are an As­ton Martin DB5 colour change to Sil­ver Birch, a 1958 As­ton Martin DB Mk3 Drop­head com­plete nut and bolt restora­tion to con­cours, a Se­ries 3 XKE for a con­cours nut and bolt restora­tion and a 1973 Fer­rari Day­tona for a ma­jor ex­te­rior body and paint­work restora­tion.

Clock­wise from top Simis­ter finds out what a four-cylin­der Tadek Marek en­gine feels like. Big on torque – and rather loud – is the an­swer. The 2.5-litre unit sits at quite an an­gle in the P1800’s en­gine bay, which ne­ces­si­tated the bon­net bulge; early P1800s were ac­tu­ally built in Bri­tain, by the Jensen sports car com­pany

Op­po­site and above Fa­cia and con­trols are all stan­dard P1800. Steer­ing re­quires quite a bit of heft­ing around – ex­tra weight of As­ton en­gine re­ally makes its pres­ence felt at park­ing speeds. On the move it’s much bet­ter – pre­cise and in­for­ma­tive, which is just as well when you en­counter very Swedish weather cond­tions

A fab­u­lous 1969 As­ton Martin DB6 Volante re­cently re­stored by our­selves for a body and paint­work restora­tion in­clud­ing ex­ten­sive struc­tural cor­ro­sion is­sues, due to be ex­hib­ited at the Hamp­ton Court Palace Con­cours of El­e­gance in its orig­i­nal colour Amethyst.

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