v8-en­gined db5

It started life as a db5, had its chas­sis stretched, then be­came a test-bed for As­ton’s new v8 en­gine. We drive a glo­ri­ous mon­grel

VANTAGE - - Contents - words AN­DREW FRANKEL

As­ton used a DB5 as a test-bed for its new V8 en­gine. We drive that car

Above and op­po­site

Frankel finds out what a 5.3-litre V8 feels like in a DB5 bodyshell. Ex­ter­nal clues are lim­ited to big­ger, 16in wheels, and ex­hausts ex­it­ing on ei­ther side of the tail. Un­der­neath is the de Dion rear sus­pen­sion. Black-and-white pic shows Bill Ban­nard with npp at new­port pag­nell back in the day

From a dis­tance, it looks like any other DB5, or at least one that has been de­nuded by the re­moval of its front and rear bumpers. It looks more sport­ing as a re­sult, but slightly awk­ward too, like a Grand Opera so­prano in run­ning spikes. DB5S never were sports cars, they were tour­ers, and Grand ones at that.

No mat­ter; as you move closer, your sus­pi­cions that all is not as meets the ca­sual eye mul­ti­ply. Why does it have twin ex­hausts rather than those two lit­tle pipes stick­ing out from a sin­gle rear box? And what’s hap­pened to its wheels? Are they not a lit­tle larger than you’d ex­pect a DB5 to wear? At 16 rather than 15in in di­am­e­ter, in­deed they are. And then you spot the ele­phant in the room – or, rather, the 4in ex­ten­sion in the wheel­base. It’s the sort of thing you might never no­tice, but once you’ve seen the ex­tra met­al­work be­tween the door and the rear whee­larch you can’t look at the car again with­out see­ing it. Is this even a DB5 at all?

The an­swer is that it is. Sort of. In fact, while fans of fic­ti­tious es­capist es­pi­onage will doubt­less dis­agree, I’d say it was the most fas­ci­nat­ing DB5 of them all. And if you think the mod­i­fi­ca­tions you can see make it in­ter­est­ing, they are as noth­ing to those you can­not. For un­der­neath that oh-so-el­e­gant skin lies a sus­pen­sion sys­tem, a gear­box and an en­gine never fit­ted to any other DB5. A sock­ing great V8 en­gine, now that I men­tion it.

En­gines are not easy. Even for the most mod­ern man­u­fac­tur­er­swith­thedeep­est­pock­ets,theird­e­vel­op­ment eats into the cal­en­dar. But in the 1960s As­ton Martin rewrote the rule­book on how to burn time try­ing to de­sign and en­gi­neer an all-new en­gine. For it is well-known that Tadek Marek’s 5.3-litre V8 first went into pro­duc­tion in the 1969 DBS; what fewer peo­ple are aware of is that it was com­mis­sioned in 1962…

It was a hero­ically trou­ble­some en­gine. It first ran on a bench in July of 1965, with a 4.8-litre ca­pac­ity, and broke pretty much im­me­di­ately. The team sol­diered on and by 1967 felt it strong enough in now 5-litre form to be slot­ted into the back of John Sur­tees’ Lola T70 and taken to Le Mans, al­though Marek him­self was dead against the idea. At the test ses­sion, Sur­tees was an as­ton­ish­ing third fastest ahead of all the 7-litre Ford MKIVS and beaten by just two Fer­raris. It all looked very promis­ing, and con­tin­ued to do so right up un­til the mo­ment in the race when both cars re­tired with en­gine fail­ure be­fore the first driver change. It would be an­other two years and an­other change in ca­pac­ity be­fore As­ton Martin deemed it fit to go on sale.

In the mean­time, the new en­gine couldn’t just be tested on the track. As­ton Martin needed a sacri­fi­cial car into which to squeeze not only the new en­gine, but the de Dion rear axle sus­pen­sion that would go with it when it fi­nally reached pro­duc­tion in the DBS. That would make the DBS the first pro­duc­tion As­ton not to have a live rear axle, de­spite the fact that a de Dion rear end had not only been pro­posed for what would be­come the DB4 as long ago as 1954, but also de­signed, in­stalled in a run­ning pro­to­type called DP114 and tested by David Brown him­self, who pro­nounced him­self un­happy with the re­fine­ment lev­els and canned it.

Any­way, the sacri­fi­cial car was this car, and whether it is even a DB5 is cer­tainly up for de­bate. It looks like a DB5

but it sits on a DB6 chas­sis, as shown by that 95mm wheel­base ex­ten­sion. What is not in doubt is just how hard was fit­ting a square-shaped V8 into a space de­signed for the long, thin ob­long that was Marek’s straight-six.

The job fell largely to en­gi­neer Bill Ban­nard, who had to re­design the front sus­pen­sion and shorten the steer­ing box just to get it in, and even then ‘we just had to get the man­i­folds where we could bloody well get them’. The de Dion was fit­ted too, but in such a way that the live axle used for the DB5 and 6 could be quite eas­ily retro­fit­ted so the en­gine could con­tinue to be tested while the de Dion was be­ing checked or re­built. Ban­nard re­mem­bers try­ing it in that con­fig­u­ra­tion and said it was like turn­ing ‘a race horse into a don­key. It was ter­ri­ble! Enor­mous fun – but lethal. So we es­tab­lished that it needed the de Dion…’

The V8-pow­ered NPP 7D first ran in March of 1966 with Ban­nard in­sist­ing he was first be­hind the wheel. His job and that of Marek and Ge­orge Evans (who’d built the en­gine) was to go out and cover 400 miles ev­ery day in it to put miles on the mo­tor and test the rear sus­pen­sion. Prob­lems in­cluded con­trol­ling tem­per­a­tures both in the cramped en­gine bay and the cock­pit. Ban­nard reck­oned the car was lit­tle quicker than a DB6 with the six-cylin­der mo­tor but that the torquey na­ture of the V8 made ac­cess­ing that power much eas­ier.

It was used over a three-year pe­riod to eval­u­ate en­gines of dif­fer­ent ca­pac­i­ties, We­ber car­bu­ret­tors of both IDA and DCOE de­sign and fuel in­jec­tion sys­tems from both Brico and Bosch. And then, as with all such cars, it was meant to have been scrapped.

How it es­caped the noose has been lost in the mists of time, but it is known it was sold with a six-cylin­der en­gine and live axle and ex­isted as such for around ten years be­fore be­ing ac­quired by den­tist Dave Preece, whose ex­ploits in As­tons had al­ready in­cluded fin­ish­ing Le Mans in 1977 shar­ing a big V8 with dealer Robin Hamil­ton and vet­eran racer Mike Salmon. Preece knew Ban­nard and, with the lat­ter’s ad­vice, found and re­fit­ted a V8 and a de Dion axle. Preece raced the car at least once and kept it for 20 years be­fore sell­ing it to RS Wil­liams Ltd who, on be­half of a client, em­barked on a three-year restora­tion.

Ac­tu­ally it was a bit more than a restora­tion. The brief was to turn the car from the ex­tremely rough and ready test-bed pro­to­type it had al­ways been into some­thing an

‘it was meant to have been scrapped. how it es­caped the noose has been lost in the mists of time’

owner could and might even choose to use ev­ery day. The re­quire­ment that the car should be able to sit in Lon­don traf­fic was solved by fit­ting an enor­mous ra­di­a­tor and duct­ing to the gear­box, but get­ting the most from the en­gine proved as trou­ble­some in the early 21st cen­tury as it had in the mid-1960s. RS Wil­liams tried ev­ery­thing – work­ing on the man­i­folds, car­bu­ra­tion, ex­hausts and cylin­der heads, mak­ing tiny gains here and there, ac­cept­ing that power would al­ways be lim­ited so max­imis­ing torque un­til no more could prac­ti­cally be done. On the RS Wil­liams dyno, the re­sults were mag­nif­i­cent: 352bhp and a mas­sive 402lb ft of torque at a nice, use­able 3500rpm.

Which is ex­actly how it re­mains to­day. It’s in­ter­est­ing to note those 16in spoked rims, built spe­cially for the car be­cause it kept break­ing stan­dard 15in DB5 wheels, but if you sit in­side there’s very lit­tle to give the game away. Eas­i­est to spot is the small map on top of the gear lever that re­veals this to be a later ZF trans­mis­sion with a dog-leg first; but if you look at the Smiths rev-counter you’ll no­tice that its red-line is painted at 6000rpm, not the 5500rpm you’d ex­pect on ei­ther DBS 5 or 6 and, in tiny let­ters, it bears the leg­end ‘8CYL’. Rather promis­ingly, the speedome­ter now reads up to 200mph rather than 180mph. As with the rev-counter, it comes from a DBS V8.

Given the car’s his­tory, I scarcely know what to ex­pect when I twist the key and fire up the V8 for the first time. But in­stead of blow­ing down the house be­hind it with dou­ble-bar­relled ri­fle-shot re­ports from those twin pipes,

it just growls a lit­tle be­fore set­tling down to a con­tented, deep-chested hum. The clutch is pre­pos­ter­ously heavy and find­ing first gear re­quires an in­put all the way from the shoul­der, but the lever slots home with well-oiled pre­ci­sion. A cou­ple of sec­onds later – time enough to re­alise the steer­ing is al­most as heavy as the clutch – we’re un­der way.

Ini­tial thoughts have noth­ing to do with speed, power or han­dling. What strikes me first and, to an ex­tent, what stays with me long­est is the car’s ci­vil­ity. The body of­fers not the slight­est squeak nor rat­tle, the sus­pen­sion not the mer­est clonk or shake. It feels as tight as if it had been built yes­ter­day and by peo­ple who re­ally know what they’re do­ing. It rides beau­ti­fully too, bet­ter by far than any ’60s As­ton of my ac­quain­tance; to me the de Dion pays for it­self there and then and I’ve not yet even been around a cor­ner.

At once all thoughts of hav­ing to wres­tle with a frac­tious, treach­er­ous beast are re­placed with a long­ing to drive the DB5 across Europe, rack­ing up hun­dreds of miles ev­ery day as had Ban­nard, Marek and Evans when NPP 7D was clearly a very dif­fer­ent beast in­deed. And I’ve not even asked any ques­tions of the V8 yet.

When I do, the an­swers are sim­ply ex­quis­ite. I don’t know how much the DB5/6/V8 weighs, but prob­a­bly around 1500kg which, mated to a 352bhp en­gine with that much torque, pro­vides a per­for­mance en­ve­lope sim­i­lar in size to that of a new Porsche 911 Car­rera. Yes, re­ally. But Ban­nard was right: what’s best about it is the mid-range

re­sponse. You can wring it in sec­ond gear and it’s sim­ply elec­tri­fy­ing, but it is some­how even more sat­is­fy­ing to pull back into third, hear the thun­der and feel the surge of that mas­sive mo­tor pulling the hori­zon to­wards you. Even the heavy con­trols feel right, be­cause their weights are well matched, both to each other and to the char­ac­ter of the car. There are those in which fin­ger­tip steer­ing and lightswitch gearshifts feel fab­u­lous but this, cat­e­gor­i­cally, is not one of them.

As with all the best sport­ing cars of the era, the faster you go the bet­ter it feels. Preece once did 145mph and Ban­nard said it would run out of breath in the 140s, but with the RS Wil­liams work it feels like it would go way past that point now. The en­gine was meant to pull the heav­ier, wider DBS through the air at over 160mph and I see no rea­son why NPP 7D would not do the same. But there is some­thing else I want to find out.

An up­hill left-hand turn pro­vides the an­swer. It’s the kind of cor­ner a live axle car hates, so what dif­fer­ence will the de Dion make? Only all the dif­fer­ence in the world. Where I’d ex­pect it to scratch, scrab­ble and slide, it sim­ply and pro­gres­sively dumps all its torque straight on the tar­mac, ex­hibit­ing grip and trac­tion of a kind you’d sim­ply not as­so­ci­ate with cars like this. You can even­tu­ally wrench it loose at the back but it takes some provo­ca­tion and even then re­quires only the mildest of cor­rec­tions.

All of which gets me play­ing the ‘what if’ game, as fab­u­lous as it is fu­tile. What if As­ton Martin had gone with Harold Beach’s in­stincts and equipped DBS 4, 5 and 6 with de Dion sus­pen­sion. What if in­stead of tak­ing six years to per­fect, the V8 had been ready in three? What if a car not at all un­like this had been of­fered for sale in the mid-1960s? It would have set stan­dards the rest of the world would have taken years to reach. But th­ese are phan­tom thoughts. It didn’t hap­pen, and, in all like­li­hood, it could never have hap­pened, least not in this form.

What’s left is a fan­tasy, a charm­ing con­fec­tion com­pris­ing the chas­sis from one car, the body from an­other and the pow­er­train from a third, art­fully as­sem­bled in pe­riod, but only able to op­er­ate in to­tal har­mony and thereby re­alise its po­ten­tial thanks to the tech­nol­ogy of the 21st cen­tury. We may never know who saved it from the crusher back in 1969 but I can now add my own name to a rather short list of peo­ple who will for­ever be very glad that they did. Many thanks to Tony Buck­ing­ham for trust­ing us with his car, John Leap­ing­well for mak­ing it all hap­pen and Neil Thomp­son of RS Wil­liams Ltd for find­ing it for us in the first place.

‘pull back into third, hear the thun­der and feel the surge of that mas­sive mo­tor’

PHO­TOG­RA­PHY TIM AN­DREW

Above and right rs Wil­liams com­pletely re­built the car in the noughties, im­prov­ing the cool­ing to al­low it to sit in traf­fic, wring­ing ev­ery last drop of power and torque from the V8 en­gine, and ft­ting the later ZF five-speed trans­mis­sion to make it even longer-legged

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