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
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’
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