DB’S SECRET 4X4 REVEALED
The DBX will be a radical new kind of Aston Martin but, back in the David Brown days, plans were also made for a four-wheel-drive vehicle, as we now reveal
The DBS will be Aston’s first 4x4, but here’s one it (almost) made earlier
SYNERGY, A MUCH OVERUSED, almost clichéd idiom, would not have been in Sir David Brown’s vocabulary during his time at the helm of Aston Martin. In his bluff Yorkshire manner, he eschewed corporate jargon. But the word probably describes his vision for the DB organisation more aptly than any other.
The firms that made up the David Brown Corporation were diverse and, sometimes, seemingly unconnected: the worldwide parent gear business with its headquarters in Huddersfield, a foundry in Penistone, the tractor division at Meltham, and Aston Martin and Lagonda – separate entities until 1960. Later additions included shipbuilding businesses, a manufacturing venture for microwave ovens and even a modelling agency, which provided the scantily clad ladies that adorned the bonnets of Astons at the various motor shows around the world.
Brown (Sir David only from 1968) served as chairman and managing director of most of the constituent companies. No mere figurehead, he took an active interest in the day-to-day running of every facet of the organisation and encouraged cooperation between the various divisions for the greater good of the organisation as a whole.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the relationship between Aston Martin and David Brown Tractors (DBT). Historically, the tractor firm had been the parent of the automobile division. It oversaw engine production and assembly operations, while providing a conduit for funds to be diverted to keep the sports car manufacturer afloat.
The chairman was keen for Aston Martin to be more than just a drain on DBT’S resources. In truth, there was little correlation between the two divisions, but that didn’t stop Brown’s probing mind hatching various plans for shared projects.
One of the most intriguing was a secret proposal to develop a four-wheel-drive vehicle that could be marketed as a utility model under the David Brown name, or as a ‘luxury’ off-roader wearing the Lagonda badge. As a defence contractor operating under the Official Secrets Act, the David Brown organisation knew how to cover its tracks, which is why almost all tangible evidence of the project has remained buried.
The seeds that led to its inception were sown in 1949 when DBT bought a new Land Rover for use by its tractor demonstration team. This 80in Series 1 model, purchased direct from Rover, quickly proved its worth, hauling a fully laden four-wheel trailer across the country as a support vehicle at all the regional demos.
But the Land Rover, agile as it was, was too utilitarian for Brown’s tastes. His enthusiasm for country pursuits – particularly hunting and shooting – led to the development of several shooting brakes at the Feltham factory. The first of these were two Lagonda 2.6-litre ’brakes, registered 79 BHX and 250 FMY and built respectively in 1954 and 1955 with special bodies by Tickford.
These two Lagondas led double lives. Their weekday job was as service vehicles for aircraft-towing tractors sold by DB’S industrial division, which also operated out of Feltham. During extended weekends, their signage was
changed and they became support vehicles for the Aston Martin racing team.
The idea of a dual-purpose vehicle appealed to Brown. He felt that combining the luxury of the Lagonda ’brake with the off-road ability of a Land Rover would provide the best of both worlds. The concept was the original sports utility vehicle, but only in so far as ‘sports’ meant country pursuits as opposed to the modern ‘lifestyle’ image of an SUV.
At the time, the David Brown group was developing an experimental automotive diesel engine for Willys Overland. The objective was to provide a diesel-powered version of the Willys Jeep for certain overseas markets, specifically India, where it would be manufactured under licence by DB’S Bombay (Mumbai) distributors, Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd.
This secret project was handled by DBT’S experimental department at Lee Mills, Holmfirth. After Willys pulled out for reasons of cost, David Brown decided to continue with its own four-wheel drive developments.
The 4x4 project was handed over to Midlands Engineering, a new David Brown division based at Aston in Birmingham. The division was established to explore new concepts in secret. Other projects included gas turbines, torque-converter transmissions and specialised military vehicles.
The chief engineer at Midlands Engineering was John Denshaw, and the operation was controlled from Meltham by Fred Marsh, a senior director of the David Brown Corporation with responsibility for engineering and sales. The SUV project was headed by John Cullen, who was recruited from Rover, where he had been the assistant to Tom Barton, who was in charge of Land Rover developments. Attempts were also made to lure Barton to DB, but without success.
The chassis was laid out with a 100in wheelbase, having leaf springs at the rear and coil suspension at the front. The transmission layout was similar to Land Rover’s, with a
transfer box providing high and low ratios and drive to the front axle. There was also provision for power take-off. The vehicle was to have both petrol and diesel engines.
The diesel was carried over from the Willys project. It was a high-speed version of the four-cylinder David Brown tractor engine, running at 3500rpm and developing a miserly 42hp. An experimental version of the engine, designated AD4/35-R42, was assembled at Lee Mills and fitted to a Jeep for trials.
The petrol engine, by all accounts, was to have been a de-tuned version of the Aston LB6 straight-six, possibly with a single overhead-cam and twin SU carburettors. The tractor division was also experimenting with its own highspeed six-cylinder engine with a cross-flow head, though nothing was ever finalised.
Aside to the SUV developments, Brown had come up with yet another suggestion. As Aston Martin had replaced its original four-cylinder engine with the LB6, Brown wondered if the surplus four-cylinder units could be adapted for use in tractors as part of a cost-saving exercise. DBT’S chief engineer, Bert Ashfield, reluctantly set up a meeting withaml’s development engineer, Willie Watson, who was appalled at the idea. A brief discussion quickly revealed that the car engines were totally unsuitable, and the thought of modifying them to run on paraffin was met with almost universal disbelief by all at Aston!
However, Watson also showed Ashfield plans for a 4-litre four-cylinder Lagonda engine that had never gone into production. The engine had ‘square’ dimensions and Ashfield could see that it had the potential to be redeveloped into a diesel unit. Experiments were carried out using a compression swirl type of combustion system, which again resulted from discussions with Watson. The
‘Brown’s idea was to combine the luxury of the Lagonda ’brake with the off-road ability of a Land Rover’
design never went into production, but elements were later incorporated into a new DB power unit, the first tractor engine to incorporate a cross-flow head.
Meanwhile, a prototype utility version of the SUV had been constructed at Lee Mills. Fitted with the AD4/35-R42 diesel engine, the vehicle was handed over to DBT’S test department, who used it to haul tractors to field trials. The personnel were instructed never to photograph it, and the only surviving image shows just the rear pick-up body. Despite the secrecy, Rover was seemingly well aware that DB was working on a competitor to the Land Rover, and even saw it occasionally at MIRA.
DBT test engineer Mike Brogden recalled driving the vehicle: ‘It was somewhat sluggish, but it did have plenty of torque. Possibly the gearing was wrong for the engine. We were told to put as many miles on it as possible, and it never gave any trouble.’
Following trials, Cullen and Denshaw began finalising the design at Midlands Engineering. The bodies for both the ‘luxury’ model and the production utility version were to have been formed from aluminium. A mock-up of the utility variant shows a more styled body than that fitted to the prototype. Its badge reveals that it was to have been known as the DB Terra Magister.
We do not know if the ‘luxury’ version was ever built, but its styling was evidently similar to the utility mock-up, though with an estate body. The plan was to badge it as a Lagonda. Unfortunately, the timing of the project was all wrong. By the late 1950s, DBT had become overstretched with too diverse a range of machines in production. Jack Thompson, brought in from Ford in 1958, was appointed general manager with a brief to cut costs.
Thompson, who later took over from John Wyer at Aston Martin while still heading up DBT, swept his new broom through the product line, and one of the casualties was the SUV project. Midlands Engineering moved to a smaller facility in Coventry and closed soon afterwards.
An entry in the Rover board minutes, dated December 15, 1960, reveals that it was offered Midlands Engineering by the David Brown Corporation. Both Rover’s executive vice-chairman, George Farmer, and managing director, Maurice Wilks, recommended against pursuing it further.
Interestingly, at about the same time, Rover instigated its own project to develop a ‘luxury Land Rover’ with a 100in wheelbase. It evolved into the Range Rover. The late Arthur Caldwell, superintendant of DBT’S experimental department, always claimed that Rover had copied David Brown’s concept – the Lagonda SUV that never was.
Left and above Land Rovers purchased by DB were secretly evaluated for 4x4 project. Experimental high-speed diesel engine (opposite) was fitted to Jeep (above) for trials. Drawings are for the utility version of DB’S proposed 4x4
Clockwise from top left Another of the DB group’s Land Rovers. One of the Lagonda shooting brakes that partly inspired the project. Towing the trailer (left) is the prototype four-wheel-drive vehicle, wearing pick-up bodywork; only one was ever built and taking photographs was strictly forbidden