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

VANTAGE - - Contents - WORDS STU­ART GIBBARD

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.

PIC­TURES STU­ART GIBBARD AR­CHIVES / DAVID BROWN TRAC­TOR CLUB

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

V

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

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