TRACK TEST: DB2 LIGHTWEIGHT
An ex-factory DB2 lightweight leaves us in awe – of both the car and the drivers who raced it
Stephen Archer samples a 1950s endurance racing classic
The Mille Miglia, 1952: 1000 miles of rain, sun and dust on rough Italian roads in this car? Seriously, how did they do it? Am I getting soft or is this really how they were? ‘They’ being the cars, but the question applies just as well to the men who raced these machines. Today’s racing drivers may have tree trunks for necks to cope with the g-forces, but look at photographs of the drivers of the 1950s and you see bodybuilders’ biceps and substantial upperbody strength. Drivers of that period had to cope with heavy steering, heavy brakes, minimal driver comfort and often intense heat. It was a real endurance test, with long distances and long driver stints. By contrast, today’s Le Mans cars have power steering and airconditioning; the stuff of science fiction in the early 1950s when driver comforts came second to the car’s performance. Truth is, comfort and fatigue weren’t really concerns then. So this DB2 makes for an interesting comparison with the Vantage GTE, but boy, 66 years of racing car development is a very long time.
Even driving this car on a sunny spring day and on a billiard table-smooth race circuit, I couldn’t help reflecting on how modern-day driving comforts have improved the lot of the driver and made life a lot easier. And with every lap I gained new respect for the men who raced these cars over very long distances. They were already heroes, but after this day they were raised a notch or two in my estimation. This car finished 7th at Le Mans in 1951 at an average speed of 88mph – including pit-stops!
In period, the man who drove this car the most was the ever-dependable Reg Parnell, one of the key members of David Brown’s Aston Martin team and notable for his toughness and resolve. He joined Aston in 1950 and went on to team-manage the Le Mans win in 1959 but he was also a very fine driver. His fourth race for the works was in this car at Silverstone in 1951, when he scored a class win (see page 50 for the racing history and page 162 for Reg’s story).
Two lightweight DB2S were built, both for the 1951 season. The DB3 was in development at the
time, but it wouldn’t be ready until later in the year, so producing a lightweight version of the DB2 made great sense as a stopgap.
The chassis was heavily drilled; the body was made from 18- rather than 16-gauge aluminium, and the standard front seats (weighing 40lb each) were replaced by lightweight buckets. Trim was kept to a minimum, chrome was mostly absent, and the side windows as well as the rear window were made from Perspex. Inside, the roof was bare save for ‘flock coating’ – a finish that was once the craze for wallpaper – but the electrolytically attached flock did not always stick and Reg Parnell was heard to utter oaths when surrounded by a cloud of loose flock ‘hairs’ in the car!
The diet regime meant the car weighed in at a ton, fully 20 per cent lighter than standard. The 2.6- litre engine was also breathed on. The higher-compression heads were made from aluminium and with triple Webers the power rose from 125 to 138bhp. The effort to make the DB2 more competitive would pay off, though the standard cars were far from out-classed in 1951, despite having first appeared two years earlier.
Time to sample XMC on the curves and crests of Oulton Park in Cheshire. Unlike in a standard DB2, you sit in the bucket seat rather than on the sumptuous bench that was the standard fitment, the tartan wool cloth giving the look and feel of a fine library chair. It’s a low driving position – so low that little of the lengthy bonnet can be seen through the narrow, split windscreen.
The cabin is very simple and the instruments, with their wartime aircraft styling, only add to the true cockpit feeling, so much so that this car feels like a small aircraft inside. The starter button is to the far left and is ‘live’ when the ignition key is turned. All the major controls are well placed. With the seat on the flat floor, your legs reach straight out rather than down to the pedals, which are perfectly arranged for heeling and toeing. The tall gearlever nestles beneath the simple dash and is so direct that it feels as
‘You sit low, the wartime aircraft-style instruments adding to the feeling of being in a cockpit’
though the gears are attached to the end of it. The clutch is typical of 1950s Astons – quite heavy but with perfect feel for the ‘bite’. The brakes are also typically Aston in their heaviness but – with no servo-assistance – it’s no surprise that this is a weighty pedal. With brake shoes in aluminium Alfin drums all round, they require considerable heft – and the expectation that they won’t always arrest the car in quite as straight a line as one fitted with discs…
The engine, though silenced, emits an exquisite and sophisticated growl. Response to the throttle is immediate, acceleration brisk, the lightness very apparent. It’s very obviously a racing car, and the faster you go, the more it comes alive. Even the steering lightens up with increased pace, though the large 16in-diameter wheel is essential since the old-fashioned wormand-castor steering (the box is from an electric milk float), while positive, requires both arms.
When you’re pressing on, the DB2 is a much happier beast. Slow is not its natural pace – it wants fast, sweeping corners that it can drift through. In fact the handling is an unusual marriage of the understeer that goes with frontengined cars in slow corners but with a very strong yet natural default oversteering state. Basically, if the car is not drifting in faster corners, you’re not really driving it. Indeed, it’s easier to power-oversteer out of corners than to try to wrestle the steering wheel.
The DB2’S propensity for controlled slides is quite astonishing and there’s enough power to ride them out. Grip from the 6.00-section (slightly wider than original) tyres is modest but feedback is strong. That old-world grip shows itself through the brakes, too. Locking-up is a constant possibility but, since the brakes are so heavy and the pedal travel so long, it’s easy to feel the lock-up point and work around it.
A little more unsettling are the moments when one drum bites more than its neighbour, causing the car to squirm across the track. But one gets used to it… Even with this idiosyncrasy,
the DB2 is on your side. The message is clear: make me work and I will reward with great pace – but be decisive. Committing to the fast corners of Oulton Park was hugely rewarding, but then power-sliding around the hairpin was equally so. No body roll, no drama. Put the physical effort in, make the commitment, keep it drifting through the faster turns and you can put together smooth, flowing laps. It’s easy to see how the car suited Le Mans, and indeed all the courses that it raced on.
So you have to adjust to the older technology and the car’s simplicity, but there is nothing particularly difficult about driving a DB2. However, even a lightweight version such as this contains a paradox: a lighter Aston it may be, but it is also physically demanding, especially when there are tight corners involved. It is also hot inside, with only a rudimentary bulkhead to screen engine heat and the exhaust running under the driver. Its smells are vintage ones and the products of heat – burnt oil, scorched brake linings and so forth.
But the challenges of such a pedigree car are also the root of the rewards – and the rewards are joyous. This is an Aston that provides simple fun and pays back courage with interest. It’s like a friendly dog on a leash, tugging away, a little wayward at times, but always coming back when you need it to. It’s also very willing to wag its tail and, unless you’re completely clueless, it won’t bite. It’s a trusty companion with a character to make you smile all day long.
With thanks to tom alexander and nathan Harrison at 22gt racing.
Below and right One of two special lightweight DB2S built by the factory for endurance racing, XMC had a distinguished career in the early 1950s and is still raced today. Lightweight bucket seats look the part in the stripped-out cabin
Above and right ‘It’s a bit warm in here…’ Our man Archer feels the heat after some brisk laps of Oulton Park and tries to imagine what it must have been like on the Mille Miglia. Opposite page: drilled and braced chassis was quite different to that of the standard DB2; straight-six had aluminium head, higher compression ratio and triple Webers; some famous Aston names raced XMC in period – Reg Parnell in particular