TRACK TEST: DB2 LIGHTWEIGHT

An ex-fac­tory DB2 lightweight leaves us in awe – of both the car and the driv­ers who raced it

VANTAGE - - Contents - WORDS STEPHEN ARCHER PHO­TOG­RA­PHY MATTHEW HOWELL

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

Right and be­low Still look­ing very much as it did when it ran at Le Mans in 1951 (be­low), fin­ish­ing 7th over­all and 3rd in the 3-litre class V

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