Aston Martin DB1: inherited beauty

| 12 Feb 2020
Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB1: inherited beauty

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Life for a nation at war, as well as being exhausting, terrifying and expensive (both fiscally and in human terms), has an immediacy and an urgency about it that tends to sharpen minds and appetites so that creativity flourishes in the ensuing peace.

Even so, and considering the limited resources, the ingenuity, energy and sheer variety of Britain’s immediate post-war motoring landscape are increasingly impressive the further this ignored period recedes into history.

It was the 1948 British International Motor Show at Earls Court, and the Jaguar XK120, that seemed to give people official sanction to dream.

But somewhat lost in the well-deserved furore surrounding the XK was another new fantasy machine for the even more fortunate few: the Aston Martin Two Litre Sports.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB1: inherited beauty

Little recalled today, it was a good example of that almost primal urge to make fine expensive motor cars, in the face of the ration books and powdered-egg misery of the times, that rekindled some of the joy and excitement of the 1930s.

The fact that Aston had survived at all was probably a surprise to most show visitors, given the firm’s troubled first 20 years, but the excellence of cars such as the InternationalLe Mans and Ulster meant there was a reserve of goodwill towards the firm that was somewhat out of proportion with its achievements and output.

Destined only to be built to the tune of 15 examples, today we know this car better as the DB1, a retrospective title bestowed after its demise in favour of the DB2 in May 1950.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB1: inherited beauty

The classic cycle-winged Astons of the ’30s had mostly been skimpy and low-slung; the voluptuous Two Litre Sports, styled by the underrated Frank Feeley of Lagonda and almost decadent in comparison, had a full-width aluminium body with full-sized front-hinged doors and a flowing tail with a proper bootlid.

The battery and spare wheel were stowed in wing bays, Bristol style, and its tall, gently reclining front grille was a clue to its identity, even if pre-war Aston Martin buyers probably didn’t think much of its rather louche bench-like seat.

Yet it was undeniably handsome, and said to be good for 93mph from its 90 horsepower.

Priced at more than £3000 with Purchase Tax, the equivalent of £110,000 adjusted for inflation, it was the first of the David Brown Aston Martins to be offered to the public and the last to have a four-cylinder engine.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB1: inherited beauty

In-line fours had been a noble tradition at Feltham – the 1½-litre cars of the Bertelli era had made the firm’s name – but, behind the scenes, tractor tycoon David Brown was already beginning to have second thoughts on this topic.

Having scooped up Aston Martin and its modest assets in 1947 in response to an advert in The Times – ‘offers invited for the purchase of a sports car company’ – DB quickly followed this by acquiring Lagonda for £52,000.

Even if he didn’t get the Staines factory in the deal, £72,500 was a very reasonable price, even then, to secure ownership of two of the most respected names in British motoring. Both would almost certainly have foundered without Brown’s support.

The Lagonda purchase came with the prototypes of the WO Bentley-designed 2.6 saloon, which were almost ready to go into production, but the way forward for Aston Martin was much less obvious at first.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB1: inherited beauty
Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB1: inherited beauty

Undoubtedly its chief asset was engineer Claude Hill, an on-and-off fixture at Aston – when it could afford to pay his wages – since the ’20s.

He had already devised a rigid chassis, made up of 13- and 18-gauge square-section tubes and running a 9ft wheelbase.

Picking up where his pre-war Atom prototype saloon had left off, Hill equipped it with 7in trailing-link front suspension (where the links turned on roller bearings in an oil-filled crossmember) and a coil-sprung live rear axle located by a Panhard rod and trailing arms, thus setting the refined yet rugged tone for Aston road cars right through to the de Dion-equipped DBS.

Hill started work on the new 2-litre engine in 1944. While his choice of four cylinders was consistent with Aston tradition (it had never built a ‘six’), its pushrod-operated valvegear seemed retrograde in the light of the marque’s long history of overhead camshafts.

It was, however, an expedient choice in the prevailing atmosphere of austerity, where simplicity was an asset and the quality of fuel put a limit on compression ratios and power outputs: 90bhp was pretty impressive from a 1970cc engine running twin 1½in SU carbs.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB1: inherited beauty

Its high-mounted camshaft was driven by a chain running off the rear of the cast-iron, five-main-bearing crank, and the cylinder-head design featured large, vertically mounted inlets and 20º angled exhaust valves for a high-turbulence swirl-action combustion chamber shape.

With flat-topped pistons and higher compression, Hill’s engine had already proved itself in the Spa Special, a shorter-wheelbase, cycle-winged prototype of the Two Litre Sports that won the 1948 Belgian 24-hour race, driven by St John ‘Jock’ Horsfall and Leslie Johnson.

But if the stamina of the four-pot 2-litre was not in doubt, then its showroom appeal – when measured against the cheaper, sexier six-cylinder twin-cam XK120 – certainly was.

The answer, of course, lay with the Lagonda straight-six in the restyled DB2 that, from 1950 onwards, marked the true beginning of the post-war Aston Martin story.

This was a move that resulted in the departure of Hill from Feltham, nursing a case of hurt pride after Brown cancelled his planned pushrod ‘six’ in favour of the WO Bentley unit.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB1: inherited beauty

Of the 15 DB1s built, nine are known of today and they are most readily identified by their registration numbers.

THX 231 was the brochure car and the first to be sold, while UMD 123 was the fourth DB1 built and ran at Le Mans in 1949; TME 474 was the 1948 show car.

The second DB1 built is in Ireland and there are others in Japan, Belgium and Switzerland. KOH 120, the 1949 Earls Court car, was the only one with a folding windscreen.

As recently as 2013 car number three, TML 278, was discovered in Scotland needing full restoration.

The DB1 story would have come to a natural conclusion at just 12 cars had John Cavendish (later Lord Chesham, and chairman of the RAC) not put in a request for a Two Litre Sports. He wanted an open Aston (there was no convertible DB2 at the time), but Feltham told him that DB1 production had ceased.

However, they agreed to build him one if he could find two more customers to make the job cost-effective. Chassis numbers 13, 14 and 15 were thus laid down in the spring of 1950 and would be registered OPD 51, 52 and 53, the last of them being delivered to Cavendish in June.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB1: inherited beauty
Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB1: inherited beauty

This car, OPD 51, was sold to a Dr Campbell Golding of St John’s Wood for his wife to use, which she did for the following 18 years.

“Dr Golding was a friend of my grandfather,” says the car’s current owner, Allan Southward of Beckenham.

“He and my father would be round at their house regularly and my dad, Robin, always admired the car and would offer to wash it. But it wasn’t until later, when he was about 18, that my dad heard Mrs Golding was regularly sending the DB1 back to Feltham to be serviced: she would send the chauffeur with the car but, when it arrived, Aston couldn’t find anything wrong.” This had become a monthly event.

“My dad, who was an engineer at a firm based in Feltham, offered to take the car into Aston the next time it played up,” continues Southward. “He quickly worked out that it just didn’t like being driven around London at low speeds. All it needed was a good run on an A-road.”

Obviously that wasn’t a problem for the keen young Mr Southward: “So my dad then formed an even stronger bond with the car and told Mrs Golding that he would like first refusal if she ever decided to let it go.”

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB1: inherited beauty

The Goldings’ children, when they came to driving age, briefly had use of the Aston – which had been resprayed gold and was originally blue – but considered it an old wreck and had no desire to keep it in the family.

Mrs Golding, meanwhile, had moved on to a new Ferrari and finally the day came when she put in the call to Southward.

“She asked £5,” his son explains, “and Dad said he couldn’t possibly give her just £5… ‘How about £7 10s?’”

At last Southward had his dream car, but the first day of ownership was not without drama.

On the way home from St John’s Wood, he stopped at a petrol station and was offered £1000 for the Aston on the spot, but turned it down.

“The car then lost a rear spat on the A30 – it got squashed by a lorry – but otherwise arrived in Guildford unscathed,” says Southward Jnr, who reveals that neither his mother nor grandparents were impressed that his father had turned down such an obscene profit on what was a very out-of-fashion old sports car at the time.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB1: inherited beauty

Allan was a twinkle in the parental eye when the DB1 joined the family, so grew up with OPD 51: his earliest memories are of going to club meetings sitting next to his sister in its tiny rear seats.

His father used OPD 51 on and off for 10 years. It wasn’t particularly watertight or reliable, with the chances of getting to and from your destination being about 50/50.

Then one day, while descending a hill, the front wheels went in different directions. This was the early 1980s and an indication that the time had come to tackle a restoration.

Stripped down to a bare chassis in the family garage – Southward can dimly recall lending a hand, armed with a screwdriver – it was discovered that there was very little keeping the body attached to the frame.

This initial burst of enthusiasm was followed by long periods of inactivity where the Aston sat under a tarpaulin on the drive.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB1: inherited beauty

The chassis was taken to be blasted and zinc-coated in 1983 and, at some point, the shell went off to be painted.

Sadly, the bodyshop’s lackadaisical attitude meant the car was put to one side and forgotten. All that was gained over the ensuing five years was a layer of dust, a few dents, and no new paint.

Meanwhile, Southward Snr had become distracted by a Citroën SM, although he had managed to remake all the wood around the Aston’s windscreen and rebuild the engine. 

By the late 1990s, however, it was looking increasingly unlikely that he would ever get around to finishing the car.

His son, by then an IT manager with a healthy mechanical interest, decided to take on the job himself.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB1: inherited beauty

He persuaded his dad to part with the Aston (which was a garage-bound rolling chassis with the various parts piled up in boxes inside it) and went in search of professional help to get some momentum behind putting it back together, as and when time and funds allowed.

This wasn’t your usual think-of-a-figure-and-double-it, open-chequebook restoration. Southward speaks particularly highly of Peter Pryce-Tidd and John Talbert of General Automobile Services, who, picking up where his dad left off, recommissioned the car.

He also received a great deal of support from Tim Cottingham of the Aston Martin Heritage Trust.

“It has taken 15-20 years to get it to this stage,” says Southward, who was busy raising a family. “It was more of a time thing than a money one.”

The car was back on the road in 2014 and appeared on the Cartier Lawn at Goodwood in 2017.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB1: inherited beauty

“At first, every time I drove it something would go wrong,” Southward says. “It seemed that a lot of Dad’s work was wasted due to the time it sat in the garage. Dad passed away in April 2019 but he was very happy to see it finished.”

The DB1 has been Southward’s ticket to a variety of glamorous motoring events but he is enthusiastic enough to drive it himself to some of the more down-to-earth ones as well – I first encountered it at Bicester Heritage.

But he would be the first to concede that the Two Litre might not be your ideal choice of Aston for a trip to Scotland or a Continental tour.

“You drive it defensively, like a motorcyclist,” he admits. “Concentration levels are much higher than in a modern car.”

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB1: inherited beauty

Attractively but rather plainly trimmed, the DB1 feels roomy with a flat and purely functional dashboard, a giant steering wheel and a neatly resolved hood arrangement.

The small, square, floor-hinged brake and clutch pedals are not particularly heavy, but the uninspiring brakes are doubtless the main cause of Southward’s anticipation anxieties. You really do have to keep a close eye on what is happening two or three cars ahead of you.

The throaty, offbeat exhaust makes no secret of the Aston’s four-cylinder credentials, a sound that somehow doesn’t chime with the car’s suave looks.

The motor sounds as ruggedly dependable as it appears: a tall, all-iron lump with that curiously finned manifold.

Brown understood the visual appeal of a twin-cam straight-six, but this doesn’t look anything like as special.

You urge it through the four fairly long ratios of the DB gearbox, which rewards patience with clean shifts, noting the long-stroke torque but missing the silky, eager responses of a ‘six’.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB1: inherited beauty

The acceleration is, in truth, fairly pedestrian; Southward thinks a rebuild might be in order but doesn’t relish the idea of disturbing the one-piece front ‘clip’ that comprises the body’s front end – a necessity if you want to take out the engine.

At pottering speeds the steering wanders slightly but it gets better as you pick up the pace, peeling away the understeer and feeling both stable and with a supple ride, a modern compromise Aston had not managed before.

After appearing at the NEC Classic Motor Show in November, OPD 51 will spend the winter in the small collection of historic cars on display at Aston Martin’s Gaydon factory.

A slightly uncertain and rather overlooked opening gambit in the marque’s post-war adventure, it established Aston’s credentials under DB for building well-groomed cars with good handling.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB1: inherited beauty

It is a pretty, pleasant car, yet not an exciting one in relation to what came after it: but you knew that already.

The point about the DB1 is its rarity and its place in history at the beginning of the marque’s most charismatic chapter.

Sometimes that’s enough.

Images: James Mann

Thanks to Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar


Factfile

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB1: inherited beauty

Aston Martin ‘DB1’

  • Sold/number built 1948-’50/15
  • Construction aluminium body, steel tubular semi-spaceframe chassis
  • Engine all-iron, ohv 1970cc ‘four’, twin 1½in SU carburettors
  • Max power 90bhp @ 4750rpm
  • Max torque 135Ib ft @ 3000rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension: front independent by trailing arms rear live axle, parallel arms, Panhard rod, Watt linkage; coil springs f/r
  • Steering worm and roller
  • Brakes 12in (305mm) hydraulic Girling drums
  • Length 14ft 8in (4470mm)
  • Width 5ft 7in (1702mm)
  • Height 4ft 7in (1397mm)
  • Wheelbase 9ft (2743mm)
  • Weight 2520Ib (1143kg)
  • 0-60mph not disclosed
  • Top speed 93mph
  • Mpg n/a
  • Price new £3000 (1948)
  • Price now c£500,000

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