ASTON MARTIN DBR1 DRIVE: Author: ArchitectPage


The young lad on the pumps is as curious as he is ignorant about the knee-high sports car that slurps four-star through a flip top fifler the size of a dinner plate. I give him a potted history. 'It's an Aston Martin. . . historic machine I. . . ran at Le Mans. . . worth a fortune. . . Stirling Moss used to drive it. . .' I'm wasting my time. The lad's gaze fixes on the pump's readout which has passed the 35gal mark. 'Where's it all going?' There's a more appreciative audience gathering around the car; eager, beaming faces that evidently know a DBR1 when they see one, but can't quite believe that this is the real thing. DBR1s are not exactly thick on the ground (only five were ever made) and to intercept one refuelling at a garage on the A3 is a car spotter's dream. The group is swelling to a crowd; congenial repartee is eroding my precious time with the only all-British car ever to have won the World Sports Car Championship in the 28year history of the series. To drive Aston's most famous racer has been an ambition since my teens and here am I, standing beside the vacant seat - conversing about it. Excuse me, chaps.

Even a dignified entry through the lightweight door, released by yanking an inside cord, is a talking point. In a modern racer you don't get in so much as encapsulate yourself by means of claustrophobic contortions. But the Aston belongs to an earlier age, a golden age, when sports racers bore some resemblance to the fun cars we drove on the road. The cockpit is wide and spacious, a cavern of aluminium panels and triangulated tubes to which many vital organs are attached: pi pe runs, cables, fuse boxes, fire extinguishers, pumps, even tanks. Your right hip is inches away from the oil reservoir that feeds the rear tran'saxle, your right shin is even closer to the lubricant tank of the dry-sump engine. Ahead is a large diameter three-spoke wood-rimmed steering wheel, as vintage in feel as it looks, and a cluttered dash of dials dominated by a huge tacho, twisted so that the needle is near vertical at maximum revs. Creature comforts are restricted to padded frame tubes to brace your right leg against, and a fixed bucket seat offering two driving positions­with or without cushion.

I've already received my cockpit drill from the car's custodian, Richard Williams, who rebuilt the Aston to concours condition for owner Viscount Downe.

The first essential ensure that no-one is standing within 20ft of the exhaust pipes that. emerge beneath the door. One enthusiast lingers staring into the cockpit, too engrossed to heed my warning. I juggle with the ignition and fuel pump toggles as instructed (there's no key), press the firing button and then blip the heavy throttle when the disquieting mechanical whirr elevates to a splutter. WHANG! The noise is unbelievable. The startled loiterer recoils from the ferocious blast. I did warn him. The clutch dips easily and the short-throw gearlever, protruding from a naked five-barred gate by your left knee, nicks into first. The clutch is light but fierce and strong - an in or out affair - so delicate footwork is necessary on the drilled, floor-hinged pedals. Insufficient revs and the engine stalls, too many and the decibels exceed the threshold of pain. I give it too many and everyone retreats, hands clapped to ears. This is suburban Surrey, not

Le Mans, and as I sympathise with the aims of the Noise Abatement Society, guilt and apprehension are rising as rapidly as the adrenal in. Get the hell out of here! I head for the byways of Sussex, my admiration growing by the minute for the titans who propelled this deafening machine in such discomfort at speeds up to 180mph, for hour after hour down the Mulsanne straight.

They were my teenage heroes, those drivers, and no-one followed their endeavours more keenly than I through the BBC's Le Mans bulletins. In the '50s the dark green cars of Britain were the ones to beat. What a golden decade that was. Jaguar stole the limelight, of course, winning the 24hours in '51 and '53 (with the C-type), and '55, '56 and '57 (D-type), vanquishing Ferrari if not Mercedes, and overshadowing the rival Aston Martins of David Brown even though the DB3s finished second in '53 and '56 and was runner-up again in '58.

The 4.5litre V12 Lagonda was to have supplanted the relatively simple DB3S in 1954, but the furious, recalcitrant beast never fulfilled its promise and was abandoned in the wake of the 1955 Le Mans disaster when the capacity of prototype racers was restricted to 2.5Iitres. Enter project 4013, later known as the DBR1 - David Brown's third series of real racing cars (following the slab-sided DB3 and the DB3S), which was to include, too late as it happened, a Grand Prix single seater. Although the ultimate prize of a Le Mans win had eluded the DB3S. it was nonetheless a successful car, scoring many international victories not so much with brute muscle power as fine handling. The DBR1 was evolved along similar lines. Aston Martin's limited resources meant sticking to tried and trusted principles so the design goals were simple ones: more power, less weight, better balance and cleaner aerodynamics. Instead of the twin-tube chassis of the DB3S, the DBR1 had a lightweight spaceframe of small diameter chrome molybdenum tubes, to carry the new straight-six twin cam engine, designated RB6, rigidly mounted so that it became an integral part of the structure. With bore/stroke dimensions of 83/76.8mm, the capacity was originally 2493cc, complying not only with '56 LeMans regulations but also the Formula One limit of the period. In the DB3S, the gearbox was mated conventionally to the engine but in the interests of strength, efficiency and weight distribution, a new rear-mounted five-speed transaxle was developed for the DBR1, again rigidly bolted to the spaceframe ahead of a V-shaped de Dion axle, effectively two tubes bolted at the centre. Location was provided not by the usual central slide but by upper and lower trailing arms, two each side, and a Watt linkage. Torsion bar springs were used all . round. At the back, they were longitudinally placed and attached to the bottom of the hub carriers. At the front, they ran transversely across the chassis, each bar anchored opposite the pair of twin trailing arms on which it acted - a layout designed by Eberan Von Eberhorst for the DB3S and inspired by the pre-war Auto Unions on which the

Professor had previously worked. Disc brakes were still in their infancy so the DBR1 was ahead of some rivals in using four of them, single-pot calipers clamping quick-change Ferodo pads onto the solid discs. Sixteen inch Borrani knock-on wire wheels with light-alloy rims were shod with Avon cross-ply tyres which by today's rollerball standards look pathetically skinny.

The straight-six engine was fundamentally different from that of the DB3S, with a deep, heavily ribbed and internally qross-braced alloy crankcase providing support for the main bearings.

Centrifugally cast iron wet cylinder liners were sealed in the alloy block by O-rings and upper flanges. Chains drove the two overhead camshafts set into the heads (originally that of the DB3S) and three 45DCO Webers, drawing air ducted from the nose of the car, fed the hemispherical combustion chambers through generous valves. Ignition was by two 10mm spark plugs per cylinder, and a pair of Lucas distributors. The duplication was primarily tor reliabilitity's sake, but it also gave a 5.0bhp bonus at maximum revs. Running on an 8.5 to one compression ratio, output was 217bhp at 7000rpm, or 87bhp/litre. That may not sound much by today's racing 'standards, but it still exceeds any Icurrent production engine's specific output, other than the odd turbo like the 2.2litre blown Lotus twin-cam which gives 94bhp/litre.

In its racing debut at Le Mans in 1956, Reg Parnell and Tony Brooks took it up to fourth place before retiring after 22hrs. Ahead of them, ultimately to finish second behind a Ferrari, was the DB3S of Moss and Collins. In 1957, the stroke was lengthened to 99mm to give a swept volume of 2922cc and 240bhp at 6250rpm. Aston Martin had by now built a second car in in which Salvadori finished behind winner Brooks at Spa in the 3.0litre's first outing. But it was in the year's first World Championship event, the 1000km on the Nurburgring, where the DBR1 showed its true mettle. Against formidable Italian opposition - 4.5litre V8 Maseratis, allegedly with nearly twice the power (Fangio, Moss, Schell and Hermann) and 4.0litre V12 Ferraris (Collins, Hawthorn, Gendebien and Trintignant) - Brooks and co­driver Cunningham Reid ran away from the field in the 441ap race to win by over four minutes. The DBR1 had arrived and the racing world took notice.

At the '57 Le Mans, Aston Martin fielded the same two DBR1s and a new 3.7litre DBR2 as a running testbed for their new production DB4 engine. It was a good race for Britain because Jaguar won it, but Brooks in the leading DBR1 crashed when lying second, and the other two cars retired. In 1958 the World Sports Car Championship was restricted to 3.0 litre machinery, and appeared to be tailor-made for Aston's DBR1. A crack team of drivers was recruited, the existing wo cars rebuilt and a third constructed, all with more powerful 252bhp engines. They set the pace in the Sebring 12 lours but failed to last the distance. It was much the same story in the Targa Florio, where Moss knocked 50sec off his own Mercedes 300SLR lap record before breaking the gearbox. Another virtuoso performance produced a record-shattering win in the Nurburgring 1000km, pulling some points back from Ferrari's championship lead. He set the pace three weeks later at Le Mans before the engine, slightly detuned to survive 24hours, failed after only two. A second car crashed, the third retired with gearbox trouble when lying third, leaving Aston's honours to be upheld by the Whitehead brothers' outdated DB3S which finished second behind the winning Hill/Gendebien Ferrari. Again, the world championship - and Le Mans had eluded David Brown. The DBR1 had set fastest lap in every race it contested in 1958 yet it won only two of them and it looked as though Aston had blown their best chance.

Ironically, it all came right in 1959, the DBR's fourth season as a works racer. Aston Martin started the season with no intention of contesting it. Moss changed all that. A week before Le Mans he gave the team the morale booster it needed by winning the Nurburgring 1000km with a singleton DBR1 - the only carthat hadn't been earmarked for the 24hours - against a team of factory Ferraris. It was a drive of such aggressive virtuosity that at the first re-fuelling stop he handed a lead of over five minutes to his co-driver. At Le Mans, Moss was naturally Aston's hare. Driving a four-bearing 255bhp lightweight, he weakened the Ferrari spearhead befo,re the engine failed, leaving the other two more durable works DBR1s - seven­bearing cars with 244bhp to wear down the rest of Maranello's opposition. When the best of the remaining red Italian cars wilted, the Astons were left unchallenged and went on to finish first and second, giving David Brown his elusive Le Mans victory at the eleventh attempt. More than that: so well did the cars perform elsewhere that Aston clinched the world title, too.

DBR 1/2 (the second car made), now owned by Geoffrey Marsh of Marsh Plant Hire, has by far the finest racing record of the five, including that Le Mans win and two victories at Spa as well as in the TT. If a failed BRM can realise £160,000 at auction, what price Aston Martin's greatest racer? A quarter of a million? The car I drove, DBR1/1 - Moss's winning mount in the '591000km - is valued at around £100,000 so I performance is still the most impressive aspect of the DBR1's dynamic qualities.

With Le Mans gearing and partially faired-in wheel arches (neither fitted now) it was good for 165mph at 6000rpm but given a slipstreaming tow from something more potent would reputedly wind on another 600rpm to raise the top speed to around 180mph, even with the bluff windscreen demanded by the regulations of the day. Only when the engine's running at low revs on a trailing throttle are you aware of other cacophonous noises, I ike the wailing siren from the transaxle behind. The gears are all straight­toothed and in constant mesh, with engagement by face dogs, so gearchanges call for a sharp and decisive hand and accurate double-declutching when shifting down. You either get it right with rewarding split-second precision, or crash the dogs and wince. Linger you do not. The closely stacked ratios (the drop in the exhaust note between fourth and fifth is barely discernible) and the engine's terrific response to the throttle due to the absence of flywheel inertia demand a rare sleight of hand. Cast aside inhibitions and you soon acquire the necessary dexterity, despite the car's poor ergonomics. The gearlever's too low, the pedals too close so you sit a bit awkwardly in the straight-backed seat with splayed legs and crooked elbows. Someone broader in the beam would be better embraced by a bucket hiplock but I was a loose fit and the car's disturbing bone­shaker ride meant constant buttock shuffling to regain proper location on the thin, numbing cushion. Not that you needed to be wedged in so tightly as you do in a modern racer, as there are no dizzy g-Ioads to counter. It's the roadholding, or by current standards the lack of it, that really betrays the DBR1's age. Any respectable production car on decent low-profile radials would hold it comfortably, and a Group One slick-shod saloon would run rings round it. Such is progress.

It didn't need more than a couple of exploratory mid-corner tail snapping bursts in second to verify that there's a lot more power than traction, indicating that the limit on fast sweeps called more for fine balance and precision rather than sheer bravery, despite the dumbell weight distribution and consequent high polar moments of inertia. Steering is surprisingly light and although the wood-rimmed wheel wriggles and kicks with feel, you don't have to fight it. The brakes, in contrast, call for an almighty heave on the unassisted pedal when anchoring hard but their performance is strong and true. Braking apart, the DBR1 is not the he-man brute it looks and sounds: little physical exertion is needed to extend it, which is just as well as the cockpit gets very hot: apart from the simmering scuttle, the two big oil tanks to your left act as efficient storage heaters. Though it was cold 'outside' I gradually discarded my woolies and anorak, ending the day in shirtsleeves, red faced, tousled haired, eardrums asunder. But happy.

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the picture below Trintignant at the TT 1959