Aston Martin DB4GT – the best of the best?

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In the hierarchy of Aston Martin road cars, the DB4GT is only outshone in perceived desirability by its Zagato-bodied sibling. Five inches shorter, 200lb lighter and 62bhp stronger than the DB4 ‘saloon’, the GT was conceived as a road car in which the well-heeled sporting gentleman might go racing of a weekend. As a five-star collector’s piece, the ingredients to elevate it into the rarefied atmosphere of £1m-plus icons have always been there. The mystique of the Aston Martin name and the svelte magic of this Touring shape have been parting rich men from their cash for years, but the exotic GT tag adds another dimension of exclusivity.

Aston charged an extra £779 for the two-seater GT, which, as far as most buyers were concerned, was simply a noisier, less-accommodating car than the already adequately rapid two-plus-two DB4. Depending on the axle ratio, it chopped
5 secs off the car’s 0-100mph time and Reg Parnell reduced Aston’s classic 0-100-0 figure to 24 secs. Even so, only 75 discriminating buyers saw the attraction of a lighter, faster and less compromised DB4. Good for 302bhp, the GT, launched at the Earls Court show, was Britain’s fastest listed production car in 1959. 

It was conceived by Aston’s general manager John Wyer as a way of maintaining a presence in competition after the firm retired from sports car and GP racing. Much of the GT’s allure has always centred on its motor sport credentials and the fact that it provided the genesis for the DB4GT Zagato and the Project Cars, David Brown’s last attempt at works racing glory. 

As a prototype, the DB4GT made its debut, driven by Stirling Moss, in a GT race that opened the programme for the International Trophy Meeting at Silverstone in May ’59. Moss won easily, but in truth the GT was always too heavy to be really competitive in the long term. 

Supporting the DBR1 at Le Mans the following month, the same car was less lucky when, fitted with a 3-litre DBR3 engine, it ran its bearings and had to retire. As well as with Moss – who drove the first production example to a win in the GT race at the Bahamas Speed Week – the GT will always be associated with John Ogier’s Essex Racing Stable. Yet even his super lightweight variants failed to consistently match the pace of the 250GT SWB Ferraris. 

The main point about the GT is its shorter wheelbase – 5in was lopped out of the massive platform chassis – but the basic Touring outline was maintained. It kept the patented Super-leggera construction, but skinned in 18-gauge magnesium alloy rather than the standard car’s more robust 16-gauge. Other weight-saving measures included fixed Perspex quarter windows and frameless door glasses. Instant GT giveaways were the headlights, faired in under Perspex cowls in a style that would become a trademark of the later DB models, but with the sidelights inside the cover. There were no over-riders for the bumpers, giving a clean look to the front when combined with the close meshing of the grille on the early cars. Standard on the GT were Borrani wires with steel spokes, polished alloy rims and three-eared spinners. Another clue to its identity was the dual quick-release fuel fillers snuggling in the rear wings. These fed a vast, 30-gallon tank that, along with the spare wheel strapped to the top of it, rendered the boot useless. To compensate, there’s a generously sized carpeted luggage shelf behind the seats. 

Under the GT’s front-hinged bonnet (later standardised on lesser models), Tadek Marek’s twin-cam straight-six kept its 3.7-litre capacity and basic architecture in R-R 50 alloy. The extra power was teased out by a 12-plug head and dual ignition combined with three twin-choke Webers, high-lift camshafts, big valves and a higher 9:1 compression ratio. Torque – 270lb ft of it – peaked at 5000rpm. The GT engine had an oil cooler and a full-flow filter. Power went via a beefed-up twin-plate 9in clutch to a close-ratio David Brown four-speed gearbox and Salisbury axle with, as standard, a Powr-Lok differential.

DB4GTs have long since been beyond the financial grasp of the merely wealthy. This car was restored recently by RS Williams for the American director of a major multinational who had it shipped back from Switzerland for its first service. Apart from a few tweaks to improve drivability and smoothness, the car is standard, important now thinks Richard Williams on cars that have attained such huge value. Modern clutch excepted, this example is stock.

Sliding down into the cockpit, the A-pillar seems to be in the way, accounted for by the short chassis. Untangle your legs and you sense that the floor-hinged pedals – too closely spaced for big feet – don’t quite line-up with the 16in wood-rimmed wheel. The seats look as if they lack side support and you wonder why something more embracing couldn’t have been contrived. This car comes with a set of harnesses, which is just as well because the lap belts aren’t worth wearing. 

The handsome, clearly instrumented dash echoes the outline of the grille. It furthered Aston Martin’s reputation for superbly finished and unpretentious cabins, a practical workspace for those with an Edwardian sense of luxury that offered comfort and quality but nothing frivolous. It is peppered with familiar friends from the BMC parts bin, such as the Wolseley 6/110 switchgear and purple-tinted sunvisors.

The engine, all handsome cam chests and elegant castings, is already warmed through. It fires first twist of the tiny key and we burble out into post-school run Cobham traffic in search of the open vistas of Salisbury Plain, a few junctions down the M3, on a warm and bright autumn morning. Initial impressions are that the clutch is only modestly heavy and, more importantly, progressive. The steering is similarly hefty and centres nicely, while the unassisted Girling discs need quite a shove, particularly when cold. 

The engine idles sweetly but the Webers stumble when you want to trickle away quietly. In town it’s natural to go into third at 40mph and it will pull from 1000rpm in top if you must. At these speeds the ride is busy and you can clearly hear the petrol surging and slopping in the vast tank. For once we are under instruction to run the car as near to dry as possible in readiness for the return trip to its Swiss owner as air cargo.

Guiding the twin bullet-shaped wings through the M3 traffic, the GT is docile as it scythes around the commuting blobs, an authoritative presence that sweeps naturally into the outside lane as it limbers into its muscular stride. The oil temperature has hardly registered, but the oil pressure is reassuringly healthy and the Peony Aston runs absolutely straight as it finds its pace. The deep and urgent hum of the ‘six’ fights for supremacy with increasing hiss around the frameless door glasses and a hint of whine from the Salisbury differential which, in the GT, is not muffled by a rear seat. Touring’s slender roof pillars and svelte glasshouse afford you wonderful views across the sensual aluminium cleavage of the bonnet. Traffic coming up from behind has nowhere to hide with such narrow C-posts. 

Five different final-drive ratios were available for the GT, the highest giving a theoretical 170mph at 6000rpm. The standard 3.54:1, allowing 22mph per 1000rpm in top, gives the best compromise between top speed (140mph) and acceleration, although you still find yourself looking for a fifth gear when you want to cruise. 

The sharper, 302bhp engine pulls strongly and cleanly to its redline in a sustained rush that maintains smoothness all the way. Where the standard car would start running out of steam at 5000rpm, the GT motor, with more sparks and an extra distributor to maintain the accuracy of the cam timing over a wider rev range, is yet to achieve peak power and has 1000rpm in hand. 

Off the line, the clutch and limited-slip diff bite hard for a raw lunge of acceleration that presses you deep into your seat. As the nose lifts, you can almost see the bonnet twist slightly with the torque. Second gear gives more than 70mph, the ratios quite closely stacked to keep momentum flowing. The numbers rise relentlessly amid the induction roar of big Weber chokes and a primal, gravelly howl that encapsulates the essence of what a straight-six should sound like. 

There’s a light sizzle through the gearlever but it moves positively and seems to give your palm a direct connection with the meshing cogs. The synchromesh is powerful but unobtrusive, all the ratios relatively quiet. Only occasionally do you lose your place going quickly across from second to third, but you learn to let the lever find its own way. The brakes are better warm, when there’s plenty of feel to the pedal, but the nose dives noticeably when you want to pull up in a hurry. 

As you find top at smack on 100mph, the GT is just getting interested. Squeeze the organ pedal down again – it has a delightfully smooth action against a firm return spring – and the thrust keeps on coming as modern traffic is swept disdainfully aside. In a world of bumbling early-’60s saloons, the Aston’s dominance must have left other motorists slack-jawed: a blur of deep, flawless paint, a brief impression of taut alloy and flashing Borranis, then a throaty hum that said everything about its huge price and epic urge. 

The warm wooden wheel writhes gently in my hands as we spear along the A303. Heavy and ponderous at standstill, it is meatily accurate under way. Overall the DB4GT handles impressively but is not really dainty or balletic. Led by its nose, it wants to run wide but there is every opportunity to set it up to be driven through corners, gauging the general direction with rewardingly muscular and accurate steering, dialling in the angle of turn with the throttle. With the pedals conducive to heeling-and-toeing, you can get your braking and gearchanges sorted out seamlessly enough but the seats offer little in the way of location. As the car loads up on its Avon radials, you tend to hang on to the wheel harder and harder to keep your place. 

Through fast open sweepers, you are much less conscious of body roll and can tune the attitude with the throttle between understeer through neutrality – with both ends gripping equally – or squeeze harder to make the rear wheels start to slide. Slower corners mean less fluid progress. Suddenly the steering feels lower geared than the 2.5 turns lock-to-lock suggests and you have to work hard to keep pace through a succession of hairpins linked by short straights. It always puts its power down tidily – the rear axle is located for every eventuality – and telegraphs its intentions nicely. Yet, even if it wasn’t insured for £1.4m, it’s not a car that you routinely throw around. It is not out to flatter your abilities, but rather imposes its will on you and makes you drive quickly though not flamboyantly. 

I enjoyed this Aston. Despite the fact that its body was designed by Italians and its engine by a Pole, it carries a huge weight of British cultural significance and a price-tag it can never live up to. It is one of the marque’s all-time-great road cars and, within a few minutes of slipping behind that familiar wood-rimmed wheel, I forgot how much it was worth. Our encounter was a simple matter of a wholesomely powerful, achingly handsome car that was beautifully made and fast in an elemental way that allows you to believe you are handling something that is rather more than just a means of transport. So I hope the man who owns this DB4GT uses, enjoys and appreciates it. Its value could condemn it to a sterile existence typical of many rich men’s trophy cars, gathering dust in some underground storage area or heated motor house; fawned over, occasionally admired but more boasted of than driven. And that would be a shame.  

FACTFILE – ASTON MARTIN DB4GT

Sold/number built 1959-’63/75 Construction steel platform chassis, with alloy panels over Superleggera tubes Engine all-alloy dohc 3670cc straight-six, dual plug, dual ignition, triple Weber 45DCOE9s Max power 302bhp @ 6000rpm Max torque 270Ib ft @ 5000rpm Suspension: front double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers rear live axle with coil springs, parallel trailing links, Watt linkage, double-acting Armstrong lever-arm dampers Steering rack and pinion Brakes Girling discs Wheels & tyres Borrani wires, 6.00-16in Length 14ft 3in (4362mm) Width 5ft 6in (1676mm) Height 4ft 4in (1321mm) Wheelbase 7ft 9in (2362mm) Front track 4ft 6in (1372mm) Rear track 4ft 5in (1359mm) Weight 2706Ib (1227kg) Mpg 12-19 0-60mph 6.4 secs Max speed 152mph Price new £4534  

This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images.

Words: Martin Buckley; pictures: Tony Baker

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