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The all too-common plight of the show car and the one-off special is perfectly encapsulated in the rather sad story of chassis number LML/802, a Vignale-bodied Aston Martin DB2/4.
Custom-built at the behest of 25-year-old King Baudouin of Belgium in the mid-1950s – doubtless at huge expense – it was reduced to the level of a discarded trinket by the beginning of the 1960s.
Once the height of Turin chic, LML/802 was already, even then, the product of another era: a rapidly ageing, buxom show queen – too much jewellery, too much make-up – in an age of clean, flat-chested ’60s purity.
As the smooth, simple, rounded Italian shapes of the early ’50s evolved to reflect the public fascination with all things American and ‘jet age’, this Vignale-bodied Aston Martin demonstrates the hall of mirrors that car styling had become.
It was just a phase, of course, but one embraced by Alfredo Vignale (and his in-house stylist, Giovanni Michelotti) with more relish than most, which was perhaps one of the reasons why Vignale lost the patronage of Ferrari – in favour of Pinin Farina – in the second half of the ’50s.
Whatever the politics, it was still a time when the flashier elements of European royalty were powerfully attracted to the coachbuilding workshops of Turin, none more so than Leopold III of Belgium, who, along with his equally enthusiastic consort, Princess Lilian, ordered five one-off coachbuilt Ferraris between 1953 and ’68.
Lilian was Baudouin’s stepmother: Princess Astrid of Sweden, his biological mother, had died in a car accident in 1935 when the king crashed his new Packard convertible into a tree on the banks of Lake Lucerne.
After 1945, Leopold III was not very popular in Belgium, where it was felt he had acquiesced to the Nazis a little too readily.
In the face of civil unrest he abdicated in favour of his 21-year-old son, Baudouin, in 1951.
Once less in the public eye, the former king probably felt more able to indulge in exotic cars.
The most famous of these was an all-black roadgoing Ferrari 375 Plus Cabriolet by Pinin Farina, although arguably the most beautiful was the special 330GTC built for the princess in 1968.
Not that the tall, bespectacled Baudouin was exactly immune to the charms of expensive motor cars.
He had grown up around his father’s Bugattis (there’s a family snap of him sitting in a Type 52 ‘Baby’) and he is known to have owned a Porsche 550 and various Maseratis, although he was latterly associated with rather more statesmanlike vehicles: a Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman, clap-door Lincoln and a variety of Cadillacs are all attributed to him.
The Belgians have always had a strong allegiance to American cars.
Why he chose an Aston Martin – rather than a Ferrari or a Maserati – as the basis for his ‘statement’ car is hard to fathom at a distance of almost 70 years.
But it was a legitimate enough choice, given that the Aston name was coming to greater prominence in racing and the DB2/4 was acknowledged to be one of the world’s best and fastest production grand touring cars.
The link with Vignale is obvious because the body of his stepmother’s recently delivered Ferrari 250GT coupé had been created at the famous workshops on the Via Cigliano, Turin.
Designed by the prolific Michelotti, it was to be the final Vignale-bodied Ferrari of the 1950s. The princess, accompanied by Formula One World Champion Nino Farina, had even visited the carrozzeria to see it being built.
Delivered to Vignale in late September 1954, LML/802 was one of a dozen left-hand-drive DB2/4 rolling chassis supplied by the Feltham works to European coachbuilders.
Eight of these are attributed to Bertone, but Graber, Touring, Allemano and Ghia also did one each, which makes 14 special-bodied DB2/4s, by my sums, including the two Vignales – a twin of the Baudouin Vignale DB2/4 was also built, for a French customer, but is now presumed lost.
Powered by the latest 140bhp 3-litre engine, LML/802 had the longer of the optional axle ratios. The factory chassis card only notes that the wire wheels are ‘partially chromed’.
The body, hand-beaten from aluminium with an ash frame, was six months in the making and the king took delivery in March 1955.
Vignale used the car in its advertising, describing the Aston as: ‘A two-seater coupé provided to a high European personality.’
Just a month earlier, Baudouin had acquired a standard 3-litre DB2/4, supplied by Belgian concessionaire Mannes but delivered to the Belgian Embassy in Paris. Both the Vignale and the factory DB2/4 ran ‘CD’ diplomatic plates.
While he apparently kept the standard car for decades (the first change of ownership is recorded as being in 1989), the Vignale DB2/4 fell out of favour much more rapidly: it was sold at an indeterminate point in the late 1950s to palace aide TR Mottershead.
Nothing much is known of this character, other than the fact that he stored the car in Moselle, France.
Here a man called James Toth enters the story. As an American solider working for NATO in Paris, Toth later discovered the Vignale in a back-street garage.
Having captured LML/802, he managed to do terminal harm to both its original engine and its replacement in fairly short order, before giving up and selling the non-running DB2/4 to an army captain.
Period black-and-white photographs show the Vignale Aston Martin less its front bumper at this point, and in a single-tone colour scheme.
America – and the inevitable V8 conversion – beckoned, and from there it was a relatively short trip to the breaker’s yard for LML/802, whose brief moment of fame had long been forgotten.
Then, at some point in the early 1990s, the Vignale Aston’s luck began to improve.
It was rescued from a scrapyard in Virginia, still fitted with a Pontiac V8 engine and rear axle, by one Roland Wommack.
In the middle of the decade, Wommack sold the car to Bob Fountain of the Aston Workshop in Beamish, County Durham.
The Italian DB2/4 then languished some more after Fountain’s original idea of selling the car as a project proved tricky: one-offs tend to excite historians, but not paying customers.
In the age of the internet the full significance of the Vignale soon dawned, however, and it appeared to Fountain that the only proper thing to do was restore the car with or without a buyer lined up.
The good news was that the body and the chassis were remarkably sound, requiring only localised repairs, and most of the important unique brightwork had survived.
The bad news was that the interior of the car was largely missing and had to be recreated from period photographs, and this, predictably, was by far the trickiest part of the restoration.
The rest of the rebuild, in comparison, was just another day at the office for the Aston Workshop team.
The original engine was long gone and most of its replacement was scrap, which meant a new block, pistons, con-rods and liners.
With fast-road camshafts and electronic ignition, the straight-six is now making 170bhp, says Fountain, and 200lb ft of torque… and no oil leaks, even with its uprated oil pump.
With everything mechanically refreshed or renewed this DB2/4 should drive spot-on, and it does.
Walking around it, there are many details to take in. For instance, where the standard DB2/4’s entire nose hinged forward, the Vignale has a conventional front-hinged bonnet with a vent on its leading edge and fabricated inner wings.
Only the wire wheels, bonnet badge and the exposed central linkage for the Marles steering box give away its British origins.
Up in the Pennines, a curious motorist even enquires – quite seriously – if the gleaming blue coupé is a new model.
The current lustrous livery of Silver Birch over Peacock Blue suits the Vignale DB2/4 well, but doesn’t equate to the period colour shots I have seen that show a very pale red – almost pink – roof with a dark-green body. Whatever the case, this combination is better.
The narrow footwells and carpeted sections of chassis reinforcement that hinder your entry to the handsome, plush cabin are hangovers of the original design, but Vignale updated the dashboard by arranging the main instruments around the steering column.
The deeply wraparound ’screen was shockingly modern in 1955, showing off the latest glass-bending technology, but from the driver’s seat the only thing you can see in the rear-view mirror is the road surface immediately behind the car.
The seat is a split bench with little in the way of lateral support or rearward adjustment, so you reconcile yourself to sitting very close to the beautiful Nardi wheel, guessing as to the functions of the unmarked switches on the attractive, body-coloured dashboard.
Looking purposeful but somewhat lost in the deep engine bay, the LB6 straight-six fires instantly on its modern, high-torque starter motor.
It is flexible, smooth, mildly rorty and asks that you rev it harder than seems prudent at first to overcome the high overall gearing.
I’d speculate that the Vignale body is heavier than the Feltham type – and probably a shade less rigid – but even without flogging the still-fresh engine in the well-spaced indirect gears the car is sprightly enough to be interesting.
The steering weaves a little in sympathy with the undulations of the road surface – and occasionally twitches disconcertingly when you hit the brakes – but the Aston turns in well and corners tidily, with moderate understeer on its period-correct, deep-sided and narrow tyres.
The huge drums provide adequate stopping power, with lengthening pedal movement after a few hard stops, and while the gearchange has a satisfyingly direct, mechanical action, it is possible to grab third where you wanted first.
The brawny engine will actually tolerate this abuse on the flat without too much clutch-slip.
When it’s time for a three-point turn the high-geared steering proves heavy at low speeds (the aftermarket electric power steering wasn’t switched on), but much worse is the prospect of finding reverse gear: you need two hands to lift the shaft of the gearlever up sufficiently for it to drop in.
Another possible victim of the left-hand drive configuration is a steering-wheel position so close to the door that there is no room for your elbow to articulate fully, causing some embarrassment when compensating for the not very energetic castor return on tight corners.
How the Vignale drives really doesn’t matter very much, and possibly never did.
Interesting but not innovative, pretty without being truly beautiful, its fairly swift departure from the Belgian royal fleet probably had something to do with its difficult driving position and conspicuous style.
And who, after all, wanted a ‘special’ based on outdated technology – an oddity rendered pointless by the much faster and more beautiful DB4 – in an era when only the latest and greatest really counted?
All credit to Aston Workshop for saving the Vignale, then, when it might so easily have slipped through the net.
With an asking price of £3.5million this was not a project born solely out of altruism, but I suspect that it represents a great many expensive man-hours that could have realised that payday much more rapidly.
Five or six decades ago, this car would have struggled to find a patron like Fountain.
The ’60s was a golden but also less sentimental age when knowledge, reverence and scholarship for old cars was in much shorter supply.
The used-car trade of the day, if asked to value such a car, would simply have shrugged its shoulders.
Rare does not always equal desirable in the realm of classic exotica even now, and there would have been many who preferred the unpretentious simplicity of Frank Feeley’s original to the effete Michelotti flourishes of LML/802, the only surviving Vignale-bodied Aston.
Images: Will Williams
Thanks to Aston Workshop