Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

| 19 Oct 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

Reflecting on his three-decade ownership of Aston Martin, the Yorkshire tractor- and gear-making tycoon Sir David Brown considered the DB5 his favourite of all the cars that bore his initials.

In this one model, Brown’s team had felt able to consolidate its efforts, developing a 4-litre, nominal four-seater that fully benefited from the lessons learned over the six years – and five Series – of DB4 production.

This year the DB5 is 60 years old.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

The timeless Aston Martin DB5 was produced during David Brown’s 30-year ownership of the British marque

Announced in time for the 1963 Earls Court motor show, this new version of Newport Pagnell’s staple ‘saloon’ could easily have been named the DB4 Series 6: it was merely a seamless transition of running changes that went largely unnoticed.

Unless, of course, you were one of the lucky few looking to drop £4200 on a mere automobile.

Detached houses came cheaper in those days; failing that, you could buy two E-types or a fleet of basic Minis for the same money.

Yet, for context, it is worth noting that the new Aston was priced well short of the figures quoted by the likes of Ferrari or Bentley for their least-expensive 1963 offerings.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

Even in standard tune, the DB5’s performance is impressive and matches well with the stable handling

And when you consider that each DB5 represented 1000 man-hours of toil, it almost seems a bargain.

Even the £429 price increase over the last of the DB4s appears almost reasonable, given that the package now included Sundym glass and improved, twin-servo, dual-circuit Girling disc brakes.

Electric windows as standard and the heavy-duty Lucas alternator were firsts on a British car, among a host of other upgrades aimed at making this truly handbuilt piece of English exotica the most refined Aston Martin yet.

The technical cocktail was much as before, but suitably massaged for additional torque, power and reliability.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

The triple SUs give a crisp response from the 4-litre engine

The 4-litre version of Tadek Marek’s wet-liner, all-alloy, 3.7-litre straight-six was now giving 282bhp on triple SU HD8s, a set-up that had been optional on the Vantage-specification DB4s.

The 4-litre (actually 3995cc) architecture was inherited from the Lagonda Rapide and proven at Le Mans in the DP212 ‘Project’ cars.

Hand-assembled and bench run-in for seven hours (initially on domestic town gas), its stiff block was bored out from 92 to 96mm, and its seven-bearing crank was fully balanced.

With chain-driven double overhead camshafts – operating the valves via case-hardened bucket tappets – it made a handsome bonnetful.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

This two-door Aston Martin DB5 ‘saloon’ is finished in Cumberland Grey

For the underpinnings, David Brown’s Huddersfield outpost supplied the Harold Beach-designed platform chassis, ready-primed and rustproofed.

It was ultra stiff with rear seat pans and door pillars adding torsional rigidity to boxed sills.

Moving the battery under the rear seat liberated a little extra space in the boot compared with the DB4, but if you ordered the Normalair air-conditioning system (which cost roughly the price of a new Mini), you got a smaller fuel tank (from 19 to 16 gallons).

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

The Aston Martin DB5’s wide door openings give good access to the plush cabin

Aston still believed that a well-located live axle – with trailing links and a Watt linkage – had its merits in terms of reliability and predictable handling.

Likewise the heavy, but accurate, rack-and-pinion steering (produced in-house) and the double-wishbone front suspension, although the latter now had provision for shimmed camber adjustment.

Panels in 16-gauge aluminium were made in a stretch-forming press, then rolled and hand-beaten by the slick-haired, smock-coated artisans of the Newport Pagnell factory.

They were then wrapped or riveted to Touring’s patented Superleggera tubular framework, before being given extensive sound-deadening and 19 coats of hand-flatted cellulose paint.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

The simple wire wheels form part of the DB5’s identity

Laycock overdrive was £72 extra, a limited-slip differential £30, Armstrong SelectaRide dampers a mere £14.

And for those who deemed 142mph insufficient, a £190 Vantage specification was available from October 1964, comprising triple Webers, gas-flowed porting and a long-dwell camshaft for a tasty 325bhp and 150mph, at the expense of some lower-end smoothness and torque.

Thus equipped, Aston Martin claimed the DB5 was the world’s fastest four-seater, even if that put a rather liberal interpretation on the definition of usable back seats: head- and legroom were in especially short supply for adults.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

‘The DB5 was the second-fastest car Motor had ever tested to 100mph’

Even with the standard engine, Motor magazine found that the DB5 was the third-fastest car it had ever tested and the second fastest to 100mph.

It certainly wasn’t the thirstiest, either, at 17mpg overall, and there was the potential for 20mpg and a range of up to 370 miles under touring conditions.

At that rate, you would get through just six tankfuls between its 2500-mile service intervals.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

The Aston Martin DB5 Convertible shares much with the DB4 drophead that came before

Though 200lb heavier than the DB4, the new car’s 4-litre engine more than made up for it.

Absurdly easy 100mph cruising represented just 4000rpm and the potent servoed disc brakes could bring the DB5 to rest from that speed, claimed Aston, in just 6 secs.

Initial problems with noisy ZF five-speed transmissions meant most early DB5s had the four-speed David Brown gearbox, but the husky German unit, shared with the Maserati 5000GT and featuring a lighter diaphragm clutch, eventually became the most popular transmission choice.

Few DB5 buyers opted for the Borg-Warner automatic, although it was often specified by DB6 customers.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

The fuel-filler caps aft of the DB5 Convertible’s richly trimmed cabin reveal the twin petrol tanks in the wings

With its faired-in, DB4GT-style headlights, the DB5 was visually almost identical to the DB4 Series 5 Vantage, apart from an additional fuel-filler cap.

Other than well-disguised details such as the VW Karmann Ghia numberplate light/bootlid handle and the Ford Consul overriders, the DB5, unlike most low-volume cars, appeared to share few items with lesser vehicles: Aston even made its own seat frames.

Across a two-year production run, the DB5 would prove to be the most successful Newport Pagnell product thus far, accounting for 1021 sales before the Kamm-tailed DB6 took over in late 1965.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

All DB5s share Touring’s Superleggera tubular framework

With production running at a record-breaking 12 cars a week, boss Sir David Brown was in danger of breaking even with the DB5.

Not only was there the sales-boosting phenomenon of 1964’s Goldfinger to thank, but also the decision to focus the firm’s limited human resources on a single product line, rather than such distractions as the doomed four-door Lagonda Rapide (the success of the DB5 sealed its fate), the niche DB4GT and the even harder to sell DB4GT Zagato.

It was a move that came too late to save Brown’s relationship with his highly effective right-hand man, John Wyer, who, as well as masterminding the 1959 Le Mans works team victory, had been responsible for much of the day-to-day running at AML Ltd.

Frustrated, he left Newport Pagnell to work for Ford a few months before the launch of the DB5.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

This drophead Aston Martin DB5 has been treated to the popular 4.2-litre upgrade

Convertible versions of all previous DB Astons had proved popular and there was every reason to continue the theme with a DB5 drophead.

Although launched at the Paris show less than a month after the introduction of the saloon, these cars were not delivered until May 1964, priced at £4562 with the ZF gearbox, but not including the steel hardtop.

To make room for the folded roof, wing-mounted pannier fuel tanks (with a Jaguar-style changeover switch) were a design oddity of the open-topped cars.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

‘There is a magic to these beautiful, hand-beaten cars that transcends the telephone-number prices and James Bond factor’

Otherwise, they were mechanically identical to the DB5 saloons and obviously shared much with the previous 70 DB4 dropheads produced between 1961 and 1963.

Achingly desirable today, the DB5 Convertibles were produced in four small batches, totalling just 123 examples.

Much rarer, and rather more of an acquired taste, were the 12 Radford-modified DB5 shooting brakes.

The first one was built as a one-off for Brown by the coachbuilder in Hammersmith, created to enable the sporting industrialist to cart around his favourite hunting dog and polo gear, neither of which fitted easily in a standard DB5 saloon.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

The four-seat Aston Martin DB5 is cosy for those in the back

Although designed in-house by Aston Martin, the shooting brake never quite achieved the status of an official catalogued model.

However, Radford built another 11 examples for Aston customers with the blessing of the factory (which was flat-out building standard cars), either on the basis of new or used DB5s.

Complete with a one-piece rear-luggage hatch and chopped-away Superleggera roof-tubing (somewhat to the detriment of rigidity), the conversion, which involved rebuilding the body from the windscreen backwards, cost £2000.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

This DB5 is one of 81 right-hand-drive Convertibles produced

For that you got what was almost certainly the world’s fastest load carrier, with stiffer rear springs and 40 cubic feet of usable space with the rear seats folded.

Radfords don’t come up for sale often, so when Hertfordshire specialist Nicholas Mee & Co offered us a chance to drive one of the eight right-hand-drive cars, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to pay him a visit.

Better still, Nicholas was able to furnish us with the full DB5 set: all three cars in the sort of no-expense-spared, fully restored condition that, in 2023, is the rule rather than the exception.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

The Radford-modified DB5 shooting brake (left) may look the same up front, but it’s all change at the rear

Delivered new to its first Midlands owner in Dubonnet Rosso, the Cumberland Grey 1965 saloon is one of 670 right-hooker fixed-head DB5s.

It was restored almost 20 years ago, complete with then-modern air conditioning, but still runs a matching-numbers, triple-SU (non-Vantage) 4-litre engine.

One of 81 right-hand-drive DB5 Convertibles produced, this Pacific Blue, three-owner drophead was also delivered new in 1965.

Originally Caribbean Blue, it was in long-term ownership between 1973 and 2010.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

The DB5 shooting brake borrows tail-lights from the short-chassis DB6 Volante

Chassis DB5C 1906R has covered just 1000 miles since a body-off, £300,000 Works restoration that included the now almost routine upgrade to 4.2 litres, plus Koni telescopic dampers all round and a Becker Mexico radio.

The California Sage Radford is the only DB5 shooting brake converted to Vantage specification in period by the factory.

Still with only 59,280 miles on the clock, its second owner, based in Kingston upon Thames, London, cherished it for almost four decades before parting company in 2011.

The inevitable six-figure restoration ensued.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

The longer roof sacrifices some rigidity

Logic-defying price-tags attached to what are, in essence, traditionally conceived (if still beautifully built) six-cylinder sports cars tend to bring out the cynic in those of us who cannot afford such things…

Or nostalgia among those old enough to remember a time in the early 1970s when you could have bought quite a good DB5 for a shade less than £1000 (see below).

Yet there is a magic to these cars – both at rest and when under way – that transcends the telephone-number prices and the James Bond factor.

The beautiful yet brawny shapes are elegant and self-confident, while there’s also the sensuality of well-groomed materials: 672lb of hand-beaten light alloy, and three and a half cowhides, went into each DB5.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

Unsurprisingly, the Radford is the roomiest DB5 inside

The doors are long and open wide to reveal generously dimensioned front seats with headrests that look slightly out of place.

The saloon is trimmed in black, the Convertible, with its neatly stowed hood and narrower rear seat, in Magnolia.

With its Crimson leather and carpets, chromed tailgate springs and neatly boxed-in hinges, every detail of the shooting brake is in keeping with its Aston identity.

Making those long, elegant rear side windows entailed moving the fuel fillers into the wings, as in the Convertible.

The one-piece rear lights are shared with short-chassis DB6 Volantes.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

The Aston Martin DB5’s dashboard is filled with seven dials, but manages to avoid looking cluttered

Inherited from the DB4, all versions have the same dash of smart, shiny, chrome-rimmed instruments (seven in all, plus a central clock) in a handsome, no-nonsense binnacle with clearly marked knobs that variously twist or pull, depending on function.

The speedy, super-smooth electric-window mechanisms were another in-house Aston design, contrived so that they slowed down near the top of their movement to save probing small fingers.

There is plenty of window area and the ’screen pillars are skinny enough to give modern-day safety-conscious engineers nightmares.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

The big steering wheel hints at the DB5’s heavy low-speed handling

All three have commandingly sonorous acceleration – the SUs in the saloon being slightly quieter than the shooting brake’s Webers – yet will potter along like dowagers’ limousines at low speeds.

With 4.2 litres, the Convertible is decisively the lustiest of the trio.

Magnificent surging torque makes short work of any straight or overtaking opportunity, with a silken boom from the exhaust and no need for high revs or fussy gear play.

Not that changing gear is a chore, particularly the closely stacked top three ratios, in any of these ZF-equipped DB5s.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

The Radford’s vast hatch opens to folding rear seats

Amid rising metallic thunder the tail squats, the nose lifts and you are soon doing nearly 50 in a high first gear – tall enough that you have to be quite decisive with the clutch (which isn’t heavy) to get away smoothly, balancing slightly more revs than you might expect against a well-defined biting point.

The ratios are ideally spaced, with a nifty feel to the lever action on the upper three.

Changing down into second, it feels natural to heel-and-toe the floor-hinged pedals.

Smoothly potent, well-balanced disc brakes live up to the original hype.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

The neat rear quarterlights of the DB5 shooting brake

The generous span of the wood-rimmed steering wheel hints at the leverage needed to manoeuvre at low speeds between beggarly locks, but this seems a fair trade-off against the DB5’s accuracy and reassuring stability at higher speeds.

When swooping through long, fast curves in particular, the near-equal front-to-rear weight distribution makes the handling feel delightfully neutral.

On slower, tighter turns, the helm loads up just enough to be reassuring, yet there is always sufficient urge in hand to make the cornering a function of throttle position as much as steering.

Powering through is the preferred and neater way to negotiate a corner in any of these energetic sporting GTs.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

In Vantage spec, the straight-six engine offers 325bhp

The live rear axle is mightily braced against braking, torque and twisting loads, yet has enough articulation to give a firm but acceptable ride.

So, when the balance of weight is transferred, the back wheels dig in to put the power down with a lack of fuss that was probably unique among high-powered, non-IRS-equipped GT cars.

With such lusty, faithful urgency of response – deemed ‘vintage’ even when the cars were young – for the driver, the DB5 is a machine that only gives back what you put in.

It is imbued with an aura of uncompromising masculinity that won’t suit everyone.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

Today, the one-of-12 shooting brake still commands a premium over other DB5s

The DB4 was arguably prettier and ‘purer’ in concept; the improved, longer-wheelbase DB6 was, logically, the better, more sorted car, even if its chopped-tail styling received mixed reviews.

Yet it is the now 60-year-old DB5 that still casts the longest shadow of all the six-cylinder, Touring of Milan-styled Astons.

A timeless pin-up of Britain’s most revered sporting marque, its sacred-cow status goes far beyond the 007 effect.

Less fragile than the DB4, yet too lean and graceful to be a muscle car cast in the mould of its rumbling V8 successors, the DB5 was simply the sweet spot in the firm’s quest to build the best-possible, six-cylinder all-round grand touring car.

Images: Luc Lacey

Thanks to: Nicholas Mee & Co

The Aston Martin DB5’s journey from rags to riches

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

Aston Martin DB5 values have fluctuated throughout the model’s 60-year history

At £4248 in 1963, a DB5 saloon cost the equivalent of £115,000 in today’s money.

Given that most DB5s are now worth well north of £500k, the owner who had the space, money and foresight not to part with said vehicle would be feeling pretty smug.

A DB5 was by no means the most expensive car listed in the UK in 1963; that accolade belonged to the Rolls-Royce Phantom V with James Young Touring Limousine body, at £9286, soon to be eclipsed by the £11,000 Ferrari 500 Superfast.

But the DB5 was more expensive than almost all of its local GT rivals, and the Purchase Tax alone on the car would have bought nearly two BMC Minis.

This at a time when the average wage of a non-manual worker was £1200, and most houses cost well under £3000.

By the end of the decade, the picture had changed somewhat.

In one of its 1968 used-car tests, Autocar reported on a 1964 DB5 that could have been bought from a dealer for £1895, which meant depreciation of about £600 a year, at the most favourable interpretation.

Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

‘It is the 60-year-old DB5 that casts the longest shadow of all the six-cylinder, Touring of Milan-styled Aston Martins’

To give some perspective, there was a wide choice of new cars still available for £1895 in 1968, including the last of the 3.8-litre S-type Jaguars or a Citroën DS21 Pallas.

Autocar’s DB5 came with a £700 invoice for a new engine, too – enough to buy a factory-fresh Ford Cortina – and the writer was horrified to learn that a 10,000-mile service was £94: probably twice what he was earning a week.

The fact that Newport Pagnell had recently slashed DB6 prices to clear stocks (to almost exactly the 1963 price of the DB5) probably didn’t help the used Aston trade.

Prices held steady at £1500 through the early ’70s, but privately they could be had for sub-£1000, or about the price of a basic Ford Escort.

When C&SC launched in 1982, DB5s were running at between £5000 and £6000, or not much more than an S1 Bentley or a Gordon-Keeble, and quite a lot less than a really nice MG TF. Work that one out.


Classic & Sports Car – Aston Martin DB5: classic car royalty

Aston Martin DB5

  • Sold/number built 1963-’65/1059
  • Construction steel platform chassis, aluminium body over tubular steel frame
  • Engine all-alloy, dohc 3995cc straight-six, with triple SU carburettors (Webers on Vantage models)
  • Max power 282bhp @ 5500rpm
  • Max torque 280Ib ft @ 4500rpm
  • Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension: front independent, by double wishbones, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar rear live axle, four trailing arms, Watt linkage, adjustable lever-arm dampers; coil springs f/r
  • Steering rack and pinion
  • Brakes discs, with servo
  • Length 15ft (4570mm)
  • Width 5ft 6in (1676mm)
  • Height 4ft 5in (1346mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 2in (2489mm)
  • Weight 3236Ib (1468kg)
  • Mpg 17
  • 0-60mph 8.1 secs
  • Top speed 142mph
  • Price new £4084
  • Price now £600,000-1m+*

*Price correct at date of original publication

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