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Post-WW2 Britain was a fairly dismal place, with the great economies of Europe ravaged and dashed upon the rocks following years of conflict.
The automotive scene reflected the nation’s outlook in many ways, with car design essentially stagnant while the industrial might of the western world was focused solely on wartime output.
All that began to change as the 1940s drew to a close and demand for luxury automobiles started to pick up, not just from wealthy clients but also an emerging upper-middle class making its fortune in business.
The Jaguar XK120 led the charge in 1949, helping to create a market for high-powered roadsters and their more practical coupé counterparts.
By the early ’50s the starting pistol had long since been fired, and across Europe firms began turning out highly capable performance motor cars that were as at home driving to a business meeting, popping to the club or tearing across the autoroutes of Europe with a glamorous companion in the passenger seat and a set of fitted luggage tucked in the back.
But the first on the scene, and the one that would leave the most enduring legacy, came out of Feltham in 1950: the Aston Martin DB2.
Throughout its life, Aston Martin and its earlier iterations endured a tumultuous existence, bobbing through the peaks and troughs of economic instability and on several occasions risked sinking altogether.
But for the intervention of angel investors such as Count Zborowski and Lady Charnwood, the name would have disappeared without a trace.
No saviour was more welcome than tractor magnate David Brown, who took the helm in the post-war years, steering the troubled ship to calmer waters and turning the firm’s focus towards the more lucrative market of luxury sports cars.
Brown’s first act was to commission a two-seater sports car built around Claude Hill’s 2-litre ‘four’, the Two Litre Sports, and to run it at Spa in 1948 as a means of testing both the waters of the market and the limits of the car’s performance.
Despite winning, the cycle-winged racer failed to draw the same attention as the more conventional roadster-bodied version that starred alongside it at the 1948 London Motor Show; though it only garnered a handful of orders, it was well received stylistically.
The real prize came two years later, when a cut-down version of Aston’s Sports chassis was allied to Lagonda’s 2580cc twin-SU carburettor-fed straight-six and the clean and modern closed coupé bodywork penned by Frank Feeley.
Power went from 90 to 105bhp thanks to the WO Bentley-designed twin-overhead-cam head, while the trendsetting long-nosed body of the DB2 and its revolutionary hatchback design – the first of its type, closely followed by its rival from AC – proved a hit with playboys and road racers alike.
While Brown gently nudged Aston Martin towards lucrative luxury-car buyers, he saw motorsport as an opportunity to market his new model.
Before the DB2 made its motor show debut in 1950, three examples were entered in the previous year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans with mixed success, the only Lagonda-engined car failing after just six laps.
The following year all three were so powered, and their strong showing throughout 1950 and ’51 surely proved a draw for the first owner of our test car, Rodualdo Michalkiewicz, who collected the keys to the DB2 in April 1953 – the same month the model went out of production to be replaced by the DB2/4.
Michalkiewicz’s sporting intent was clear from the outset and he entered the car everywhere from the RAC Rally to the Prescott hillclimb, having Aston swap the standard 3.77:1 final-drive ratio for a quick-off-the-mark 4.1:1 – a potent combination with the DB2’s Vantage upgrades, which took peak power to 125bhp.
The useful increase in power came via bigger carbs, trick pistons and a higher compression ratio, complemented by later upgrades lavished upon this example from its time with Isle of Man TT rider William Scott and subsequent North American owners.
Along the way, this DB2 has been treated to an engine rebuild that included billet camshafts and crankshaft, a lightened flywheel and later five-speed ZF gearbox, which, as well as improving drivability and reliability, give the Ecurie Ecosse Blue Aston real bark.
Bite, too, if you’re not careful. Such is the roar from those twin SUs and the sharpness of the throttle response that it’s difficult not to get carried away.
Uprated internals allow you to push the Vantage further than a more pedestrian example, and pinning the throttle to the floor results in a gorgeous howl as the needle approaches the vertical.
It’s enough to get the heart racing and it’s a real wrench to step out of the comfortable leather-clad cabin with its upright, patinated wood-rimmed wheel.
The marque’s later association with James Bond feels fitting for the DB2: like Sean Connery in his trademark tuxedo, the Vantage offers no nonsense brawn clad with upper-class finery.
Of our set, the Bristol perhaps best fits the mould of the long-distance Continental cruiser, offering an almost old-fashioned level of refinement and comfort that brings to mind lost British marques of the pre-war period.
The cabin is lavish, with well-worn hide and a wooden dashboard dotted with well-placed anti-glare instruments; it has an old-school feel that’s difficult to put your finger on.
Compared with the lithe AC, snug Aston and stylish Lancia, the 404 feels incredibly well made and solid –the sort of car you can imagine being built at a loss, so long as its few loyal buyers (just 52 by the time production drew to a close) were satisfied.
Launched in ’53, the 404 was a contemporary of the slippery yet bulbous 403, its smaller, finer, Dudley Hobbs and Jim Lane-designed shape and neater size some 18in shorter than its older stablemate, but an order of magnitude more modern.
Gone was the BMW-inspired ‘bratwurst’ grille, replaced by a gaping maw that wouldn’t look out of place on an aero-engined record-breaker and is said to have been inspired by the Type 167 Brabazon airliner.
To the rear, subtly sweeping wings crested by fins – a bright pocket square in an otherwise conservative sports jacket – offer just the right flash of jazz.
That the 404 feels quite so robust is no doubt down to the deep box-section chassis on to which the delicate aluminium body panels are fixed – a nod towards solidity, quality and longevity more than cutting-edge technology, and a notable step back from the superleggera designs that preceded it.
It was a similar story with the moving parts: under the long bonnet sits the BMW 328-derived 1971cc ‘six’ that first appeared in a Bristol in the 400 of 1947 and proved a mainstay for the firm through to 1961.
The industrialist in a hurry could specify a specially tuned 100C version of the engine with more aggressive valve timing and an Aston-rivalling 125bhp, but it’s the 105bhp 100B – the same as was fitted to the AC Ace Bristol – that found its way into ‘our’ 404, one of just two ‘small boot’ examples to leave Filton.
That so few buyers opted for the top-of-the-range engine may have had a lot to do with the hefty £3542 15s 10d price-tag, but this car also spoke to the type of purchaser who perhaps valued subtlety and understated elegance over outright power and performance.
Still, the 404 is more than capable of lifting its skirts when prompted, with a soundtrack that ranges from enchanting chatter to borderline yowl when you tickle the limits of its rev range.
It isn’t enough to rival the rip-snorting Aston or give the AC a run for its money, but the Bristol manages to surprise with its characterful ‘six’ and smooth four-speed ’box, its delicate, short-throw lever and well-chosen ratios proving a sublime combination.
Engaging and accurate steering allied to the short 8ft wheelbase also make for a nimble performer.
Not as eager as its racier competition, but by no means a slouch.
Where the Bristol was and remains a niche product, built for a small but committed following of customers, Lancia’s Aurelia marked the Italian firm’s gradual transition from small coachbuilder to mainstream manufacturer.
Named for the ancient 239-mile Via Aurelia that connected Rome with Pisa, Lancia’s premier line ran from the 1950 B10 saloon to the B24 Convertible of ’56 before being replaced by the Flaminia just two years later.
From the second year of that eight-year production run it was possible to opt for the rakish B20 GT, which took all of the refinements of the businessman’s saloon and clothed them in a two-door suit so sharp it transformed the model from the upmarket everyday to the borderline glamorous.
From the outset it remained a car that punched well above its weight in terms of style.
But the B20 GT had plenty of substance to back up its looks – like the New York Yankees, whose stripes were dazzling but didn’t dominate baseball by style alone, winning the World Series six times during the Aurelia’s era.
A clever rear transaxle was joined by unitary construction in a landscape still dominated by separate chassis, and the world’s first production V6: a 60º 1569cc gem with hemispherical combustion chambers and in-line valves, developed in the immediate post-war years by Francesco de Virgilio.
By 1951 the entire range was fitted with an uprated 1991cc version of the powerplant, which resulted in sprightly performance in the lightweight GT – savings having been made by shortening the wheelbase by 8in.
The Series 2 soon arrived, followed closely by a third in 1953, which finally did away with the early car’s tailfins and brought with it a more powerful 2451cc version of the V6 engine.
However, it is the fourth series, which made its debut in 1954, that represents the best of the breed, and cemented the model’s reputation as a fashion icon when it starred in Dino Risi’s enchanting Il Sorpasso in 1962.
The mid-1950s revamp built on the successes of the Series 3 while adding a number of its own improvements, most notably the change from semi-trailing arms to de Dion tube rear suspension.
Coupled with its radial tyres (the Aurelia was the first model to be so fitted from new), handling was much improved, allowing the driver to make the most of the potent 118bhp V6.
The Series 4 Aurelia was the first to be exported to the United States in serious numbers, but ‘our’ car is Italian through and through, having been registered in Milan before spending most of its life in northern Italy then making its way to the UK.
Marque specialist Thornley Kelham was responsible for a light restoration that quickly blossomed into a full rebuild and, as well as a level of finish that would probably put the factory to shame, a number of useful modifications were made along the way.
Most notable is the gearchange, a period Nardi option that moved the selector from the column to the floor, and which suits a more involved driving style.
It’s a great rod of a lever with a beautifully turned knob, and but for the slightly rubbery bounce of a freshly built linkage it shifts quickly and smoothly, encouraging the sort of spirited sprint that brings to mind its dashing silver-screen appearance – though hopefully our drive won’t culminate in a fiery hilltop crash like the one in Il Sorpasso’s closing scenes.
The Aurelia cuts across country with all the grace of a Riva motor launch cresting the waves of Lake Como, with a silky power delivery from that jewel of a V6 that comfortably outclasses its straight-six competition in terms of refinement.
Surprisingly, it’s also the car that garners the most attention out on the road.
It lures you in with that gorgeous baritone, before captivating with a level of fit and finish that surpasses each car in our set.
Everywhere you look are gorgeous features designed and built with care, from the beautiful, bold dials that resemble a high-end watch face to the delicate window winders, hinged so they don’t catch your trousers.
Figure-hugging bucket seats complete a package that is difficult not to fall for completely.
Look at these four coupés in isolation and it’s difficult to get a sense of scale, such is the neatness of each design.
But take them as a whole and it’s the AC Aceca that is notable for its low, sleek and streamlined shape.
It undoubtedly shares a common design language with the Aston, as well as a useful and attractive hatchback to the rear, but, being based on the fleet-of-foot Ace, its tight aluminium bodywork makes for a more dainty machine.
A lightweight one, too: a combination of tubular chassis, thin-skinned wood-framed doors and a svelte footprint give it a 200kg-plus advantage over the more powerful Aston, which is realistically the closest rival among our British and Italian exotics.
The Aceca would be powered by a number of engines in its nine years, including the same 100B Bristol engine found in the 404 and a beefy 2.6-litre Ford Zephyr ‘six’ breathed on by Ken Rudd, but it’s the Thames Ditton firm’s own 1991cc overhead-cam straight-six carried straight over from the Ace in 1954 that features in this example.
While it lacks the outright power of the later engines, you would be hard pressed to guess that the aluminium AC block design dates back to 1922.
Just as 50:50 weight distribution and delightfully predictable handling flatter the driver, the low kerbweight similarly enhances the engine, which despite only producing 85bhp feels truly alive with a free-revving nature and wonderfully sharp throttle response.
The trio of SU carburettors certainly helps in that department, and the soundtrack is made up of the whoosh of air guzzled by the intakes and a crisp exhaust note that permeates the bright cabin.
Allow the revs to rise and the mellifluous burble turns into something of a roar, an aural treat that only adds to the overall experience.
The car’s first owner, amateur racer TA Alston, would have been no stranger to the Aceca’s straight-six having swapped his 2 Litre saloon in part-exchange, and he would surely have found the engine a more fitting pairing with the little coupé.
Curiously, Alston specified that the handbrake was located on the right-hand side of the Aceca’s cabin – proof that the marque still maintained some of the bespoke traditions that were beginning to disappear as manufacturers made the transition to scaled production after the war.
Though all four cars attempt to elbow their way into a similar niche, each has a character and approach all of its own.
In Vantage spec, the Aston is the brute, favouring power over delicate handling. The Bristol is the sophisticated eccentric, with a shape you either love or hate, while the AC’s low weight, sharp steering and sweet handling make it the driver’s favourite.
Which you prefer from the British trio depends very much on your priorities.
The Aceca would narrowly edge ahead for me, but by opening up the options to include the Continental offering, the Lancia would come out on top.
The Aurelia can be bested by each of the Brits in a number of areas, but it’s the Italian car that proves the best all-rounder: a wonderful combination of everyday practicality and performance that helped the model conquer everything from the fashion world to the Mille Miglia.
Even in such illustrious company, Jano’s masterpiece stands out from the crowd.
Images: Olgun Kordal
Thanks to The Classic Motor Hub
- Sold/number built 1953-’56/52
- Construction A-frame box-section chassis with integral floors and propshaft tunnel; steel, wood and aluminium composite body
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, cross-pushrod overhead-valve 1971cc straight-six, triple Solex 32 BI carburettors
- Max power 105bhp @ 5000rpm
- Max torque 123lb ft @ 3750rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual with freewheel, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by upper wishbones, transverse leaf spring, anti-roll bar rear live axle, longitudinal torsion bars, lateral links, A-bracket; telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes dual-circuit drums
- Length 14ft 3¼in (4350mm)
- Width 5ft 8in (1727mm)
- Height 4ft 7¾in (1416mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft ¼in (2445mm)
- Weight 2296lb (1041kg)
- 0-60mph 14.4 secs
- Top speed 113mph
- Mpg 22.3
- Price new £3542 (1953)
- Price now £150-250,000*
Lancia Aurelia B20 GT
- Sold/number built 1950-’58/18,197
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, ohv 2451cc 60º V6, twin-choke Weber carburettor
- Max power 118bhp @ 5000rpm
- Max torque 134Ib ft @ 3500rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual transaxle, synchromesh on top three ratios, RWD
- Suspension: front independent. by sliding pillars, coil springs rear de Dion axle, leaf springs, Panhard rod; telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering worm and sector
- Brakes drums, inboard at rear
- Length 14ft 4in (4369mm)
- Width 5ft 1in (1549mm)
- Height 4ft 5½in (1359mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 8in (2642mm)
- Weight 2888lb (1310kg)
- 0-60mph 14 secs
- Top speed 110mph
- Mpg 24
- Price new £3471 (1955)
- Price now £150-250,000*
Aston Martin DB2 Vantage
- Sold/number built 1950-’53/409
- Construction steel cruciform chassis with cast aluminium sills and door pillars, aluminium body
- Engine all-iron, dohc 2580cc straight-six, two1¾in SU carburettors
- Max power 125bhp @ 5000rpm
- Max torque 144lb ft @ 2400rpm
- Transmission all-synchromesh four-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by trailing links, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar rear live axle, radius arms, Panhard rod, lever-arm dampers; coil springs f/r
- Steering worm and roller
- Brakes drums
- Length 13ft 6½in (4130mm)
- Width 5ft 5in (1650mm)
- Height 4ft 5½in (1360mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 3in (2510mm)
- Weight 2452lb (1112kg)
- 0-60mph 11.1 secs
- Top speed 117mph
- Mpg 20.1
- Price new £2000 (1950)
- Price now £200-350,000*
- Sold/number built 1954-’63/151
- Construction tubular steel two-rail chassis, aluminium body over thin tubular steel frame
- Engine all-alloy, sohc 1991cc straight-six, triple 1¼in SU carbs
- Max power 85bhp @ 4500rpm
- Max torque 105lb ft @ 2750rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, optional overdrive, RWD
- Suspension transverse leaf spring, lower wishbones, telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering cam and gear
- Brakes Al-fin drums, optional front discs
- Length 12ft 8in (3860mm)
- Width 4ft 11in (1500mm)
- Height 4ft 1in (1245mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 6in (2285mm)
- Weight 1960lb (891kg)
- 0-60mph 13.4 secs
- Top speed 103mph
- Mpg 20
- Price new £1651 (1956)
- Price now £100-160,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication