NOT WHAT IT SEEMS!
By Tony Dron
If looks could kill, any DB4 would do it with style; but this unbelievable example, sensitively and appropriately modified by acknowledged leading Aston Martin specialist, Richard Stewart Williams, is licensed to blow the wheels off just about anything else you will ever find on the road. American owner, Duncan F. McGougan, liked his DB4 so much that he moved to England to drive it and be with it.
Every self-respecting male who was a schoolboy in 1959 knows the legend of the Aston Martin DB4: it became a sensation overnight when a GT version was clocked doing 0-100mph all in just 20 seconds. The production “saloon” version was not far behind. Despite weighing about a ton and a half, the standard model did 0-60mph in 9.3sec, 0-100mph in 20.1sec and it had a top speed of 140mph; it looked so clean, so exciting, it was a real sports car and yet it had four seats. It didn’t need James Bond to tell us that this was the thing to have in those days.
Such figures are still impressive but the fact is that a mid-spec BMW 5-series turns in that sort of performance these days. But just suppose that Aston Martin had carried on developing the DB4 around its major mechanical parts, still with the old four-speed gearbox, the classic straight-six engine and the live rear axle. What then? This car would be the result, and I have been driving it alongside its devoted American owner. It is awe-inspiring, be sure of that.
It looks standard enough; just like any ordinary DB4 (if that is not a contradiction in terms) and Duncan is thinking of making it look even more harmless by refitting the chromed bumpers. The original look of that Italian-styled Superleggera body was so modern that you have to remind yourself that this most British of sports cars was built a long way back: 1959, 40 years ago, no less.
Such “memos to self” are all the more valuable when you open the throttle on a damp country road in Britain. It doesn’t have modern independent rear suspension, nor superglue low profile radials. This car has 1950s’ style racing tyres and the traction control is absolutely in your right foot: put that pedal down and it’s like letting a giant, majestic, bellowing, laughing devil out of his box and, if you haven’t taken honours in throttle-control beforehand, may the Good Lord help you for no-one else will.
The original DB4 produced a claimed (but perhaps slightly inflated) 240bhp at 5,700rpm. With a genuine 374bhp available, not to mention 357lb ft of torque at 4,500rpm, the modified DB4 is a completely different kind of machine. The truth is that the car is very well sorted and we never came near to getting into any kind of difficulty. Even so, this DB4 is not a car for beginners: you have to know what you’re doing and exercise a highly developed sense of social responsibility when driving it.
Finding the conditions to use it to the full is no easy task. Given all that, let the smug smirk spread across your face and start to enjoy some real driving.
The funny thing is that, before he bought it, Duncan F. McGougan had never used a stick-shift in his whole life: Duncan comes from a long line of North Carolina tobacco farmers but he moved away from the family business, worked for The Economist magazine and was based in New York City for many years. “The need for a gear lever, as we call it over here, never arose”, yet he spent ages studying the magazines and worked out, correctly in my view, that the right thing to aim for was a piece of classic British metal: an Aston Martin.
After studying all the facts, he contacted Richard Williams whose hospital-clean premises are located in Cobham, Surrey, not far from the old Brooklands track. After much talk, they settled on this 1959 DB4. It was mildly modified, the engine having been enlarged to 4.2 litres with three SU carbs and a suitable handling kit had been built in. The previous owner was a perfectionist and the car had been looked after by R.S. Williams for several years.
Some months later, Duncan was able to get across the Atlantic and sample his new toy: he liked it, preferring it against other six-cylinder Astons for its pure style and clean looks. With such a potent car (it produced 265bhp at that time), mastering the art of clutch control and gear changing was quite a challenge, especially as he also had to get used to driving on the left and learn all the other details of motoring in Britain. He survived that all right but the tricky intricacy of releasing the fly-off parking brake sometimes eluded him. Both he and Williams admit that Duncan was an unusually good customer of parking brake parts for some time.
Then he spotted the fact that some of the other cars in the workshop had 4.5-litre engines and Weber carbs, pushing up the power output by over 100bhp. He did not want to miss out on that, so he ordered the work to be carried out. Such a huge increase in performance, and the ferocity of its delivery through the Webers, meant he had to learn how to drive the car all over again.
On a subsequent visit he noted the “wicked” yellow and black spirals of the plug leads to a twin-plug head. These he had to have even though the effort has produced only a marginal increase in performance at the top end. It’s a matter of aesthetics and the fact that he now has a car which is taken to the absolute limit of road-going modification without stepping over into the realms of unseemly bad taste.
He was so pleased with the result that he invited the engine builder out to dinner. The fact that this particular R.S. Williams employee is 23 years old, blonde, slim, extremely goodlooking and goes by the name of Karen surely had nothing to do with that selfless, chivalrous gesture of thanks. By then, Duncan was so keen on his car that he had moved to England to use it properly on a regular basis. We met up one bright, sunny November day at Richard Williams’ establishment. Over coffee in Richard’s office, surrounded by trophies and impressive Aston automobilia, we were introduced in proper British fashion.
With a wry smile, Richard mentioned a few incidents, like the time when Duncan filled the tank with diesel fuel on the way home from a day at Silverstone and had to be rescued. In his defence, Duncan explained: “It couldn’t happen in the States. The wrong nozzles just won’t fit there. Fair enough, but he then admitted that he had put £30 worth (around 50 dollars) in there before he noticed his error.
Over coffee we decided to head for Goodwood. The recently reopened circuit seemed appropriate and Mike Valente reckoned the route would be ideal for his pictures. At Duncan’s suggestion I took the wheel of his car: it looks just like a standard DB4 and the original seat makes the driving position seem quite high at first, though that is forgotten once you are on the move. The DB4 is a well-designed car, not just a good looker, the layout of the controls is excellent and visibility from the driver’s seat is unusually good.
As soon as you start the engine, you know there’s something different about this car. It sounds like an Aston but the huge increase in power is obvious. Also, Duncan likes it a bit noisy. On the road I was keen to find out what it really does when you open the throttles wide and give it a good blast. It was immediately obvious that the performance is in the modern supercar league; it would be easy to outperform just about anything else on the road by a very large margin. The torque is just unbelievable yet the clutch is easy and the car’s docility at low speed makes it easy to drive in heavy traffic.
With a lesser car it would have been possible to make an assessment more quickly, but with this elegant monster I had to wait for mile after mile before a suitable, safe opportunity came up. It is just so outrageously quick that it’s hard to find the room to exercise it properly.
At last, the chance came: ye gods, what a machine! It wriggles over bumps, squirms with the torque but it does go, putting down its power despite the narrow, old-fashioned Dunlop race tyres. No, this is most surely not a car for beginners but, if you are used to very high-powered antique machinery, it is perfectly user-friendly. It understeers mildly as a rule but very controllable oversteer can be induced easily so it’s not necessary to move the steering wheel that much when really pressing on. Just fabulous. And all the while there’s that exciting sensation of glorious engine noise (all right, it’s too bloody noisy but that’s Duncan’s choice).
It gets up to high speeds incredibly quickly and just wants to keep on going, so it’s just as well that the uprated brakes work so well. When driving fast, the brakes simply felt powerful and secure, pulling the car up fair and square. Having driven standard DB4s, and raced an R.S. Williams lightweight in the past, it’s clear that many other secret little tweaks learnt over the years from racing are built into this car.
On the way home, Duncan and I had a discussion about the final drive gearing: we stopped at the idyllic Cumberland Arms, one of Mike Hawthorn’s favoured post-Goodwood haunts, for a superb steak lunch.
I pressed Duncan about the overall gearing. At 3.3:1 it’s longer than standard but it was clear that in top it would have no trouble reaching 6,000rpm.
Duncan agreed, saying he’d opted for the 3.3 for maximum acceleration. Back at the workshops we checked with Richard Williams who confirmed that the 3.3 gives a rev-limited top speed of 152mph. A 2.9:1 final drive would be better, he said: it would have been his choice in the first place, for sure; it would make 174mph available at 6,000rpm in fourth gear and, given a suitable open road like, say, the old Nurburgring, it might even reach that once or twice, Just, maybe.
Now, there’s an idea: Duncan is having the 2.9 axle fitted now. Even with the longer gearing I’ll bet it would do that 0-100-0mph trick in about 15 seconds. Whatever the truth of that, this DB4 is some toy.
Modifications by R. S. Williams:
Engine: enlarged to 4.5 litre by increasing bore; triple Weber twin choke 48mm carburettors; twin-plug cylinder head; redesigned camshaft profiles; fully counter-balanced crankshaft; Carillo con-rods; Cosworth pistons; oil and waterways flowed and modified to rectify inherent cooling problems; high efficiency water radiator; high output water pump; fully flowed oil cooler; 374bhp at 6,000rpm; 357lb ft at 4,500rpm.
Clutch: single-plate purpose-built Borg & Beck diaphragm type.
Gearbox: standard but modified synchromesh cones built with improved material.
Final drive: 3.3:1 with Hewland Power Flow limited slip differential. (See story re forthcoming axle ratio change to 2.9:1).
Brakes: special solid front discs (diameter enlarged 1in); modified Aston Martin V8 callipers; modern higher boost servo; improved vacuum reservoir capacity.
Front suspension: revised spring and damper rates; stiffer anti-roll bar with special mountings; roll centre lowered and bump steer eliminated.
Rear suspension: standard live axle with strengthened pick-up points; coil springs, trailing links and Watt’s linkage: made adjustable to achieve perfect alignment. Corner weights adjusted correctly.
Reproduced with kind permission from Tony Dron and AMOC
This article first appeared in Sports Car International magazine of the USA.
Black & white photograph by Mike Valente. Colour photographss by Fergus McIver – © RS Williams Ltd.
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