AM Magazine (Autumn 1991)

Reproduced from AM Magazine, Autumn 1991, Volume 26 Number 12

DB4GT Zagato Sanction II

By Paul Chudecki

The story of the Zagato Sanction II (an old motoring name that preceded ‘Mark II’) had been a remarkably well-kept secret until the launch date of 22 July 1991. The press and the public did not know at first what to make of this historic machine. The truth is that it is both a new and an old car; not a re-creation but rather a long term build process that has taken thirty years to complete.

The tale begins back in the early Sixties when Aston Martin decided it would build special lightweight versions of its superb DB4GT to grab the laurels from Ferrari, its fiercest rival on the race tracks of the world. To that end Zagato of Milan was commissioned to clothe the GT, a short wheelbase version of the DB4, in thinner gauge aluminium than the 18 gauge used on the GT’s touring body. It was felt that power was not a problem, the DB4GT already using a twin plug per cylinder version of the DB4’S 3.7 litre engine, rated officially at 302bhp although for the new two seater an increase in compression ratio upped the quoted figure to 314bhp at 6,000 rpm.

It was thus that the DB4GT Zagato made its public debut at the London Motor Show in October 1960, a beautiful, aggressive and purposeful looking machine – indeed, the late John Bolster described it in Autosport at the time as ‘fierce beyond belief’. Its first competition appearance came the following Easter at Goodwood when Stirling Moss took the first Earls Court Show car to third place behind Innes Ireland’s DB4GT and the winning Ferrari 250 GT of Mike Parkes. Moss’ car, however, had yet to have the handling fully sorted.

Meanwhile, John Ogier’s Essex Racing Stable team (which also owned Ireland’s Goodwood GT) had entered two cars for Le Mans, registered 1 VEV and 2 VEV, the pair destined to become the most famous and successful of the Zagato Astons. A repeat of Aston Martin’s 1959 Le Mans victory was not to be, however, both cars retiring in the 1961 French classic with head gasket failure. It was to be the British Grand Prix support event at Aintree in July the same year that gave an Aston Zagato its first victory, Australian Lex Davison in 2 VEV snatching a last lap lead from Jack Sears’ Jaguar E type. The three Essex Astons then netted the Team Prize at the Goodwood T.T. the following September when Jim Clark and Roy Salvadori finished third and fourth ahead of Ireland’s GT. Subsequently, the Zagatos acquitted themselves well on the race tracks and 2 VEV is still a regular competitor today in historic events.

A total of 23 chassis were put aside by Aston Martin for build as DB4GT Zagato models but only 19 were completed between 1961 and 1963, bearing chassis numbers 0176 to 0191, 0193, 0199 and 0200; chassis numbers 0192 and 0196 to 0198 remained unbuilt – until early in 1989. Of the original 19, some were purchased purely for road use and it was one of these that Autocar tested in April 1962, recording a 153 mph maximum speed with the zero to 60mph sprint occupying just 6.1 seconds. And all for just £5,470 although in those days that amount, like today’s production Aston prices, was enough to buy a sizeable house.

Aston Martin has always been aware of the four remaining unused chassis numbers and it was Chairman Victor Gauntlett with then joint chairman Peter Livanos who in 1987 before the Ford buy-in decided to create them to fully-fledged Zagatos – the pair had already conceived the V8 Vantage Zagato and V8 Volante Zagato, all 85 of which were to become collectors pieces. In these days of replicas of every type of car imaginable, some of which bear only passing allegiance to the originals, Aston Martin did have some reservations, “It was inevitable that all of us involved would, and indeed should, agonise over the decision to launch this project”, explains Gauntlett, “since the very word replica has been degraded in recent years. Finally, it was a question in our minds of the unqualified support of our friends at Zagato and of the uncompromising level of quality that would go into the chassis and bodywork. Satisfied on these points, there was nothing to stop these four stunning motor cars being produced.”

Discussions began in 1987 with Aston specialist Richard Williams who at the time was hard at work establishing the works Aston Martin Group C team which he was also to manage. The schedule was to prepare four chassis to DB4GT specification, each then being shipped as a rolling chassis to Zagato (of which Aston then owned 50 per cent) in Milan for mating to the hand-crafted body. Producing the original shape was not a great problem although all of the 19 Zagatos differed in small detail to front and rear treatment. Fortunately, the original jigs still existed – as did two of the 1960’s craftsmen – and Williams’ own original car was completely stripped and used as a mould for the final four chassis. Once bodied, the four DB4GT Zagatos were returned to Williams’ base by now at Cobham, for fitting of interiors, wiring and final assembly under the fastidious eye of special projects manager Tim Butcher. Meanwhile the Aston Martin Group C racing car, took precedence and it wasn’t until Aston Martin Lagonda shareholder Ford forced the team’s closure over the winter of 1989/90 that the Zagato project got under full steam. Michael Bowler, incidentally, a former director of Aston Martin, acted as liaison between Newport Pagnell and Milan.

“I became a quarter shareholder”, explains Williams, “and we were given the job of producing the four rolling chassis, just like in the ’60s, and shipping them to Italy for bodying. Then we went off into racing and it all slowed down and after the racing finished it speeded up again. By then we were under considerable pressure to get them finished because two people had been brave enough and wise enough when it was all conceived to pay a very healthy deposit”.

That the deposit was healthy, there is no doubt, with the Zagato’s total price around half that of the top figure paid for one of the original 19 – as the record at auction is £1.7 million, one can only speculate the deposit but suffice to say that the four cars have been sold for between £700,000 and £750,000 each – enough to buy a sizeable mansion, and with purchasers committing themselves before they had seen anything of their exquisite new machines! Such is Aston’s reputation.

With the thirty years gap between chassis number allocation and final build, Aston Martin felt it was acceptable to introduce a few minor modifications. These include an increase in engine capacity to 4.2 litres from 3.7, a capacity that was used by Aston Martin during the early 1960s, a reduction in wheel diameter from 16 to 15 inches, the latter a size originally homologated for racing, and adjustments to the suspension to improve handling characteristics on the modern radial rather than crossply tyre. It can be easily argued, therefore, that the four ‘new’ Zagatos are authentic, if improved in small ways.

“They are new chassis to a different design than standard”, continues Williams, “to increase the torsional rigidity of the car. Two side members now run outwards to the rear radius arm pick-up points and a centre brace, from aft of the gearbox to either side outer chassis member, has been incorporated.”

“We’re not saying it’s a perfect reproduction of the original car but as Gianni Zagato said at the launch, he had trouble telling the difference! And unless you get down on your hands and knees, I think everyone else will”. – Indeed, many parts have had to be faithfully reproduced, such as the tiny doorhandles, bonnet locks, glass windscreen, perspex windows and headlamp cowls, to name but a few.

Apart from the chassis strengthening, the coil spring/wishbone front suspension features a differently shaped and thicker anti-roll bar with altered pick-up points, revised spring rates and dampers and alterations that enable easy adjustment of camber and front roll centre. At the rear, once the geometry for its coil spring/telescopic dampers and Watts linkage has been set, the axle is braced in position while its original bearings are replaced with taper rollers which ensure the rear wheels point in the right direction even under hard cornering. Again, damper settings and the roll centre are altered. The change to radial tyres was also part of the improvements, but still allowing the fitment of beautiful, original type Borrani wire wheels: “Having done all that to the chassis and suspension”, says Williams, “it seemed silly to fit the original 5½” x 16″ wheels, and as the 15″ wheels were homologated it didn’t seem a big deviation from standard.” Tyres are Goodyear Eagle in 205/70 section, however, the profile carefully chosen to maintain the correct looking ride height and appearance.

Other changes include modern baffling for the large 35 gallon fuel tank, situated in the boot. “Holding so much fuel in itself causes enormous problems with the ride and handling between a completely full and half full tank, and the ride height”, adds Williams.

Under the bonnet, the 4212cc engine’s specification is basically the same as that of the highly successful DB4 ‘racers’ Williams has prepared for historic racing over the last few years. In Zagato trim, though, they use the correct DB4GT twin plug head and are detuned slightly from 360 to 350 bhp. The original heads, incidentally, took some sourcing at the time and cost around £5,000 each, broadly similar to the price Aston charges for the brand new castings it has now put back into production (see Summer AM). Original DB4GT Zagato carburation was via triple twin choke 45DCOE sidedraught Webers and while similar but new versions have been retained, choke size has risen to 50mm. Standard four speed, close ratio gearboxes also benefit with uprated synchromesh. Stopping the 24¾ cwt Aston is by original spec’ all round disc brakes but with smaller rear calipers and a different front/rear balance. Electrical improvements include replacing the dynamo for an alternator and a heavy duty ‘Torquestart’ battery, all very sensible.

The first rolling chassis was delivered to Zagato in January 1989, the last in April the same year with all completed in July 1991. All, however, in deference to their original chassis numbers are registered with numbers appropriate to the early sixties. Aston collector Simon Draper AMOC Member and a director at ‘Virgin’ with Richard Branson, received his car in June this year. Appropriately, he helped to finalise the Sanction II suspension settings at Goodwood, putting in around 500 miles of testing in conjunction with Richard Williams. After the launch I had the privilege and great pleasure of delivering this car to Simon’s home.

Inside the Aston, the finish is as immaculate as elsewhere and originality exact. Beyond the large wood rim wheel is the usual Aston comprehensive instrumentation, the matching 160 mph and 6,000 rpm tachometer dominating; only the ammeter is slightly different, from a 0-30 to 0-50 reading necessitated by the alternator fitment. The small bucket seats, trimmed in black leather, are comfortable though not exactly figure-hugging but the pedal lay-out is perfect, ideally set for ‘heel and toeing’ and with a welcome clutch foot rest.

Everything about the car looks and feels right and once the musical six is fired up, the road ahead forever beckons. Despite the 342bhp being produced at the 6,000 rpm redline, there is plenty of low-down torque, culminating in a hefty 330lb/ft at 4,600 rpm. All of which is enough to propel the Aston from rest to 60 mph in just 5.5 seconds, 100 mph in 12.2 and on to a 153 mph maximum. That’s certainly not hanging about and enough to give many a modern supercar a run for its money.

But it’s by no means just straightline speed we’re talking about; this new Zagato really handles. Not like a modern machine I’m glad to say, but just as a car of its provenance should. In fact, its chassis response felt remarkably like the DB4 I used to race in historic events although that only had 290 bhp. Turn-in on the squat Goodyears, is quick and accurate but this is a car designed to be steered by both wheel and throttle, and as such it can be set into wonderfully controllable drifts with oversteer the predominant trait when all that power is exploited. The Salisbury limited-slip differential works extremely well, providing admirable traction, no doubt aided by the rear suspension changes, but 352 bhp can easily overcome it when desired.

Fortunately, because the car had already done so much testing, I was able to use the 6,000 rpm redline. The punch and pull of the 4.2 litre engine is evident all the way through and all the time accompanied by that glorious engine note. It enjoys being revved and such is the nature of its broad power delivery that it will bound along the shortest straight at well into the three figures speeds. Acceleration is impressive throughout the rev range, the close ratio gears in the David Brown box complementing the engine well, though a suspected weak synchromesh on second gear necessitated double-declutching when changing down. An opportunity to test the Aston flat out during my brief test drive did not arise but knowing how quickly it will achieve 130 mph and the performance of the original 19 cars with less power, there can be no doubting the claimed maximum. And that engine, it just pulls and pulls!

The brakes, too, perform well although on Simon Draper’s example racing spec Ferodo DS11 pads have been fitted and as a result some heat needs to be generated into them before they work at full efficiency. There is no servo assistance but the required brake pedal pressure is not unduly high. What does surprise is the high quality ride, bearing in mind that the suspension has a very definite competition bias. There are no bumps or thumps, although the chassis stiffness can induce a degree of rear bump steer over undulations taken at high speed.

It was with some reluctance that I parked the car at Draper’s home near Goodwood not wanting to end such a pleasurable driving experience, brief but fast as it had been. Richard Williams couldn’t have summed it up better : “they’re lovely, absolutely superb. It was a brilliant idea, a rewarding task. This is the first time any manufacturer has commissioned a run of cars around 1961 to be completed in 1991.”

And it will probably be the last. My thanks to Aston Martin and in particular Simon Draper for a few hours of bliss.

Paul is Editor of GTi – Grand Touring International magazine and the above has been extracted by kind permission – Editor