Classic Cars (Sept 1991)
Reproduced from CLASSIC CARS, September 1991
Aston Martin has just got round to finishing off its 1963 build schedule, so add “Sanction 2 Production” to your jargon : Tony Dron tells the amazing story
Look in any good Aston Martin history and you will see that they built just 19 of those superb DB4GT Zagatos from 1960 to 1963: the first one was originally shown on the company’s stand at Earl’s Court in October, 1960. Study the chassis numbers of all these cars and you will see that four numbers – 0192, 0196, 0197 and 1098 – were allocated but the cars were never built. Well, those history books are going to have to be rewritten as those four cars have been completed this summer!
These magnificent machines are genuine Aston Martins, built under the supervision of former factory man and works Aston Team Manager Richard Williams and they are hard to tell apart from the 19 originals that are now around 30 years old: I spent about half an hour lying on the floor underneath the first of the “new” cars to arrive back in this country and then under one of the similar old cars and to be honest I don’t think you could say for sure which was the older of the two! There are differences but then there were such differences to be seen when comparing the 19 old cars with each other.
What a wonderful controversy this is going to stir up amongst Aston Martin enthusiasts! What are these cars? Has Aston Martin history just been tidied up in one little respect? The obvious step was to get Victor Gauntlett, Joint Chairman of Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd, to comment. He said: “It is not a mainstream idea nor the start of a series of such projects: we are not entering into a diversion from our main thrust”.
“You can’t really call it continued production after a gap of so many years: it is good fun that it could be done and it has been done openly and properly so that everyone knows what has been done.”
Mr. Gauntlett added that these cars are, however, rather more than just good copies: “The integrity is convincing”, he said.
He has to be right: there is absolutely nothing to say that a company may not complete its intended production programme, albeit 30 years late! But, still, what are these cars? Technically they may be seen as restorations because there are some original old parts in them, but those unused chassis numbers now adorn these cars on proper chassis plates marked “Aston Martin, Feltham”!
It must be stated right away that these cars are not being offered for sale by Aston Martin: they were sold long ago, before the serious work of building them began, though just one was sold to a dealer. The price is confidential but I gather that if you take the market value of one of the 19 originals, leaving out those with a special value-enhancing race history, then divide that number in half, you would be somewhere near the mark. I am sure that the new owners feel that as time goes by these values will reach parity, but their guess and yours are as good as mine: to the rest of us, the price tag is not of any importance anyway.
More to the point, as Victor Gauntlett has told us, this is not the start of some kind of “retro-production line” of Classic Aston Martins. Only the four spare chassis numbers allocated at the time have been taken up, and no new numbers will be invented.
Let’s take a detailed look at the story of how these cars came into being. The DB4GT Zagato of the early Sixties was a marvellous machine, rightly seen today as probably the most desirable Classic Aston you could own but we have to look at the car from the point of view of its makers in those days. The Jaguar E-type made an incredible impact when it appeared in March, 1961, at the Geneva Show. It was a bargain-priced 150mph sports car with stunning looks, far cheaper and more widely available than any Aston Martin,. Perhaps it stole some orders that might have gone to Aston Martin in Newport Pagnell: on the racing front, Ferrari totally eclipsed all sports car opposition for several years when it introduced its 250GT0 in 1963.
None of this was good news for Aston Martin, which was then ending that particular era of its racing history, reluctantly. So why were those four chassis numbers not turned into cars in the Sixties? Richard Williams suggests that the orders were simply not forthcoming and the company was wise enough not to build such expensive cars if no-one was going to buy them. It’s amazing to think that Aston Martin could not sell its Classic of Classics, its GTO-style machine, at the time; but the fact is that it was what they call in the trade a slow mover on the sales front.
The excellent Aston Martin Register, published by the Owners Club, in covering the DB4GT, mentions that: “There is a cryptic reference to later chassis numbers in the files, but this may have been connected with homologation: they were not made!” But even that Register, perhaps out of loyalty, gives no clue as to why these cars were not built then: the Zagato was homologated on the back of the normal DB4GT so there was no need to pretend that more of them had been built than was really the case.
So these numbers just lingered in the record books until 1987 when Victor Gauntlett and Peter Livanos decided that the time had come to put things right: the cars would be built at last, and they would be built in the old way with the rolling chassis being sent to Zagato in Italy for the bodies to be fabricated and fitted. In fact there was no choice over this because Zagato still owns the copyright, even though the Italians had long since disposed of all the tooling and bucks. Still, Zagato knew that no-one else was going to take over on this job!
Richard Williams was entrusted with the project and by 1989 he had completed the four rolling chassis; at that time his responsibilities as Team Manager of the works Aston Martin World Sportscar Championship effort took all his time and the four chassis were left for a year.
When the team was disbanded in 1990, attention was turned to the Zagatos. Richard began to sort out the details with the Italian concern, and he sent his own original DB4GT Zagato out there to be, as he puts it, “raped”. It was dismantled, used as a model and has since been restored to its former glory.
“Zagato knew no-one else was going to take over”
Astons are not made like Volkswagens or Fords: they are handmade and each one is an individual machine, even more so with special models like the DB4GT Zagato. Having decided to manufacture the four missing cars, then, the problem of a specification was not as easy to settle as you might think. For a start, the cars were not meant to be the same originally: chassis 0192 was to be one of the super lightweights, about 150lb lighter than standard, like the original 0182 and 0183, as delivered to John Ogier’s Essex Racing Stable, and the similar 0191 and 0193.
However, none of the cars completed this year is a super lightweight. Apart from a variety of bonnets, three being three-hump Zagato-style and one being a Richard Williams type which looks more typically Aston, they are effectively the same. It is interesting to note that they have come out at 2,515lb, compared to the typical 2,550lb of a DB4GT Zagato of the early Sixties; with cars like this there will be variations from this that the new cars are effectively the same weight as the originals. The standard DB4GT weighed 2,800 lb (1,269kg).
In fact, all the new cars benefit from the detailed development tweaks that Richard Williams has learnt over the years: they are more powerful and they handle better than the old cars. Whereas the original DB4GT engine was a straight six of 3,670cc displacement, producing nominal 302bhp, it is acknowledged today that there was some public relations-type bluff involved; the true power figure was more like 265-270bhp; the Zagato models, with a compression ratio of 9.7:1 instead of 9.0:1, gave some 12bhp more than the standard engines. It is not surprising that the new cars are powered by 4.2-litre versions of these engines, producing a genuine 360bhp. They do have the priceless twin-plug heads as fitted to original DB4GTs, and these parts I am told are originals “sourced from spares”. Over the years, it was realised that the three twin-choke 45DCOE4 Weber carburettors needed longer inlet manifolds, so these have been fitted.
The transmission is standard on the new cars, with Borg and Beck twin-plate clutch, David Brown close ratio four-speed gearbox and 3.54:1 Salisbury live rear axle with a Power-Lok limited-slip differential. The back axle is braced by tubes, welded on the nose of the diff and stretching back out towards the hubs, which have double wheelbearings: these two modifications will from experience make the cars much more reliable but will not detract from the pleasure of driving. Roadholding should be somewhat superior than that of the original cars.
While so many replicas offer inferior handling when compared with the originals they seek to emulate, these new cars are better, though the same in character. Very slight modifications to the front suspension geometry, altering the front roll centre, removes the excessive bump steer which was a fault in the original cars. Alternators are fitted instead of dynamos.
It is a shame that the word replica has been abused in recent years: we have tried to point out time and time again that a replica can only be made by the original manufacturer and that it must be an exact copy of the original car. It seems funny that everyone knows what reproduction furniture is, while reproduction cars which bear no mechanical resemblance to the Classic machinery which they resemble in appearance are called replicas. As the correct use of English is seen as an insult these days, that battle over dictionary definitions has been lost: never mind, these niceties may be irritating but they don’t really matter. In these circumstances, calling them “Sanction 2 production models” seems fair enough. The fact is that the world has four more DB4GT Zagatos which have the official blessing of the genuine Aston Martin name.
Driving the Sanction 2 Aston Zagato
Thanks to that great Aston Martin enthusiast, Simon Draper, I was given the chance to drive one of the four Sanction 2 Astons. One foul, drizzly morning during our drenched early summer I drove down to Goodwood: coming over the Downs, past the horse racing place, the road rose just into the clouds. It was more like the North York moors in November than the Glorious Goodwood of our nostalgic dreams.
But of all British circuits, Goodwood is the one on which to drive an Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato and, as I drove into the Paddock, I could see Simon’s green car parked in the Pits, rainwater running off its perfect new aluminium bodywork.
It was good to see former Grand Prix driver, Peter Gethin, there too: Peter runs a thriving school at the circuit these days, specialising in race driving instruction and corporate entertainment/advanced driving courses.
The priority of photographer Simon Childs and myself was to get a good shot for the September Classic Cars cover but as time wore on it became obvious that the gloom and drizzle had set in for the day: in those conditions, Simon got a great result. While we were waiting, Valentine Lindsay insisted that I drive his original D-type Jaguar: this is the car that went to Mexico when it was new and which his father, The Hon Patrick Lindsay, later bought and owned for many years.
Somewhat astonishingly, my 6ft 6in frame fitted into the old D-type quite well and, wearing Valentine’s racing boots, I could drive it without any trouble. The track was wet but there were few puddles and I soon felt at home in the car. By modern racing car (and tyre) standards the braking and roadholding abilities of the D-type are naturally quite modest but everything happens progressively and I began to circulate reasonably quickly without taking any chances. The car adopts a neutral to understeering attitude under these conditions: push it a bit harder and the tail will slide predictably on the slower corners.
It wasn’t long before the confidence to press on really hard began to form in my brain, but in my view that’s a damn fool thing to do on a wet day in someone else’s priceless piece of motoring history, so I stopped.
Talking about the D-type with another former GP driver there (it was a star-studded day!) he said “Awful, aren’t they! They don’t stop, they don’t go round corners – they’re quite dreadful!” I could only mumble that I was really rather enjoying it.
Soon I was installed in Simon’s car: while the D-type had all the patina of age, this was like stepping back in time three decades: everything was new. I felt perched up quite high on the well-padded seat. Perhaps it is too well-padded, or maybe it just needs to settle down a little with age, but still there was plenty of headroom and the driving position was really quite good. The old-fashioned pedals are excellent and the short gear lever is very well placed on the transmission tunnel.
Wipers on, I set off for a few laps. The first impression was that the brakes don’t work. There’s no servo on the Zagatos and the pedal pressures required are quite high, but you also have to warm the brakes up to get them working well: this done, a sense of confidence was rapidly found.
The steering feels quite light, and perhaps this was exaggerated by the slippery track, but the feel through the rack-and-pinion system is very good.
Press on a little and you are aware of the live rear axle but it is a very well located set-up: these cars handle extremely well and I could imagine enjoying racing this car in the wet. Some gentle, neutral slides in the faster corners encouraged these thoughts but again I drew the line at really extending the car and returned to the pits where I was admonished for not having a proper go!
“How many revs are you using?” I was asked.
“About four-five,” I said.
“Go out again and use six. That’s what it’s meant to rev to.”
So I went out again, leaving the end of the pit road with a wheelspin slide that at least impressed me, and took it to 6,000rpm in all the gears. Even though Simon has not opted for the ultimate state of tune available today this car is still every bit as powerful as an original Zagato and probably has more torque. It is seriously quick by any standard. In 1962 Autocar tested a Zagato and got 0-60mph in just over five seconds and a top speed of 152.3mph.
Along Goodwood’s relatively long straights the Zagato really does move and there’s no feeling of the acceleration dying away, but what impressed me all round the circuit was the feeling of newness throughout the whole car. The chassis is taut, the body doesn’t rattle or shake, and it is quite simply a brand new 30-year-old car – an incredibly impressive job. If there were not three others like it, it would be unique!