James Bond drove a 1964-65 Aston Martin DB5 in the first Bond movies and acquainted most Americans with England’s Aston Martin. But the 1958-63 Aston DB4, which the DB5 strongly resembled, was the first all-new Aston since industrialist David Brown bought and saved the revered automaker in 1947.
Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels, never owned an Aston Martin, but he sure knew about classy cars. He owned a mid-1950s Ford Thunderbird two-seater and a rakish, early 1960s Studebaker Avanti, which he shipped to various countries to drive whenever he left England. Fleming’s wife was so jealous of his affection for the Avanti that she reportedly put sugar in its gas tank to gum up its engine.
But the Bond movie producers knew James Bond would have to drive an Aston Martin in the movie because it was the sleekest, fastest, most prestigious British sports car.
Most Astons have had a “DB” prefix because those, of course were David Brown’s initials. He sold the automaker in 1972 just before the big American fuel crunch and before new government regulations nearly caused the crash of the exotic sports car market in this country.
Aston Martin’s history actually dates to 1917. Auto racing enthusiast Brown bought the financially troubled Aston Martin company to have, as he lightheartedly put it, “a lot o’ fun.”
The first prototype Aston Martin was partly developed by Lionel Martin, and the Aston part of the company’s name was derived from England’s rugged Aston Clinton auto competition event.
Brown made his fortune in farm tractors and transmissions and proceeded to build a long, famous Aston Martin sports car line, starting with the 1948-50 Aston DB1. However, the DB1 was just a low-volume interim car, and Brown began producing really serious Aston Martin sports cars with the faster, sleeker 1950-53 DB2 model. It was a race winner trimmed like a Rolls-Royce, as were subsequent Astons.
Aston Martins were expensive cars for mainly gentlemen, not for kids, although young rock star Mick Jagger owned one in the 1960s.
The DB2 and its descendants led Aston to considerable success, and Brown would have marveled at how far the automaker has come.
The fast, pretty 1953-57 Aston DB2/4 preceded the DB4. There was a 1957-59 Aston DB Mark III. But it couldn’t be called the DB3 because that designation had been used on an Aston sports/racing model in the early 1950s.
Anyway, the 140-mph DB4 was the first modern Aston Martin. It arrived in late 1958 and was built in Aston’s modernized Newport Pagnell factory in England until June, 1963. It came as a coupe with two small rear seats and in late 1961 as a four-seat convertible.
The DB4 had Superleggera (superlight) construction by the prestigious Touring coachbulder firm of Milan, Italy.
Italian auto coachbuilders were masters at such construction, which used aluminum panels over a lattice of small tubes laid out to define the body shape. That was perfect for a small, exclusive automaker such as Aston. Touring also worked on exotic Italian sports cars, but, after all, who needed a Ferrari if you could have a fast Italian-style Aston DB4?
Every major part of the DB4 was new. Its new frame was designed in six weeks flat in 1957 and would be used at Aston through the 1960s and 1970s. The car also had a rugged 3.7-liter inline six-cylinder engine from brilliant designer Tadek Marek.
The visually beautiful dual-overhead-camshaft engine produced 240-266 horsepower, which was a lot for a car weighing only 2,885 pounds. The DB4 could do 0-100 mph and stop in 27 seconds—sensational for the late 1950s and early 1960s. No American car, regardless of power rating, could could match that feat, which Aston proudly advertised.
Aston had outstanding personnel, despite its small size. For example, a key person behind the DB4 was John Wyer, who also was behind the birth of the legendary Ford GT40 race car, which beat everything in sight in the mid-1960s, including the best race cars Ferrari offered.
A new David Brown four-speed manual transmission was used to handle the DB4’s power, which grew in future models. In fact, an Aston sports/racing car with the six-cylinder engine won the famous 24-hour race at Le Mans, France, in 1959 and also the World Manufacturer’s Championship that year, beating the world’s best..
The first DB4 had had clean, elegant styling fronted by a Mark III-style grille flanked by headlights on the corners of the front fenders.
There were no less than five distinct versions, or “series,” of the DB4. Each was faster, better equipped and more luxurious than the last.
For instance, rear-hinged hoods of Series 1 models changed to front-hinged ones on Series 2 models, as of January, 1960.
The Series 3 (built from April, 1961) had small cosmetic changes such as triple cluster taillights, and the Series 4, built from September of that year, had a thinner air opening on the hood and a new grille with seven vertical bars..
The Series 4 also was offered with a higher-powered (266 horsepower) “Vantage” six-cylinder. The DB4 Vantage had a restyled front end with recessed headlights behind sloping plexiglass covers. Like the special DB4GT, it’s occasionally confused with the DB5 used in the Bond movies, although it has a slightly shorter wheelbase and early DB4 grille.
In fact, a Series 5 DB4 Vantage was modified as a prototype DB5 and was the 1963 Earl’s Court (England) auto show car, and the following year was modified for the Bond film “Goldfinger.”
Finally, the Series 5, built from September 1962, was lengthened about 3 ½ inches to fifteen feet, which allowed additional leg room and trunk space. It also had a higher roofline. The DB4 fastback coupe was joined by a four-seat convertible in late 1961.
Running mechanical changes include an overdrive option, beginning with the Series 2, for smoother, quieter high-speed cruising. And by 1963, a five-speed manual and three-speed automatic transmission were offered.
The most desirable DB4s are the lightweight 1959-63 race-style 302-horsepower DB4GT, which is trimmer in size and weight with a shorter wheelbase than a regular DB4, and the 314-horsepower DB4GT Zagato.
The DB4GT Zagato has a completely different body than the DB4GT in style and construction. Its extremely light fastback coupe body has a sexy combination of curves and angles, making it look much like a show car.
Only 75 DB4GTs and 19 DB4GT Zagatos were made. The DB4GT arrived in the fall of 1959 and the DB4GT Zagato debuted in 1960. Prices vary, but collector car price guides value the DB4GT at $1.8 million, and the DB4GT Zagato at a cool $6 million. A regular DB4 coupe is valued at $240,000, with the convertible at $275,700.
Sports Car Market magazine quotes a DB4 owner as saying his car is “fast, beautiful and comfortable. What more could anyone want?”
David Brown surely would have agreed.
Only 1,110 DB4s were produced, helping make it one of the world’s most exclusive classic sports cars.
Dan Jedlicka has been an automotive journalist for more than 40 years. To read his new and vintage car reviews, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.