1953 Aston Martin convertible. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
The James Bond movies in the 1960s probably did more than anything else to popularize the English Aston Martin in North America. Although Aston Martins had already been here for some 15 years, Bond’s electrifying DB5GT tricked up with a machine gun, oil sprayer, bullet shield and ejector seat brought the English marquee invaluable publicity.
Aston Martin was one of the grand old names in British motoring. With a storied and varied history, it acquired a mystique far outshining its modest production.
It had all started in 1914 when garage owners and Singer car dealers Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford installed a side-valve 1.4-litre Coventry-Simplex engine in a small Hispano-Suiza racing chassis. The success of this hybrid at the Aston Clinton hillclimb, held north-west of London, inspired the Aston Martin name.
A second car came in 1920, and by 1922 Bamford and Martin Ltd., were producing Aston Martins in London. The cars soon proved themselves by establishing 10 world speed class-records. Bamford and Martin lasted until 1925, producing approximately 60 cars before the company failed. It was resuscitated in 1926 as Aston Martin Motors Ltd., now of Feltham, Middlesex; it changed to just Aston Martin Ltd., in 1929.
Aston Martin had precarious financial times and several owners. It survived through the 1930s producing a variety of touring and sports cars in limited numbers, peaking in 1933 with 105 sales. Aston Martins established a reputation for sporty competition cars; the cycle-fendered, two-seater Ulster model in particular did well including a 1.5-litre class win at the 1935 Italian Mille Miglia.
When Aston Martin was again foundering following the Second World War it was acquired in 1947 by gear and tractor manufacturer David Brown. Brown bought cash-strapped Lagonda Motors Ltd., shortly after, and combined the operations in Aston Martin’s Feltham plant. With Lagonda came talented Lagonda stylist Frank Feeley and a wonderful twin overhead cam inline six-cylinder engine designed by W.O. Bentley of Bentley car fame.
The first Aston Martin under Brown’s aegis was the Two Litre Sports, soon dubbed the DB1, based on a 1940 prototype called the “Atom.” A DB1 prototype finished seventh at the famous French LeMans 24 hour race in 1949, and approximately 15 DB1s were built.
In 1950 Aston Martin began producing the DB2, which could be called the first “real” David Brown model. It also did well at LeMans, finishing fifth and sixth in 1950, and third, fifth and seventh in 1951.
North Americans met the Aston Martin DB2 when it began arriving here in 1951. Its twin carburetor, 2.5-litre (2,580 cc), 105 horsepower, Lagonda twin cam six drove through a David Brown four-speed manual transmission. Weight was 1,134 kg (2,500 lb), and it had a 2,515 mm (99 in.) wheelbase.
Suspension was by trailing arms and coil springs in front, and a solid axle and coils at the rear. Its frame was fabricated of rectangular tubes and most cars were clothed in a lovely Feeley-designed aluminum two seater coupe body, although some convertibles would be made.
For engine access, the body’s entire front end tipped forward, but the limited rear luggage space was not so convenient because there was no trunk lid. A small door in the tail swung up for spare tire access.
When the DB2 got into the hands of American car testers it received a mixed reception. Mechanix Illustrated’s Tom McCahill reported that the performance with his test car’s 8.5:1 compression rather than the standard 6.5:1, was “terrific.” It reached 96 km/h (60 mph) in just 10.8 seconds and topped out at 196 km/h (122 mph).
But McCahill also reported that its handling was dangerous in fast driving: “The steering is extraordinarily sensitive, in my opinion dangerously so…the car felt airborne at high speeds.”
Road & Track’s test of the DB2 included the opinion of Phil Hill, owner of the R&T test car. Hill, who went on to become world driving champion in 1961, reported that “The Aston handles as well as any sports car I’ve driven, far better than any normal passenger car.” He concluded that the “The DB2 handles like a dream.”
When a Texas reader wrote to R&T asking how these two conflicting opinions could be reconciled, he was advised to “Enjoy McCahill’s superlative humour and take Phil Hill’s advice.” The DB2’s fine LeMans showings seem to favour Hill’s assessment.
The DB2 was built from 1950 to 1953 during which time some 410 were made. It was replaced for 1954 by the DB2/4 which had two small rear seats, a roof-hinged hatch for trunk access and a 125 horsepower “Vantage” engine.
Although the DB2/4 and subsequent models were undoubtedly improved, the DB2 was the first of the new breed of Aston Martins, and is highly revered by Aston lovers everywhere.