At its old workshops in Newport Pagnell, Aston Martin has begun building new versions of a 1960s legend. Lucky blighter Adam Hay-Nicholls pays a visit, while taking a trio of vintage Aston beauties for a spin.
There is a chance that by the end of this article, assuming you can make your way through the first couple of paras, the pages will be stuck together with bile and you will be a seething mass of envy. I can only apologise. Rest assured that following my invitation to drive a brace of valuable vintage cars I was covered in pinch marks. I wish this to be my Groundhog Day.
It was not my first time driving Aston Martins, but it was my first time driving classic Aston Martins, which is like the difference between sipping something well-balanced and New World and helping yourself to what’s been lying in the Élysée’s cellar for six decades. Could use a dust, needs to breathe a bit, might be corked but… nope, it’s sensational.
The tiny town of Newport Pagnell, near Milton Keynes, is an unassuming place, but for those who appreciate transport history there are treasures to be found. A close of rather unimaginative new-build homes snakes around a Victorian warehouse and a conjoined pair of mock-Tudor semis which has seen better days. The former was, as long ago as 1857, Salmons & Sons, which manufactured horse-drawn carriages. The latter, behind a twee picket fence, became Aston Martin’s global headquarters in 1955. Top two right-hand windows: that was the office of David Brown, known by his initials, where in late 1963 he took a meeting with a loud and portly American called ‘Cubby’ Broccoli about an upcoming motion picture: Goldfinger.
It was also the only car factory in the world to have its own cricket pitch. Aston Martin chose the Buckinghamshire site due to its proximity to the M1, the UK’s first motorway, which it used as a test track. There were no speed limits then. The service centre on the other side of Tickford Street remains a hive of operations, maintaining Aston’s back catalogue. Aston built 13,300 cars in Newport Pagnell over the course of 52 years, ending in 2007 with the Vanquish Pierce Brosnan destroyed in Die Another Day. Today, the company builds over 6,000 units a year at their Gaydon plant, 40 miles away in Warwickshire. Now, though, with models from the late 1950s and ‘60s regularly reaching seven-figure sums at auction, Aston have turned the clock back and are building extremely limited-run models just as they were under the Macmillan government.
The DB4 GT Zagato is among the most valuable and lusted-after sports cars of all time. Nineteen were built between 1960 and 1963 in the very workshop that Aston Martin still occupies here today. Essentially, they were race versions of the DB4 GT, lightened and restyled by Italian coachbuilder Zagato. Fifty-six years later, they’re building another 19 ‘continuation’ units.
Aston are not alone in engaging the flux capacitor and going back to simpler times. While they were probably the first to float the idea of continuation cars, back in 2014, Jaguar beat them out of the blocks by delivering six Lightweight E-types and nine XKSS continuation cars in 2016, priced in excess of £1 million each. For the same unit fee two years later they produced 25 more D-Type racers. Bentley are about to go back even further in time, to their 90-year-old 4 ½-litre Blower. The price of these extra 12 bellicose British Le Mans winners is strictly POA, though Aston assure me it’s less that their Zagato, not least because the Aston comes with a stunning bonus track. The DB4 GT Zagato Continuation is being sold as a twin-pack with the state-of-the-art Gaydon-built 211mph DBS Superleggera, skinned in a bespoke GT Zagato suit and, again, limited to just 19. The price reflects demand: £6 million for the pair.
Sorry for dribbling. Sitting under its original 1955 roof and watched over by a wooden owl that’s been perched on a truss scaring off pigeons for all these years, the workshop feels like a Hornby factory. Stalwart Paul Spires, president of Aston Martin Works, tells me: “Everything is in miniature here,” compared to the Gaydon plant, “but the problems are the same size”. It’s not a museum, it is a working atelier. In addition to 40-odd customer-owned Astons undergoing service or restoration, there are three ‘continuation’ DB4 GT Zagatos having their final parts installed. All the parts are new, but based on digital scans of the originals. The craftsmen use the same artisan skills that have been passed down generations. It requires 4,500 painstaking hours’ work per car. The materials are either the same or improved. Significant investment has been made to tooling, and the fit and finish is far superior to that of 1960. The original cars weren’t symmetrical, and these are. The body panels are pressed in the original way, using a rubber press, one that Aston rents from Eurofighter. But apart from smaller panel gaps, better brake pads, modern racing seat harnesses, a proper fuel cell and an FIA touring car roll-cage, you would be very hard stretched to spot the difference. Performance is improved by boring the straight-six engine out to 4.7 litres, rather than 3.7, which pushes horsepower up from 314 to maybe as much as 400bhp.
Of course, some purists will lament that it’s not a real classic. To which I say: show me an historic racing car that isn’t like Trigger’s brush.
Over time, the Duke of Richmond may have to change his view and let these cars race at events like Goodwood. In the USA, they’re less bothered about provenance, so long as it’s not a ‘trick’ car, and take the view that it bolsters starting grids. Due to homologation, the DB4 GT Zagato Continuation is not necessarily road legal in every country; if you own that country, as several clients do, it’s not really a problem.
The majority of them will go to America, where most automotive masterpieces are kept these days. The safety improvements made to continuation cars are, Spires says in his charmingly candid way, a definite positive. “When it goes wrong in an historic racing car, it goes very wrong, and we want our very wealthy customers to be safe so they come back and buy more cars.”
I would push dearly-loved relatives down the stairs to be among them, but as the next best thing I’m lent a trio of frothingly exciting classic Astons at my disposal for the next 24 hours, a reservation at Cliveden House and an RAF uniform.
I’m joining a troupe of period-costumed Aston aficionados off to the Goodwood Revival, where one is transported to the circuit’s heyday of 1948-1966 for an orgy of retro red-lining and high-speed high-jinks, plus a few Spitfires flying overhead. Aston have provided a road-map which takes us through the westerly home counties’ prettiest market towns and villages, to overnight at Cliveden and drive on to West Sussex the following morning.
Cliveden is a well-chosen pit stop. An estate synonymous with the swinging Sixties; of power, sex, class, beauty, and the corruption of the British establishment itself. I allude to when MP John Profumo met Christine Keeler swimming here in her birthday suit in 1961. An Aston Martin of similar vintage seems the perfect car with which to visit.
Cliveden is also an example of the successful union of Italian style and British engineering, just like the Zagato. Crowning an outlying ridge of the Chiltern Hills and designed by Sir Charles Barry in 1851, it blends English Palladian architecture with the Italian Cinquecento, rendered in Roman cement.
First out of the gates is the car I yearned for as a teenager; a Brewster green 1995 Vantage V550 with a low-estimate 550bhp and a guttural V8 roar. It’s an aristocratic muscle car, originally fettled by Sir Jackie Stewart and priced at £245,000.
Crunching down Cliveden’s gravel next; a silver DB6 MkII Volante from 1970, one of only 38 made and said to be worth £950,000. The Prince of Wales owns one of the other 37.
Thirdly, on to Goodwood, I drive the first car to be produced at Newport Pagnell, and one of the most handsome: A sea green 1955 DB2/4 that has had just one owner. £295k strikes me as a very good investment, though of the three the DB6 is the most joyfully chuckable and precise. I could drive it every day of my life and never tire.
I swear to God, a distinguished-looking octogenarian who was crossing the road in Eton Wick stopped, raised his walking stick and bellowed “bloody well done”. You see, you don’t need to be the one driving to enjoy time travel.