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Aston Martin heritage tour: from the DB6 to the DBX

Autocar logo Autocar 16/04/2017
© Provided by Haymarket Media Group

Fortunately, the owners of the little white house in Henniker Mews weren’t at home.

We were trying to be as quiet as possible, given that it was just past 6am, but you can’t push the world’s oldest Aston Martin down a cobbled street in one of the most crowded parts of South Kensington, set it up for photographs and start flashing away without creating some sort of disturbance. Yet no one threw open an upstairs window and started shouting at us in classic cartoon fashion. Disturbance was there none.

The car we were pushing was the revered 1915 Aston Martin A3, a small and modest-looking open sports car now conservatively valued at £20 million. Owned by the Aston Martin Owners Club (AMOC), it’s the third Aston Martin ever to carry the badge and the earliest survivor.

Back in the day, this quiet mews house was significant as the first workshop of the early motor repair company Bamford and Martin, which soon became Aston Martin. In the half-light, we were on hallowed ground, surveying a wall plaque (put there a few years ago by the AMOC), commemorating some of this.

Although not currently in running condition, this car’s 1.5-litre engine is reputed to have propelled it to an 84.5mph lap of Brooklands. It was a prodigious speed at the time. Today, although mute, it was playing a vital role in a special mission we’d set ourselves: to start where Aston Martin was founded 104 years ago and drive through as much of the company’s history as possible, calling at significant Aston factories and sites while driving several different Aston creations along the way.

Our plan was to end up at Aston Martin’s mighty new factory site at St Athan, currently an enormous collection of aircraft maintenance hangars on a Ministry of Defence base west of Cardiff. There, the revolutionary electric crossover model, codenamed DBX and shown as a concept in 2015, will go into production from 2019. It’s part of a plan, created and led by Aston CEO and former Nissan chief planning officer Andy Palmer, to greatly increase the company’s volume and bring it the security its backers have craved but never quite achieved.

We had several reasons for starting early. First, this was going to be a long day. Second, inner-London traffic after 7am can be savage. Leave late and you’ll be trapped for hours. Third, our plan involved departing Henniker Mews in a beautiful 2004 Vanquish, a car I’d written about in its launch heyday but hadn’t touched for a decade. And it’s always best to have tolerably open roads when you’re trying to familiarise yourself with someone else’s £100,000 car.

By seven, we were on the road, shaking away the dregs of London’s commuter traffic and heading for the site of the old muddy hillclimb course on Aston Hill, just off the A41 near Aston Clinton in Buckinghamshire. There, the firm’s founder, Lionel Martin, drove so well in his Singers and home-made specials that on the cars he built, he decided to combine the Aston name with his own and go forward with a double-barrelled car company. They’ve long since tarmacked the muddy track and Aston Hill has become Mecca for mountain bikers, but with the sun beaming through mist-shrouded trees, it still felt distinctly historic.

By the time we arrived there, I knew this Vanquish V12 was a lovely car. This was the lower-powered 450bhp model, not the later 520bhp Vanquish S, and was equipped with the automated manual gearbox that an increasing number of owners seem to want to replace with a sixspeed stick shift. Cars of a certain age (the Vanquish was introduced in 2001) can be a bit intimidating if you spend your days in new ones, but the excellence of this car will never be extinguished. The engine was smooth and flexible and packed about the best V12 exhaust note you could imagine (unmolested by modern gizmos such as exhaust butterfly valves and sound symposers). For me, it had plenty of poke. You drive on the torque, anyway.

After half an hour of delicately sniffing the same sort of spring air that must have sustained the company’s founder in his pomp a century ago, we set off due north across country to Newport Pagnell, Aston’s post-war manufacturing home for just over 50 years until 2007.

Vanquish manufacture continued at the site as the company got going at its present place next to Jaguar Land Rover at Gaydon from 2003. Of course, Newport Pagnell is still home to Aston Martin Works, where you have always been wise to get your Aston serviced or restored, or where nowadays you can buy one.

Our mission was to meet Paul Spires, boss of this thriving enterprise , whose workforce now outnumbers the former manufacturing operation across the road. Soon, Spires and a hand-picked team will begin building the 25-off run of ‘continuation ’ DB4 GT lightweights, all of them already sold and for track use only.

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To remind us of Newport Pagnell’s heyday, we took to local roads in a magnificent DB6, fully restored at Works and currently on offer for around £ 300,000 if you have any loose change. It was a superb car, roomier and more comfortable than I expected, with a wonderful smell of leather – Works is careful to use period leather that emits a period smell – and an obvious ability to lope across country in the torquey, relaxed way of Aston folklore.

This car’s skinny wheelrim and tiny gearlever knob made a clear connection with 1968, as did the somewhat notchy gearchange (it’s sometimes nice to be reminded how far we’ve come) , but there was a pleasant mechanical feel to everything. It was even good that the engine was a bit fluffy: that was a reminder of the olden days, too.

The next phase of our journey, Newport to Gaydon, was to be tack led in a superb DB7 V12 owned by David Nancekievill, who bought it new at the end of 2001. It’s a 2002 -modelyear car, and Nancekievill spent four and a half days in the factory logging its progress, photographing every operation and getting to know the technicians who built it. The car’s condition after 16 years reflects the attitudes of its owner: its paint gleams, its interior is faultless and its mechanical condition is arguably better than new. Nancekievill has improved the car’s condition, changing the suspension rates to GT specification and giving it later Aston Martin wheels and tyres.

This was a beautiful example: flatriding, comfortable and remarkably swift, especially off the mark. It had the optional ZF five-speed auto of the time, controllable from buttons on the steering wheel. Nancekievill always drives on the buttons, he told me, and given the surprisingly swift response , I could see exactly why.In recent years, the DB7 has provided fairly easy access to Aston ownership, but prices of cars as good as this have been rising for a couple of years, and they’ll go higher.

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The DB7 era was a joyous one for Aston Martin. Under the management of Bob Dover, the company progressed from being a struggling maker of cars by the handful to a thriving manufacturer of sports GTs (7000 examples were built over 10 years) that greatly widened its market penetration and actually earned profits for a while. As is well known, the DB7 was based on a new steel structure inherited from Jaguar, was designed by Ian Callum while he was still working at Tom Walkinshaw’s TWR company, and lasted a decade in production in sixcylinder, V12, coupé, drophead and Zagato forms. Without this car and its big backer, Ford, Aston Martin could never have survived, let alone gathered enough momentum to begin the DB9 programme at brandnew Gaydon premises.

Gaydon itself was our next stop, but we changed cars again, this time to a black, 2005, 30,000-mile DB9 owned by Tom Wood, an ex-RAF man who nowadays, when he’s not running disability sports tournaments or restoring houses, judges concours events for AMOC. You have to be very careful when applying adjectives to cars like this. ‘Perfect’ is hardly big enough. This car has won so regularly in concours against the best that its owner has had to withdraw it at times to give others a chance.

Yet he uses it hard. Wood drove me to start with, which is how I came to be briskly reminded how very well this normally aspirated V12 pulls, and how great it sounds when working. I drove it later, taking care not to mark its immaculate trim or follow cars closely for fear of stone chips, and I remembered how many good times I’ve had in these fine cars – which seem too modern to have gone out of production. If you don’t try one for a year or two, you also forget the all-round grand touring ability and the secure, long-distance comfort of its low driving position.

Bloxham to Gaydon is a flea bite for a car like a DB9, so we amused ourselves by blasting about on local roads for a while. It doesn’t take too much of this to appreciate that the reason why Aston Martins do better than most on the pockmarked back  roads of Britain is because they were developed there. For UK-based owners, that’s an advantage that counts for a great deal. Eventually, we drove through the gates of Aston’s headquarters and posed the beautiful black DB9 beside its successor, in which we were to drive on to Wales. We stood and admired, but then it started to rain and Wood rushed away to get his pride and joy under cover – completely understandable, given the car’s condition and mission.

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Our DB11 was one of Aston’s hard-worked early production cars. By the company’s own admission, the first tranche of demo cars have “done everything”, and anyone who watches TV motoring programmes will have an inkling of their recent activity. By comparison, my drive down the M5, across the Bristol Channel and then onto little roads at the back of Cardiff airport (150 miles in all) was a very small challenge.

Even so, as someone who has not driven a DB11 meaningfully before, I drove those miles with rising excitement. You can sit very low in the DB11 – it’s the first Aston in history in which I’ve had to raise the seat a bit – and this can lead you to believe the car is rather big. It’s actually very little bigger in any direction than a DB9, and as the miles rolled away, it became smaller all the time. After 150 miles, I knew I could do all my motoring in one of these.

The new site at St Athan is amazing: three huge, empty hangars, each capable of swallowing half a dozen Hercules.Work to convert this to an extraordinary car factory is just beginning, but the potential is so obvious that it practically brought a tear to the eye, especially since Aston people had thoughtfully left their stunning DBX concept standing in the centre of this otherwise bare hangar. What on earth would Lionel Martin have made of this magnificent place? I found myself trying to imagine a dinner conversation between him and Andy Palmer… 

The best car of the fine machinery I drove in this very special 24 hours was the DB11. No doubt about that. In road tests, our experts have described it as agile, and so it is. But the ride is the thing for me. On the one hand, it’s flat and composed to the point of suppleness; on the other, it’s firm enough have terrific body control, even in its softest suspension mode. If that’s not enough, it’s quiet over bumps in a way sports cars rarely are.

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We left it behind at St Athan, a serious wrench. As we turned out of the gates, one thought struck: if this had been a day’s progression through the history of a very special marque, what better way to end it than in the best car they’ve built in 104 years?

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