Best known for the elegant lines and deadly weapons of the DB5 driven by Sean Connery as James Bond in the 1964 film Goldfinger, ASTON MARTIN has combined racing engines with the immaculate bodywork of traditional British coach building in beautiful hand-built sports cars.
To celebrate the French première of the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger, the star of the movie, Sean Connery, drove its most famous prop, a silver grey Aston Martin DB5, along the Avenue des Champs-Elysées in Paris accompanied by sixty women whose bodies were painted gold like that of the voluptuous woman in the title sequence.
Elegant on the outside, but armed with deadly weapons by Goldfinger’s designer Ken Adam, the Aston Martin DB5 reflected the stylish brutality of the early Bond films. In Ian Fleming’s original Goldfinger novel, Bond drove an earlier Aston Martin, a DB3 fitted with such modest ‘extras’ as reinforced bumpers and a Colt 45 pistol in a concealed compartment. Ken Adam took it further by kitting out the DB5 with an ejector seat, machine guns, wheel scythe, revolving number plates and homing device. The producers vetoed his suggestion of twin flame throwers.
The DB5 was the second choice as Bond’s car. The producers had plumped for an E-Type Jaguar, the car then driven by Adam himself, but Jaguar said ‘no’ and they approached David Brown, Aston Martin’s owner. Reluctantly he gave them two production models of the brand new DB5: one to be driven around the movie sets and the other to be customised by Ken Adam. The DB5 was the most expensive and luxurious British sports car of the day – costing twice as much as an E-Type – yet sales soared by nearly 50 per cent after its appearance in Goldfinger and Aston Martin was recognised worldwide as a symbol of 1960s Britain.
The success of the DB5 was a windfall for Aston Martin which was founded as a labour of love and had since struggled against fierce competition from bigger, better capitalised rivals. Aston Martin was founded in 1913 by Robert Bamford and Lionel Martin, who ran a company selling Singer racing cars but longed to build a more sophisticated model of their own. Martin described their objective as: “A quality car of good performance and appearance: a car for the discerning owner driver with fast touring in mind, designed, developed and built as an individual.”
They began by fitting a four-cylinder Coventry-Simplex engine to the chassis of a 1908 Isotta-Fraschini racing car designed by Ettore Bugatti. They named the car Aston Martin after Lionel Martin and the Aston Clinton hill climb racing course where their Singers had triumphed. In 1919 they completed their first production car with a Coventry-Simplex engine and top speed of 70 mph. It was expensive at ￡850, and only a few models were sold.
Bamford left the company, and Martin eventually sold it. After a succession of owners, Aston Martin was eventually bought by the Italian-born engineer ‘Bert’ Bertelli and moved to Feltham in Middlesex. Bertelli’s stylish, low-slung racing cars such as the 1930 International rebuilt Aston Martin’s reputation on the track, but he lacked the capital to solve the company’s financial problems, and in 1932 it was taken over by the wealthy Sir Arthur Sunderland. He financed the production of the 1934 Ulster with a long, streamlined tail and circular wings. The development of the Ulster had begun under ‘Bert’ Bertelli, and it became one of the most popular racing cars of the 1930s.
Aston Martin floundered after World War II until it was taken over in 1947 by the industrialist David Brown (1904-1993), who had made a fortune from his family’s tractor company. After spotting an advertisement in The Times for a “high class motor business”, Brown paid ￡20,000 for Aston Martin. His priority was to develop new models and the DB1 – named after his own initials – was launched in 1948, followed by the DB2 in 1950 and DB3 in 1951. In the same year that he bought Aston Martin, Brown also acquired Lagonda, another British racing car maker renowned for its engines. The DB2 included a powerful 2580cc Lagonda engine with bodywork styled by Lagonda-trained Frank Feeley. It was one of Aston Martin’s most successful racing cars and the company’s engineers developed a super-powerful 123hp Vantage engine, which could be bought for ￡100 more than the standard 107hp one.
Brown’s backing stabilised Aston Martin and in 1955 he bought Salmon & Sons, a prestigious coach builder founded in 1820 with a skilled workforce at its factory in the Buckinghamshire town of Newport Pagnell. Aston Martin’s production was moved there. In 1957 the company achieved Brown’s ambition of winning Le Mans outright. Admired for the quality of its hand-built bodywork and racing engines, Aston Martin was still the preserve of motoring enthusiasts. Despite Brown’s efforts, he could not succeed in realising the commercial value of its racing triumphs to the same extent as Jaguar was doing with its astutely marketed and considerably less expensive road cars.
In the late 1950s Brown decided to revitalise Aston Martin’s styling by commissioning Carrozzeria Touring, a fashionable Italian car design studios, to create the bodywork for the saloon version of the DB4. The gently sloping bonnet and roof of the 1958 DB4, coupled with its wraparound windshield and bumpers, combined the brio of Italian styling with the graceful elegance of traditional British bodywork. The superleggera, or super-lightweight technique of body construction – by rolling aluminium panels over steel tubes – produced the DB4’s gentle curves, and beneath its bonnet was a twin-cam, straight-six 3.7 litre Vantage engine developed by Tadek Marek.
Two years later Brown turned to another carrozzeria, Zagato, to create the zestier DB4GT with distinctive bubble headlights. This was to provide the inspiration for Aston Martin’s British design engineers to develop the 1964 DB5 with a 4 litre engine at Newport Pagnell. The company had pulled out of motor racing the previous year and the DB5 was Brown’s chance to establish Aston Martin as a road car marque. Despite his initial doubts, the call from the James Bond film producers could not have been better timed.
The DB6 was launched in 1965 as the first four-seater Aston Martin, and remained in production until 1970. The convertible version, the Volante, was the first European car to sport a power-operated roof. The DBS followed in 1967 as a heavy grand tourer with a 4 litre six cylinder engine, upgraded in 1969 to the exceptionally powerful 5.3 litre four-cam V8 engine.
David Brown sold Aston Martin in 1972 and the company entered another period of frequent changes in ownership when it had neither the will, nor the capital, to regain its lost glory. Nonetheless the marque survived and in 1987 Aston Martin was acquired by the Ford Motor Company.
By the time Ford took over, Aston Martin’s resources were so depleted that it no longer had the capability to develop new models. Ford invested heavily to rebuild its design, research and manufacturing facilities, as well in the sourcing of components and materials. It also bought a specialist paint and assembly plant at Bloxham in Oxfordshire.
An in-house design team led by Ian Callum developed a new model, the DB7, which was unveiled at the 1993 Geneva Motor Show. When David Brown was shown the design he agreed that it could bear his DB initials. The DB7 was a critical and commercial success, and in 1995 Aston Martin produced over 700 cars for the first time in its history. Five years later, over 2000 models had been made. The revitalised Aston Martin unveiled the V12 Vanquish, designed and built at Newport Pagnell, at the 2001 Geneva Motor Show and 2004 saw the launch of the 5.9 litre DB9.
1913 Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford found Aston Martin at a workshop in the Kensington area of London.
1919 The first production car is completed.
1925 With mounting losses the company is sold to a succession of new owners, until Sir Arthur Sunderland acquires it in 1932.
1934 Launch of a successful racing car, the Aston Martin Ulster.
1947 Aston Martin is bought by the industrialist David Brown for ￡20,000. He also acquires the racing car maker Lagonda and merges the two companies.
1948 Launch of the Aston Martin DB1 named after Brown’s initials.
1950 The DB2 is unveiled with a premium Vantage engine, followed in 1951 by the DB3.
1955 Brown buys Salmon & Son, a long established coach builder in Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire and moves Aston Martin’s production there.
1957 Aston Martin is the outright winner of Le Mans.
1958 Carrozzeria Touring in Italy designs the saloon version of the DB4 with a 3.7 litre engine developed at Newport Pagnell.
1960 Zagato, another Italian carrozzeria, designs the DB4GT.
1963 Launch of the DB5, developed by Aston Martin in Newport Pagnell. A customised version of the car equipped with concealed weapons features in the 1964 James Bond film, Goldfinger.
1965 The first four-seater Aston Martin, the DB6, is introduced.
1967 Launch of the DBS as a 4 litre grand tourer.
1972 David Brown sells the company, which passes through a number of different owners for the next 15 years.
1987 The Ford Motor Company takes control of Aston Martin and invests in re-building its development and manufacturing resources.
1993 Launch of the DB7. Designed by Ian Callum, it will become the best-selling model in the company’s history with sales of 2,000 models by 1998.
2001 The V12 Vanquish is unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show.
2004 Launch of the 5.9 litre Aston Martin DB9.
Hartmut Lehbrink, Rainer W. Schlegelmilch, Aston Martin, Konemann, 2005
Jonathan Wood, Aston Martin DB4, DB5 and DB6, The Crowood Press, 2000
Henry Rasmussed, Aston Martin: The Postwar Road Cars, Motorbooks International, 1988
Michael Frostick, Dalton Watson, Aston Martin and Lagonda, Dalton Watson, 1977
Dudley Coram, Richard Newby, Aston Martin: The Story of a Sports Car, Centennial Publishing, 2004
Visit the Aston Martin website at astonmartin.com
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run in collaboration by the Design Museum and the British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain