70 years of Aston Martin DBs: David Brown and his cars

It seems to be a social norm for successful entrepreneurs, once they reach the age of around 40, to feel entitled to treat or indulge themselves in some way. In many cases, the entrepreneur’s most conspicuous “gift” to himself will be a car, probably a sports car, but for some this may not be enough. There are numerous stories of such successful individuals deciding to go for more, and while some of them do not have a happy ending, others have become the stuff of legend. Take the story of Aston Martin, the company so closely linked with David Brown. It all began with 43-year-old Brown idly flicking through a newspaper and noticing an advertisement not for a car but for an entire car company…

Sir David Brown – biographical notes

Sir David Brown was born in the Yorkshire town of Huddersfield on May 10, 1904. After completing his studies, he began working as an apprentice in the David Brown Gear Company Ltd. This company, founded by his grandfather David, specialized in transmission components. By 1931, as a result of the natural generational turnover within the company, he had risen to the position of managing director, and was also running the family farm. David was a passionate racing car and motorcycle enthusiast, but his new business responsibilities forced him to put this interest and his racing activities on hold. In the years that followed he became the owner of the shipbuilding firm Vosper Thorneycroft and also, in partnership with Harry Ferguson, established the Ferguson-Brown Company to build tractors. In 1939, after some disagreements with Ferguson, David Brown decided to design his own tractor, the David Brown VAK1. This went on to be hugely successful, with over 7,700 being produced during the Second World War years; after the war, Brown sold the project to Ford in the USA, to build the Ford N-Series tractor. It was in this period, on October 1, 1946 to be precise, that Brown (by this time 43 years old), while flicking through The Times, spotted an unusual and rather cryptic classified advertisement, offering an undisclosed “High Class Motor Business” for sale, for £30,000. A few days later David Brown went to the Aston Martin Motors Limited headquarters in Feltham, where he test drove the company’s latest prototype, named the Atom; he remarked that it had a good chassis, but its engine was not powerful enough. After intense negotiation, he purchased the company for £20,500.

The early years of Aston Martin

Lionel Martin - one of the founders of Aston martin

Lionel Martin

Aston Martin was founded in 1915 by Robert Bamford and Lionel Martin, its establishment marking the final stage in the evolution of what had started out as a small company which the pair had founded, in 1908, in Henniker Place, in the South Kensington and Chelsea area of London. They initially worked on Calthorpe and GWK cars, and it was not long before they started preparing them to be used for racing. In 1913 their company formally became Bamford & Martin Ltd, and at this time they were mainly working on the Singer Ten, used as the basis for their B&M branded Specials. It was Lionel Martin’s victory in the Aston Clinton Hill Climb of May 16, 1914, during the Herts County Automobile & Aero Club Meeting, that provided the spark, and shortly afterwards the two partners started building their own cars. In 1920 they split, and Lionel Martin moved to Kensington where he opened his own business, under the name Aston Martin. The company flourished, but in 1924 the death of its main customer, Count Louis Zborowski, had a considerable impact on the finances of the young business; after struggling for a couple of years, in 1926, the company was sold.

Under the new ownership, with the backing of Lord Charnwood and with Williams Rewick as sales director and Augusto Cesare “Bert” Bertelli as technical director, the company’s name was changed to Aston Martin Ltd and its headquarters was moved to Feltham. After a few good years, which brought some interesting successes on the racetrack, but little in the way of sales, the 1929 Wall Street crash forced the owners to sell the company. After some ups and downs, it was finally bought by a Mr Arthur Sutherland, who appointed his son Gordon as CEO and engineer Claude Hill as technical director; he also imposed strict conditions: there were to be no more races until a new model was ready to be sold on the market. A prototype, the Atom, was ready by the spring of 1940, but the Second World War, forcing the company instead to manufacture airplane components, brought the project to a halt. At that time, Aston Martin’s production had reached a grand total of 680 cars. After the war, the company management soon realized that they lacked the money they needed to go back to car manufacturing and further develop the Atom, whose engine still needed a fair bit of attention, and so they decided to advertise the business in The Times.

David Brown: Aston Martin Atom Prototype

Aston Martin Prototype Atom

David Brown acquires new competences

Where many see problems, a good businessman will often see opportunities; just a few weeks after purchasing Aston Martin, David Brown was already convinced that the solution proposed by technical director Claude Hill, namely to transform the existing Aston Martin engine from a 4 to a 6 cylinder unit to increase its power output, was not the best way forward. Seizing his check book again, he drove to Staines, in Middlesex, where he sealed another important deal, purchasing the Lagonda company for £52,500. What he was interested in was not the new model that this company was finalizing, but rather its new twin-cam, light alloy head, 6-cylinder, 2.5-liter engine, which was already in its later stages of development. This new engine was the culmination of the work and considerable combined experience of William Owen Bentley, historic founder of the company that still bears his name, and William Watson, and it was to prove, from day one, to be the perfect engine for the Aston Martin. At the end of 1947 it was racing car driver and engineer John Horsfall, a former employee of Aston Martin, who suggested to David Brown that he should enter a developed Atom in the next 24 Hours of Spa, in Belgium. His advice was heeded and the Aston Martin team not only entered, but won. This victory prompted the company to set up a “racing department”, which proved hugely successful, winning almost everything going over the following 12 years. Over the next two years, 16 Spider Sports models were built, based on the 1948 Atom; soon afterwards these were renamed DB1 in honor of the man behind the firm’s resurrection.

David Brown

David Brown

From DB1 to DBS

The DB1, which had a 2 liter engine, was followed, in 1950, by the DB2, equipped with the “Lagonda” 2.6 liter engine. Designed by Frank Feeley after a “study trip” to Italy, it was a very modern car for the period, and was also the first to be manufactured by Aston Martin in any real quantity. A total of around 1,300 DB2s were built in all (including all the series and all the versions); in 1953 they were joined by the DB3, a racing model. In 1955, David Brown took over the Newport Pagnell-based coachbuilder Tickford. It was not long before the production of the new cars was switched to this site, which is also where, in 1955, the new DB Mark III, an evolution of the DB2, was launched. The DB4, the quintessential Aston Martin, one of the most iconic models ever built by the company, entered the marketplace in 1958. Featuring a design very different from the previous DB, the DB4 boasted a style created in Italy by Carrozzeria Touring Milano and was developed in different versions, from the GT to the GT Zagato, before undergoing the “restyling” in 1963 that gave us the DB5, the most famous Aston Martin ever, because of its connection with 007.

David Brown: Superleggera writing on the hood of a DB5

Superleggera writing on the hood of a DB5

The DB6 was unveiled in 1965, followed in 1967 by the DBS, which continued to feature a 6 cylinder engine until 1969, when it was equipped with the V8 engine. By this time, David Brown had been knighted by the Queen, hence the title Sir, but the sports car world was finding itself in the grip of a new economic crisis. Fuel was being rationed and speed limits imposed, and as a result sales were declining, with the production rate dropping to four cars a week. In 1972, Sir David Brown, who insisted on using a Jaguar as a company car to save money, sold Aston Martin for an undisclosed amount (although some have talked of a symbolic sum of £100), thereby bringing to an end a magical era in which style went hand in hand with both respect for tradition and innovation.

David Brown: his last Aston Martin DB, the DBS

Aston Martin DBS

Life still had plenty to offer Sir David, who married for a third time in 1980, and also had the satisfaction of seeing his son and daughter joining the management of the David Brown Group. In 1973, the new owners of Aston Martin, wanting to give the company a new identity and lessen the strength of its association with Sir David Brown, renamed the DBS V8 simply AM V8. In 1994, however, the initials DB were restored with the DB7. Sir David Brown died in Monte Carlo in September 1993, eight years after the sale of David Brown Ltd to the American multinational aeronautical company Textron, owner of, among others, Beechcraft, Bell Helicopter and Cessna Aircraft.

Nowadays everyone recognizes that it is thanks to Sir David’s great passion for cars and his business acumen that Aston Martin is still with us today. The truth of this is borne out by the fact that today’s collectors love the Astons of the DB period, and also by the market’s sustained and considerable interest in these cars.

The Classic Car Trust presents David Browns Aston Martin DB cars at Rétromobile 2017. For more information, please read on in our recent posting “Rétromobile David Brown special features rare Bond car”.

All photos courtesy of Aston Martin.

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