Celebrating the Spirit of Competition

1958 Aston Martin DBR1

Chassis Number : DBR1/3             Horsepower : 254           Displacement : 6-cylinder, 2.99 L           Wheelbase : 90"

These Cars

Since acquiring Aston Martin, after reading an obscure advertisement in a British newspaper in 1946, owner David Brown wanted to continue the company’s prewar desire to win the great endurance races. Like the DB1, DB2 and DB3, his early 1950s cars were underpowered for such a task and even more potent DB3S sports cars of 1953-1955 were also-rans, although one did place second in the 1955 Le Mans race.

After that a new chassis was on the drawing boards with increased rigidity and reduced weight. A double overhead twin-cam six engine inaugurated the DBR1 version, which was unsuccessful in 1956. By 1957 the car’s first two races culminated in 2nd place finishes. With a new 3 liter engine the car won the Spa Grand Prix but Le Mans was still out of reach. The French Le Mans authorities outlawed engines greater than 3 liters for 1958, an advantage for the new DBR1 but disaster for the Jaguar D-type and the Maserati 450S.

Even though the new design had a longer wheelbase and wider track it was 300 pounds lighter because of its magnesium-alloy body and designer Ted Cutting’s space frame chassis. In 1958 Stirling Moss and Jack Brabham won the Nurburgring 1000 kilometer in our car but again there was no luck at Le Mans. With a win in the Tourist Trophy Aston Martin earned second place in the Manufacturers Championship behind Ferrari. 1959 was their greatest year with another Moss victory at the Nurburgring.

At Le Mans that year Moss, in our car which was set up with higher compression forced the competition to increase their speed and this led to the demise of the car, but also the retirement of two of the four racing Ferrari team cars; then another Ferrari retired allowing Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby to win for Aston. These victories helped Aston Martin win the World Championship in 1959, with just four cars. Because of the expense of racing, changes in chassis design and other economic factors, Aston Martin pulled out of racing although customers did compete with DB4 GT and other versions.

Our Car

There was never any doubt that the Aston Martin DBR1 reigns supreme among the 1950’s sports racers, and consequently among the very, very few epitomic examples of the sports car genre. I always thought its acquisition could be voted the least likely to succeed in the collector’s graduation book. With only four made for competition, the fifth not really a works car, they all seem to be in terminal hands. Historically the Le Mans winner DBR1/2 was the most desirable, but the condition of DBR1/3 was so well documented during the restoration process, that it was attractive because of its integrity.

That car’s individual history is fascinating in common with the four cars which won the world championship in 1959. In 1958, after retiring at the Targa Florio, it won at the Nurburgring with Moss and Brabham. It then retired at Le Mans, but finished third at the Tourist Trophy with Shelby and Lewis-Evans at the wheel. In 1959, it famously caught fire in the Tourist Trophy in the pits where, fortunately, Moss was not in the car. In 1960, it was sold to the Scottish Border Reivers race team for Jim Clark to drive at Goodwood, Oulton Park and the Nurburgring unsuccessfully, but finishing third at Le Mans that year.

In 1961, with Clark at the wheel, it retired at Le Mans and was finally sold in 1963 to Charles Sgonina. Ultimately, in Bib Stillwell’s ownership, it was the subject of an extensive restoration by Geoffrey Marsh, who meticulously rebuilt the engine, preserving all the original parts except the crankshaft and cylinder liners. It took enumerable hours to restore the head, but ultimately, a perfect running engine was resurrected. Some of the rear body panel had to be converted back to its first form because of certain modification which were made to qualify for the new Group 5 Le Mans specifications. The work Marsh did was superb and the car became known for its reliability.

I followed it to Japan during a period of time when many great cars were traveling to that country. I always knew it would be difficult to deal with Japanese owners, but some attempts were made for me by Bill Kontes, which were thwarted by the intransigence of the owners.

Then, in the summer of 1994, I learned that the car might be available and sought to trace its whereabouts. This led me to Symbolic Motors, who apparently had done some type of volume purchase from owner Takeo Kato, who had reason to dispose of several cars. Being low on cash, I had to work quickly, and my goal at this point in time would be to make a tax free exchange with a car that was already available. Knowing that there was interest in my 1938 Alfa Romeo 2900B Touring Long Chassis Roadster, I set about arranging this swap.

And the deal was very simple. The individual who wanted my Alfa would buy the Aston and the trade would be effected. This required a certain amount of timing because Symbolic wanted to recoup as soon as possible. On the morning of the actual trade, the intended purchaser of the Alfa tried to hondle on the price, and rather than relenting under desperation, I stubbornly could not change the deal. Fortunately, Lukas Huni was in the wings and this meticulously honest dealer immediately arranged to consummate the trade through his client so that by the end the day it was done.

I had not seen the car prior to its arrival in our shop. I must say I was much more than delighted. It was lower, sleeker, and a bit smaller than I had thought. But, the pleasure was not only visual, though I have never seen a prettier ‘50’s racer, including the Testa Rossa. It was when we took it to Bridgehampton that I finally realized what a magnificent, well-balanced, powerful, manageable, and entirely satisfying beast this really was. The car certainly makes an average driver feel very confident with its cornering and road holding abilities, and even Steve Earle, who had one of his first rides in the DBR1 then, commented on the fact that this was the ultimate evolution of the ‘50’s racer.

Since then, she has been to Goodwood for The Festival of Speed, as well as some local races, although they have been scarce in the Eastern United States. This is a car that grows on you from every aspect. Even though the swapped Alfa Spider went onto be a Concours winner in the capable hands of collector Oscar Davis, both in the United States and abroad, I’m still glad I made the trade because I might never otherwise get a chance to experience this magnificent Aston.