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Aston Martin DB6: Its time has come

Aston Martin DB6: Its time has come

Evolution is a wonderful thing in the car world. The years pass, and – as long as it’s built by an attentive manufacturer – the product just gets better as engineers (sometimes customers) iron out the kinks. It’s certainly true for Aston Martin because, dare we say it, the DB6 is the best, most complete 
all-round DB4-based model of them all. And right now, thanks to the vagaries of fashion and logic, it’s also the most attainable. How long can this situation remain?

The ’6 is the original DB line’s swansong; the last of them to roll out of Newport Pagnell. Enough to make it a cause celebre among Aston Martin enthusiasts, but ever since a certain production designer called Ken Adam decided that James Bond should drive a gadget-laden DB5 in the film Goldfinger, it’s the DB5 that’s become the halo Aston.

Let’s not get too hung up on this. Fashion and form are strange mistresses, and we’ve gathered the DB6 in both coupe and Volante versions to enjoy in their own right. Before we get down to the nuts and bolts of the DB6 MkI and MkII, and what makes the ‘DB4 Series 10’ (as Aston Martin specialist Desmond Smail likes to call it), it’s worth recapping how Aston Martin arrived at its new four-seater coupe for 1965.

It started with the DB4, new from the ground up in 1958, and which combined the talents of Aston Martin general manager John Wyer, chassis designer Harold Beach and engine designer Tadek Marek. It was an important move for Aston Martin as a production engineering exercise: Wyer ensured that as much of its construction as possible was concentrated at the modernised Newport Pagnell factory.

The transition from the old Feltham site caused some upheaval; company stylist Frank Feeley wouldn’t make the move to Buckinghamshire and that left Aston Martin no alternative other than to employ outside help. Carrozzeria Touring of Milan was commissioned to design the car and subsequently license the construction style of its bodies. The ‘super-light’ Superleggera construction comprised aluminum panels over a lattice of small tubes that defined the body shape – and set Aston Martin’s construction template for over a decade. The DB4 chassis was thereby simpler and more rigid than that of the DB2, and offered genuine 2+2 seating.

Power came from Tadek Marek’s gorgeous 3.7-liter twin-cam straight-six, developing a reliable 240bhp – a starting point, soon exceeded comfortably in racing and the hotter Vantage models. A new David Brown four-speed gearbox was developed to match, and a top speed of 140mph made the DB4 one of the fastest production cars you could buy.

The chassis set-up was not exciting, but it worked. Coil springs and double wishbones at the front and a live rear axle with Watts linkage, all honed by Harold Beach, with rack-and-pinion steering and disc brakes made the DB4 a great drivers’ car. Put on your best BBC voice as you read The Autocar’s 1961 verdict: ‘The DB4 is an ideal touring car, in which distances are covered in short times. It is reasonably quiet and its performance and controllability are of a very high order, so that it’s a constant pleasure to drive.’

The DB4 underwent five minor styling changes over five years. By the time the final Series 5 version arrived in September 1962, with its roomier cabin, fast GT and 266bhp Vantage (from Series 4) versions, plus the open-top four-seat convertible, Aston Martin was established as a front-running player in the exotic sports car set. It was a commercial and critical success, too, with 1113 produced until the DB5 was ushered in during late 1963.

The DB5 may have retained the chassis, basic body style and running gear of the DB4 Series 5, but Aston’s newest car sold even more quickly, with 1021 examples moved in just two years. Many would say this was because of the Goldfinger effect, but that’s to underplay the DB5’s basic excellence.

The straight-six was bored out to 4.0 liters, and power went up to 282bhp. Performance remained similar – 0-60mph in 8.5sec and a 140mph maximum – but this super-sports car was more adept at playing the urbane GT. 
As Road & Track concluded in 1963: ‘One tends to think of the Aston Martin as a sports car, but it is in fact a true GT. It combines the performance and handling of a sports car with all the luxuries of a fully equipped sedan. It’s a car the French describe as a voiture de grande luxe et de grande tourisme, and as such the Aston Martin is hard to beat.’

An all-synchromesh ZF five-speed manual gearbox was made optional and, in the autumn of 1964, a new Vantage version heralded 325bhp. It became the most popular choice. Now it’s difficult to believe that the legendary DB5 survived a mere two years, while the ’6 went on for another five, such is the effect of the James Bond association. Fact is, the DB6 evolved into the very best of the lot.

Bodywork development was brought in-house after Aston Martin passed on Touring of Milan’s styling proposals for the DB5 replacement. Much emphasis was placed on aerodynamic performance, and wind-tunnel testing, begun in February 1965, soon identified that rear lift was a real issue at speed. A development mule, MP 219, was built, based on a lengthened DB5 chassis and featuring a de Dion rear axle. New tail styling was devised very quickly. MP 219 evolved into DB6, although the de Dion axle that Harold Beach had wanted from the outset of the DB4 programme remained a prototype.

The perception of the DB6 is that it’s softer, heavier and less sporting than the cars it followed, but that’s not necessarily the case. Motor’s launch piece in 1965 suggested the DB6 weighed 1466kg (it measured the DB5 at 1500kg), although most experts agree that the DB6 is slightlier heavier, so maybe Motor’s scales were slightly out. Either way, it’s an impressive achievement as the Superleggera construction of the DB4 and ’5 was superseded by aluminum skins with steel floor and inner panels.

The main DB6 design objective was to increase rear-seat room, making it 
a more habitable grand tourer. The seven-year-old chassis was stretched by 3.75in in the wheelbase and the roofline raised by about an inch. As Jaguar engineers will tell you, making such changes without spoiling the styling is a black art, but Aston Martin managed the transformation incredibly well, especially considering the overall length of the car was increased by only 2in.

You might not notice the increased windscreen rake angle but, from the B-posts back, it’s undeniably a far more substantial-looking package. Its most distinctive element is a new tail treatment, with a trunklid spoiler that sits atop a sawn-off Kamm tail as popularised by the Ferrari 275GTB/4. Aston Martin Works Service’s Kingsley Riding-Felce believes it’s this new rear end that drives people’s perceptions of the DB6. ‘Although the actual weight gain of a DB6 over a DB5 was marginal, the effect of the extra length and the new Kamm tail design gave it the impression of being heavier,’ he says.

Desmond Smail agrees, saying that the DB6 – overall – is just as good a steer, and better in other ways. ‘It’s a little bit more bulky and slightly heavier but basically shares the same running gear as the older car, with improved aerodynamics. There is no difference between the two, unless you’re a tall man. It’s better with power steering and a limited-slip differential, but I doubt most people would notice. As a normal road car there’s no difference.’

The new styling was a departure for Aston Martin, but the change was effective as Aston Martin claimed a ‘more than 30%’ reduction in lift over the rear wheels at speed. Inside there were larger instruments, reshaped seats, better carpeting, new headlining and front quarterlights. The once-optional Powr-Lok differential and chrome wire wheels were made standard on the Vantage, and power steering and air conditioning were popular additions.

The running gear and suspension remained virtually identical to the DB5’s, meaning the choice of power outputs remained at 282bhp or 325bhp, with ZF five-speed manual transmission (the David Brown four-speeder was dropped during the DB5’s run) or Borg-Warner three-speed automatic. In Vantage guise, thanks to improved aerodynamics, maximum speed was up to 148mph and 0-60mph took just 6.1sec.

There was certainly nothing wrong with the way the DB6 went in a straight line and, according to Motor magazine in 1966, the Vantage was very much the same story in the bends too. ‘For the first part of the test we hardly drove on dry roads at all and it says a lot for the suspension and tyres that the car’s very considerable performance could still be used to the full with perfect safety. The car feels completely neutral – it just goes where it’s pointed.’

Meanwhile, in 1967 Road & Track concluded: ‘It’s a dated design, but a car of great character, the expression of one man’s idea about what a GT should be at the time of its inception. If it’s fallen behind the times, it most definitely hasn’t fallen into the rut of being the car designed to satisfy as many people as possible and edify none. We look forward to the DB7.’ Indeed…

Development work on the DB6 continued, despite the arrival of the sharp-looking William Towns-styled DBS in 1967. The open-topped Volante (the first time the name was used on the DB series) had made its debut at the 1966 London Motor Show and proved an instant visual hit, losing the coupe’s awkwardness. The first convertible had been built on the DB5’s chassis and became retrospectively known as the ‘short-chassis’ car. It made way for the new car, a genuine open-top four-seater GT with a new powered hood.

But the arrival of the DB6 MkII in August 1969 proved that the engineers at Newport Pagnell just couldn’t stop trying to perfect their long-running GT. The last of the line was easily identified by its flared wheelarches and wider tyres, while the introduction of optional AE Brico electronic fuel injection and standard power steering meant it was arguably the nicest of all to drive.

‘The MkIIs are worth more – because they are the rarer, with just 245 built,’ Desmond says. ‘They are more comfortable, with DBS-type seats, and are a true drivers’ car. The Brico fuel-injection cars were bloody quick, when they ran right. But that was a problem, and most went back to the factory to be converted to Vantage specification with triple Webers.’

Of course, no-one – not least Road & Track – expected they’d have to wait quite as long for the DB7 as they eventually did, but that was down to Aston Martin’s change in direction in the 1970s, and the move away from the modestly sized GTs it had been building into the realms of V8-powered super-coupes as epitomised by the DBS-based V8 model. Was the DB6 an impossible car to follow?

It certainly has its fans today. The 1969 Mk1 you see here – all the more appreciated for not being in Silver Birch (Bond’s colour of choice) – looks stunning in Caribbean Pearl. The lights dance off its paintwork, accentuating some of the most delicate curves ever to grace a grand tourer. Jumping inside, your sense of smell is bombarded by warm leather: the aroma of decadence. Somehow, it just feels right in here. The seating position is spot-on, the instrument panel comprehensive and elegant, while the view over that deeply contoured hood is simply addictive.

Meanwhile, the Vantage-powered Volante reaffirms the view that the DB6 is almost impossibly desirable. Originally sold in May 1969 by HR Owen of South Kensington, this Seychelles Blue example has been in the hands of Aston Martin chairman David Richards since 1992. And yes, he was so impressed by the car, he went on to run the company…

‘I’d been looking for a Volante since the end of the ’80s – just as the prices went through the roof – and concluded that I couldn’t afford one,’ he says. ‘Then, as chance would have it, I found this one. I was waiting to go into a meeting with Shell, and I just happened to wander into a garage. At the back and hidden away, there was a car under a tarpaulin. It was a Volante that had suffered an under-hood fire.’

The exciting discovery was followed by a period of negotiation – then a sale. ‘I immediately took it to [former Aston Martin company owner] Victor Gauntlett, who then sent it to Works Service for a full restoration. In 1994, that was finished, and I’ll always remember the date, as I picked up my son from the hospital in it, fresh from Works Service.’

The DB6 is certainly a practical classic – and one that you can really use. ‘It’s just like a modern car,’ David adds. ‘I have been all over in it, and never put the hood up – I love it.’

Thanks to the efforts of Works Service, the DB6 is fully supported. Says Kingsley Riding-Felce: ‘Parts availability is very good indeed and there are a plethora of modifications available to tailor the car – transmission upgrades, power steering and air conditioning. Works Service has been a continuing presence as the factory’s service and restoration centre since its birth in the service department of the 1920s. With the experience and skills we have in-house we are often involved at the start of market trends.’

For those looking for a Newport Pagnell DB-series Aston Martin, it’s a great time to consider a DB6. Kingsley continues: ‘The DB6 was considered by the market as the poorer relation up until the past ten years, when we saw the prices of private treaty sales and auctions begin the rise.’

Market expert Dave Selby agrees with Kingsley, but goes further, offering some interesting predictions for the once-overshadowed DB6. ‘There have been strong recent DB6 transactions. You could argue that, because of the acceleration in DB5 values, DB6s got left behind and now they’re beginning to bridge the gap. Also, the DB5 is now unattainable to some, so the DB6 is coming into focus as the more affordable alternative, driving prices.’

He adds, perhaps controversially: ‘It’s possible we’ve got a DB6/DB4 market rotation on the way. The DB4 market is not experiencing the same level of price progression as the DB5 in the last year or so; therefore it’s possible DB6 values could overtake DB4 values. On its merits as a car, the DB6 should never have been worth so much less than the DB5.’

And as Desmond Smail puts so simply: ‘There has definitely been an upturn in DB6 interest.’

Right now, the differential between DB5 and DB6 is best summed up by typical sale prices for condition 1 examples on the open market – and not at auction. Call it $600,000 for the DB5 coupe and up to $1,200,000 for the convertible, compared with $325,000 for the DB6 coupe and$850,000 for the Volante. As for the DB4, think $500,000 and and $1,200,000 for the equivalents.

So, DB6s are on the rise, which means now is the time to buy. Yet the sense of occasion that comes with owning one is ultimately what matters. David Richards passionately nails this sentiment, which bodes well for the future of the company. ‘I absolutely love mine, and I will keep it forever. No doubt my son will also enjoy it for years to come.’

That is what makes an Aston Martin so special. The DB6, the end of its 
line and genuinely the most evolved version, really ought to be the most desirable of all. That it also offers potentially the greatest scope for investment makes one seem like an irresistible proposition. As Desmond Smail says, it’s just a shame ‘…they stopped making it when they perfected it’. We couldn’t agree more. 

Thanks to David Richards; Desmond J Smail, www.djsmail.co.uk; and Aston Martin Works Service, site.astonmartin.com/eng/worksservice.

1969 Aston Martin DB6 Mk1

Engine 3995cc straight-six, DOHC, triple SU HD8 carburetors
Power 282bhp @ 5500rpm
Torque 280lb ft @ 4500rpm
Transmission ZF five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion, power-assisted
Suspension Front: wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers. Rear: live axle, trailing arms, Watts linkage, lever-arm dampers.
Brakes Girling discs
Weight 1550kg
Performance Top speed 150mph. 0-60mph 7.5sec

1969 Aston Martin Volante

Engine 3995cc straight-six, DOHC, triple Weber 45 carburetors (Vantage spec)
Power 325bhp @ 5500rpm
torque 290lb ft @ 4500rpm
Transmission ZF five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion, power-assisted
Suspension Front: wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers. Rear: live axle, trailing arms, Watts linkage, lever-arm dampers
Brakes Girling discs
Weight 1470kg
Performance Top speed 150mph. 0-60mph 6.1sec

Published Dec 7th, 2015

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