I wasn’t born yet when the first installment of the hugely successful James Bond films, Dr. No, showed in 1962. My Dad, a perfectly disciplined teenager, a son of a USAF Colonel, had for the very first time the mild streak of naughtiness (that only hint of the eventual exponential dastardliness of his son) and skipped class to watch the film. The film is extrapolated from the fascinating works of novelist Ian Fleming. Inspired by his own experiences in the newsrooms, the Royal Navy and the secret service, Ian Fleming an aristocrat himself by birth, created a character that he too want to emulate, and whose name is instantly recognizable the world over. James Bond has forever altered our realities and our imaginations. So since then my Dad, his generation and the generations thereafter who have seen the films have all secretly fantasized in one way or the other that they were each that debonair, immaculately suave British gentleman special agent 007 with the ‘licensed to kill.’ I too am very much a member of that generation influenced by the James Bond movies (well, the car bit anyhow, and I did have a ‘Member’s Only’ jacket too: very UN-Bond).
The Cold War may be over but all the other facets of the stories remain which we still covet: the women, the cars, the gadgetry, the lavish larger-than-life immensity of the sets, the lifestyle… the women! We all would want to be a champion of good, be almost indestructible, be full of adventure and excitement, be supremely confident and intelligent, and above all that: be rewarded with the wanton lust of all those gorgeous women! Have I mentioned the women? James Bond is a man’s man indeed but before I continue on this spiraling crusade that will only end up with the reality that it’s all an entertaining fantasy, this story is really about the cars, well not exactly either….
In lieu of the new 21st Bond film installment Casino Royale (not to be confused with the Woody Allen and David Niven’s comedy version based on the same 1953 Ian Fleming book that introduces the character to the world) with the James Bond character now played by Daniel Craig and all the attention the new Aston Martin DBS is getting in the media, I wanted to instead grasp at the steering wheel of the core car that started the phenomenal car – placement strategy in the first place. Yes, the legendary silver birch Aston Martin DB5.
The lofty goal if you take into account that only four cars were ever produced for the 1964 film Goldfinger. In fact, only one GT was the true Aston Martin DB5 film car, chassis DP216 fitted with the famous ejector seat, twin 30 caliber Browning machine guns that deploy from behind the headlights, wheel-mounted tire slashers, oil sleek ejector, smoke screen, pop-up rear bulletproof shield, and revolving number plates. The other three were really modified stock DB5 ‘replicas’ to resemble the tricked out Bond car for promotional purposes. To make my goal all the direr you need to know that the last of the three replicas got auctioned in England for a cool $1Million while the real car, DP216, in Boca Raton, Florida, was stolen on June 21, 1997! The car at that time belonged to collector Anthony Pugliese, a very wealthy Boca Raton land developer who bought the car at auction at Sotheby’s in 1968 for $275,000. For a little trivia, the eccentric collector is also said to own the gun Jack Ruby used to shoot Lee Harvey Oswald. The car has never been recovered since.
For even more Aston Martin / Bond trivia: The DB5 also appeared in the 1965 film, Thunderball (still played by Sean Connery), with the addition of a jet pack in the boot and rear-firing water cannons. For the record, James Bond (played by George Lazenby) also drove a DB5 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969, and a V8 Volante and Vantage in the 1987 film The Living Daylights (played by the least popular Bond: Timothy Dalton). In 1995 the film Goldeneye dramatically opens with Pierce Brosnan driving a DB5 in a car chase with Famke Janssen driving a Ferrari F355. Then lastly the V12 Vanquish in Brosnan’s final film, Die Another Day in 2002.
By the way, if the Bond Movie count is off by two you would be kind of right, the unofficial Bond film Never Say Never Again did have Sean Connery plays his famous role one last time in 1983 san the gun barrel intro and snazzy John Barry theme song though it wasn’t produced by the United Artists and MGM studio, then you have the Casino Royale spoof and television play with Barry Nelson as Bond and Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre. Yes, clearly I’m a fan!
WHEN YOU LEAST EXPECT IT
With the DB5 Bond cars completely out of the picture, I then searched for any of the remaining 886 factory DB5 cars ever produced and hoped that at least one had found its way to California. It was my second North American trip of the year with 22 cars to test in four weeks. I was already wrapping up my last remaining road tests but I still wanted something even more special for EVO.
When I’m in San Francisco, or any place where I am really, I make it a point to seek out close friends. On this particular trip, I got to hang out with my old high school buddy Mike Psinakis (busy working on his Hollywood screenplay) and his big brother Yuri. Mike helped me complete my Full Circle article featuring the BMW M5, it’s a review of driving the E60 M5 in Asia, Europe, and the US ( watch for it in the September issue of C!). After our M5 shoot, we hooked up with Yuri and his lady friends at Straits Café ( my favorite Singaporean restaurant chain in SF owned by my college friend Chris Yeo). During lunch, Yuri, an accomplished multi-medium artist, and curator describe the theme of the new show that he had just finished at the Venere Gallery on Mission Street, downtown San Francisco. The theme: SPEED.
It gets better. The group show curated by Yuri focuses on car and motorcycle culture, bringing together a diverse group of talent including artists, vintage motor restorers, custom auto painters, and motorsports enthusiasts. To help get distinctive car parts for his own art pieces Yuri sought help from his Lebanese friends Raffi Najjarian who by profession restores and races some of the most exotic and ultra-rare British as well as Italian sportscars in the world along with his son Bernard at their specialist auto shop aptly named the Pit Stop. Yuri felt that Raffi and I would get along wonderfully since we were both staunch car enthusiasts. I don’t want to be rude but even at this point, I was interested in checking out Yuri’s show which he was in the process of taking down rather than hanging out at garbage. But thankfully Yuri insisted. So we planned that after I check out the gallery, right after my next day’s shoot with the new Nissan 350Z track edition, that we would head to Industrial Way in Brisbane.
Yuri explained to me before we got to the Pit Stop that he got into restoring an old Fiat track car because of his friendship with Raffi. Interesting angle if you take into account that Fiat cars were never officially imported and supported in the US. This was a telltale for things to come. As I pulled in to the perfectly named Industrial Way road in Brisbane in the modern tangerine colored Nissan 350Z you could see all these cars in various states along the long row of warehouses. The only new car around the vicinity that I could see aside from the car I was driving was a fully ‘blinged’ Hummer H2 baking in the summer sun. Then, I pulled in the back of one particular warehouse following Yuri in his yellow Range Rover HSE Vitesse, parked, looked ahead and my mouth dropped. The rear vanity license plate read ‘Stirred’
Just as I had given up my quest for the Aston Martin DB5 I struck instead of the mother load: two Aston Martins, a DB4 series$ and a DB6! Sure they weren’t the lone DB5 that I had originally wanted to get a hold of but do you really think I’m going to start complaining about these two gems in front of me?
I finally got to meet the man behind the exquisite restoration on both cars, a very shy soft-spoken man that looks like he wields a big stick nonetheless. We hit it off just as Yuri had predicted. Before you guys start thinking, ‘San Francisco…hit it off…’ Good Lord! But we did cluck like two old hens blabbing about everything automotive though. Raffi too has had his experiences on the Nürburgring, he did a vintage car 24hour endurance race driving a 1927 Chrysler Imperial 80 as well as finished in the Mille Miglia in the same car. Yuri used one of the spark plugs of the racecar for one of his exhibits.
For years Raffi has been restoring some of the most difficult cars ever made not only to their original conditions but has also incorporated his own designs and engineering to improve deficiencies unaddressed in the old cars to suit modern driving conditions. He is partial to De Tomaso, Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, and Aston Martin. For example, he modifies the old drum brakes of Alfa Romeos into accommodating carbon ceramic surfaced shoes for maximum braking performance within the original housings.
Another example is the open-wheel Fiat/Ferrari mini-racecar, only two were even made in the world; Raffi is restoring it for a customer who plans to drive the car legally on the streets of Manhattan as well as Long Island. The racecar is based on the Fiat Topolino 500, chassis 001; it’s worth over $120,000. It’s a toy to be sure, insane to drive on public roads, but Raffi still changed all four air-cooled drum brakes into carbon ceramic units, re-engineered the transmission to accommodate taller ratios and five gears, and retuned the engine. The car now safely and consistently hits almost 160km/h; in the original form, it could only do 90km/h!
Raffi restored cars have competed and won at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, and on one occasion the second place winner commissioned Raffi to restore their car after the competition. The car, a Dino 246GTB, is now in the shop. Raffi has become so much in demand in the US that he now must choose who he works with; he feels that the relationship must be a genuine friendship and partnership in the commitment of restoring a car. A typical timetable is one full year to as much as two years to resurrect a car to its former glory.
Both Aston Martin test cars examples of his re-engineered work. Both cars have been modified to have the true capability to be driven on a daily basis. The DB4 series 4 test car has actually been re-tuned to make 400bhp! The chassis, brakes, and suspension have all had their appropriate modifications to handle the tremendous power. Its owner wanted to have the legendary handsome looks of the DB4 but with the capability to slaughter a modern car on public roads. The DB6, on the other hand, has been modified for tamer functions but nonetheless has also been given a healthy dose of modern upgrades. The brakes are the same 4-piston aluminum caliper units used to control the DB4 but its engine modifications were restrained to use all original Aston parts like the DB6 Mark 2 Weber carbs that help bump up power by a mighty 43bhp.
Aston Martin DB4 SERIES IV
In 1958 Aston Martin produced what some would call the best all-around GT car of its era, the DB4. Designed by Touring of Milan, the DB4 has a hand-made all- aluminum body with its front end dominated by a fender-to-fender grille flanked by two round headlights, and its understated style oozed sophistication. In keeping with its high-performance profile, the DB4’s bodywork was as functional as it was beautiful. The GT was created by Aston Martin general manager John Wyer, chassis engineer Harold Beach and engine designer Tadek Marek. The DB4 was built in the ‘Superleggera’ method, Italian for super-light, fired on a rigid steel tube frame with lightweight panels that allowed its designers to keep the car’s weight at a svelte 1273kg. The DB4 was the first Aston Martin to be fully manufactured in the former Salmons (and Tickfords) Coach building Works in the Buckinghamshire town of Newport Pagnell.
The 3670cc Marek-designed doch 12v power plant when fitted with the standard twin SU HD8 carburetors delivered 263bhp@ 5700 rpm, while peak torque of 245 lb.-ft @ 4000 rpm. Acceleration from rest to 100km/h took 8.8 seconds, not outstanding in today’s terms but mind-blowing in 1959 (quicker and faster than the BMW 120i Steptronic for perspective). The top speed was 225km/h, which again was unbelievable for the period. In 1964 displacement climbed to four liters, enough to gain it the new designation DB5. The ‘Special Series’ engine was offered as an option for the DB4 and featured not two but three SU HD8 carburetors plus larger head valves and a higher compression ratio; the block remain the same as the standard car. Our DB4 Series IV test unit’s had this engine as its base platform for the major performance modifications.
But while the 60s were fantastic for Aston Martin, the 70s and 80s were a catastrophe. Just as the marquee switched to V8 power, the first Oil Crisis hit, sending sales to the abyss. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) raised oil prices by 70% then eventually 130% within a year wreaking havoc the world over. Then right as recovery seemed to be taking place, a second Oil Crisis in 1979-80, sent Aston Martin reeling once again.
Aston was such a celebrated draw in the movies that in 1969, the DB4 Drophead Coupé was used in The Italian Job too. The iconic DB4 Series IV, like our test car, featured a wider ratio gearbox, a twin-plate Borg & Beck clutch, and a much-improved suspension system, all of which further elevated the DB4 well beyond most of its touring contemporaries. Like I mentioned earlier our test car had been heavily reworked by the Pit Stop so it drove better now than it ever did which effectively skews my review, to be honest. Besides the mind-boggling engine and brake upgrades, the transmission has also been changed to a full 5-speed instead of the original 4-speed manual with electronic overdrive. Inside and out there is no quarrel on the exquisite design and fitment of the DB4, it’s very much as handsome as the DB5. So the real question remains, how does it feel to drive a legend? Patience grasshopper…
ASTON MARTIN DB6
The Kamm tailed DB6 was introduced in 1966 with better rear seat accommodations in an effort to appeal to a broader luxury market. But due to an economic slump at the time, demand plummeted and many unsold cars awaited owners and sadly got stockpiled at the factory. The DB6 is relatively ideal for a first Aston Martin, a practical Grand Tourer, very handsome but less expensive than the DB5, actually, experts reckon the real bargains are the modern Jaguar XKR platform sharing DB7s. An improved Mark II version of the DB6 was introduced late in 1969, although production only lasted for a little over a year. The DB6 Mark II is easily identified visually by flares on the wheel arches, to accommodate the larger 8.15″ x 15″ tires, larger hubs with three-eared wing nuts flattened closer to the spokes for safety, and wider 6″ wheels. It also had standard power steering.
The DB4, 5 and 6 are for many the quintessential Aston Martins, rare, swift and beautiful. Surfing on the success of the DB5, the DB6’s production ran well into 1970, being produced side-by-side with the DBS at the Newport Pagnell factory. The DB6 has a controversial Kamm tail design developed from the R&D cars; it was designed to reduce lift and enhance aerodynamic stability at speed. I say controversial because connoisseurs shun the Cadillac like vertical fins as an abomination of the clean and elegant original lines of the Db5. This purist didn’t care then and even still now if the fins were really effective. Still, the DB6 was one of the rare production performance cars at the time featured an aerofoil. The DB6 also had a revised rear ¼ windows and a higher rear roofline by 2″ for better headroom.
The DB6 was the final major derivative of the line started by the DB4. Many other changes were made from the previous model including a longer wheelbase from 8’2” to 8’ 5 ¾” adding leg room for rear seat passengers. Other changes were a more upright windscreen, opening front quarterlights, rear quarterlights similar to those on the DB4GT Zagato and split front and rear bumper. Luxury features such as air conditioning and power-assisted steering became available as optional extras; automatic transmission became a ‘no-cost option.
The changes to the DB6 were more structural than mechanical. The production of the car no longer followed the ‘Superleggera’ principles and the badges on the bonnet were soon deleted. The engine was carried over from the DB5: triple SU carbs producing 282bhp @ 5,500rpm and 325bhp @ 5,570rpm from the triple dual-choke side-draft Weber equipped Vantage with high-lift camshafts and increased compression pistons. Our test unit has the triple Weber carbed engine with the Power Lock (LSD) differential and chrome wire wheels. The DB6 is most numerous of the DB4/5/6 line, but it’s still rare and a sight to behold.
In stock forms, DB6 is considerably better all-around performer over both the DB4 and DB5. Acceleration in its day and now is still fantastic, 0-100km/h in 6.4 seconds while top speed was a manageable 237km/h! But still, many hardcore Aston enthusiasts feel the increased weight and size of the DB6 make it less agile and less coveted than its predecessors. I beg the contrary. Though I too am not a big fan of the rear end treatment, the DB6 is a gorgeous car that is both comfortable and still a performer, besides at this level who wouldn’t want to have any of the early DB range of cars?!
Finally, after almost a lifetime of waiting to drive the Aston Martin DB5 I got my chance on both the early and later cars, I guess the truth does lie in between. After watching all the movies, expectations you would presume would have been very high, however, I’ve been driving quite a few classic cars now so through sheer experience with other aging icons I’ve truly lowered my standards in the sense of pure driving dynamics. You can’t possibly compete with the character and soul of a classic, but you can still determine a couple of fundamental factors: the actual driving experience and overall condition of the restoration. Both Aston exceeded my brain charts on all levels but one, the experience behind the wheel, which still needed to be assessed.
First off, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I blow to all the high-performance drives from yesteryear. Until the turn of the 21st century, a driver had to have the real skill and experience to drive the cars swiftly, safely and consistently. With all the modern electronics and gadgetry in cars today, performance cars can now be driven safely by novice drivers with minimal experience and still look like a hero. A perfect example is the Porsche 911s from 1965 to 1996, vintage Corvettes and Shelby’s, heck almost high-performance car before 1996 really! If you didn’t get the proper training and the hours behind the wheel of these cars, don’t expect to enjoy them blasting around the countryside with reckless abandon, you would find your self presenting your credentials at the Pearly Gates.
Raffi and his son Bernard has a road course that they use exclusively to test their customer’s cars to make sure all their work is in order. Similar to the testing procedures of Ferrari and Maserati who test all their cars on the Stradale road course, the Pit Stop boys had their own abridged version. It’s a 15-mile course that runs through the city of Brisbane at sea level into the progressively elevated Guadalupe Canyon Parkway that takes you to the fridges of eastern Daly City. then double back up the Parkway again, this time turning off into the San Bruno Mountain State Park which then takes you to a limited access road called the Radio Road which as its namesake indicates, leads to the peak of the mountain where the state and federal radio towers are located. The route has every on-road condition, so the cars work there, they work everywhere. Now we drove that route several times for the shoot and more importantly to get a feel of the cars.
I got into the DB6 first since it was pretty much as close to stock as possible except for the upgraded brakes. It started with the proverbial single click of the ignition, idled a little rough at first, normal for the triple side Webers to gets it to groove on, and then inched my way out of the warehouse grounds. Now to my surprise, the DB6 did not exhibit the characteristics of a 37-year-old car, it was very easy to regulate the throttle and shifting was very smooth and intuitive (though I found the tiny gear knob to be laughably odd for such a macho car). I’m not sure if this is a testament to Aston engineering or Pit Stop’s phenomenal work. After 15 minutes of warming the engine at legal road speeds, I started to open it up as soon as I got the more known ground, specifically the Guadalupe Canyon Parkway. Another surprise: the steering was spot on, very direct and precise, not exhibiting the usual wander and wallows of American muscle cars. The steering wheel itself though very characterful and appropriate was the component that felt a little flimsy yet again for such a masculine GT.
Acceleration was strong without hinting of any fragility; in fact, it seemed to like being flogged and rewarded me with hugely entertaining progress. The aural sensations were fantastic; I started to imagine myself as Bond carving the South of France as I shot up the tight and exciting Radio Road (the road is usually closed due to numerous deaths over the past 30 years, so you can imagine when I say ‘exciting!’). The road holding was magnificent! I pushed the car progressively harder through the corners at speeds close to that of the Nissan 350Z and matched the pace of the Mini Cooper S Works convertible (both cars that I had tested on the same course).
The heavily modified DB4 ran even harder but was frightening with so much power coursing through the old chassis. In the DB4 I didn’t have the confidence I had in the DB6. Still, Raffi did an incredible job putting these cars together nonetheless. After the hard runs, the brakes did start to squeal a bit but Raffi wasn’t alarmed at all, encouraging me to have faith in his work. I did, and yes even on one corner that I attacked too aggressively in the DB6, the car lost some composure but quickly regained itself with some serious opposite lock. It just felt really weird controlling the car with no lateral support from the seats whatsoever, a lap belt with no tension, steering through a large but skinny wooden steering wheel, the mirrors are small enough to be used by my 5-year-old daughter, and shifting with a knob and stalk seemingly no bigger than a wooden mixing stick at a coffee shop!
But the details in the car are astonishing! Raffi retrofitted a bloody iPod to the audio system that does accurately resemble the original head unit! Every dial and switch works on both cars, again a statement to both cars and the shop. I’m very grateful for the surreal opportunity to not only drive the cars but put them through their paces without being bothered by the authorities.
Perhaps I did not have an accurate drive of a pure Aston DB restored to exact factory specifications, in truth, I’m glad because the fantasy is maintained and the fire that it brings inside me is fanned instead of doused. Raffi did confess that he did exert even more effort into alleviating the weak characteristics of the cars so that their owners can drive their cars safely and with maximum satisfaction on a daily basis. Before he had worked on the cars they were very sloppy, unreliable, and cumbersome, handling more like tractors than GTs. The owner of both cars is very lucky enthusiasts to have found such a dedicated engineer/mechanic. He isn’t cheap (neither are the cars either), but you do get what you pay for; from Lebanon with love.