An afternoon date with history
“Hop over into the other lane, maybe you can get ahead of this Accord,” suggested my co-driver as we approached a stoplight in the 1955 Aston Martin DB2/4. Good idea – let’s start the process. Whilst the co-driver stuck his hand out the window to alert other drivers, I clutched in and leaned on the stiff drum brakes a few hundred feet before I’d start to trust a car with modern discs. I maintained a good grip on that pizza-sized, pencil-thin steering wheel, in case those skinny bias-ply tires wandered under braking.
Time to prepare for the standing start. First gear is unsynchronized and mechanically locked out, so I planned ahead before the light turns. Wiggle the gear lever against what feels like a solid, unyielding block of metal where first should be; keep gently wiggling from side to side, and eventually it slides into place with a satisfying, well-oiled snick. All this, before the Accord driver lifted his eyes from his phone.
The light turns, and the Honda lazily buzzes through the intersection at a pace usually reserved for the drive-thru line. In the Aston, the 2.9-liter inline-six thrums, surging forward with a deep whine that turns into a metallic zing as first gear tops out. Shift in to second – usually without any fuss – and the DB2/4 starts to gain ground on the Honda. Into third gear, and we’re inching ahead of the sedan, the sixer at full song as we approach what the overenthusiastic speedo believes to be 50 mph. There! We’re ahead, and now in fourth as we cruise down – ah, crap. Another stoplight.
Welcome to the Aston Martin DB2/4, a fascinating relic from a mostly forgotten era of the British automaker. Overshadowed by the later DB4 and 007-ified DB5, the earlier Post-War and mid-century Feltham-era Astons are only recently starting to worm their way into the collective consciousness. Chances to drive these jewels don’t come very often, so when an offer floated my way, I put aside any other previous plans, to spend an afternoon with one of the most alluring vehicles I’ve ever driven.
The relative obscurity of the Feltham-era cars is not for a lack of merit, however. The DB2/4 is the third Aston model developed entirely under the purview of industrialist David Brown, a central figure in the Aston mythos who stepped in and purchased the floundering automaker in the late 1940s. Immediately, he set about redefining Aston’s reputation as purveyor of high-speed, well-mannered sports coupes and grand tourers. The exceedingly rare 2-Litre Sports (DB1) from 1948 – 1950 kicked off the David Brown era, though it was the ensuing 1950 DB2 that set the stage for almost every major Aston Martin of the 20th century.
Sales and performance of the DB2 were reasonably strong for the post-war period, though some potential customers were put off by the DB2’s two-seat configuration, offering only a small parcel shelf behind the seats. The subsequent DB2/4 debuted in 1953, now offering a 2+2 seating configuration with small rear seats that could be folded flat to accommodate enough luggage, crates of champagne, and tins of caviar for a rollicking weekend at your country estate. Said cargo is accessed through a then-revolutionary upward-hinged rear hatch, making this one of the most usable grand-tourers of the 1950s.
The DB2/4 nearly doubled production, though the sustained popularity wasn’t entirely reserved for the capacious boot. Like the DB2, a Lagonda-sourced dual-cam 2.6L inline-six originally designed by W.O. Bentley – yes, that Bentley – provided robust performance without adding undue weight and complexity. Power ranged from 125 hp to 140 hp for the upgraded 2.9L that arrived in 1953, with contemporary tests pegging a 10 or 11 second run from 0-60 mph.
Probably not the barn-burner you’d expect of something wearing those Aston wings up front, especially since even the most anemic of the later DB4 packed 240 hp from a Tadek Marek-designed inline-six. Don’t count it out – it’s got more than enough poke to get in some serious trouble. After motoring around the wide roads of SoCal, I’m not sure I want any more power, especially with those brakes. This specific DB2/4 is particularly gutsy, thanks to an upgraded version of that 2.9-liter, now churning out a healthy 160-ish horsepower. Once you’re out of first, speed gathers at a good pace thanks to a surprisingly strong torque curve, lending excellent third- and fourth-gear acceleration at surface street speeds.
Out on the gently meandering country roads outside of Thousand Oaks, the DB2/4 is at home. Free of stop-and-go traffic and dangerously unaware drivers, I stretched its legs, letting that upgraded 2.9L breathe freely as we charged between plots of green ranchland. By modern standards, the dynamics of the tube-frame chassis aren’t all that sophisticated — further exacerbated by heavy steering and an absurdly large steering wheel — but sharp handling isn’t the purpose of this car, nor should it be evaluated by any vehicular standards set post-1960.
If you’re focused on the performance, you’re missing the entire point of this car. Slow down, drink in your surroundings, and the car flows, the engine sings, and it transforms into an experience rather than a means to rip from canyon to canyon. I never related to collectors who would casually mention in interviews regarding a historically significant car that they “don’t feel as though they really own it, I’m just a custodian of history.”
Well, I get it now – this DB2/4 feels much, much bigger than both myself and anyone I’ve met; it’s lived over two of my Millennial lifetimes, bouncing between owners and countries to arrive here in sunny, ever-fair SoCal, a fitting next chapter for the old warrior.
Now, I’ve buried the lede here a bit. I wanted to convey how special this Aston feels, without taking its history into account, because as far as vintage Astons go, it takes finding a real-deal Goldfinger DB5 or Le Mans winning DBR1 to show this patina’d DB2/4 — if you’re willing to entertain a few assumptions.
Currently on its sixth owner, the first owner only enjoyed the car for two years before passing it on in 1957 to an Englishman named Robert Harling, who retained it through 1974 before the car was shipped over to New Zealand, where it remained until roughly two years ago. Now, Harling served in the Royal Navy during World War Two, where he became fast friends with a certain Ian Fleming, who if – for some reason – you don’t know, was the author of the original James Bond novels that went on to be adapted for the massive film franchise that we know and love today.
Fleming never officially revealed who inspired the 007 persona, but among other candidates, some suspect Harling as a principal source for the earliest iterations of Bond. Heck, the two were lifelong friends, with Harling even serving as characters in the Thunderball and The Spy Who Loved Me novels. The first Bond novel to feature the titular secret agent behind the wheel of an Aston was Goldfinger, published in 1959 – two years after Harling, the alleged inspiration for the character, purchased an Aston of his own. Coincidence? Maybe, but my imagination likes to err on the side of this DB2/4 playing a key role in the indelible link between 007 and his Astons.
Whew, that’s a mighty historical weight on my shoulders, especially as I nose this artifact through afternoon traffic. Even without knowing the backstory or even turning the key, you can feel it. The interior is a rich, intricate place to spend a few minutes – or even hours – poking around. Nearly every surface is deeply patinated, from the well-worn leather upholstery and weathered faceplate surrounding a rotary dial of switchgear. Two authentic and period-correct rally medallions from the 1956 and 1956 London Motor Club Rally are affixed to the far left of the dash, nestled next to a pair of beautiful modern Heuer rally clocks. Both badges were added during the DB2/4’s extended stint in New Zealand, the clocks and their frame by the current owner, but against the seasoned backdrop of both the history and presentation, their inclusion is pitch-perfect. On the cracked leather portion next to the steering column, a red-and-white enamel “Aston Martin Owners Club” pin has turned a deep cream color.
This car has lived, and I’m just passing through.
65 years from now, no modern car will have aged as gracefully as this DB2/4 has. There’s personality and weight woven into the very fabric of the seats, something that can’t be said for even the most personalized super cars. So, next time you’re at a local car show and something rolls up with more than a few decades on the odometer, ask the owner to tell you a story — you just might find a bestseller.
Counterpoint by ThomasM
I’ve never had so much fun, laughing as hard, going 15 miles an hour around a corner.
The smell of the well worn leather; the feel of the hand rubbed wood; the slightly soft, slightly squishy ride…the overall aura of this gem from an oft forgotten era is intoxicating. Totally immersive.
To imagine the balls of steel those gentlemen rally drivers and racers must have possessed, to drive this car at speed, in the heat of competition…Cars like this epitomize why we love cars, mesmerizing in the totality of the experience. Every sense is alive, stimulated, with the CPU between your ears on full alert and at max bandwidth, processing every smell, every sound, every sight and vibration and feedback from your entire body.
One feels giddy, ALIVE, driving this car. Even if “only” at 50 miles an hour.
This is an Aston Martin. The car marque indelibly linked to James Bond. Elegance. Class. Deadly serious but not without a good bit of cheekiness.
Mature, yet eternally cool.
I keep thinking Dos Equis and their most interesting man in the world…
A worthy candidate for the Unicorn Sanctuary. I want one.
Author’s Biography: Sean Sperry
Sean Sperry is freelance automotive content creator local to Los Angeles, where he escaped to from his home town of Cape Cod. Besides tinkering with his ‘73 Triumph Spitfire and ‘71 Chevelle, he keeps busy profiling numerous classic and noteworthy cars around SoCal.