A victory in the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans race displays both outright speed and a high level of reliability under the fiercest of conditions. Ever since his purchase of Aston Martin late in 1946, gearbox manufacturer David Brown put a victory in the most legendary of endurance races at the top his list. Soon after he bought the Lagonda rights, and with it the designs of a six cylinder engine with two overhead camshafts. This advanced engine was one the last designs of W.O. Bentley and would form the basis for all Aston Martin's motorsport successes.
In the first half of the 1950s, Aston Martin competed with their six cylinder sportscars mainly for class victories, but were still out-powered by British rivals Jaguar and the Italian Ferraris and Maseratis for overall victories. Introduced in 1953, the three-litre DB3S model proved a very capable racer, racking up many wins, including a clean sweep of the podium at the 1954 Silverstone Unlimited Sportscar race. Campaigned by both the works and many privateers, the DB3S' career highlight was a second place finish in the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans race.
Work was started on a new car early in 1956. A completely new spaceframe type chassis was designed by chief designer Ted Cutting. The new chassis proved more rigid and very importantly 50 lbs lighter than the DB3S'. Both front and rear suspensions were pretty much carried over from the latest specification DB3S, as were the Lockheed disc brakes. The first car produced, DBR1/1, was fitted with a 2.5 litre version of the twin-cam 'six' and a transversely mounted David Brown gearbox to keep most of the weight within the wheelbase.
Driven by Tony Brooks and Reg Parnell, the DBR1 made its debut in the 1956 24 Hours of Le Mans. Blown away by the much more powerful competition, the new car finally retired with an engine problem. This remained the only outing of the DBR1 in 1956 and at the end of the season John Wyer was appointed as General Manager and Reg Parnell as Racing Manager of the company. Under their leadership development continued throughout the winter. With various changes carried out, the 2.5 litre DBR1/1 was campaigned in the first two races of the 1957 season, recording back to back second place finishes.
The winning formula was found when an updated version of the DB3S three litre engine was fitted. Two three-litre DBR1s were fielded in the Spa Grand Prix race in May of 1957. DBR1/2 driven by Brooks recorded the car's first victory. In his hands DBR1/2 recorded another two victories that season, in the Nurburgring 1000 km race and again at Spa in a three hour race. To compete with the more powerful cars in sprint races, the 3.7 litre DBR2 was developed. Roy Salvadori scored a victory with it in a Silverstone Over-1500cc sports car race.
Although 1957 proved quite successful for Aston Martin, a victory at Le Mans still eluded the British manufacturer. Ironically one of the weak components of the DBR1 was David Brown's own CG537 gearbox. A sudden change in the regulations at the end of the 1957 season limiting the displacement to 3-litres for sports prototypes, perfectly suited Aston Martin's DBR1. These changes left Jaguar's D-Types, Maserati's 450S and the Lister-Jaguar Special obsolete. Already stricken by financial problems, Maserati announced a complete withdrawal, leaving Ferrari as the sole works competition.
With high hopes and one extra DBR1 chassis for the works team, Aston Martin entered the 1958 season. With Le Mans being the sole focus, the works team rarely took out their precious cars in the events leading up to the June race. Three weeks prior to the big race, the team used the Nurburgring 1000 km as a warm-up. Like the previous season, the DBR1 excelled at the twisty and long circuit, with Stirling Moss and Jack Brabham taking the flag in first position in DBR1/3. In the mean time, Moss was also quite successful in non-championship races with the DBR2.
At Le Mans the car's frailty was shown once again, with none of the works cars finishing, leaving the victory to Ferrari. An old DB3S did claim a credible second place for Aston Martin. Moss and Brooks were victorious in the Tourist Trophy with DBR1/2. These results were enough for Aston Martin to secure a second place in the Constructor's Championship behind Ferrari, but with the little works competition, this was hardly a big achievement. David Brown and his team were not ready to give up and continued work on the DBR1.
Only DBR1/1 was allowed to be campaigned in the season leading up to the 1959 Le Mans race, as Aston Martin was busy designing a completely new car to campaign in the Formula 1 championship. Moss used it to win the DBR1's third consecutive victory at the Nurburgring in one of the finest drives of his career, constantly having to make up for time lost by his team-mate. Aston Martin constructed a fourth work chassis, and a fifth chassis to be competed by long time customer Graham Whitehead.
A three car strong works effort was sent out to Le Mans, all three cars equipped with a slightly revised engine with a changed bore and stroke. Moss' DBR1/3 was fitted with a special high compression engine to set a high pace in the opening hours, forcing the competition to speed up and stretch their material. When Moss' DBR1 died, this ingenious tactic had already resulted in two retirements for the four-car strong Ferrari team. After the third Ferrari retired, Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby in DBR1/2 finished first, followed by Maurice Trintingant and Paul Frere in DBR1/4.
David Brown finally had his victory at Le Mans and Aston Martin was now only trailing Ferrari by two points in the World Championship, which presented a new challenge for the remainder of the season. Shelby, Fairman and Moss piloted DBR1/2 to a victory in the Tourist Trophy and with the help of the fourth place finishing DBR1/4 of Trintingant and Frere, Aston Martin were World Champions!
With the mid-engine revolution taking place, contemporary sportscars and single seaters were quickly rendered obsolete. Not willing or able to make the investments needed to build and design completely new racers, Aston Martin withdrew from racing. With the DB4 GT, Aston Martin did give their customers a means to take on Ferrari in GT-racing, but their success was very limited. Long after the David Brown period, in the 1980s, Aston Martin badged sportscars unsuccessfully tried to take on Le Mans again. John Wyer did win more Le Mans victories with his Gulf GT40s and Mirages, making him one of the most successful managers in Le Mans history.
Featured are three of the five DBR1s constructed; DBR1/2, DBR1/4 and DBR1/5. They are seen in action during the 2006 season at events like the Silverstone Classic, Le Mans Classic and Goodwood Revival. Most prominently pictured is DBR1/2, which is the most successful Aston Martin racing car ever with six major victories on its tally, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1959. A true enthusiast, its owner is more than happy to have it driven in anger at many occasions, often with Aston Martin CEO Dr. Ulrich Bez behind the wheel.
Article by Wouter Melissen, last updated on 06 / 06 / 2007
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