1953 Aston Martin DB3S/5. Photos courtesy Bonhams unless otherwise specified.
It was built for Aston Martin owner David Brown (the DB in Aston Martin’s nomenclature), but soon after commandeered by the company’s Competition Department to replace accident-damaged Works DB3S models at Le Mans in 1954. It’s been raced by the greats of the day, including Roy Salvadori, Reg Parnell, Stirling Moss and Graham Hill. Damaged by a suicidal mechanic, it was rebuilt to star in a 1960s British romantic comedy, and on May 21, the 1953 Aston Martin DB3S chassis /5, arguably one of the most colorful DB3S Works racers, will cross the auction stage at the Aston Martin Works Sale.
The DB3S was created out of the brand’s need for a competitive sports racer. The DB3, introduced in 1951, had proven too heavy to run head-to-head with Jaguar’s C-Type, and while lager engines did produce podiums, victories for Aston Martin were lacking. The DB3S, which debuted in 1953, used a new twin-tube chassis crafted of thinner wall steel tubing and a body made from aluminum alloy. To further reduce weight, the DB3S’s wheelbase was shortened by six inches, cutting a total of 165 pounds from the earlier DB3.
Power came from a Lagonda-sourced 3.0-liter inline six with double overhead camshafts, fed by a trio of Weber carburetors. Early cars used a cylinder head drilled for a single spark plug, but later versions received a twin-plug head described as troublesome. Depending upon configuration and tune, the 3.0-liter engines generally produced between 210 and 225 horsepower, but to take advantage of specific competition rules, certain events (such as the British Empire Trophy Race) were run using a substitute 2.5-liter inline six.
Designed by Frank Feeley, the DB3S’s body used broad front wheel arches, an intentional design meant to funnel heat out of the car’s engine compartment. While aluminum was the standard material used in the DB3S’s body, at least one car, DBS3/5, was built with an experimental fiberglass body (referred to as “composite” by Aston Martin engineers), likely to test the usefulness of the material for the brand’s future road and racing cars.
It isn’t clear when DB3S/5 was delivered to David Brown, but it wasn’t in his possession for long. After two Works cars (chassis DB3S/6 and DB3S/7) were destroyed in rollover crashes at the 1954 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, David Brown’s DB3S was appropriated by the brand’s Competition Department for conversion into a Works team car. Its original fiberglass body was removed and replaced with an aluminum body pulled from DB3S/2, crashed by Reg Parnell in 1954 Mille Miglia. A Works suspension was fitted, and the car made its racing debut at Silverstone in July 1954, where Roy Salvadori drove DB3S/5 to a second place finish.
The car remained with the Aston Martin Works team throughout the 1955 season, driven by Salvadori, Reg Parnell, and Peter Collins. Both Salvadori and Parnell scored wins for the team with DBS3/5, though the car had developed a reputation for being ill-handling among Aston Martin team drivers. When Salvadori approached Aston Martin’s competition director, John Wyer, about buying a DB3S at the end of the 1955 season, the only car Wyer had available was chassis /5. Salvadori may have hesitated, but not for long; a deal was struck, and in 1956, chassis /5 was campaigned by Salvadori for the Gilby Engineering team, at least when it wasn’t being borrowed by the Aston Martin Works squad.
Stirling Moss driving /5 at Goodwood in 1956. Image courtesy the National Motor Museum.
It’s human nature to want what one can’t have, and such was the case with DB3S/5. Once shunned by the Aston Martin team drivers, the fact that the car was now privately owned by Salvadori seemed proof of a conspiracy, one where the team’s favorite son was sold “the best” car. Stirling Moss’s win in the car in its first outing of the 1956 season seemed to validate this theory, but when Reg Parnell delivered a disappointing 11th place finish in the 1956 British Empire Trophy race, it seemed the car was back to its old reputation.
Salvadori continued to do well behind the wheel of /5, however, posting two wins at Aintree and one at Silverstone during 1956. Even Reg Parnell had better success in the car at Spa, where he finished second overall. At the end of the 1956 racing season, the DB3S was sold to C.T. “Tommy” Atkins, and its next driver of record was a rising star from Team Lotus named Graham Hill, who finished 11th in the 1957 Goodwood Sussex Trophy race, his sole outing in /5.
The car’s next owner, Dennis Barthel, is where the Aston Martin’s history takes a turn towards the macabre. A gentleman racer, Barthel had DB3S/5 serviced by Alan Overton, a mechanic at Pippbrook Garage. Overton was also a racer, and after running /5 to a first place finish at the Gosport Speed Trials, the driver reportedly kept his foot to the floor, crashing the car through a barrier and into the Solent, a straight that separates the Isle of Wight from England. Overton’s suicide was deliberate, reportedly prompted by the news that Barthel and Overton’s fiancé had begun a relationship of their own.
Once recovered, the car was rebuilt using a body that had been constructed for Aston Martin by Carrozzeria Touring. Shortly after the car was completed, it appeared in the 1960 British comedy School for Scoundrels, wearing almost comically exaggerated front fender flares (and referred to as a “Bellini” in the film, not an Aston Martin).
Now little more than a used race car, the DB3S passed through a series of owners into the 1980s before being acquired by collector Bill Lake, who returned /5 to its as-raced-in-1955 Works configuration and bodywork. It 1987, it was acquired by Erich Traber, who routinely used the car for vintage events like the Mille Miglia Retro, a tradition maintained by the consignor, who entered DB3S/5 in the reborn Mille Miglia in 2008, 2010 and 2014. In 2014, the car was returned to Aston Martin for a complete restoration, reportedly at a cost of £311,000 ($451,000).
As one of just 11 Works cars built by Aston Martin (and one of 31 DB3S models constructed in total), DB3S/5 has already cemented a place in racing history. Given the list of racing greats that have graced its cockpit, as well as its competitive record in-period, Bonhams expects the car to achieve a selling price between £6 million and £7 million ($8.7 million – $10 million) when it crosses the stage in Newport Pagnell on May 21. For comparison, a non-Works 1955 DB3S without a significant racing history and with no ties to big-name drivers sold at a 2014 Pebble Beach auction for a fee-inclusive price of $5.5 million.
For more information on the 2016 Aston Martin Works Sale, visit Bonhams.com.