BEAUTY AND BEAST
In the late fifties, the climate in which builders of limited edition sports cars lived and worked could be described as a tropical paradise for creation. Those were the days before blizzards of regulations and mountains of bureaucracy made the atmosphere surrounding low-volume manufacturers seem more like that of an Arctic nightmare.
Out of these flourishing conditions could spring the most imaginative of designs. Often, it seems, these creations – with only a decade or two of patina descending on their sensuous aluminum surfaces – rose to be regarded with reverence bestowed only on the classics.
In those days, all it often took to get the fancy machinery rolling was a meeting and a handshake.
Such a meeting took place at London’s Earls Court in 1959. Aston Martin’s fortune was at its peak, with the DBR dominating sports car racing, and a new grand tourer off to an impressive start. And present right there on the Aston Martin stand, was further indication of the confident posture of the Newport Pagnell firm – the short-wheelbase DB4GT.
Thus it was an opportune time for John Wyer, the Aston Martin team manager turned general manager, and Gianni Zagato, to meet. Gianni Zagato was the youngest son of Ugo Zagato, and one of the two brothers who had taken over the Carrozzeria after their father’s death.
Ugo Zagato had founded the business back in 1919. His friendship with legendary Fiat engineer Vittorio Jano had led to the design of special bodies for this manufacturer. When Jano moved to Alfa Romeo, Zagato created the look that made him famous – the immortal series of Alfa Romeo sports and racing machines, beginning with the 1500. The arrival of World War II marked the end of this first period of the Zagato chronology.
The second period, spanning the era from the mid forties to the late fifties, produced a further collection of memorable sports car creations. These designs expressed the styling philosophy of Elio Zagato, Ugo’s oldest son, who had developed his own unique brand of aerodynamic language, based on experience gained as a part-time race driver.
The third period began when Gianni Zagato joined the company after Elio was injured in a road accident. Gianni Zagato modernized the operation and invited a brilliant young stylist, Ercole Spada to come aboard. This association brought about another series of outstanding designs that continued to keep Zagato in the spotlight.
The Earls Court encounter did indeed produce a meeting of the minds – Wyer and Zagato shook hands on a limited lightweight edition of Aston’s new DB4 GT, bodied by the Milanese coach builder with the first chassis arriving in Italy in early 1960.
The Aston Martin assignment was one of the first tackled by Spada. Only 23 years old at the time, his youthful creation displayed an obvious kinship to Pinin Farina’s short wheelbase Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta. Still, the Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato made a bolder, more rousing statement. Spada accomplished this by forcing all his lines and surfaces to converge on the roof, which was conspicuously minimal and smoothly rounded. Particularly illustrative of this conscious effort on the part of the designer, were the side panels, with their strong incline. The effect was further enhanced by the shape of the grille’s aggressively down-turned corners. The result placed the viewer in the presence of a beautiful beast.
This Grand Tourer did not only look the part, it also performed the part. While most of the DB4 GT Zagatos had essentially the same chassis and drivetrain specifications as the DB4 GT, and as such were mainly intended for road use, a few were indeed set up for serious work on the racetrack. These machines had their weight reduced further, and while the engine in the standard Zagato already sported cams with a more radical profile, the racing versions, among other tuning measures, were given a higher 9.7:1 compression ratio, resulting in power rising to 314bhp.
When the factory decided to concentrate its racing efforts on Formula One in the early sixties, it was left to a few privateers to defend the Aston Martin tradition on the sports car circuit. While DB GTs run by private UK based teams like Equipe Endeavour and Essex Racing and the French Pozzoli/Kerguen/Franc team scored wins and podium finishes, the lightweight Ferrari 250 SWBs proved to be more than a match for the heavier DB4 GTs in international racing. This, despite a star-studded cast of Aston Martin drivers that included Stirling Moss, Innes Ireland, Roy Salvadori, Jim Clark and a young Bruce McLaren.
In city traffic, the Zagato, with its heavy controls, was quite a handful. However, once out on the open road with the machinery working vigorously, Aston Martin’s wild beast was in its natural habitat. The steering became light and responsive, and combined with the ample supply of power, invited the type of driving where the negotiations of turns became an intriguing interplay between steering wheel and throttle.
Today, the DB4 GT Zagato is appreciated as one of the most outstanding sports racers of its era – a period when the battles of the racing scene were still fought with cars that could be run on the road.