Aston Martin and James Bond have become intertwined in cinema. For the first time the two brands, the original DB5, and the most recent addition to the partnership, the DBS, are compared.
Aston Martin: the only marque of desire for James Bond
It's the most famous car in the world. Since the 1960s, no small boy's toybox has been complete without a fully-functioning die-cast model of this car: the 1964 Aston Martin DB5 driven by Sean Connery in Goldfinger and Thunderball. On October 27, in an auction room in London, one of those boys - now probably in his 40s and having made a fortune in technology or banking - will get to buy the real thing, but at a far from miniature price. The original Bond Aston is expected to sell for £5 million (Dh28.7 million), making it easily the most expensive piece of movie memorabilia, and probably one of the most expensive cars ever sold at auction.
It's a movie star in its own right; an irreplaceable icon. Not only have we been allowed to drive it, but we've also brought it together with the very latest Bond car, the actual Aston Martin DBS built for Daniel Craig to drive in Quantum of Solace. Despite the 45 years separating them, the similarities are remarkable. Before we tell you what they're like to drive, here's a little history. In the earliest Bond novels, the author Ian Fleming had his hero driving a Bentley, but in Goldfinger, Bond drove an Aston Martin DB3. The Bond movie producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli approached Aston to supply cars for the film, but the venerable British marque was initially reluctant, and asked for payment. But it soon saw the sense and offered Broccoli the use of its still-secret new DB5. For Goldfinger and Thunderball, the first Bond films to feature Aston Martins, four DB5s were fitted with "all the usual refinements", as Q described them. Aston's sales leapt 60 per cent in the next few years.
Two of the Bond DB5s were used only for publicity, and despite not appearing on screen, one sold for $2.1 million (Dh7.7 million) in 2006. Of the two cars used for filming, one was stolen from a Florida airport in 1997 and is thought to have been broken up. So of the two cars that actually appear in the movies, only this one - FMP 7B - remains. It was bought from Aston in 1969 for a bargain $12,000 (Dh44,000) by American DJ and radio mogul Jerry Lewis. He has owned the car since and has only shown it twice in public since 1977. It has spent most of its life on display in his house and has never been restored.
For a movie star and a Dh28.7 million car, it's reassuringly tatty; drive it and you won't be worried about destroying its value by scratching it. The grey leather seats graced by the young Connery are worn to a beautiful patina, and the long, heavy tyre shredder - which doesn't pop out, but needs to be attached by hand -lies casually tossed in the back. Knowing its next owner will want to drive it, RM Auctions, which is selling it on behalf of Lewis, has given the mechanicals and the gadgets a makeover. So the 282hp, 4.0L straight-six engine starts instantly, makes a hard, loud howl when worked, and provides acceleration that still feels fairly urgent by modern standards; this car was one of the first DB5s to get the uprated Vantage engine. It's easy to forget that, even without the gadgets, in 1964 the DB5 was about the fastest, sexiest thing on the road.
As you drive, your thumb keeps flipping up the lid that covers the ejector seat trigger in the gearknob; fortunately for your passenger, it's one of the few gadgets that doesn't work. The phone hidden in the door won't get you through to M, but the radar scanner hidden behind a panel in the dashboard at least gives a beep and a flash when you reveal it. But the secret panel hidden in the armrest controls the good stuff. The switches marked "oil", "nails" and "smoke" don't do what they promise, but "m-gun" really does make the front machine guns motor out, "bullet-screen" erects the rear shield and the rotary switch marked "S, B, F" rotates the Swiss, British and French plates.
Everything moves with a precise sigh and clunk. The electrical and hydraulic systems that make it all work are hidden in the boot and have also been overhauled. They might look cheesy now, but it's the gadgets that mean this car could sell for more than 30 times what you'd pay for a standard DB5. By contrast, there isn't a single gadget on the Quantum of Solace DBS. Daniel Craig's 007 is a grittier, more realistic character than previous Bonds, so out went the outlandish gadgets.
Bond returned to Aston for Die Another Day in 2002, Pierce Brosnan ending a controversial three-movie dalliance with BMW by taking delivery of an Aston Martin Vanquish that turned invisible. When Daniel Craig was announced as the new Bond for Casino Royale, Aston's charismatic chairman, Dr Ulrich Bez, got a call from Barbara Broccoli, Cubby's daughter and the producer of Casino Royale. "She said that the new Bond was going to be a raw, back-to-basics character," recalls Aston's design chief, the Sheffield-born Marek Reichman. "She described him as a tough guy in a dinner suit. Uli said, 'I think we might have just the car for him.'"
Just as with the DB5 four decades previously, Reichman and his team had been working in secret on a new model called the DBS. Designed to sit between the elegant, comfortable DB9 and the brutal, competition-only DBRS9, the DBS is "the most masculine car we've ever done" according to Reichman. "Internally, we'd been describing it in exactly the same way as the new Bond; a tough guy in a dinner suit. It was a perfect fit."
Craig and the film's producers came to Aston's headquarters in rural Warwickshire to see the still-secret DBS. "When you shake his hand you realise he really is a tough, powerful guy with these amazing eyes that look right through you," says Reichman, who is one of the world's best car designers and not easily impressed. "I didn't feel like I was meeting Daniel Craig," he says. "I honestly felt like I was meeting James Bond."
Instead of just driving an Aston, this Bond inspired one. "We made the interior very dark after we met Daniel, with lots of black and polished metal. That's where we brought that toughness in." The more realistic re-imagining of Bond in Casino Royale continued with Quantum of Solace; despite the bigger budget, there was less CGI and modelling and much more real action. We know how real it is from the accidents they had making it; in the course of two week's filming on the tight road that rings Italy's Lake Garda, one car ended up in the water, while two stunt drivers landed in hospital twice attempting to get a separate shot.
Three actual DBSs were built for Quantum, and all survive; the "hero" car we're driving, a spare, and a stunt car used for the scenes shot in the marble quarry, running some extra ride height but otherwise standard. The cars destroyed were either shells or well-used prototype test cars dressed up as a DBS but destined for the crusher anyway under UK tax laws. It's easy to be cynical about the Dh1 million DBS. The Dh300,000-plus premium over a DB9 only scores you an extra 40bhp, a retuned chassis and some slightly dodgy styling addenda.
But when you drive it, the DBS starts to pull that particularly Aston-Martin trick of making you ignore its failings, and just want one very badly indeed. Not that there are many failings to ignore. Inside, there's leather, plainly, with fat white stitches, but also Alcantara in the headlining, fat nuggets of aluminium in the switchgear, carbon fibre in the doortops and crystal in the key. Even the doughnut of rubber sealing the air conditioning duct to the door looks good; unctuous, fat and perfectly-formed.
You get a movie soundtrack too. Quantum of Solace might have needed less CGI in the stunts but it required no post-production at all on the engine noise. The DBS howls and bellows; it sounds feral and, frankly, alive. You'd think a 510bhp V12 with a manual gearbox would be hard to handle, but the clutch and box are simple to synchronise. The quick, calm, direct steering makes the DBS feel about half its size and weight, and the carbon brakes just let you name the speed you need.
We need to see Bond in a car that men desire as much as women desire him. Aston Martin provokes the desire, but backs it with credibility, both utterly lacking in the brief, Brosnan-era flirtation with BMW. This is why the tiny, now-independent Aston Martin continues to enjoy one of the world's most valuable product placement opportunities, and is likely to continue to do so after the three-picture deal agreed to when it was still a Ford brand expired with Quantum of Solace. It can't afford to buy its way in any more, but the Broccolis can't really afford to separate Bond from his Aston, either.
But it was this DB5 that helped spark the world's obsession with Bond in the first place. Does that justify spending Dh28.7 million on a vintage Aston that would only be worth Dh850,000 if it wasn't for a bunch of gadgets that now look very low-tech in this Avatar age? Watch the reaction of other road users when you extend the ramming bumpers in traffic, and all that money will feel like a bargain.