John Barnard's 1955 Aston Martin DB2/4
Half a century after he last saw it, we reunite legendary Formula 1 designer John Barnard with the Aston he bought as a teenager.
JOHN BARNARD Legendary race car designer reunited with the Aston he owned as a teenager
Time machine FEATURE JOHN BARNARD’S DB2/4
WORDS JOHN SIMISTER. PHOTOGRAPHY MATTHEW HOWELL.
This is a tale of four Johns, if you include the one telling it. Its thread begins in early 2019 when I saw a fine-looking Aston Martin DB2/4, freshly painted in metallic grey, nearing completion of its restoration at Feltham-era Aston specialist Four Ashes Garage. Owner John Martin, there that day to do some work on his car and hurry the process along because he wanted to enter it in the Mille Miglia, told me that the Aston had a Ford Zodiac engine when he bought it, but it now had a correct 2.9-litre LB6. That Ford engine had been fitted long ago by one of the Aston’s earlier owners, John Barnard. Yes, the John Barnard who designed the cars that brought victory first to McLaren, then to Ferrari, in the Formula 1 World Championship.
This was a most magnificent coincidence. I had recently read about this 1955 DB2/4, and seen a period picture, in Nick Skeens’ rather good biography of Barnard, The Perfect Car. Barnard bought it in 1965 when he was just 19 years old and taking the first steps to his own style of engineering wizardry, or stark logic as he would see it. The engine blew up soon afterwards so, shocked at the cost of replacement parts from Aston Martin, he installed a 283ci Chevrolet V8 with a pair of four-barrel Carter carburettors to liven it up. Then the reality of rising petrol prices bit, and the V8 was ousted by the less-dipsomanic Zodiac motor. Later, the DB2/4 was sold to a friend but it wasn’t to be Barnard’s last Aston. Very much later, in 2019, I contacted John Barnard via the PR company that had promoted the book and asked him if he would like to meet his old car again, and have a go in it. Yes, he said, he would.
Before that could happen, there was a restoration to finish. John Martin had bought the Aston for £85,000, after an auction house had told the previous owner of 40 years that the original £65,000 asking price wasn’t enough, and planned straight away to get it back to the way its maker had intended it to be. ‘Chris Adams at Four Ashes Garage collected it on 21 September 2014,’ John Martin recalls, ‘and said it would be finished by April 2016.’
Restorations seldom conform to an intended timetable, including this one. However, PCD 480 was stripped down by June 2015, and its palette of past colours was revealed. Below the silver top coat were yellow, green, red and the silver-grey that John Barnard had applied, itself a change fromthemetallic blue in which the DB2/4 had left Feltham. ‘The chassis was in good fettle,’ says JM, ‘with just a few sections to be replaced. The body wasn’t so good.’
Blasting revealed holes around the front grille aperture, bigger ones in a lower front corner, some dents and plentiful pop-riveting around the front wheelarches and the right-hand rear one. So there was plenty of aluminium welding to do. Plenty of mechanical work, too: ‘Every mechanical part was replaced or renovated,’ says JM, wincing slightly at the cost. This, of course, included a rebuilt David Brown gearbox to replace the Ford unit that had gone with the interloping engine, and a correct engine built around a new block containing a new crankshaft, pistons and connecting rods.
This engine got the benefit of all the latest knowledge, plus a specification that includes three new, Spanish-made Weber DCOEs in place of the original pair of SUs. These, however, are not allowed by the Mille Miglia eligibility scrutineers, so JM is having a set of perfect replica sandcast DCO3s, as used in period, made by ‘three blokes in the Midlands – two in their eighties, one in his seventies’.
After six years at Four Ashes, PCD 480 looked magnificent and was close to being finished. But it wasn’t quite there, so JM entrusted the last few fettling jobs to Aston restoration specialist Chicane at Bramshill, south of Reading, run by our fourth John: John Watson. Not the one who raced John Barnard’s McLarens, but it’s a delicious coincidence. It was at Chicane that I met the Aston and its owner in July this year, just before the latter’s departure to Seoul on an extended business trip that, sad to say, meant he wouldn’t meet his car’s famous former owner.
John Martin is sitting in the beautifully re-upholstered driving seat, all red leather and perfect pleats, contemplating the handbrake. It used to be on the right, but it has been moved to make room for the removable roll cage that JM specified for the Mille Miglia, the Tour Auto and, especially, the Le Mans Classic, all of which he plans to enter. Now it’s next to the transmission tunnel and too far forward to reach easily. One for the to-do list.
Otherwise, barring a few fixable snags typical of a deep restoration in its final stages, he’s happy. Very happy. I would be, too: PCD 480 looks magnificent in its flawless Magnetic Silver, a modern Aston colour, and quite the road racer with its lack of bumpers and the mesh grille that JM made himself. He has the bumpers and original slatted grille back at home and might yet fit them. Decisions… There are various updates: modern clear-lens headlights albeit with a period-looking tripod bulb mask, an electric fan to supplement the original four-blader, DB4-size Turrino wire wheels with alloy rims, a modern electric fuel pump, a heated windscreen, a compact and lightweight battery, a brake servo, a meaty stainless steel exhaust system with a pair of pipes exiting right rather than two widely spaced ones. Plus a modern take on interior embellishment, the original walnut finish for the instrument panel now remade in glossy black-lacquered wood with door cappings to match. What will John Barnard think of that?
It’s 10 August, the planets have aligned and John Barnard has arrived at Chicane. I’m trying to read this objective, empirical, logical man’s first impressions. The fact of the reacquaintance with an old flame is sinking in as he compares what he’s seeing with what he remembers. The Turrino wheels are shod with new facsimile Pirelli Cinturatos. Did this car wear Cinturatos back in the day? ‘Yes, I think it did,’ he muses. ‘What’s happened to the Alfin brake drums? And I don’t remember those little air outlets on the side of the bonnet.’ That’s where the trafficators used to be. ‘Ah, yes, very neat.’
We walk round to the front. ‘When I put the Chevy engine in, I was worried that there wouldn’t be enough cooling air. So I unpicked all the grille slats and repositioned them to allow more air through and direct it where it was most useful. It was my first venture into aerodynamics.’ So, tell us more about the Chevrolet engine transplant. ‘I paid £480 for the car, which matched the number plate. The letters stand for “pitch circle diameter”. Not long after I bought it, the engine blew up. The middle section of a con-rod came out through the side of the block, with the big-end still on the crankshaft. It was still running and had oil pressure so I drove it home. There was quite a lot of oil on the A40, though.
‘I went to Aston Martin at Newport Pagnell to see about buying a new block, but they wanted £250, which was a lot of money in those days. Then I saw a 3-litre block advertised in Birmingham. I bought it and discovered it was a 2.6, but the seller wouldn’t take it back. I suppose I could have changed the liners, but the Chevy was more appealing. It was mated to a Borg-Warner T10 gearbox. ‘I learned a lot of stuff. Imade the gear lever and a rollerbearing linkage, I worked out the clutch ratio for the pedal, and it all worked really well. This car got me started on working out engineering solutions.’
It was also E-type-baitingly quick, but ferociously thirsty. So, as fuel prices rose, out came the V8, set aside for a Formula 5000 engine project that JB never quite finished while he was working at Lola, and in went a 2553cc straight-six engine and associated gearbox from a Ford Zodiac MkIII. ‘It had almost as much power as the Aston engine and it was quite a lot lighter, so now the Aston handled better than it did originally.’
Meanwhile, JB had also attended to the cosmetics. ‘I resprayedit in Rolls-Royce ShellGrey [that archaeologically buried first silver]. A bloke in a van shouted out of the window, “Nice paint job! Where did you get that done?” “Did it myself,” I replied. I was quite proud of that.’ JB refelted the inside of the roof, twice because the first attempt shrank, and his mother retrimmed the seats in new leather.
The stage was set for many memorable drives. There was a clash in the dark with a girl (unhurt) on an unlit moped (which he fixed), leading to skilled panel-beating of the left sill by an under-the-arches artisan in Harrow. There was a skirmish with a stone wall in Devon when a tractor appeared around a blind bend, and there are memories of the DB2/4 tracking straight and true at high speeds on a trip to Edinburgh up the A1.
Then, in 1969 as he started work at Lola, JB sold the DB2/4 and bought a DB4 for £750 in need of new engine bearings. Later it needed a new piston too, one having holed itself after another attempt at breaking the time record from Lola’s Huntingdon base to home in Wembley.
‘I got it down to 59 minutes,’ he remembers fondly.
‘It seems very short of legroom,’ says PCD 480’s erstwhile owner. ‘And I don’t remember the handbrake being there. You get used to modern cars, but the more I’m in it, the more the driving position is coming back to me.’ Included in the preparation for the Aston’s imminent competition career is a rather fierce clutch. JB starts the engine, eases the gear lever into (unsynchronised) first, engages the clutch and stalls. We had been expecting this, and the second attempt is successful.
‘I don’t like the long throw of the brake pedal,’ he observes at the first junction. It shouldn’t be like that. Another for the to-do list. Now we’re motoring along a main road. ‘We’re doing 45,’ says JB, ‘but it feels like 75.’ The recalibration process is still under way. ‘The steering seems all right,’ he says, ‘but maybe it could do with a nipup [of the steering box adjustment]. And the ride, it isn’t bad actually. Shame he’s lost the old Alfin drums, though.’
It’s hot in here, the controls are clearly effortful, and quite a lot of human energy is being expended. ‘When you drive these old cars, you realise that the guys who used to race them must have had arms like tree trunks. Imagine doing an endurance race. Good luck to John Martin on the Mille Miglia.
‘The engine feels pretty good. It’s a bit different with Webers on it. I don’t remember there being as much noise in here, but that might be the exhaust.’ And, indeed, the six open carburettor throats.
Is the muscle memory coming back? ‘Yes, it is. I’m getting used to it again. And I think I’m getting used to this clutch.’ We’re manoeuvring now, and the Aston stalls again. ‘Oh,’ says John Barnard.
The rev-counter goes anti-clockwise on a scale that ends at 6000rpm, but so gutsy is this engine from about 2500 that there’s barely a need to venture beyond 4500. There’s quite a lot of shudder and shake over broken surfaces, giving the Aston a vintage feel, but on smooth roads it handles in a very friendly way with a tendency to understeer.
The front suspension is rather odd, with obvious positive camber and trailing-link geometry that not only encourages nose-dive under braking but also takes away stabilising castor. JB says he can’t understand why anyone would design suspension like that, wonders why they couldn’t have used wishbones instead, and then points to a crack in the paint between the right-hand sill and the rear wing. ‘The body is flexing,’ says the man who designed the first carbonfibre monococque structure to race in a Grand Prix. But is he glad to have met again the car he bought 56 years ago? I do believe he is. ‘It’s hard to remember all the details,’ he says, ‘but it’s taking me back a long way.’
What John Barnard did next
In the years after owning his DB2/4, John Barnard revolutionised the way Formula 1 cars were designed. As well as major innovations, such as pioneering the ‘Cokebottle’ shape still seen in today’s F1 cars, the use of carbonfibre structures and bringing aerospace standards to racing-car design (McLaren) and pioneering the sequential paddle-shift gearbox (Ferrari), he has come up with carbonfibre brake discs and wishbones, titanium suspension uprights, the dashboard within a steering wheel and multiple small but significant refinements.
No other racing car creator has had as big an influence on both the macro and the micro of Formula 1 engineering.
His longest and best-known career segments were at McLaren (1973-1976, then with Ron Dennis from 1980 to 1986), and Ferrari (1987-1989, and again 1993-1996), but his insistence on running the operation from the UK wasn’t entirely popular with the men at Maranello. He also worked with Lola, Vel’s Parnelli Jones and Chaparral in the US, and Benetton. He has had his own design consultancy, and nowadays does the structural engineering for carbonfibre furniture shaped by Terence Woodgate.
‘A carbon chaise-longue is next,’ he says. And that third Aston Martin? It was a DB6 Mk2 Volante. ‘I owned it from ’94 or ’95 until 2010. Given what has happened to the values since then, I probably should have kept it.’
Our thanks to John Martin, John Barnard, and John Watson at Chicane. After some final fettling, PCD 480 will soon be enjoying a new life on some of the world’s premier motoring events, including the Mille Miglia and Classic Le Mans
- ENGINE In-line 6-cylinder, 2922cc, iron block and head, DOHC
- MAX POWER c200bhp @ 5500rpm
- MAX TORQUE c187lb ft @ 3800rpm
- TRANSMISSION Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
- SUSPENSION Front: trailing links, coil springs, lever-arm dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: live
- axle, parallel radius arms, Panhard rod, coil springs, lever-arm dampers
- STEERING Worm and roller, unassisted
- BRAKES Drums TYRES 185 VR16
- WEIGHT c1300kg
- 0-60MPH Approx 9.0sec
- TOP SPEED Approx 125mph
‘John recalls the DB2/4 tracking straight and true at high speeds on a trip to Edinburgh up the A1’
Above and left John Barnard back behind the wheel after more than 50 years. Restoration snapshots (left) show Zodiac engine still in situ (bottom left); scruffy but sound chassis; tired but complete dashboard; refurbished chassis; new engine block with the ‘cheeses’ that carry the main bearings; and refettled bodyshell
I made the gear lever and a roller-bearing linkage. This car got me started on working out engineering solutions’ — John Barnard
Below and right The Aston (below) as it was in John Barnard’s ownership in the mid- 1960s and (right) freshly restored today, under the bonnet a period-correct 2.9-litre LB6 straight-six.
‘Barnard bought it in 1965 when he was just 19 years old. The engine blew up soon afterwards, so he installed a Chevrolet V8’