The Aston Martin DB4—Two Italian designs with distinct visions
Driven by charismatic leadership and inspired by sporting elegance, Aston Martin has long been associated with top performance cars built for racing and road use. With fierce competition from larger companies fortified by greater resources, Aston Martin delivered on their promise of performance and elegance with a unique blend of style mixed with a dash of bravado. When entrepreneur David Brown took the helm, Aston immediately benefited from the purchase of Lagonda, particularly for the sophisticated 2.6-liter, twin-cam, inline six-cylinder engine designed by none other than W.O. Bentley.
As success surrounded Aston Martin, they smartly retained the services of the finest Italian coachbuilders to design and build both production and show cars. The resultant improvements in their cars were immediately evident through the seminal DB series cars, culminating in the stunning DB4; the first truly modern Aston Martin. Licensing the patented Touring Superleggera (Super Light Weight) construction, hand formed aluminum bodies were constructed at Touring and mounted over steel sub-structure. The stunning coachwork was not only brilliantly conceived, it was light, offered beautiful interior appointments, and landmark performance, delivered by the new Tadek Marek designed 3.7-Liter, twin overhead cam engine. Glowing reviews from contemporary motoring press would have been more than enough to secure the future of the DB4, but it would be Aston Martin’s good fortune, just a few years later,, when the DB5 was selected as the mount for fictional secret agent 007, James Bond, the dashing British spy in Goldfinger.
The “Q-prepped” silver DB5 would deliver not only hair-raising stunt driving sequences, this uncanny bond would forever cement the Aston Martin as the preferred exotic sports car of cold-war intrigue and international espionage.
In addition to the beautifully executed Touring bodied DB4, Aston Martin also commissioned a small series of Zagato bodied DB4 models prepared primarily for competition use. These Zagato bodied cars have not only become iconic in their own right, they remain today an extraordinary example of design comparison when viewing the vision of Touring and Zagato. Ercole Spada came to Zagato at the tender age of 23, just shortly after gaining a degree in industrial engineering. Having completed his military service, in 1960, he joined Zagato and immediately penned the DB4 GT. While Spada penned his version, the slightly senior and seasoned Federico Formenti of Touring was already working on revisions for the next Aston Martin. Of course, neither man could have possibly known that the era of coachbuilding was soon to come to a crashing halt as the ’60s came to a close. Both designers would go on to pen many more cars of significant importance, but at this moment in time, each penned one of the most significant cars of their careers, making their statement of sports car excellence, each without compromise.
The Touring-Formenti design evokes a clean uninterrupted belt line which offers a more linear and visually slim profile. The open headlights extend the front with a slight drop in height giving the fascia a lower visual profile. The elegant chrome bumpers cap the front and rear of the car with a tailored suit formality and crispness that matches the linear belt line. This composure is further accentuated by the rear fenders which terminate in an upright set of taillight lenses that pull the viewers eye upward cleverly making the rear of the car appear lower than it actually is. These tail fins not only sharply contrast the gently rounded fastback rear, they punctuate the somewhat formal nature of the car, giving it a far more British flavor than the front of the car. The dramatic roofline sweeping toward the rear is further elongated by the extended side quarter glass that exceeds the end of the rear wheel, once again visually elongating the profile by pulling your eyes away from the center of the car. Adding a final touch to the more linear design, Formenti uses graceful wheel arches that slightly flattened at the top of the wheels, echoing the linear design themes.
The Zagato-Spada design evokes a totally different expression than the elegant Touring design. The front and rear Zagato fenders are more explicitly rotund with a fullness that begins at the dramatically covered headlights, accelerates back to the rear of the car and flexes upward as the muscular rear fender bulges beyond the body line. The rear side glass is truncated with a return on the rear edge of the glass that draws the eye back into the middle of the car – the complete opposite of the Touring design.
The contrasting visual vectors of the Zagato and Touring design show clearly that Spada sought to evoke a more energetic, powerful and compact design with the looks of a stout, muscular performer. Formenti elected for a more graceful design by drawing the eye toward the ends of the car. The complete absence of bumpers on the Zagato design, though a weight savings for competition, further removes the “jeweled” effect seen in the more refined tailoring of the Touring design. Even the Zagato wheel openings, full and round, place the emphasis on the center of the design, visually grounding the car from almost any view.
In the front view, the Zagato design evokes a great deal of competition flavor with the pronounced grille, covered headlights (a feature that would appear on the DB5) and rounded roofline. In front view, the two cars are so profoundly different that one can truly appreciate the unique visions for each car, still retaining the Aston Martin brand while conveying each unique coachbuilder’s signature. At the rear of the car the Zagato does away with any of the upright British formality, leaving not even a vestigial fin, instead creating a tightly bobbed trunk line with Frenched in round taillights and competition fuel fillers topping the fender arches.
Today, both Aston Martin DB4 versions have become iconic in their own right, but with production of the Touring bodied car topping 1,200 units against a mere 19 of the Zagato model produced, collectors place more than ten times the value on the Zagato, well into the millions. Rarity aside, each of these fine Italian designs remain as exquisite examples of coachbuilding from a moment in time when some of the most exciting and important cars were being constructed. Though this era would conclude too soon and production methods become replaced with more economically suitable processes and mass produced performance cars, coachbuilt cars of this period still remain sought after for their uniqueness and beauty, each one offering brilliant conceptual statements of design, championed by two of the most talented designers from this period.