1953 Aston Martin DB3S
“I can honestly say that I’d rather compete in the Mille Miglia in an Aston Martin than any other car. The DB3S is a car anybody can drive, a true sports car in handling characteristics and not a racer with a sports body” – Aston Martin factory driver and later team manager Reg Parnell who drove DB3S/2 on the 1954 Mille Miglia
The Aston Martin DB3S is a model from British motor racing’s Golden Age and one of the last sports-racers able to be driven on the road. There were only 10 Works cars: DB3S/1 to DB3S/10, with one extra intended for team use (DB3S/11), but shipped immediately to California. From 1954, Aston Martin also built 20 customer cars.
In the model’s first year of full competition, DB3S/2 – the car presented – scored a superb victory at the Goodwood Nine Hours. Works driver Peter Collins purchased DB3S/2 from the factory in early 1955, campaigning it vigorously as a privateer when Works commitments allowed. Since then, it has enjoyed a cherished existence in the curated garages of barely a handful of the world’s most discerning collectors, and is presented today totally ‘on the button’ for blue riband events such as the Goodwood Revival.
It hardly needs stating that as an original Mille Miglia car DB3S/2 benefits from ‘preferred status’ with regard to today’s retrospective.
The Aston Martin DB3S
The first dumpy, barchetta-style 1952 DB3 was big and heavy but nonetheless scored some useful results in its debut year including a win at the Goodwood Nine Hours. It was a good effort for the underfunded team, but over the winter of 1952/1953 senior design engineer William Watson came up with a radically redesigned car and the new ‘DB3S’ was running at Monza in May 1953.
The DB3S had a new chassis, six inches shorter in wheelbase and two inches narrower in track. This, and thinner-gauge chassis tubing, made the car far nimbler. In all, the new car was 167lb (76kg) lighter.
Visually, the DB3S was a revelation. Drawn by Frank Feeley, responsible for pre-War Lagondas including the stunning V12 Rapide, the first DB3S was a perfect combination of form and function. Cranking the chassis and moving the radiator header tank to the bulkhead allowed Feeley to drop the bonnet height and create a streamlined radiator opening with an ‘egg-crate’ grille. A heat-shield placed between the radiator and the engine deflected air away from the engine and out of the car behind the front wheels through the famous cutaway wings.
Under the bonnet sat a higher-compression version of the DB3’s ’six with triple 35 DCO Webers. Power now peaked at 182bhp at 5,000rpm. The gearbox was now a four-, rather than five-speed, still by David Brown. In spring 1953 the first DB3S was tested at Chalgrove Airfield before being shipped with the team’s DB3s to Italy. The older cars would be used on the Mille Miglia, the latest ’3S for testing post-MM at Monza before a three-car entry at the 13-14 June 1953 Le Mans 24 Hours.
This Motor Car
At Le Mans, DB3S/2 was allocated to Reg Parnell and Peter Collins, the oldest and most experienced driver paired with the coming man. Parnell started DB3S/2 and streaked away at the head of the field, dicing with team-mate Abecassis in DB3S/3, but after 16 laps Parnell’s concentration lapsed and he left the road, the car too badly damaged to continue. No other DB3S finished, but the latest sports-racer was nearly half a second a lap faster than the DB3 had been in 1952.
By mid-July, a repaired DB3S/2 was in Peter Collins’s hands for the traditional dust-up between Jaguar and Aston Martin at the British GP support race. Flying in directly from Nice, where he’d competed in the Alpine Rally, Collins finished third in a DB3S 1-2-3.
The following month, Reg Parnell was at the wheel of DB3S/2 at Goodwood for the Nine Hours, a drive he shared with Eric Thompson. The cars were modified with a metal tonneau cover and a bar under the grille on which were mounted two driving lamps. Tyre wear was critical on the abrasive Goodwood track and the DB3S’s fine handling allowed the Feltham cars to triumph against more powerful opposition. Parnell/Thompson crossed the finishing line for a superb first place, leading the Collins/Griffith DB3S/4 by two laps.
Since the debacle at Le Mans, Aston Martin had won almost every race it entered, so it arrived at the demanding Dundrod road circuit in Northern Ireland for the Tourist Trophy in fine spirits. The race was a round of the new World Sports Car Championship. The format was a complicated handicap, but Aston Martin once again beat the Jaguar factory C-type team led by Stirling Moss, DB3Ss finishing a fine first and second. DB3S/2 (Parnell/Thompson) was placed second to the winning Collins/Griffith car. It was Aston’s finest victory to date.
Finishing on such a high, with clearly a world-beating car in the DB3S, Aston Martin intended to enter every round of the Championship in 1954, but success eluded the Feltham team.
Three cars were despatched to Argentina but only two were raced by factory drivers at the Buenos Aires 1000km – a third was loaned to local aces. Roy Salvadori drove DB3S/2 for the first time, sharing it with Reg Parnell. Running on 100/130-octane Avgas – the only fuel available at the track – the high-compression engines produced a potent 194bhp at 5,500rpm. In the race, Salvadori suffered distributor driveshaft breakage, retiring after 66 laps. The same cars were then sent directly to Florida for the Sebring 12 Hours, reverting to pump-fuel-friendly, 182bhp spec. Salvadori/Parnell once again paired up in DB3S/2, but another failure (a broken con-rod) put the car out after only 30 minutes.
Team manager John Wyer’s intention was to enter two DB3S coupés and the new Lagonda V12 in the 1954 Mille Miglia, but none was ready. So two ex-Sebring cars – including DB3S/2 driven by Reg Parnell, navigated by photographer Louis Klemantaski – were painstakingly prepared for the great Italian road-race held every May.
The story of the race is one of rain… and tyres. Both cars had been running very strongly indeed, and John Wyer believed that at least a top three finish, if not an overall win, was on the cards. But the controversial decision to use Green Spot rain tyres, specially formulated to last 1,000 miles, led to Reg Parnell in DB3S/2 leaving the road in appalling wet weather at L’Aquila. The car hit a concrete fence post and was severely damaged. Neither driver nor navigator were badly hurt
As was common practice in the day, and like many other Works cars, DB3S/2 was stripped down and fitted with a new chassis. It also received the latest bodywork by Frank Feeley that became – with variations – standard for 1955. A flatter, less-curved nose incorporated a new mesh grille, while at the rear two taller rear wings framed a smoother deck. DB3S/1 was similarly rebodied, making both instantly recognisable.
DB3S/2 was back in the factory three-car team for Dundrod with a potent 225bhp twin-plug motor and allocated to Collins/Griffith. Collins drove superbly, but the car was out after 23 laps with a broken propshaft.
One final event completed Aston Martin’s ‘year to forget’, an over-2.5-litre sports car race at Aintree. Peter Collins drove DB3S/2. Still just 22, he gave it everything and was all over Masten Gregory’s 375 MM Spider in the corners but could do little when the 4.5-litre V12 kicked in on the straights. Plucky as ever, he still finished a fine second, only two seconds behind the bespectacled Kansan.
As recounted by Roy Salvadori, he and Peter Collins purchased the first two DB3Ss from the factory. Both DB3Ss wore their ‘high tail’ 1954/1955 bodywork, but had single-plug engines and drum brakes. Collins registered DB3S/2 ‘UDV 609’, a mark it wears today, and the ex-factory cars were competitive entries in the supporting races usually on the same bill as National F1 or Formula Libre headliners.
Salvadori and Collins were in their own cars for the British Empire Trophy at Oulton Park in April 1955. DB3S/2 finished eighth overall, although Collins did grab a third in one heat. At the following week’s Goodwood Easter Monday Meeting Collins finished fifth in DB3S/2 in the big-capacity sports car race.
For the supporting sports car race at the Silverstone Daily Express International Trophy, DB3S/2 was recruited as a Works entry. Collins drove DB3S/2, but without a twin-plug motor or disc brakes could finish no higher than seventh. Parnell won in one of the factory’s latest DB3Ss.
The rest of the season as Collins’ personal car saw DB3S/2 campaigned in minor National events. It was co-opted to the Works Aston Martin cause once again, though, when Prince Bertil of Sweden asked personal friend David Brown for entries to the Swedish GP, a round of the World Sports Car Championship. Collins non-started DB3S/2 after breaking a con-rod in practice, Salvadori finished a lowly seventh in his car.
Collins’s final race with DB3S/2 was The Daily Herald International Trophy at Oulton Park in England. Parnell drove a magnificent race to win in a Works DB3S, but Collins, at the wheel of a now outdated car, battled away in the top four before crossing the line a fine third ahead of a fine entry that included Masten Gregory in a Ferrari 750 Monza.
A Ferrari contract for 1956 meant Collins’ close relationship with Aston Martin came to an end. He sold DB3S/2 to Tom Kyffin, who entered races as Equipe Devone and raced it extensively in the UK, making one foray in Europe (1956 Paris 1000km at Montlhéry), when he shared it with occasional GP driver Ken Wharton. Later in 1956 Kyffin sold DB3S/2 to John Dalton, who raced it in minor events (picking up a couple of firsts), before part-exchanging it for DB3S/10.
Motor trader racing driver Roy Bloxam ran DB3S/2 in 1958. The following year it was advertised for sale by The Chequered Flag and soon after the ex-factory car was in George Gale’s ownership. The Coventry man made it road-legal from ‘single-seater’ racing spec, fitting a passenger door, silenced exhaust and full-width screen.
Underneath these niceties, it was still a highly original Works racer. Marque stalwart and authority Richard Forshaw of Aston Service Dorset appreciated its qualities and spent over eight years trying to buy it. Eventually, he did, restoring DB3S/2 to the specification in which Peter Collins raced it in 1955: ‘single-seater’, removable metal tonneau cover, single driver’s door, wraparound screen.
Following Forshaw’s lengthy ownership, in 1998 the car passed to Californian Aston enthusiast Peter Read. Reflecting its high standard of preparation, in addition to racing at the Monterey Historics, DB3S/2 was shown by Read at the 1999 Louis Vuitton Concours in Paris. In 2004 it joined the world-class collection of John and Gwen McCaw in Seattle, USA. Under the careful supervision of the collection’s curator, Steven Costello, DB3S/2 was prepared to concours standards by leading US specialists and the work was enough for the car to win a trophy (third, Post-War Sports Racing) at Pebble Beach in 2005.
The car today
DB3S/2 is still in that superlative condition, sensibly fitted with a spare engine suitable for racing or touring, and its original unit preserved on a display stand. Meticulously prepared in-house, and still bearing registration ‘UDV 609’, it provides the current European owner – also one of the world's most respected collectors – with the most visceral driving experience on the road, whilst being totally ‘on the button’ for the Goodwood Revival or the Mille Miglia.