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  • Never abused in modern historic events or known to have been damaged
 
The 1961 Geneva Show car, one of eight left-hand drive

1961 Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato

“As tested, it was geared for over 150mph. Acceleration times therefore do not truly reflect its drag-strip potential, yet the standing quarter-mile was outstanding, with an elapsed time of just 15.1 seconds” – American magazine Car and Driver stops the clocks with this car in its September 1962 road test

When it needed more serious performance from its flagship DB4 GT to combat the opposition from Ferrari and Jaguar, Aston Martin turned to another Milanese coachbuilder, Zagato. Just 19 cars were completed – only eight in left-hand drive – so the DB4 GT Zagato is rarer than a 250 SWB or even a 250 GTO. It mixes voluptuous Italian style with restrained British power: an Old Etonian in a Brioni suit.

Hand-beaten in the traditional Italian way…

John Wyer, Aston Martin’s general manager, visited Zagato’s stand at the 1960 Geneva Show and was impressed. Accompanied by Le Patron, David Brown, the notoriously hard-to-please Wyer saw the result of a collaboration between the great Italian carrozzeria and advanced British car company Bristol: a Zagato-bodied 406, still a four-seater saloon, but now 206kg lighter.

This proven weight saving and Zagato’s well-known skills at crafting wind-cheating bodies made the Italians a natural partner in Aston’s quest for a ‘Ferrari 250 GT SWB-beater’. Having agreed on stylist Ercole Spada’s sketches, in just six months one car was constructed and then shown at the 1960 Earls Court Motor Show. Orders followed and at Goodwood on Easter Monday 1961 Stirling Moss was at the wheel of the show car in Rob Walker colours, finishing a fighting third. That year, the Essex Racing Team campaigned the famous ‘VEV’ Zagatos on the international stage.

The methodology of production was that bare DB4 GT chassis were sent from Newport Pagnell to Milan. The bodies were then hand-beaten in the traditional Italian way, fitted to the chassis and then most semi-finished cars were returned to the UK, although some were completed in Italy. Compared with a regular DB4 GT, still a 3.7-litre, the new car packed a more powerful engine.

Each car was different, from the most curvaceous original to one with open headlamps and two with normal DB4 bonnet scoops in place of Zagato’s signature triple power blisters. One had a thicker-gauge body and heavier front grille. Most had lightweight Zagato seats, but some owners specified luxurious DB4 armchairs. Every car, though, was a mixture of Italian artistry and bruising British bhp.

Many were raced, in period and later, often living hard lives as a consequence. All cars have documented histories – for good and bad – and the DB4 GT Zagato remains the Holy Grail of Aston Martin road cars.

This Motor Car

Aston Martin DB4 GT ‘0178/L’ was the third chassis in the sequence of numbers allocated to cars to be bodied by Zagato in Milan. It was the first left-hand drive Zagato and in March 1961 was displayed on Aston Martin’s stand at the Geneva Show, most likely already sold by national agent Hubert Patthey to its first owner, Swiss enthusiast and occasional racer Edy Corthésy of Lausanne.

Its body details were archetypal DB4 GT Zagato: triple bonnet blisters, covered headlights, lightweight seats and no bumpers or added adornments. Of the eight left-hand drive Zagatos built, just five share this specification.

A copy of the build sheet that accompanies the car states its engine as 370/0178/GT – the ‘matching numbers’ it bears today. Also confirmed by the build sheet is external colour (Rosso Maja from Zagato, a beguiling colour applied to many of its creations in period) and an interior in Fawn. The sole extra specified was a spark plug holder, loose in the car. As delivered, the final drive was a ‘long’ 3.54:1 with Powr Lok limited-slip differential. It was shipped on 8 March 1961.

Two months later on 14 May 1961, Corthésy and his gleaming acquisition started the Royal Automobile Club de Spa Grand Prix. In truth, the Swiss was probably out of his depth: the race was won by ‘Wild’ Willy Mairesse whose Ferrari 250 GT SWB headed eight similar cars and the lone E-type of Grand Prix driver Michael Parkes. The punchy Aston failed to trouble the scorers – but did finish. On 17 May 1961 the car was back in the Competitions Department at Feltham for small body repairs (a headlamp cover and minor damage to the near-side rear wing) and the addition of racing-spec rear wheel arches – the same design borne by the legendary ‘VEV’ racers – to cover bigger wheels and tyres.

These modifications were part of a number of improvements to bring the car up to full race spec. The factory build sheet records an increase in compression by machining the cylinder head; the installation of a lightweight GT exhaust system with 27in silencer; Borrani wheels supplied and fitted with the owner’s racing tyres. There is reference to a 3.31:1 ratio axle – the speedo therefore needing adjustment – though no details on its actual fitment. The recorded mileage at that time was 11,681km.

Tantalisingly, history does not relate if these modifications by the works resulted in more forays on the race track.

On 3 April 1962, the car was back at Feltham for general service work, principally new brake pads, front shock absorbers and an overhauled clutch. At that time, the odometer read 4,285km – most likely a reset to zero after the previous year’s recalibration.

Later that year, ‘0178/L’ was sold for CHF 32,000 to fellow Swiss Fridolin (Fred) Haechler of Aarau, who took it with him to the US where it was featured (still Swiss registered) as the road test cover car of September 1962’s Car and Driver. The American journalists recorded a 0-60mph time of just six seconds and pronounced it a car that, “joins the thin ranks of GT cars that support the old definition of a sports car: a car that can be driven pleasantly on public roads or at race-winning speeds on circuits”.

At the end of 1962 Haechler, who worked at the Hanover Bank on Broadway, sold the car for $4,000 to another New Yorker, Newton Davis. In 1963, it was bought by Massachusetts resident Chris Murray who carried out a variety of works including a fresh repaint to Geneva Show spec. He subsequently sold it to Dr Kenneth Lewin, a passionate fan of the model, who retrimmed it in black leather with grey carpets, the configuration in which it is presented today.

Lewin was a staunch supporter of the Aston Martin Owners Club and in 1972 ‘0178/L’ passed to enthusiast and Club member Jerry Rosenstock who was to own ‘0178/L’ until 2010. In Rosenstock’s ownership the car was painted again, and the axle ratio changed from an aggressive 4.09:1 to a more practical 3.77:1.

The car became a star of the US concours scene and the AMOC Register lists year-after-year entries at Pebble Beach, Santa Barbara, Newport Beach and Lime Rock. During this period it picked up many trophies, including class wins at Pebble in 1987 and 1997. It was also featured in several magazines.

Having owned the Zagato for almost 40 years, when he decided it was time to part with his beloved car in 2010, Rosenstock wanted it to go to the right person. We had the ideal client in mind and flew to Los Angeles to test drive the car, having engaged the soon-to-retire foreman of the Aston Martin factory to accompany us and advise on technical details.

“This was a beautifully preserved car, not a reborn concours queen,” he stated. The ‘right person’ was a significant Geneva-based collector, meaning the car returned home half a century after its Geneva show debut. Since 2012 it has been part of another world- class stable, seldom seen but lovingly maintained including significant but sympathetic recommissioning at Spray Tec and RS Williams from 2018 to 2019 totalling over £232,000. The engine work alone came to £47,521 and included a full rebuild with new 3.7-litre, lead-free Cosworth pistons.

A sublime and timeless design, brutal, of ferocious performance yet the perfect mount for tours and events, the Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato has it all.

Unlike many other DB4 GT Zagatos, after its debut at the top level of competition at Spa in 1961 this car has mostly lived a life away from the circuits, never modified with an out-of-period engine, nor clinically prepared to today’s historic racing specifications far removed from as-delivered or damaged in modern, no-holds-barred competition.

In February this year, ‘0178/L’ was the centrepiece of the Kidston stand at the Rétromobile show in Paris.  Artfully presented as a recreation of its debut on a stand at Geneva in 1961 – complete with flowers – the striking red car was a highlight of the world-famous exhibition.

Not only one of just eight LHD DB4 GT Zagatos, ‘0178/L’ also features the model’s iconic muscular triple power-bulge on its bonnet and lightweight seats, a superlative and aggressively elegant specification unadorned by bumpers or unnecessary chromework. Highly original, yet meticulously maintained by the finest in the business with known history from new, this former star of shows and magazines is one of the best.

 
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