As investments go, buying a classic Aston Martin in 1971 for £3,600 that insurers now value at around £15 million isn’t a bad bit of business. But that isn’t why David Eyles likes his DB4 GT Zagato. What the 70-year-old Brit loves is its history. The 1961-built model is not only a rare version of an already limited-edition Aston Martin — one of two models made even lighter for racing out of only 19 made in total — but it has also had some famous bottoms gracing its smart but simple button-back seats. Legendary racing drivers such as two-time Formula One champion Jim Clark raced it (and crashed it into John Surtees’ Ferrari GTO at Goodwood in 1963), while another famous 1960s driver, Italian-Belgian Lucien Bianchi did the same a year earlier at Spa. The car — also known by its distinctive number plate 2 VEV — has competed in the Le Mans 24 Hour race, Silverstone and the Nürburgring, and even won a classic car championship in 1991.
It’s incredibly beautiful too — arguably more so than the already sleek “regular” DB4 GT — mainly due to a more shapely rear end that jettisoned fins for voluptuous and powerfully bulging rear wheel arches. The bodywork was created in 1960 by a young Italian car designer called Ercole Spada, then just 23, and working for Zagato, the fabled independent design house that still has a strong association with Aston Martin and exists today in order to make special editions of special cars.
Part of the joy of looking after such pieces of automotive art is that sometimes you get to meet the artists behind them. Eyles was lucky enough to do just that when he bumped into Spada a few years back at the annual Villa d’Este classic car show held on the shores of Lake Como in northern Italy. “I was tickled to meet him,” recalls Eyles. “Someone from Zagato tapped me on the shoulder and said you’d like this guy. He was very gentle and kind and we had a short conversation in pigeon English about the car, which he said he’d designed in a week!”
Others whom Eyles meets at alternative events can be more combative. “You get the enthusiasts who know every nut and bolt and will tell you ‘well this bezel isn’t right’, or whatever,” Eyles says with a smile, “but in the days when Aston Martin was supporting this car’s racing career, what was in the box went on the car. There was no thinking about it being worth a lot of money one day. It was just ‘Let’s get it out of the door’. It’s had a competitive life, so things have changed. But if people take the trouble to come and look at it, I’ll take the trouble to talk to them, whether they know anything about it or not. What makes it worthwhile is the bloke who comes up with his backside hanging out of his trousers and says ‘I love this car’. That’s enough.”
After its early 1960s crashes, the body was re-styled to gain a lower and flatter roofline and broader rear wings, among other changes. Eyles’ connection with the car actually came via his second wife, who bought it back in 1971 for her then husband. After he died in 1989, she married Eyles and he now takes care of it with help from Roger Bennington, MD of the Aston Martin dealer, Stratton Motor Company.
Years after its professional racing life ended, 2 VEV saw decades of club-level motorsport action too, but a big crash in 1993 resulted in its last major rebuild and a gentler life since. 2 VEV now lives in its own secure, carpeted garage area beneath Eyles’ house in the Home Counties, surrounded by memorabilia relating to the car’s history, from the smashed-up old front end bodywork, now proudly displayed on the garage wall, to countless brochures chronicling its competition history (Eyles says he’s only missing five or so to complete the set). But the shrine isn’t too perfect and the car does still get taken out, although racing is off the agenda.
Eyles is a police-trained driver — rising to the rank of chief superintendent in the Thames Valley force before starting work for his wife’s family property investment business. So he can handle a car pretty well, but he’s under no illusion about his abilities compared with professional racing drivers. “I did the hillclimb at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in the mid-1990s, but I wouldn’t do it today. That granite wall is a bit scary,” he chuckles.
The car’s fragility is also a side effect of its rarity. Because it’s one of the extremely lightweight racing Zagato versions, the aluminium body is prone to the slightest knock. “Even holding the door handle and shutting it can cause dents in the bodywork behind the handle from your knuckles,” Eyles concedes. “If anybody pushes it, handprints can be left in the car’s bodywork.” After one outing to US classic car Mecca, Pebble Beach, the car came back with £40,000 worth of dents. Eyles partly blames the careless hands of wealthy visitors’ children, but either way, the car’s recent rise in value has made its ownership more problematic.
I look after it and we enjoy it. It’s a member of the family now
Eyles lets me sit in the low-slung passenger seat of the tight cabin as he drives the car around the grounds of his house for the photoshoot, the car’s beefy 300bhp-plus, 3.7-litre, six-cylinder engine making a fabulous splutter and burble. Unfortunately public outings are trickier. “We couldn’t just get in it and go to the pub. Somebody would want to take a look and, like any other car, they might lean on it, but doing that to this car damages it. It doesn’t have door locks either. You have to think of the value all of the time. In the early days, when it was being raced, we didn’t. In 1971, £3,600 was the cost of a detached house, but what it’s valued at today is what somebody will pay for it.”
Luckily for the Eyles family, it’s not up for sale. A love of Astons runs deep now, from the cute framed picture of the famous vehicle in poster paint and glitter on his desk by his grandsons, Charlie and Ollie, to his stepchildren’s personal cars; one has a DB4, the other a modern-day Vantage. Eyles is excited for the future of Aston Martin, too, singling out the technical relationship with Mercedes-AMG, the fruits of which were seen in the new DB11, and how this will come to shape the next generation of sports cars.
And while Eyles understands his privileged position, he still seems remarkably down-to-earth, growing his own strawberries and vegetables and also making stuff in his — albeit very well-equipped and sizeable — shed. Next door is a Pinzgauer all-terrain military ambulance he’s converted to fit more seats for off-road missions, but beyond that truck, a stripped-out Land Rover and a couple of modern Bentleys, the DB4 GT Zagato is his only classic. “People who own artworks by Turner and such say they feel like custodians of these things for a period of time and that’s about right,” Eyles reflects. “I look after it and we enjoy it. It’s a member of the family now.” Just don’t lean on it.