There’s a famous picture of David Linley, leaning over the rolled-up tonneau on the back of his father’s 1964 Aston Martin DB5. The year is 1970 and the nine-year old boy is on his way to prep school in Sussex. His sister, Sarah (now Lady Chatto), shares the back seat. Lord Snowdon, the former Antony Armstrong-Jones, is looking back, rather raffishly, from his driving position, with his wife, Princess Margaret — all bouffant hair and pearls — to his left.
Sitting in his office at Christie’s London in St James’s (where he currently serves as Hon Chairman for Christie’s in Europe, the Middle East, Russia and India), the former Viscount Linley, now the 2nd Earl of Snowdon, recalls these roof-down, family journeys with detailed clarity. “We always had the windows down so my mother could smoke her cigarettes,” he says. “Even though I was in the back seat, I’d sit forward, in the middle, so I could be involved somehow.”
His father, he recalls, was “obsessed” with the car’s tendency to over-heat. “He’d say ‘right, sit there and watch that!’ pointing to big temperature gauge on the dash. Basically, most of my childhood was spent staring at that dial and waiting to announce: ‘IT’S HOT!’” On one hot summer sports day, the DB5 broke down in the grounds of Linley’s senior school Bedales; Linley remembers father and son under the bonnet, spanners in hand, roars from the nearby athletics track ringing in their ears.
Snowdon had purchased the car from his friend, the actor Peter Sellers “who had dozens of cars that he used to own for about 10 minutes”, says Linley. “He’d get bored of them and sell them on.” The fashion photographer and designer drove it to Prague and gallivanted in Chelsea and Mayfair. Famously, much to the newspaper gossip columnists’ delight, Snowdon also discovered that the sports car had a boot large enough smuggle a young lady — debutante Lady Jacqueline Rufus Isaacs, daughter of the Marquess of Reading — across counties when the press might be watching.
Just like Princess Margaret herself, the car had a rare aristocratic elegance. Designed by Carrozzeria Touring Superleggerra, the “Caribbean Pearl” beauty was equipped with a state-of-the-art, five speed ZF gearbox and three SU carburettors and powered by a four litre, straight six engine capable of delivering 282 horses. Top speed? 145mph. Aston made just 123 “DB5 Convertible” editions.
Lord Snowdon gave the DB5 — valued at a heady £30,000, back in 1986 — to David on the occasion of his son’s 25th birthday. “By then, it had already spent a few years at the motoring museum at Beaulieu and my father advised me that it might be quite a good idea to leave it there,” Linley pauses and allows himself a wistful smile. “But I was 25, for god’s sake, and living in London — the car didn’t stay in the museum!”
We always had the windows down so my mother could smoke her cigarettes
Instead, the bespoke furniture maker fitted a series of heat deflecting panels in the foot-wells (to try and “make it work for today’s traffic”) and drove it off to Italy. “I loved that it had this patina that reminded me of my father. Everywhere I went in Italy it was: ‘Che bella macchina!’ [what a beautiful machine].” At Aston Martin Works Service, it would be parked “next to my cousin’s DB6” — that cousin being Prince Charles, of course.
As much as the car enchanted him, its luxury conflicted the young Viscount. He rebuilt it (several times) and had a little cry when the bills arrived, but always adored it. Then, with a heavy heart, decided he’d grown out of it. “The years rolled by and the pain and pleasure of owning a classic vehicle mounted up.”
Linley had a new wife (Serena Stanhope) and a fledgling furniture business to run — David Linley Furniture Limited, now known simply as Linley. “I had a young son [soon to be followed by a daughter] and school fees to pay, but I didn’t have a proper house to live in.”
When his mother, Princess Margaret, died in 2002 leaving him and his sister with substantial death duties, he decided to give up the DB5. “I sold it and everybody said it was a great price. Obviously, I had no idea that the market was about to go completely crazy.”
And now? Does he regret the sale? Long pause. Linley takes a draught from his cup of tea. A spectacular portrait of his mother by celebrated artist Pietro Annigoni hangs over his head. It is flanked by a Picasso to the left and an impressive George Condo to the right. “The thing is,” he says. “If you are always going back on what you did and regretting things, you just start beating yourself up. You do what you think is right at the time, right?
"Should I have sold it? No. Do I regret it? Yes. Can I put back the clock? No. Could I pay five million pounds to buy it back? Definitely not! But it [the sale] helped get Serena and I on a steady keel. I got the Linley business working. Got a job here at Christie’s. Got myself in a better place.” But, of course, Linley still had a thing for an Aston. In, 2008, he attended a Bonhams charity auction hosted by Aston Martin Works Service and became enamoured of an Aston Martin Rapide, a former company car of the company’s Chief Executive, Dr Ulrich Bez. “I put in a bid …and I got it,” he says.
“The Rapide is an AMAZING car. Like a dart,” says Linley. “It had four doors, but my family rarely travelled in it so I’d put the back seat down to drive it to Sandringham and North Yorkshire as a shooting car — guns, ammo, wellies and so on in the back. I kept saying to the Aston people: ‘take out the back seats and make it into a two-door estate car.’” After a visit to Newport Pagnell to see Mark Gauntlett, Aston Martin’s VIP Sales Manager (and son of former Aston Martin “chairman and saviour” Victor Gauntlett) a plan was hatched to build a new, convertible manual car to Linley’s own particular specifications (“as my father had always insisted on ‘manual, convertible… preferably Aston Martin’ when considering a new car”).
I was 25 and living in London - the DB5 didn't stay in the museum!
Paul Spires of Aston Martin Works told Linley that the company was about to make a special edition Vantage fitted with a six-litre V12 engine. “It sounded insane. So I thought: “Yes. I’ll have that.” Linley chose a black paint job “with no additional colour trim”, a piano black and carbon dash. “I even stipulated my own choice of factory inspector.” Since his country house was only 20 miles away from the Gaydon plant, Linley and his wife were invited to be present for the balletic production line moment when the Vantage’s body and chassis came together. “How cool is that? Linley has made furniture by hand for years and now I was watching a car being assembled in a similar way.” When the Linleys picked it up, Aston laid on lights, smoke, champagne: “a proper Lotto moment. It was wonderful!”
The collaboration took another leap forward earlier this year when Linley was unveiled as a consultant for the extraordinary Lagonda Vision Concept. He worked with Aston’s Martin’s Chief Creative Officer Marek Reichman, bonding, he says, over “a love of detail”. Inspired by Reichman’s vision of the car as “a collision of invisible forces”, the carpenter insisted on carbon fibre instead of the expected fine woods for the interior; he also recommended Welsh wool for the carpets.
Over the years, through hell and high water, Aston Martin has survived on adrenalin, thin air and optimism
Just what is about the Aston Martin aesthetic that fires him up? Linley doesn’t hesitate: “I love that it is an anomaly; that it shouldn’t really exist. Over the years, through hell and high water, it has survived on adrenalin, thin air and optimism, and that really shows in the spirt of the object. Right up until fairly recently, Aston Martins were hand made. Panels bashed out by craftsmen — just like furniture. I love that,” he smiles.
“Today, the logical choice for a gentleman driver wanting a new car should be a Toyota or a Lexus, right? With Aston it isn’t about logic, it’s more about… emotion.”