From the September 1987 issue of Car and Driver.
There is something special about finding an old car with a history. It’s like finding Alexander the Great’s wallet, the one he carried when he was conquering the known world. What makes such objects special is that they have managed to survive wars, plagues, bad crops, and people’s natural tendency to just throw old stuff away. The problem with old stuff is that it doesn’t come with a manual telling you how great it’s going to be when it gets even older. Think of all the neat stuff that’s been hauled off by the unknown garbagemen of history. Pablo Picasso’s first finger painting, for instance. Wyatt Earp’s boots. The pen used to write the Declaration of Independence. The pistol that fired the fatal bullet at Archduke Ferdinand. The dinner plates from the Last Supper. All those objects had one thing in common. Someone, somewhere, at some unrecorded moment in history, looked at each of them and said, “It’s just some old junk. Throw it out.”
That’s why it’s so neat to run across something like this Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato. This is the same car we tested in our September 1962 issue. Not a car just like it, but the very same car. Miraculously, it has escaped the fate of most old stuff. It has survived. So here it is again, in just about the same condition it was in when it graced our cover, exactly 25 years ago.
Just for the record, the car was lent to us in 1962 by Fridolin Haechler of Aarau, Switzerland. Haechler brought it to the U.S. with the intention of racing it, but he never actually entered it in competition. Since then, it has passed through many hands and seen a good deal of maintenance and restoration. Haechler sold it to Newton Davis of New York, who later sold it to Chris Murray of Massachusetts, who in turn eventually sold it to Kenneth W. Lewin, M.D., of Los Angeles. Lewin brought it up to original condition and sold it to its present owner, Jerry Rosenstock, an L.A. lawyer.
For those who may not remember, the Zagato was the competition version of the DB4GT. The regular model’s chassis and interior were stripped of everything that wasn’t absolutely essential to racing—which wasn’t much in those days, because no one had yet discovered the need for CD players or inflatable lumbar supports. To the revised platform was fitted a lightweight aluminum body, fabricated by the Italian coachbuilder Zagato. Together with the substitution of plexiglass in the side and rear windows, the aluminum skin reduced the DB4’s weight by about 300 pounds.
Only nineteen Aston Zagatos were built, and most of them were sold to gentlemen-racers, who were already a dying breed. They considered themselves sporting men rather than hardball racers, and the Zagato fit their needs perfectly. In those days, Aston Martin and its customers were still clinging to the notion that true sports cars could be driven all week on the street and then raced at the track on the weekend. As such, they were expected to be perfectly capable of slogging through traffic without melting their motor or fouling their plugs and still be able to race competitively when called upon. Apparently, Aston Martin sports racers filled that dual-purpose role quite well. Although a good number of them landed in the garages of pretenders, who used them exclusively for transportation, others were raced extensively by the hotshoes of the day: guys like Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Roy Salvadori, Richie Ginther, and Innes Ireland.
According to the anonymous C/D road tester in 1962, the Zagato was about as good as sports cars got. He said that “the cornering power is amazing and the rear-end behavior nearly perfect.” He also said that the car combined “super performance with luxurious comfort to give both driver and passenger a grand sense of safety.”
After 25 years of auto evolution, we can no longer lavish such praise on this car. Its low-backed seats are small, poorly designed by 1987 standards, and unsupportive. Its interior does offer plenty of legroom and headroom, but no armrests, passenger grab handles, or even shoulder belts. (In 1962, the typical racer had lap belts only; the driver learned to brace himself against g-forces by pushing his left foot hard against the floor.) The Zagato’s cargo space is limited to behind-the-seat storage, because the trunk is filled with a 36-gallon aluminum fuel tank.
Nor can we put our stamp on the performance figures published by our predecessors. In 1962, C/D clocked the Zagato at six seconds flat in the 0-to-60 sprint. The best we can do today-with a balky clutch, a 3.77:1 final-drive ratio (instead of the original 3.31:1), and due respect for a valuable piece of machinery—is 7.4 seconds. Similarly, top speed is down from an estimated 150 mph to an actual 127 (at the 6000-rpm redline). The 1962 staff did not measure braking distances; we measured a 70-to-0-mph stop of 235 feet, mediocre by today’s standards.
For its time, however, the DB4GT Zagato enjoyed impressive technical credentials. The triple-carbureted, 3.7-liter, all-aluminum in-line six was rated at 344 hp at 6000 rpm and 284 pound-feet of torque at 5400. It featured twin cams, two valves and two spark plugs per cylinder, twin distributors, and wet sleeves. Although the rear suspension was a rudimentary rigid axle, barely held in place by a Watt linkage and two trailing links, the front was a respectable unequal-length-control-arm design. Today the Zagato may seem like a relic of the Iron Age, but 25 years ago it was adequate for the highest levels of competition—including Le Mans. It’s hard to believe, but it was actually competitive against the likes of Ferrari Berlinettas, Jaguars, and Maseratis. Today, any of these cars would have a tough time against even such junior sportsters as the MR2 and the Fiero GT.
Driving the Zagato is a lesson in progress. With its 93.0-inch wheelbase and aluminum body, it weighs in at 2800 pounds, but it feels much heavier. It doesn’t feel too ponderous around town: the engine offers plenty of torque for trolling in second or third along congested streets, and the steering is fairly light. On mountain roads, however, you develop a lot of respect for the people who raced the Zagato and other cars of its era. The steering is heavy in hard corners, reminding you why they needed those enormous, leverage-multiplying steering wheels. And given the car’s reluctance to turn in, its skinny Avon tires, and its strong understeer, it’s easy to see why the drivers of old perfected the four-wheel drift. The only way to get the Zagato around a corner fast is to throw it in hard and then fight your way out. Such antics are a spectacular sight for the fans but hard labor for the drivers.
Although the Zagato pales in a technical comparison with today’s front-line Corvettes and Porsches, there are some things about it that we miss in contemporary automobiles. For one thing, this car has real gauges—genuine round, white-on-black dials—and plenty of them. The Zagato is a product of a time when the industry still considered underhood information vital, both for real race drivers and for sporting gentlemen blatting up twisty mountain roads. Most carmakers today regard many operational details as classified information.
The Zagato also has car smell, car sound, and car feel. The essential scents and sounds that attracted our attention to sports cars in the first place are not filtered here by whisper-hush mufflers, sound deadening, and emissions controls. The big six’s exhaust reverberates like cannon volleys, drumming at your insides harder than the best stereo ever made. You can feel the heat pulsing out of that overgrown ingot of a motor, toasting your shins and reminding you that this is what honest sports cars used to feel like. The steering may be heavy and the car may lack the kind of precision we now expect from even lowly econohaulers, but in 1962 it was good enough to win a bunch of races and inspire our forebears to proclaim that it had joined “the thin ranks of GT cars that…can be driven pleasantly on public roads or at race-winning speeds on circuits.”
We are confident that this is one old object that will not be allowed to molder on the scrapheap of history. There will always be car guys like Jerry Rosenstock who have the money and the passion to keep the legacy alive, and we intend to stick around, too, just to pass the word. So keep that subscription going, and watch for our next update on the Zagato, in September 2012.
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