Aston Martin DB5: The Accidental Icon

Aston Martin DB5

Source: Tim Scott/RM Sotheby’s

Aston Martin said “The DB5 Vantage would produce 325 brake horsepower,” but it wouldn’t! You only got 280, tops. In reality this car would barely have been able to keep up with Goldfinger’s golden Rolls. So, these cars are ferociously expensive to buy, not very nice to drive, unsafe, and slow. And on top of all that, they’ll almost certainly break down every time there’s a week in the month.  

Jeremy Clarkson, Top Gear, 2008

If it weren’t for that movie, Aston Martin in all likelihood wouldn’t be here today. The success of 1962’s Dr. No had established James Bond as one of the most popular characters (and franchises) in the world. In the first one, he drove a Sunbeam Alpine; in the second, a vintage Bentley Mark IV. But Bond had a fondness for Astons in a few of the Ian Fleming novels, even though one wouldn’t appear until the third film, Goldfinger. Released just three months before the film, the all-new DB5 quickly became became almost as big of a draw as Sean Connery. It made an appearance at the 1964 World’s Fair, and inspired a product tie-in that would go on to hook an entire generation of Bond fans. Today, the DB5 is quaint and antiquated compared to any modern car you could buy for the same price, but its jaw-dropping looks and star power have made it one of the most recognizable, expensive, and desirable cars on the planet.

But 17 years before Goldfinger, Aston Martin was virtually non-existent. Founded in 1913, the company was struggling in Britain’s postwar austerity economy, and was sold through a classified ad in the newspaper to industrialist David Brown for 20,500 euros. Brown had vision and a flair for self-promotion, modernizing the company and building world-class grand tourers, all beginning with the DB designation. And just in case buyers didn’t pick up on the initials, he put his name on the Aston Martin badge too, right above the company name.

Aston Martin

Source: Tim Scott/RM Sotheby’s

In the ’50s, the DB cars began to develop a reputation in Europe for their use of lightweight materials and success in racing. 1958 brought the DB4, a beautiful, modern grand tourer that caused a sensation when it was unveiled at the London Motor Show. With a design by Italian coachbuilder Touring, it represented the best Europe had to offer. But while standard DB4s were built for fast and graceful driving, two vesions stole the show: the DB4 Zagato and the DB4GT. While only 25 Zagatos were built, they did wonders in introducing the marque to racing fans around the world. The DB4GT was competition-spec too, with its revised 3.7-liter straight-six cranking out 302 horsepower. But its covered headlights and clean body lines are what really turned heads. By the time Aston was ready for its next DB- model, it already knew where it wanted to go.

Aston Martin

Source: Tim Scott/RM Sotheby’s

To the casual observer, the DB5 and DB4GT didn’t look all that different, but then again, there weren’t too many observers in the early ’60s. Just over 1,200 DB4 variants had been built during its five-year production run, and outside of sports car and racing fans, the brand was virtually unknown, especially in America. And despite the visual similarity, the DB4 and DB5 were significantly different. Under the lightweight magnesium-alloy body, the new car had Aston’s new 4.0-liter straight six. While the company made the bold claim of 325 horsepower, its actual 280 horse output was still a step up from the stock DB4’s 240. A five-speed manual became standard equipment shortly after the car’s release, though a three-speed automatic was also available.

But none of that mattered once the Bond people came calling. Eager to feature the new car in the film, Aston Martin lent the production crew the preproduction prototype, plus an early production model to be modified for Bond’s gadgets. Released just months before, this is how most of the world was introduced to the DB5 – and to a greater extent, Aston Martin as a whole:

Over the next few hours, millions of people saw 007 deploy everything his DB5 had to offer, and while it didn’t fare well by the end of the movie, it was enough to make Aston Martin nearly as well known as James Bond. Almost overnight, the car became one of the most famous in the world, with companies cashing in on its likeness. British company Corgi Toys released a Goldfinger edition DB5, complete with working bulletproof screen, machine guns, tire shredders, and ejector seat (what’s more, it’s still in production today). Ask any gearhead of a certain age about the Bond Corgi, and they’re likely to have fond memories of their tiny DB5.

The Aston returned for Thunderball in 1965, cementing its Bond connection once and for all. But it also became one of the most coveted sports cars for Britain’s elite. Mick Jagger had one with an in-car record player. George Harrison and Peter Sellers drove them too. But Aston Martin was (and still is) a small company and, despite high demand, limited production space, and increasing competition, that meant DB5 production would end in 1965 with just over 1,000 cars built. It was replaced by the DB6, and while that car bore a strong resemblance to its predecessor, its design was beginning to show its age, and its longer wheelbase threw off the car’s perfect proportions.

Aston Martin

Source: Tim Scott/RM Sotheby’s

The ’70s and ’80s were difficult for the company, but it received a huge boost when its V8 Vantage became Bond’s ride of choice again in 1987’s The Living Daylights. But despite its limited production run, the DB5 emerged as one of the first true ’60s icons, largely thanks to its star turns in ’64 and ’65. People who don’t know what it’s called see it and know it’s Bond’s car. Hell, whenever the franchise needs a refresh, it doesn’t hesitate to bring it out of retirement; it’s had cameos in GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, Casino Royale, Skyfall, and Spectre.

Today, the company is one of the greatest sports car manufacturers in the world, and building more cars than ever before, including the breathtaking new DB11. But we’d wager that virtually all of its customers want to channel their James Bond to some degree – not that there’s anything wrong with that. As for the DB5, Clarkson was right; it’s a temperamental antique car, and frankly has become too valuable to drive on most occasions: Hagerty has concours-level Vantages valued at over $1.7 million. This driver-quality car was sold by RM Sotheby’s last fall, and was a steal at $941,000. But it’s impossible not to look at the car and think of international espionage — of jet-setting around the world and driving through some of the most glamorous places on the planet, and living the ultimate good life. The Aston Martin DB5 may be 52 years old, but its appeal is timeless.

Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.

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