Double Vision
Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato

Words Stephen Archer
Photography Matthew Howell

Aston Martin has launched what is arguably the most expensive new car in the world. Except it's actually 60 years old.  

IN ZAGATO'S CENTENARY YEAR, Aston Martin has once again shown its ability to surprise with this remarkable new car. New? Far from the redness of Modena, the largesse of Bugatti or the grandeur of Rolls-Royce — not to mention 50 miles from Aston's Gaydon HQ— sits its latest creation. It also happens to be arguably the most expensive car in production in the world by a very long way at — wait for it —£6m. Plus the prevailing national taxes. There is more to this price than meets the eye, but we'll come back to that.

Yet if such a sum doesn't make you spill your coffee, consider this: the 'new' car in question is really 60 years old. Confused? Since Dr Palmer took the helm, Aston Martin has displayed a newfound boldness and a real zest to innovate; the days of a modest model range are receding fast and this car in its own very particular way exemplifies the company's confidence and its new place in the world.

I am very familiar with Aston's heritage, particularly the 1960-62 DB4 GT Zagato [Stephen co-wrote the seminal Palawan-published Aston Martin Zagato — ed], and found out that, for this Octane exclusive, I would become the first person outside the company to set eyes on the first Zagato continuation model to be built at Aston Martin's spiritual home in Newport Pagnell. At 50 paces I was stopped in my tracks, stunned, as if in some sort of dream. Something truly wonderful has been re-born. Like meeting the 25-year-old Sophia Loren in person, it is remarkable, head-scratchingly beguiling and yes, in some ways, rather confusing.
Since 1962 the Zagato-bodied DB4 GT has been defined by its increasingly unattainable beauty and the rarity of being a family of only 19 cars. To own one is like being custodian of a Da Vinci drawing. Even at around £12m, they are in demand among the rarefied echelons of the world's finest car collections. Ironically, it was not ever thus. HWM in Walton-on-Thames was tasked with selling the last few cars in 1962 and struggled, but, at £500 over the DB4 GT (itself already a chunk of change over a DB4), this car was for a very small market back then. It suggested that the track was its home more than the road: the ultimate gentleman's racing car, and a high proportion competed from new.

The original Zagato came from the desire of Aston Martin under John Wyer and David Brown to be successful on the track and for customers to fly the flag for the marque rather than carry all the cost itself. Conceived as it was in 1959, just after Aston's Le Mans win and World Championship success, the view of the future included Formula 1 (an ill-starred venture) and supporting customers in their racing exploits. Zagato was asked to come up with a lightweight body for the DB4 GT, which was shorter than the DB4 by 5in but no flyweight. Aston Martin wanted a Ferrari-beater.

2019 Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato

The design is commonly and historically credited to Ercole Spada, but Zagato now suggests that it was penned in early 1960 by two engineers: Celestino Zoppi and Gianni Zagato, under the supervision of Ugo Zagato, who had founded the Milanese atelier back in 1919. Announced at the 1960 London motor show, the first car went to Rob Walker's racing team and, in its blue and white colours, was given to Stirling Moss to drive. He put on a good show at Easter Goodwood in 1961. John Ogier's Essex Racing team bought two cars and ran them for two years with works support and some success, though the period is remembered best for Jim Clark's heroics at Goodwood in 2 VEV.

Five of the cars ran at Le Mans in 1961 and '62, and there is no doubt that the ambition of Aston Martin to stay in top-level racing by proxy was accomplished. The Zagato was spectacular in its day and a worthy part of David Brown's racing swansong. It was forever etched in the minds of enthusiasts as a capable and true racing Aston.

During the '60s and '70s the cars were looked after by Aston aficionados and enjoyed by club racers. When they became collectable in the 1980s, their values reached seven figures and the rarity and spectacular design became appreciated by a new audience. The 250 GT SWB might be an iconic Ferrari, but the Zagato DB4 GT is a lot rarer and more exotic.

Sales challenges meant that the original plan to build 25 examples was reduced to 20. All but one survive. The ever-inventive Victor Gauntlett, while chairman of Aston Martin, created the V8 Zagato in the mid-1980s and then hatched a plan with specialist RS Williams to repurpose un-issued chassis numbers and build another four DB4 GT Zagatos. The chassis were built by Williams in London and bodied in Italy. These 1991 'Sanction II' cars were sold at half the value of the original cars at that time and remain desirable, faithful re-creations (two further 'Sanction III' cars were completed in 2000). In the years since, the DB4 GT Zagato has only grown further in stature and mystique.

SPOOL FORWARD TO 2016 when Paul Spires, president of Aston Martin Works at Newport Pagnell, persuaded the board to take Aston Martin into the world of continuation cars. The trend has roots going back a way to GT40s, Lolas and more recently Jaguars. But Aston Martin wanted to take manufacturing back to Newport Pagnell, where the cars had been built since 1957. In fact, vehicles have been built on the site since the mid-19th Century, and the scale of Works' Heritage restoration work meant that a lot of skills were retained there even though the last Vanquish left in 2007.

The most attractive continuation model to start with was the DB4 GT to lightweight specification and in 2017, after just a ten-year break, the first Newport Pagnell-born car was shown: the DB4 GT Continuation (see Octane 174). The run of 25 cars was quickly sold at £1.5m each (plus taxes, of course) and the last was delivered in 2018.

Around that time, Works announced that there would be 19 continuation Zagatos. As Spires recounts: At the Geneva motor show in 2017 we met Andrea Zagato and agreed that it made enormous sense to build a Zagato continuation car. We thought we'd make up to 25, but Andrea said "Why not 19?" Zagato was founded on 19 April 1919 and there were 19 original cars. It would emerge in Zagato's centenary year, which was a bonus, as has been Zagato's involvement: The DB4 GT had been a huge success and in many ways the Zagato would be easier to execute. The programme had created many jobs and apprenticeships are still being assigned, thanks to the continuation cars. 'Many lessons were learned with DB4 GT; the chassis in the DB4 GT and Zagato are the same, the running gear is also virtually identical, so we had a head start:

From a production standpoint one can see the logic. But whereas the DB4 GT has a lightweight tubular Superleggera body, the Zagato is totally different from the floorpan up. Furthermore, the original Zagato bodies, each having been handmade and bespoke, have small differences one from the other. Unlike the DB4 GT, the 19 Zagatos are, in truth, each highly individual cars.