Aston Martin DBR1 driven

The Aston Martin DBR1 driving around a bend on a mountain road
The Aston Martin DBR1 is surprisngly comfortable for a racing car Credit: Gus Gregory

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Accelerating hard in third gear to 6,700rpm, the DBR1 closes fast on the sweeping right-hander ahead. As this classic Aston Martin follows the undulating asphalt cutting through the mountain side, its straight-six engine’s raucous notes ricochet off the craggy rock face and the hot Dunlop racing tyres grip tenaciously.

Down into second gear for the cambered left/right that follows, and the car’s twitching tail needs a touch of corrective steering to tame it before I can floor the throttle for the next short straight, part of the climb from Saanen into the Swiss Alps.

Given the DBR1’s sublime handling, and the similarity of these roads to those of the famous Mille Miglia road race around Italy, I find myself pondering the outcome had Aston Martin ever entered its most successful race car in this legendary event. After all, Stirling Moss was more than one minute faster in the DBR1 over a lap of the 1958 Targa Florio than he had been three years earlier in the Mercedes-Benz 300SLR – the car in which he won the Mille Miglia at record speed.

The DBR1 was the ultimate result of Aston Martin chairman David Brown’s decade-long dream to win Le Mans, one that culminated in victory in 1959. It was helped by a new 3,000cc engine limit, the DBR1’s maximum, because before this it had lacked power against 3.4- and 4.5-litre Ferraris, Jaguars and Maseratis.

That year, in a British first, Aston Martin also won the World Sportscar Championship, thanks in part to Moss’s victory at the Nürburgring 1,000km in DBR1/1, the car I’m driving today and the first of five examples built between 1956 and ’58.

The Aston Martin DBR1 has a bellowing open exhaust below its passenger door

That would be DBR1/1’s last works entry before its sale to John Dawnay, future 11th Viscount Downe and Aston Martin Owners’ Club president. After a crash in 1963, it didn’t return to racing until the early Eighties, enjoying success in the hands of veteran Mike Salmon. By 2009, DBR1/1 had passed to former Aston Martin Lagonda owner Peter Livanos, since when legendary ace Brian Redman has successfully raced it at Goodwood’s Revival.

Engaging first, via the canted gearlever in the five-speed, open metal gate, and pulling away, the exhaust emits a loud and suggestive growl, the engine eager to rev. With 301bhp at 6,500rpm (256bhp in period), this peaky motor feels every inch a race unit, and is accordingly unhappy below 3,500rpm (maximum torque is 250lb ft at 6,000rpm).

Floor the throttle, then, and what sheer music the roar of that straight-six is, crisp and loud, exuding a tone only a thoroughbred six-cylinder can. The DBR1 is instantly and viscerally alive, power rapidly rising and unleashing tremendous acceleration before the next corner dictates lifting off.

Free from the trappings of race suit and helmet, with arms bare, and sunglasses to protect my eyes, the whole experience is wonderfully raw, as the engine’s every mechanical note registers in tandem with the bellowing open exhaust below the passenger door.

Dropping down the mountains to a smoothly surfaced 11 miles comprising long, sweeping corners and rapid rising/dropping switchbacks, the DBR1 is in its element. Cornering at speed, the steering is super precise, with rapid turn-in and good self-centring enabling the driver to easily steer the car on the throttle. While the edginess of the handling tempers instant confidence, the chassis is informative, signalling its limitations. And despite its reputation for being difficult, the gearchange is no trouble with the right balance of double-declutching and revs.

Confidence in the chassis increases exponentially with every mile. Push harder and the back end will slide out, but the feedback is such that when it starts to go there is enough warning to let you catch it.

With its quick steering and surprising lock, climbing hairpins presents little problem, even though first gear is essential to keep the engine in its sweet spot. But the DBR1 has a habit of following imperfections in the road surface, so it inevitably gets thrown about by uneven cambers, requiring you to keep a firm grip on the wheel at all times. Comfort is nevertheless amazing for a race car, and the ride astonishingly good, all abetted by impressive braking.

Good in slow corners, the DBR1 is in its element in fast ones, responding swiftly to sudden direction changes and imparting a feeling of fantastic fluidity. No wonder those who raced this car in its heyday loved its handling, nor why it could still win despite a power deficit.

Glorious engine apart, this Aston Martin’s overriding asset remains its “chuckability”. My drive – and what a privilege on such open and inviting roads for almost two hours – suggests that this consummate endurance racer could double as a highly effective road-racer; capable, especially in Moss’s hands, of vanquishing all on the Mille Miglia.

A team player to the end, the first-of-the-line DBR1 remains the ultimate icon of Aston Martin racing history.

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