Ever since Frederick Simms first successfully acquired the rights to Gottlieb Daimler’s patent for a high-speed petrol engine and successfully launched their sale in 1891, the automotive industry has created some of the UK’s most instantly recognisable exports. And of the various brands that found their feet in Great Britain, few names evoke a stronger response in the minds of collectors and enthusiasts alike than Aston Martin. James Bond’s manufacturer of choice, this purveyor of some of the most luxurious cars in the world received a Royal Warrant in 1982 and their rarest models make frequent appearances at some of the world’s most exclusive auction houses, consistently selling for millions. What follows below is a summary of a few of their best-selling vehicles.
1: Aston Martin DBR1 – $22.5 million
The DBR1 sits at the top of not only this list but also the list of most expensive British cars ever sold at auction. A highlight of the 2017 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance show, the final figure for this enviable classic came in at $22,550,000, or just under £17.5 million. This figure beat the record for the previous most expensive British car ever sold; a Jaguar D-Type in 2016.
The reasoning for its worth is found through exploration of its illustrious history. Originally designed to win the Le Mans 24 Hour Race, it missed out on this goal during the final leg, when engine failure caused it to drop out two hours before the finish line. It would, however, go on achieve glory elsewhere when it won the 1959 Nürburgring 1000km race.
With sleek curves, bold headlamps, and bulbous fenders that amplify an overall symmetry, the Aston Martin DBR1 is perhaps the most beautiful sports car ever designed. The company launched it in 1959 and could never have predicted such racing pedigree: from victories in Le Mans, on the Nürburgring, and through to the RAC Tourist Trophy, the DBR1 was unstoppable. The only other car company to have won these three trophies was Ferrari. With this triad of accomplishment secured, the DBR1 had fulfilled the headiest dreams of founders Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford, who cared less about sales, and more about racing.
The price tag of $22 million makes it the most expensive British car ever sold at auction. Even fierce competitors such as the Jaguar D Type were left, claws out, grasping at having fallen just short of this juicy accolade. Why did the DBR1 sell for such a high price? Well, not only was it a winner, but it was also driven by winners. Famous faces were seen squinting from over its dashboard: Carroll Shelby, Ray Salvadori, and even the iconic Stirling Moss, who set multiple speed and endurance records during the 1950s.
2: Aston Martin DP215 – $20.6 million
Ultra-light and incredibly aerodynamic, this old-school racer and veteran of the Golden Age of motor racing more than deserves the £16.7 million price tag it garnered at the Monterey Auction in 2018.
The highlight of its career came in 1963 when it clocked in at an incredible 198.6mph on the world-famous Mulsanne Straight of the Le Mans old course, simultaneously achieving the fastest recorded speed for a front-engine car on this course. In the hands of seasoned professionals, it still comes in quicker than its closest counterpart, the Ferrari 250 GTO.
An unusual yet stunning vehicle, the DP215 has deep-set headlamps flanking an elegant and sturdy body that would inspire envy in an oyster. Bred from a similar strain of racing pedigree to the DBR1, with many of the same designers involved in its production, the DP215 held a speed record of 198.6mph at Le Mans, as the fasted front-engine car.
It was said that the DP215 could fly round a track, and the aviation metaphor is very appropriate. With a drilled-out chassis that made its bones hollow and birdlike, and with its coachwork designed from an aluminum alloy used in airplanes, you could argue the car needed a pilot rather than driver. Even its switchgears were repurposed from those in the planes made famous by Dambusters, the Lancaster Bomber.
As a prototype sports car, only one DP215 was ever made, and it survives today. No wonder it became one of the most expensive Aston Martins of all time.
3: Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato – £12.46 million
The Zagato endured a great deal before it reached the Bonhams Greenwood European auction in 2018. Over the course of its life, it was nearly destroyed three times through various misfortunes endured on the racecourse. Originally bought by poultry farmer John Olgier for use in his Essex-based Racing Stable, it saw use at Le Mans and changed hands several times before its most recent appearance at Bonhams where it collated its respectable £10.1 million price.
Ugo Zagato started his coachbuilding company in 1919, designing primarily the bodies of airplanes. When he was enlisted to work on the DB4 in the early 1960s, the resulting model was an arcing grand tourer sports car that had a Roman nose, lithe body, and a winning smile for a grill.
It’s not hard to see why it sold for over ten million at Bonhams Greenwood European Auction in 2018. With a wooden trim interior, sparse chrome detailing, and wire-spoke wheels with tornado hubcaps, the car flaunts those delicate touches that marks out refined superiority from the merely meretricious.
4: James Bond Aston Martin DB5 – $6.4 million
There are few car brands that have played a more prominent role in film history than the Aston Martin. The DB5 itself is a powerful name, synonymous with the James Bond films that held pride of place during the Golden Age of Hollywood. This particular DB5 is a cultural relic; one of three of the original set commissioned by Eon Productions for use in the Bond films helmed by Sean Connery. Although the model sold by RM Sotheby’s at Pebble Beach never actually made it on screen, it did appear as part of promotional material for the film “Thunderball”.
Although not actually used in any of the movies, the car was used in a promotional tour of the USA for the James-Bond movie Thunderball. With a borderline-obsessive touch for detail, the producers ensured it had a revolving license plate, tire-slashing hubcaps, Browning .30 caliber replica machine guns, and a passenger-seat ejection system. The car could have driven directly out of the cinema screen.
Some of the most famous road races in Bond franchise history, from Sean Connery’s blitzing through the Furka Pass in Goldfinger, through to later deployments in the 1995 movie Goldeneye with Pierce Brosnan. The DB5 has variously faced down Mustangs, Ferraris, and Fords, and thus enjoys a rich movie heritage.
5: Aston Martin DB3S – $5.8 million
Held in conjunction with the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the Gooding & Company Pebble Beach classic car sale of 2014 saw its line-up include the 1955 Aston Martin DB3S.
One of the most expensive British cars sold by Monterey, it represents one of the twenty DBS3 cars ever produced by Aston Martin for customers, as well as the sixteen created for the works team.
With a raised brow for a wheel arch, an aquiline bonnet, and an expressive grill, it is easy to see why this sold for a staggering $5.5 million at the Gooding and Company Pebble Beach Classic Car Sale in 2014. We begin the story of this car with its manufacture – only twenty were ever made, meaning it bore the stamp of rarity from the very beginning.
In terms of why it was designed, it was meant to be an improvement to the box chassis of the 1940s and early-1950s. This low, svelte, and insanely curved model would somehow duck air resistance and cruise to victory in a number of races, placing third in the 1953 British Grand Prix, alongside two other Aston Martins that placed second and first. In a sense, this car represents Aston Martin at their apogee – a glimmering emerald in the crowning achievements of the company during the Golden Era of racing.
6: Aston Martin Ulster – $3.7 million
Easily one of the oldest members of this list, the Aston Martin Ulster represents everything synonymous with the high-flying, cavalier attitude of the pre-war motor racing scene, with its connotations of glamour, scandal and “nobles oblige” undertones.
A veteran of Le Mans, Mille Miglia and Ards TT, it has changed hands relatively few times despite its long history, until it found a new owner at the Bonhams Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2015, who drove away on it following its three million pound purchase.
The oldest car in our list, the Ulster represents that kernel of engineering prowess that went into every early Aston Martin, the more so for predating the Grand-Tour-inspired, Italian-style coachwork that would permeate the company’s later style. Selling at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2015, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate venue for what was the blisteringly-quick, apex predator of the 1930s-motor-race ecosystem.
Its pedigree includes the 1935 Ards TT, in which it came third to two larger vehicles, but first in its class. A cruiserweight boxer of a vehicle, it could easily out-slug its opponents in the higher weight classes. Having competed in the Ards TT, it earned a special status as one of the few to earn stripes in an event that later became mythologized for its raw danger and adrenaline. The Ards TT closed down in 1936 after a horrific crash, never to return.
With a competition record ranging from Le Mans and the RAC Trophy, through to the Mille Miglia, the Ulster tore through the 1930s race scene at 100mph speeds.
7: Aston Martin DB4 Series IV Vantage Convertible – $1.85 million
One of the few remaining members of a set of nine original DB4 Series IV convertibles, this particular model was first owned by actor Sir Peter Ustinov. The model has been sought after by countless enthusiasts of open-air motoring for years, with one such piece which carried an opaque history and eventually surfaced in 2015 at the Bonhams-led Aston Martin Works Sale, where it was snapped up for the tidy sum of £1,513,500.
One of only nine original Series IV models, this DB4 was first owned by Academy-Award-Winning actor, Peter Ustinov. Of all the cars on this list, this is the one that best encapsulates Hollywood. With the wire spokes, convertible roof, and tornado hub caps that would later become staples of the classic car scene in Los Angeles, and with the Italian ‘Superleggera’-style bodywork that combines light cladding with a durable steel skeleton, the glamour of this car somehow pervades both Europe and America.
The car handles superbly. The touring influences are not only upon the design, but on the engineering, too. The lightness of the vehicle combines with a sturdy braking system, and protruding bumpers with over-riders. This car is the pinnacle of elegance, but it is also a go-devil that sold its soul to the God of Adrenaline.
8. Aston Martin One-77 – $1.4 million
The One-77 is a flagship sports car unveiled in 2009. Only 77 were produced, which was a small amount considering how much demand and production had grown since the release of the Aston Martin Vanquish in 2001. In 2011, the car sold for $1.4 million at an Auction4Wildlife event in Abu Dhabi, which makes sense when you consider its engineering.
With a bonnet like the hull of a speedboat, strakes lining its door panels, and with fender intakes that just scream horsepower, the body is toned, ripped, and defined. The chassis is carbon fiber, allowing it to accelerate and turn with ease, it has a bucket-seated, leather interior, and it can reach speeds of 220mph. It is the fastest Aston Martin ever produced.
9. Aston Martin DB5 – £0.6 million
This iconic DB5 saloon car enjoys a similar status to the James-Bond car, only without many of the gadgets. What this sale at Silverstone in 2019 does show is how well-conducted restoration can add value to as prestigious a vehicle as a vintage Aston Martin. All of the nuts and bolts were changed, it was given a modified flywheel, and the car was restructured with a thicker anti-roll bar.
10. Aston Martin DB6 – £0.2 million
The Aston Martin DB6 was the final ‘DB’ model prior to David Brown selling off his company. Some believe that the DB6 was the ultimate refinement of the David-Brown line of Aston Martins. Indeed, it was faster, with a larger engine, and generated far more torque than the DB5. That said, the lack of a Bond endorsement, and the failing fortunes of the company shortly after David Brown’s departure, mean that this is a car that is often overlooked.
Capable of going from 0 to 60 in 6.7 seconds, and of reaching top speeds of 150mph, it is not easy to see why the DB6 became the B-Movie Bond car that it is. Nevertheless, with a Kammback tail that prevents the rear lift of the DB5, and with a steeper, more prominently-raked windscreen, it is both more powerful and pugnacious than its predecessor. Some argue that Bond would have been better off making his getaways in this model. Perhaps if he had done so, this car would have featured much earlier in this list.
The History of Aston Martin
At its inception, Aston Martin was a very different company from what it is today. Founded in 1914 by Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford, the company had only one purpose: to win races. By the early 2000s, the company had recalibrated its purpose drastically, and was more concerned with manufacturing high-end production vehicles. How did such a change occur? To understand this, we have to divide the history of the company into three distinct eras: the Frontier Period, the Golden Age, and the Era of Globalization.
Just like the Wild West, the Gold Rush, and the extension of the American frontier into California, the early history of Aston Martin was a rough-and-tumble affair, consisting of a high risk of fatality, and an even higher potential for rewards. They initially repurposed a 1908 Isotta Francini, dumped a Coventry Simplex engine inside it, and started racing. Indeed, the company name itself an amalgam of Lionel Martin and the Aston Hillclimb (a village race near Aston Clinton). Their first official car, simply called the Aston Martin, was nicknamed ‘the Coal Scuttle’, and this demonstrates just how unconcerned the company was with their aesthetics. Up until the 1940s, many Aston Martins could have had nicknames just as unflattering. But again, these cars were made to race, not to be parked up behind stanchions and velvet ropes.
Throughout the Interwar Years, the company sailed into repeated financial difficulties, hemorrhaging funds yet somehow being bailed out time after time. At one point, they were funded out by a Count Louis Zborowski, the man who had produced a number of English racing cars nicknamed the ‘Chitty Bang Bang’ cars. This style of car was a great source of inspiration for a musical, but less so for Aston Martin, and it was soon time for a change of direction. They had earned their stripes on the racetrack, since the Aston Martin Ulster had showcased their unrivaled feats of automotive engineering. Now, they needed to start making some money.
The Golden Age
Ironically, to stop Aston Martins from looking like tractors, it took a man who built them for a living. David Brown took over the company in 1947, along with Lagonda, another failing company. He produced the famous ‘DB’ line of cars, which began incorporating six-cylinder engines and Italian-style coachworking. There did not even seem to be a tradeoff between beauty and brawn, since the 1959 DBR1 earned itself three consecutive wins in the World Sports Car Championship.
Next, Aston Martin secured a new driver who would do more for their image than Carroll Shelby, Ray Salvadori, and Stirling Moss combined. When James Bond is introduced to the DB5 by Q, so is a global audience of car connoisseurs, only they didn’t need any gadgets to draw them in. The beauty of the design was sufficient. After its starring role in the Bond franchise, the Aston Martin became the quintessential British car.
The Era of Globalization
After the successes of the DB era gradually began to fade, things tailed off for Aston Martin until the 1970s oil embargo placed them in serious financial difficulties. It was as though they were back in the Interwar Years, lurching from crisis to crisis, and continually being bailed out by investors. The cars released during this period maintained the Aston Martin reputation for high-spec engineering, and the Vantage in 1977 boasted a 5.3 litter V8, 380BHP, along with the epithet of “Britain’s first supercar”. However, a cursory glance at competitors such as the Porsche 911 and the Ferrari Daytona was enough to convince onlookers that Aston Martin was losing the battle for beauty and aesthetics.
When Ford bought Aston Martin in 1991, company focus shifted back towards the consumer. Ford financed the new DB7 range, which soon became the most successful model to date. Thereafter, the Vanquish V12 was released in 2001, becoming a new flagship, and completely reinvigorating the Aston Martin Brand. It is quite telling that Pierce Brosnan chose to drive a DB5 in Goldeneye, a car thirty years old by that time, but used the brand-new Vanquish in the 2002-release Die Another Day. Finally, Aston Martin could keep pace with the times.
How Cars Are Evaluated at Auction
You may be wondering, what is it that distinguishes the more prodigious price tags from the smaller sums? At a basic level, cars are evaluated on a points system. Quality and condition are assessed and then given a points value ranging between 0 to 100. Cars between 80 and 100 points are generally considered between ‘fine’ and ‘perfect’ condition.
However, for high-end, luxury vehicles, the procedures of evaluation are somewhat different. There is no simple formula for evaluation. The value a car can receive at auction depends on a number of variables, such as whether the car has been neglected and left to corrode in a back garden for the past fifty years, or sometimes it can often be a restoration that depreciates the value of the car.
Restorations are a double-edged sword. The DB5s sold at auction in recent years have been tastefully restored, in a manner that keeps with the styling of the original vehicle. Assessing the efficacy of a restoration requires experts with not only mechanical knowledge but with a deep empirical understanding of the company’s history. Appraisal and valuation teams are looking for something classic and elegant, and they will devalue cars that look like something from ‘Pimp My Ride’.
The professionals who conduct evaluations are highly-trained and knowledgeable and tend to specialize in certain brands or companies. They will have a range of contacts they can call upon, in order to leverage even more specialized expertise, should they have to. Auction houses pride themselves on their ability to sift winners from losers.