British luxury sports car specialist Aston Martin had seen a steady rise in popularity during the early 1950’s. Under the ownership of British tractor company David Brown Limited the company received a much needed injection of fresh capital. Another helpful factor was David Brown Limited’s acquisition of Lagonda, which made the W.O. Bentley designed 2.6L straight six available, and allowing the two former rivals to share their knowledge and expertise.
The joined Aston Martin Lagonda company was now lead by David Brown directly, and his eponymous DB models quickly gained notoriety as sleek sports racers driven by exquisite straight six engines. Apart from his burgeoning new road car business, Brown had turned his attention to the world of motorsport. Dedicated Le Mans sportscar racers like the DB3, DB3S and DBR1 followed, with moderate success.
An early prototype of the DBR4.
As the sports car program was gaining traction in Europe, David Brown let his mind wander once more. The Formula One World Championship had started out in 1950 and had become a global phenomenon in just a few short years. David Brown saw the championship as a perfect opportunity to promote Aston Martin on a much larger scale.
The idea was discussed with Aston Martin’s management in 1955 and was received positively. As early as 1956 a rush job prototype open wheel racer was raced by Reg Parnell (GB) in local events in Australia and New Zealand without much success. Despite the demanding sports car program, a full scale Formula 1 project was subsequently green lighted.
The DBR4's chassis was largely derived from the DB3S sportscar.
As a result of the company’s heavily divided attention and resources, development of the new car progressed rather slowly. To save some time and money the decision was made not to design and build a car from scratch, but to start from a proven chassis. Because Aston Martin had no prior open wheel experience, this meant using the DB3S sportscar as a base for the F1 machine.
Work started on a dedicated steel spaceframe, which was clad in a sleek aluminium body. In essence the car was a cut up and narrowed down version of the DB3S. Suspension components were also similar, consisting of double wishbones and coil springs in the front and a De Dion tube and torsion bars at the back.
According to the rules in effect in F1 at the time, the engine was limited to 2.5L of displacement. In typical Aston Martin fashion the unit was a dual overhead cam straight six, fed by three Weber DCO 50 carburettors. Power was quoted at a massive 280 horsepower, but in actuality was closer to 250. A specially developed David Brown Limited 5-speed manual gearbox transferred the power to the rear wheels. All in all the car weighed just 625 kg (1378 lbs). The car was designated DBR4/250 to denote its displacement in deciliters.
Aston Martin’s driver line up consisted of their sports car racers Roy Salvadori (GB) and a very quick Texan by the name of Carroll Shelby. Salvadori had been competing on and off in Formula One since 1952. Shelby got his first taste of the discipline in 1958, driving a privately entered Maserati 250F. Both men were keen to finally score big in what was rapidly becoming the pinnacle of motorsport.
Carroll Shelby trundling through the paddock at Aintree, 1959 British Grand Prix.
The DBR4’s debut came at the non-championship BRDC International Trophy held at Silverstone. Immediately the new machines showed immense promise. Taking advantage of the absence of many factory entries, Roy Salvadori wrestled the car into 3rd place on the grid in its first ever qualifying session. Carroll Shelby followed close behind in 6th.
During the race the works Ferrari 246 Dino of Tony Brooks (GB) and the BRM P25 of Stirling Moss (GB) both failed, but the two Astons were running perfectly. Salvadori was even able to challenge for the lead and a tough battle ensued. Unfortunately trouble did come to Shelby in the form of a failed oil pump. Despite the mechanical malaise he was still classified 6th, three laps down. Meanwhile Roy Salvadori had kept the pressure on, but was forced to settle for second behind the quirky mid-engined Cooper T51 of Jack Brabham (AUS).
Roy Salvadori at Zandvoort, 1959 Dutch Grand Prix.
The unexpected success of the DBR4 at Silverstone raised expectations considerably at Aston Martin. Despite the car lacking independent suspension in the rear like most of its top level competitors, it seemed to be more than capable of scoring Grand Prix wins. Appearances would however turn out to be quite deceiving.
The car´s World Championship debut followed at round 3, the Dutch Grand Prix held at Zandvoort. Now all works entries were in full force, and it showed on the leaderboard. Shelby beat out his teammate to score 10th on the grid, with Salvadori on a very disappointing P13. It seemed like the BRDC race had been a total smokescreen and a lot of work had to be done. Adding insult to injury, both cars suffered engine issues and dropped out in the early laps.
Carroll Shelby getting pushed onto the grid, 1959 British Grand Prix.
The teams sports car commitments and bad luck at the Dutch Grand prix forced them to miss the next round at Reims, France. Thankfully the cars were completed in time for the British Grand Prix at Aintree, a venue created on the grounds of a horse racing course. Here Aston Martin managed to recover some of its reputation, with Roy Salvadori taking 6th place. Carroll Shelby was again force to retire late in the race on lap 69 due to an ignition issue.
A busy schedule again prevented the outfit from taking the trip to the infamous AVUS-Ring in West-Germany. For the Portuguese Grand Prix Aston Martin was present once more, hoping to improve on their poor track record. To everyone´s relief both cars made it to the finish on the challenging Monsanto street circuit
Footage from the 1959 Portguese Grand Prix.
The track had been laid out in a park and featured many different types of tarmac, which kept the drivers constantly on their toes. Incredibly the circuit even included a section which crossed over tram tracks. Salvadori persevered however and recorded another 6th place from 12th on the grid, with team mate Shelby in 8th from 13th.
The hair raising straights of Monza were the scene for the next round of the 1959 F1 season. At the Temple of Speed there was only one real issue to be worried about: absolute power. This was something Aston Martin had boasted about, but did not actually possess.
As a result both DBR4´s were stuck in the back of the field in 16th and 17th place. Roy Salvadori suffered another engine failure and was out on lap 44. Carroll Shelby managed to take advantage of other people´s misfortunes, and came in 10th. After not scoring a single point all season Aston Martin decided to skip the US Grand Prix to focus on their 1960 F1 effort.
Carroll Shelby looking underwhelmed at the wheel of his company car.
The Aston Martin DBR4/250 failed to give Aston Martin and David Brown the results they had wanted. In a revolutionary era of independent suspension and mid-engine designs, the car still featured dramatically outdated technology. This made it ill handling and severely lacking in outright power.
The issues were compounded by a lack of focus on the part of Aston Martin´s racing division, which was preoccupied with their intensive sports car program. Despite the adversity faced in the 1959 season, David Brown decided to press on with Formula 1, culminating in the refined DBR5.