When Aston Martin calls, you pick up the phone. And when Aston Martin calls offering the chance to drive a selection of cars from the forthcoming James Bond film, you don’t so much clear your diary as carpet bomb it.
Now in his 67th year on the page and 58th on the screen, Bond has been portrayed by six actors over the course of the film franchise, but his association with Aston Martin has been more faithful. Aside from the odd flirtation with Lotus, BMW and Bentley – and glossing over author Ian Fleming’s intention that Bond be a Bentley Boy – Aston Martin is as intrinsic to 007 as olives are to Martinis. The latest movie, No Time to Die, is in cinemas on 3 April and is the 25th time Bond has graced the silver screen, and it’s the 13th film in which Aston Martins have featured in the long-running series.
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So strong is the relationship between Aston and Eon Productions, the firm behind the Bond films, that there have never been more Astons at Bond’s disposal than there are in 007’s latest escapade. And to celebrate this, Aston Martin invited us to its Stowe complex at the Silverstone Circuit to sample No Time to Die’s cars, laying on a 1964 DB5, a 1984 V8 Vantage, and a modern DBS Superleggera.
Aston Martin has been at Stowe since 2018 and has a private circuit and pit garages, as well as access to Silverstone’s wider facilities, making it the perfect location for developing and fine-tuning its supercars and GTs.
But as impressive as Stowe may be, it pales into insignificance the moment I walk into the pit garage and catch sight of not one, but two DB5s. Even after all these years, it’s a breathtaking design that says “James Bond” as much as any ‘00’ moniker ever could. One of these cars is no real DB5, however, but a custom-built stunt car – one of eight made for No Time to Die. We’ll come back to this stunt car – and my dramatic display of incompetence in it – later, but let’s start with the real deal, because Aston is giving me a genuine DB5 to try first.
1964 Aston DB5
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First driven (and crashed) by Sean Connery in 1964’s Goldfinger and now in Daniel Craig’s hands in No Time to Die, the DB5 will forever be the definitive Bond car, and it’s a machine that exceeds all expectations.
The cabin is opulent even after all these years, with the sense of occasion more to do with the quality of the engineering than any cinematic association. It also sounds splendid. The 4.0-litre straight-six motor catches easily on a gentle prod of the throttle, with a potently refined engine note. The clutch is as light as a modern supermini’s, to the point where I query this and am informed that, yes, this is how DB5s came out of the factory. The long-throw gearbox slots positively into first and we’re off, gripping the skinny wooden steering wheel carefully, surprised at feeling the smoothed metal rivets on the rear of the rim.
With 282bhp on tap there’s enough power by today’s standards, while the heavy-yet-fluid steering and effective brakes inspire confidence. The springing is softer than it would be in a modern GT, but mechanical sympathy and the DB5’s £1million price tag put me off throwing it around too exuberantly. The engine is the star of the show, though. Above 3,000rpm it takes on an urgent, harmonic character, with a refined yet pronounced metallic bark like nothing I’ve heard before. The long-travel accelerator provides the perfect accompaniment to this experience; it’s beautifully judged in terms of weight, offering genuine progression and texture.
The DB5 has an analogue nature, to the extent it reminds me of playing a musical instrument as much as it does driving a car. There was always the fear at the back of my mind that the DB5 would be a hard act to follow and, jumping into the later V8 Vantage, this proves to be the case.
1984 V8 Vantage
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The Vantage is two cylinders, 1.3 litres and around 100bhp up on the DB5, but it doesn’t feel much quicker, partly because it’s also 300kg heavier. And while the Tadek Marek-designed V8 still sounds the business, it lacks the complex notes of the DB5’s six-pot. It doesn’t help that the seating position is high and the top of my head brushes the headliner, and while the gearbox has a shorter throw than the DB5’s, it feels less mechanical; its dogleg configuration, usually the preserve of track-focused cars, seems out of place in a GT, too.
There are definitely plus points; the Vantage looks as menacingly muscular today as it did in 1984, and the cabin has a period charm that appeals to someone of my age. But there’s no escaping the fact it feels like (and is) a car that was developed by a maker who was tight on funds at the time.
Only 20 years or so separate the DB5 and the V8 Vantage and, while the DB5 is the better car, both are brawny grand tourers with characters not a million miles apart. But with close to four decades between the V8 Vantage and the DBS Superleggera, no such clear parallels are present.
2019 DBS Superleggera
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As with its predecessors, the Superleggera could cover vast distances without breaking a sweat. But its engine is more than twice as powerful as the V8 Vantage’s, and its cabin is light years ahead in terms of fit and finish.
Even Aston’s maligned integration of the Mercedes infotainment screen feels far less of an issue in person than it does in pictures, because the comprehensive opulence of the Superleggera’s interior is so overpowering – even the headliner is quilted leather. As well as its luxury and achingly beautiful looks, its ability to put its power down impresses. With 715bhp and 900Nm of torque, the 5.2-litre twin turbo V12 is actually slightly limited in first and second gear, so while it’s seriously rapid from standstill, it only really gets into its stride in third gear when the turbos kick in.
Acceleration in most cars tails off as you reach higher speeds but the Superleggera seems to gain velocity exponentially, getting faster, with more ferocity, the quicker you go. Stowe’s tight circuit hardly gives it the open running it cries out for, but I still see 108mph on the straight. Yet despite this bewildering power, the model has a playfulness about it. In Sport Plus mode I get a little wiggle from the tail when pushing out of a corner, the electronic safety nets allowing a frisson of excitement before reining things in.
DB5 stunt car
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I was warned that the stunt DB5 has no traction control, ABS or other similar safety tech as I climbed into it from the Superleggera, but I’d just come from a 715bhp monster – surely this 300bhp pussycat must be relatively tame?
I should have figured when I climbed over the rollcage, put on the four-point harness and felt the unsilenced engine buzz through the seat that this car meant business; I should have twigged from the ferocity with which it accelerated, and the raw noise that accompanied this, that it deserved respect. And I ought to have recognised the willingness of its rear end to push out wasn’t an encouragement for me to press on, but a warning from a car that was about to strike.
And strike it did. In a tight corner on my second lap I deliberately put more power through the rear wheels than the tyres could cope with, fully expecting to catch the back end as it stepped out. This was not to be: the rear snapped right, I overcorrected; it snapped left; I overcorrected again. Then I was spinning around on myself, before heading backwards in a straight line across the track’s grass. I regained orientation in time to brake before I rear-ended the tyre wall, plus was able to restart the car and drive back to the pits; and hey, it wasn’t a real DB5. But be in no doubt: this was a car that left me shaken, as well as stirred.
Aston’s engineers couldn’t have been nicer (after, understandably, they checked the car over and found no damage). “That’s what this car is designed for,” one of them said. Another commiserated by telling me that out of the eight stunt cars this one had the least-forgiving rear differential, and was his least favourite. Never underestimate how welcome such words are if you see someone run out of talent on a track.
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Spin or no spin, one car we would certainly not be able to drive was the Valhalla that was on display at Stowe. Not due for release until 2022, this mid-engined Aston looks like nothing the firm has made before, and the producers of No Time to Die couldn’t resist getting it in the film. It moved under its own steam at Stowe, but with a non-production engine; as great as it looks in pictures, this is a car in its development stages that was here for show, not go.
It’s still a bit of a mystery who will drive the Valhalla in the film, but we know from the trailer that Bond drives the V8 Vantage and DB5, while a fellow ‘00’ agent, played by Lashana Lynch, can be seen in the DBS Superleggera. Drawing analogies between the evolution of Aston Martin and that of James Bond might seem trite, but it’s interesting that while 007 gets the heritage cars, the faster, newer Superleggera is in the hands of a female, black secret agent.
With Daniel Craig firm that No Time to Die will be his last Bond, is this a sign that the next 007 will represent a sea change in casting and modernisation? Only time will tell, but this much is certain: James Bond and Aston Martin are among the most enduring, successful British exports ever, worth as much as £20billion between them. With legacies that have become so intertwined, whichever way they turn.
Stunt driver Higgins makes his mark on set
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The stunt DB5s are special cars, and getting the most out of them requires a special driver. With 30 years of rallying experience and three previous Bond films under his belt, stunt driver Mark Higgins was something of a shoe-in for No Time to Die.
Mark’s first outing as a movie stunt driver was in 2008’s Quantum of Solace, and he’s been in every 007 since. “You make sure you’re free for Bond,” he says. Mark has worked closely with Daniel Craig, who he says is a decent enough driver. “But I leave the acting to him, and he leaves the driving to me.”
Highlights of Mark’s time as a 007 driver include “going through the Vatican sideways at 90mph for Spectre”, while No Time to Die saw the crew apply Coca-Cola to the cobbled streets of Matera, Italy, to boost grip when filming chases. “This doesn’t work in the rain, though, and if you put too much down the surface actually gives too much grip,” he said.
Which is your favourite James Bond car? Let us know in the comments below…