On the trail of the Aston Martin DB3/1 Prototype
Initially, I thought it was a hoax. Just one of those middle-of-the-night phone calls, when a guy wakes you up and tells you about this incredible ‘Aston Healey’, or even worse, a super rare ‘Austin Martin’ race car. I have learnt to be quite sceptical, because too many times it turns out to be just a little Frogeye Sprite or Lotus Seven replica.
That’s why I was pretty relaxed when I received a frantic late-night call last December. The Italian accent on the other end claimed he knew of a unique, green British race car stowed away in a warehouse and that he could arrange a meeting with the owner. With increased urgency, he said, ‘Michael‚ the owner wants to talk to you. It’s an Aston Martin Barchetta DB3/1 – una machina molto, molto importante!’
Above: Aston Martin expert Keith Riddington examines DB3/1. A full restoration is about to be started under his guidance
I had heard rumours of an original ex-Works prototype Aston Martin DB3/1 being stored away somewhere in Southern Europe. Could this be the car? My spirits lifted when the middleman caller mentioned the name Eric Forrest-Greene. Forest-Greene was a post-war importer of several British sports car marques – including Aston Martin – to Argentina, and a known DB3 owner.
I arranged a meeting with the owner in Italy, and then asked my good friend Keith Riddington to accompany me. As a former Aston factory test driver and development engineer, Keith is a world authority on Aston Martin. I could definitely rely on him to tell if the car was the real deal. In preparation, he dug into his archives so that we had some original photographs to compare.
A few days later we met at Milan‘s Malpensa Airport and then drove together to a meeting with the ‘middleman’ at a motorway toll station. Strange – Italian middlemen always seem to want to meet at toll stations.
Above: DB3/1 was the first car of ten produced. It was known as the factory prototype.
I suppose the reason middlemen never tell you the exact address, is because they fear losing out. Asking for the name of the owner is considered disrespectful, it’s simply not done, and you certainly don’t want to risk offending a potential future partner.
Leaving the toll station we followed a madly driven hatchback along several motorways, passing through village after village and flying over speed bumps while trying to keep up. We were told it would be about a 20-minute drive but after an exhausting two hours, much of it spent avoiding the many huge potholes in the mostly deserted Lombardy countryside, we stopped in front of an old brick building. With a non-existent GPS signal, I had no idea where we were.
We had to wait for another hour or so for a man to arrive and unlock the iron gate – all very normal so far, I thought.
Above: The original driver's licence of Eric Forrest-Greene found among the car’s paperwork. Tragically, Greene succumbed to injuries sustained during a huge accident in the Buenos Aires 1,000 kilometre race in 1954.
Sitting in my trusty old Mercedes S600 war horse, we waited patiently. With no chance to look into the building through the tiny window slots, Keith used the time to tell me the fascinating history of the DB3/1 Works Prototype.
In late 1950, Eberan von Eberhorst (of pre-war Auto Union fame) joined Aston Martin and was tasked with designing a new sports/racing car to replace the old DB2 in international race events. The outcome was the new DB3, which had its first outing in the Tourist Trophy in September 1951. Of the ten cars built, five were to be sold to private teams and the other five were known as the Works Team Cars.
The first DB3, chassis #1, was manufactured in 1951, but was not fully finished due to a large-scale strike at Aston’s old factory in Feltham, Essex.
For its first race, the car was quietly removed from the factory during the night. Untested, the bare-metal prototype was taken to Ireland where it was entered into the Ulster TT at Dundrod. Before the race, the car was quickly painted by brush and some limited testing was carried out, the paint still wet. In the race, driver Lance Macklin was going well in second place behind Stirling Moss in a C-type before a broken exhaust forced him to retire at around the two-hour mark.
DB3/1 became known as the factory prototype and was used for testing between races. In a bid to improve top speed, a hard-top was fitted for the race at Le Mans in 1952.
The car went on to be driven at Silverstone, Goodwood, Isle of Man and Le Mans. It was used as the Mille Miglia practice car and for testing of an experimental, supercharged engine. In 1953 the car was loaned to Dennis Poore who drove it to victory at Thruxton. Immediately following that race, the car was sold to Eric Forrest-Greene, who was sadly killed in a heavy crash while competing in the 1954 Buenos Aires 1,000km race in Argentina.
Above: A significant amount of paperwork came with the car when it was acquired by the current owner almost 50 years ago.
After the race, the car was kept in the family before being sold to its current owner.
Suddenly someone knocked on our window and we were asked to enter the brick warehouse, which was seemingly an old FIAT agency. In this otherwise unassuming environment sat row upon row of cars, all under wraps. Lifting the covers revealed a line-up of important models from Ferrari, Porsche, Maserati, Lancia and, most excitingly, one green Aston Martin.
Immediately, Keith whispered quietly in my ear, ‘Michael, this looks really good to me.’ Not one to exaggerate, this was already a clear sign of acknowledgement from him.
At first we looked at the wonderful Ferraris, including a super-rare original Daytona Spyder, a low window 250 GT Boano, a 250 GT Ellena and a very neat Ferrari Mondial, to name a few. Next we inspected a very impressive Maserati 250S Barchetta and an incredibly beautiful Lancia Aurelia America Spyder. This old building had turned out to be a veritable Aladdin’s cave of motoring treasures. Finally, we turned our attention to the Aston Martin, the car we’d really come to see. It turned out to be a very lovely thing indeed.
With original photos in hand, we looked at it from all angles, even putting it up on a lift. After about an hour, a smiling Keith came over to me and announced that this car was in fact the DB3/1.
The car was restored at a time when access to factory drawings and other documentation was impossible to obtain. All they had to work from was a set of photographs, so a few mistakes were to be expected. The body and some parts of the interior would need adjusting, as would the rear axle. But all the rest looked good.
Above: A lovely David Brown Companies’ advertisement from the same period. David Brown was famous for his gearboxes, before he took over Aston Martin.
Over lunch, the owner appeared with original paperwork in hand and it became pretty clear that we had found a treasure trove. After a long discussion, Keith was chosen to tackle a complete restoration and we were asked to take care of the research of each component of the car.
To our amazement, after lunch we were shown the Aston’s original engine block sitting alongside a worn-out Ferrari 250 GT block in the yard. It all matched up perfectly.
What could have been a wild goose chase turned out to be a great day inspecting and discussing one very significant race car. Apologies to Armstrong, but it was one small step for a car lover, one giant leap for a car finder. A proud new feather in our SuperFinds cap.