The mysterious ‘DBIII’

Following on from musings about Ian Fleming’s wild ride with Donald Healey in the 1932 International Alpine Trial, it has brought to mind the sale last summer of what is claimed to be the very Aston Martin that inspired Ian Fleming when writing the 007 novel Goldfinger – the mysterious ‘DBIII’.

“James Bond flung the DBIII through the last mile of straight, did a racing change down into third and then into second for the short hill before the inevitable crawl through Rochester. Leashed in by the velvet claw of the front discs, the engine muttered its protest with a mild back-popple from the twin exhausts…”

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Could this have been the view intended for Bond?

There never was a DBIII road car, and we can be fairly certain that Fleming never got his hands on a DB3s sports prototype, but this moniker was often informally given to owners of the DB2/4 series in the mid-Fifties.

Last year, headlines were made when Coys announced that it had the Aston that had inspired Fleming consigned for its Blenheim Palace sale. The car in question was a DB 2/4 Mk I Vantage, chassis number LML-819, was delivered new on 4 July 1955 to the Honorable Sqdr. Ldr. Phillip Ingram Cunliffe-Lister, DSO.

Just like Donald Healey before him, Cunliffe-Lister had been a wartime pilot – albeit in WW2, rather than WW1. He had flown Spitfires with Fighter Command and, later, joined 1409 Flight to gather meteorological information for Bomber Command and the USAAF in the twin-engined Mosquito. In July 1943 Cunliffe-Lister had been taken POW after he, along with Pilot Officer Pat Kernon, had taken off from RAF Oakington in Mosquito IX LR502 on a met flight over Holland.

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A 1409 Flight Mosquito Mk.IX on ops around D-Day, 1944

The aircraft ran out of fuel following a navigational error, but Cunliffe-Lister got the aircraft down and managed to evade capture for four days. Eventually the airmen were rounded up and sent to a transit camp for Air Force Prisoners of War before going to Stalag Luft 3 at Sagan, where he remained until his peacetime repatriation.

It seems that the former pilot found civilian life something of a trial, leaving his wartime bride and children in 1947 and remarrying soon after while taking part in international rallies as a means to find the adrenaline rush he clearly craved. A decade later, Cunliffe-Lister took delivery of the latest source of excitement in his life: a gunmetal grey Aston Martin.

While there is no record that Cunliffe-Lister and Fleming ever knew each other, both of their fathers had been close friends of Winston Churchill. Cunliffe-Lister’s father, Lord Swinton, was also head of MI5 during the Second World War while Fleming had been the bright young star of Royal Navy Intelligence. It has even been suggested the character of M may have been owed more than a little to Lord Swinton.

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Fleming at his desk in Goldeneye – concocting another thriller

So far so tenuous, but Cunliffe-Lister used to go on regular trips to see the Royal portrait painter Dennis Ramsay and his wife Rose at Hope Bay Studio, the house next to Fleming’s in St Margaret’s Bay near Deal, Kent.

It is of note that Fleming used Hope Bay Studio as the inspiration for his character Hugo Drax’s property where he kept a rocket in the novel Moonraker. Doubtless he would therefore have taken note of the rather beautiful motor car outside, and his interest would have been still further piqued by its rather unique specification.

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The Cunliffe-Lister Aston pictured on its return to Deal in 2014

This was no ordinary DB2/4: it had reinforced steel bumpers, concealed lockers, a heavy-duty anti-interference ignition system, driver’s seat connections for two-way radio and a Halda Speed Pilot… gadgets which bear a passing resemblance to those on Bond’s car in Goldfinger.

“… the DBIII had… certain extras which might or might not come in handy. These included switches to alter the type and colour of Bond’s front and rear lights if he was following or being followed at night, reinforced steel bumpers, fore and aft, in case he needed to ram, a long-barrelled Colt .45 in a trick compartment under the driver’s seat, a radio pick-up tuned to receive an apparatus called the Homer, and plenty of concealed space that would fox most Customs men.”

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Everything that the well turned-out spy might require

Much of the real Aston Martin’s history is as mysterious as anything that Fleming ever conceived. Philip Cunliffe-Lister committed suicide in 1956, and the car changed hands – and colours – several times before it was seemingly parked in a shed and forgotten about for many years.

A local engineer who had worked on Channel hovercraft eventually heard about the car and bought it as a father-and-son restoration project. As soon as they set to work on the car they realised that this was no ordinary Aston. Fortunately, their craftsmanship on the restoration coincided with much of the background on the Cunliffe-Lister family history in espionage coming to light at the end of the 50-year rule, which put a few jigsaw pieces in place.

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Under the gavel: the Goldfinger Aston Martin awaits its fate

The valuation and sale did raise some interesting questions. This was an amateur restoration of a basket case that had no significant competition history, whose first owner had some unproven links to Ian Fleming and wartime espionage and parked outside a house he once wrote about. As far as provenance goes, this was all rather new territory.

Surprisingly the car didn’t sell but afterwards it did elicit an offer of more than £275,000 from an interested party – a healthy 150 per cent premium compared to a similar car in standard trim. Whether or not it was sold remains a mystery – one that will doubtless be continued the next time LML-819 is consigned for auction.

James Bond will return…

GF15

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