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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Fleming’s first assignment

With all the hubbub about James Bond that inevitably surrounds a new movie, the S&G can report that it is probably Daniel Craig’s finest hour. Not since Goldeneye has there been such a shameless parade of 007 iconography laid out in return for the entry fee, but it was sufficient to make beautiful women whoop with glee – something for which Ian Fleming would undoubtedly be thankful.

He would also doubtless be thankful for the high calibre of the car chase in Spectre, which is set in Rome’s rather claustrophobic, cobbled night time streets and featuring two visions of British-built loveliness, the stillborn Jaguar C-X75 hybrid and Aston Martin DB10.

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A licence to squeal: the ladies like a good car chase in Bond’s latest, Spectre

Cars were a major feature of Fleming’s life and work, and became such as early as July 1932 when, as a junior reporter for Reuters, he was dispatched to Munich for his first piece of overseas reportage.

The deal was that Fleming would act as navigator on the International Alpine Trial for a rather useful driver and WW1 pilot called Donald Healey, winner of the 1931 Monte Carlo Rally at the wheel of his 4½-litre Invicta. Fleming would write up the story to cast Invicta, and British motoring generally, in a favourable light while reporting upon one of the growing number of motoring events that had caught the public imagination.

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Healey and his crew celebrate winning the 1931 Monte with their Invicta

The event was extremely popular both with young British men and the burgeoning sports car manufacturers such as Riley, Sunbeam and Singer – all of whom were seeking to recreate the sort of fame and success enjoyed by the ‘Bentley Boys’ at Le Mans. Among the competitors in 1932 was a youthful Dick Seaman in the MG Magna that was normally his runabout at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Like Seaman and the other British contenders, Healey and Fleming drove 700 miles from London to Munich, crossing the Channel on the SS Forde before an overnight halt in Reims, then stopping in Freudenstadt in the Black Forest after a second day’s hard motoring.

They arrived in Munich in time for a torch lit parade before the start, which was held in torrential rain. Healey’s skill and the Invicta’s prowess catapulted them into the lead of the event, in front of continental ‘crack’ entries from the factories of Mercedes, Lancia and Bugatti to name but three.

Just months after joining Reuters on an unsalaried trial and being apprenticed by such tiresome work as updating obituaries, the whole event must have come as manna from heaven to the 23-year-old Fleming. Here he was among like-minded chaps, savouring the whiff of Castrol R and Healey’s furious working of throttle and gears at first hand.

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Future hero Seaman apace in his Magna

 

The Alpine Trial lasted a week and criss-crossed the borders of Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and France on a route of 1580 miles. Healey was on brilliant form, setting the outright fastest time and a new record of 23 minutes 44 seconds for climbing the fabled Stelvio Pass, ending that day with a night at the Grand Hotel in St. Moritz – exactly the sort of excitements that Fleming would later give to James Bond.

At the end of the event, Healey would be awarded the Coupe des Glaciers for having completed the event with zero penalty points. The big Invicta did not carry off the outright honours and found itself swamped by hordes of smaller capacity cars on the final run to Grenoble – much to Fleming’s bemusement. It was reported in The Autocar magazine that this rather self-assured young navigator was to be found chastising the impudent little cars, demanding to know “What on earth are you doing among the grown-ups?”

Fleming filed his copy and parted ways with Healey – the former heading off into the arms of his Swiss paramour, Monique Panchaud de Bottomes, while Healey took in the Swiss Automobile Club’s annual hillclimb, finishing second.

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Monique Panchaud de Bottomes and Ian Fleming in Switzerland, 1931

While the young gentlemen enjoyed their sport, there was a small hubbub at home because, contrary to the story reported by Fleming and carried by The Daily Telegraph, it had not been a British victory on the event. Fleming’s editor called him to demand an explanation, to which came the reply that this was not a competition measured in first-past-the-post speed but in skill and bravery, at which the British contingent had won hands-down.

Remarkably, this explanation sufficed!

The impact of this odyssey was, of course, to be profound. It was the sort of drive that James Bond would later take, carrying millions of readers alongside him to experience the growl of two-inch exhaust pipes, to share the enjoyment of racing gearchanges and to learn the finer points of supercharging and back-axle ratios. It is also notable that Bond’s mother was called Monique and she was from Vaud in Switzerland.

Life for Donald Healey, meanwhile, would see him step back from competition driving and into the vanguard of British sports car designers, starting with Triumph. After working on the production of aero engines and armoured cars during World War 2, the Donald Healey Motor Company was formed in 1945, producing his own cars and in partnership with Nash and, most famously of all, with Austin.

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Donald Healey in later life with one of his celebrated creations

Thoughts at the S&G have turned to Fleming of late for reasons other than James Bond. More than 50 years ago now, that most unfettered imperialist gave his verdict on America’s rise to superpower status. As a nation, he declared, they were: “Totally unprepared to rule the world that is now theirs.”

In recent weeks, the behaviour of great swathes of Americans in the face of the Islamic death cult Daesh has hammered Fleming’s words home. Not least when that buffoon Donald Trump, stalking horse for the White House in 2016, suggested launching nuclear warheads at the barren desert of Daesh territory in Syria and Iraq – to rapturous applause: “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark,” he said. “But we’re going to find out.”

No, Ian… they still haven’t got it yet.