Exhilaration is mixed with a fairly major dose of apprehension when somebody entrusts you with a hugely expensive hand-built car and gives you an empty circuit to play on. Any day involving both a factory fresh Continuation DB4 GT Zagato and Silverstone is a good one, but also one that could turn memorably bad.
Zagato rebodied the original DB4 GT in 1960 to create a lighter, faster car that was designed to fight Ferraris on the world's racetracks. It was the fastest production car in the world at the time, reckoned to be capable of a dizzying 154mph. 59 years on and that number sounds less impressive to modern ears, but the all-new Zagato that represents Aston's second factory-built Continuation model still tops the charts on style and desirability.
Asking price, too. The Continuation GT Zagato is only being sold as part of a billionaire's two-for-one deal with the forthcoming DBS Superleggera Zagato. But even if you equally divide the £6m-plus-tax price of the pair, the DB4 stands as the most expensive car in current production in the world. Work on the limited run of 19 is well advanced in Newport Pagnell, with each car taking 4,500 hours of labour to build according to Works boss Paul Spires.
Yet it is still much cheaper than an original Zagato. These don't come up for sale often, certainly not publicly, but when former works car 2VEV sold at auction last year it fetched £10.1m. There are other Zagato replicas based on original DB4s, including some that were sanctioned by the factory themselves, but none has been assembled with such obsessive attention to originality as the new car.
The appeal is simple, according to Spires. Buyers will be prepared to do things with Continuation Zagatos that they wouldn't consider doing to an original, from racing them in historic series that (officially) allow modern-built cars, to finishing them in personal paint schemes that would destroy the provenance of a period car. Spires says that at least one buyer will have their DB4 and DBS Zagatos painted as a matching pair. The hope is that they will be used properly, not just parked in collections. Hence the invitation to Silverstone to drive the prototype.
This is where I drove Aston's first Continuation model, the DB4 GT, last year. That was on a cold, damp National Circuit in January, and was proper tippy-toes stuff. Late September means the weather is far nicer this time, but my experience is also going to be limited to the baby 1.1-mile Stowe Circuit that Aston has taken an exclusive lease on. There are still several chances to get things expensively wrong.
The car's interior is almost identical to that of the DB4 GT - Zagato's changes were made with unique lightweight bodywork saving 50kg. So the cabin features the same chrome-bezeled instruments, a beautiful wooden rimmed steering wheel and a tall gear lever with numbers that only go up to 4. The obvious change is the arrival of modern safety gear; cars are sold with a motorsport-grade fuel tank, a full bolt-in roll cage, modern bucket seats and harnesses, plus both a battery isolator and onboard fire extinguisher system.
In every other regard the car is as close to its original spec as Aston could make it. Bodywork is hand-formed from aluminium just 1.2mm thick and the six-cylinder engine is fuelled by three period-appropriate Weber carburettors. Engine capacity has gone up to 4.7-litres, an increase from the 4.2 of the Continuation DB4 GT, thanks to a new crankshaft. "We wanted to make sure that buyers of the Zagato got a bit more," Spires explains, which sounds pretty reasonable as they are paying twice as much. Power is now quoted at 370hp - the DB4 GT had 345hp - but I'm also told that figure is a very conservative one.
It certainly feels like it. Even leaving Stowe's short pitlane it's clear the Zagato has some serious muscle, rear wheels scrabbling for traction as I misjudge the clutch's biting point and launch it too keenly. The engine has no appetite for slower progress, grumbling and boggy low down, but with scintillating throttle response once working where it is happiest.
The gearbox takes more getting used to, a dog-ring transmission that needs both a firm hand and careful aim on upshifts, and a well-judged rev-matching blip of throttle to keep it smooth on the way back down. It takes a while to get anything close to the knack, my first downshifts are granchy enough to have me wincing inside my borrowed helmet.
On the dry, warm surface the Zagato's brakes bite hard, with a disc at each corner, although they also quickly reveal how limited the adhesion of the Dunlop Racing tyres is. Even picking what would be a cautious braking point in a modern car, I barely slow the Zagato enough to get it turned in for the tight left-hander at the bottom of the circuit, and there's lots of squirming over bumps. After two laps the smell of burning Mintex pads in the cabin is strong enough to get me stopping in the pits to make sure nothing is on fire. "That's what brakes were like back then," Spires reassures me before sending me back out.
But the accessibility of its modest limits is what makes the Zagato truly special. Suspension is upgraded over the DB4 GT, with telescopic dampers front and rear, stiffer springs and a Watts linkage to better locate the rear axle. But there still isn't much grip to be found at either end, although both axles can be played off against each other to what soon becomes an addictive extent. The unassisted steering is low geared but brimming with feedback, much of which is about the understeer that is easily engendered in slower corners. But this is just part of the dance; back the steering off and give a dose more throttle and the handling balance switches to the other end, with the rear starting to break away.
At that point the challenge becomes using accelerator and steering to keep the car on the edge. Something that, even on a short corner, is likely to require multiple inputs and make you feel, in a modest way, like one of those 'fifties sportscar heroes who wrestled these in period. Small wonder so many pictures of these racing are nose-towards-apex. The Zagato isn't snappy or scary when provoked into an outright slide, but it is happiest kept on the cusp of oversteer.
It's not long before I'm having altogether too much fun and taking liberties in a car worth more than many postcodes. At which point, perhaps fortunately, the driver's window winder falls off and starts to rattle around the footwell. It's a teething problem that's quickly fixed with a stop in the pitlane - this is the first time anyone from outside Aston has driven the car. It's also a reminder to stay respectful, especially as my designated hour with the car is close to finishing and there are two other journos waiting their turn.
Would I buy one? Short of discovering I have an unknown and recently deceased uncle without other heirs who bought into Apple in the early 'eighties, that's unlikely to be a dilemma I need to face. But if you look at the cost of the Zagato pair in terms of other things you could buy for the money, you're doing it wrong: nobody is going to be living on beans in order to put these in one of their garages. The more relevant question is what else similar could you buy for the money, and while there are other continuation models and various grades of restomod, I doubt any would feel as special as your own, brand-new DB4 GT Zagato.
SPECIFICATION - ASTON MARTIN DB4 GT ZAGATO CONTINUATION
Engine: 4,670cc, straight-six
Transmission: 4-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 380@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 360@5,000rpm
Top speed: TBC
Weight: 1170kg (dry)
Price: £6m (plus taxes) (with DBS Superleggera Zagato)