You can almost certainly name the brands that James Bond tells the time with, drinks shaken over ice and wears in a holster under his dinner jacket, but the most well-known product associated with Britain's most famous secret agent is undoubtedly his choice of car. In Ian Fleming's books Commander Bond started out with a love for vintage Bentleys - and in the 'nineties he went through that strange BMW period - but if people know anything about 007 it is likely to be that he drives an Aston.
The association goes back to 1964's Goldfinger, when Sean Connery drove a very early DB5 with various lethal gadgets, none of which stopped him from being captured when he crashed into a wall. Amazing as it now seems, Eon Productions had to talk a reluctant Aston Martin into lending the cars. There have been DB5s in other Bond films, many of them small cameos, but for his 25th official outing, No Time To Die, it has been elevated to become a star performer again.
The DB5 will feature in an extended chase sequence at the beginning of the new film, shot in the Italian city of Matera, which also shows it to have been given a substantial weapons upgrade over the twin Browning machine-guns that Connery's car was packing. As you can imagine, this posed the film's makers a serious challenge, with the price of a decent Bond-spec DB5 being somewhere around the million quid mark and its limited athleticism meaning it is hardly cut out for bash-and-crash sequences in narrow streets. The answer was both simple and complicated at the same time - the creation of a convincing, but much more dynamically capable replica.
Having agreed supplying vehicles, Aston had just six months to engineer, build and deliver the eight cars needed for filming. The company piggybacked the project onto the parallel decision to create the 'continuation' DB5 Goldfinger edition, which had already required the scanning of an original car to create new bodywork. The same data was used for moulds to allow carbon fibre body panels to be made for the stunt replicas. These were then fitted to steel space frame chassis with donated six-cylinder running gear - more on that later - as well as roll cages, hydraulic handbrakes and fire extinguishers.
Which brings the story to Silverstone on Valentine's Day, where all the romance is on the track. Out on the main circuit the 2020 Mercedes W11 Formula 1 car is noisily making its dynamic debut, cameras and drones capturing its every move. But on the baby Stowe circuit that now serves as Aston's high performance test track, there's an even more compelling sight, with Aston having assembled various models associated with No Time To Die: a DBS Superleggera, an '80s V8 saloon similar to the one in The Living Daylights - which also gets its own cameo - and no fewer than four silver birch DB5s.
Two of these are real and two are replicas, and trying to tell them apart is a fun challenge. One of the stunt cars is made obvious by a plastic wrap carrying the simulated damage that the car is meant to have picked up during its chase in Italy. And one of the originals is the Goldfinger continuation prototype, and therefore carrying a full set of replica gadgets - including the bulkier rotating number plates - making it easy to spot. But the other two - one original, one deepfake - are close to identical.
For the record, there are some modest differences. The radiator grille of the replica comes fractionally further forwards, the bezels around its headlights are different, the silver strips down the front wing vents are fractionally longer and it also has guttering, something the original car is missing. You'll also notice the windscreen doesn't quite fit at the edges. From the outside and ten feet away, though, the only obvious difference - visible only from some angles - is the presence of a hefty roll cage in the stunt car.
First up, I get the chance for a few laps in the V8 Saloon - as Aston called its coupes back then. This is superb, with a comical seating position that is both high and cramped, plus a slightly startling turn of pace as the huge engine rumbles its way down the longer straights while I reacquaint myself with a dog-leg gearbox. Lateral grip is limited, but it's the brakes that really sap enthusiasm for quicker stuff, feeling tired after a couple of semi-hard stops. No matter, it is a truly awesome thing and while The Living Daylights is some way off my list of favourite Bond films, I have to admit that Timothy Dalton did get one of the franchise's coolest cars.
But I'm mostly here for the DB5s, with the plan being to follow the advice of No Time To Die's senior stunt driver on the order to do them in. Former British Rally Champion Mark Higgins has become one of the industry's go-to talents for high performance precision driving, having worked on the last four Bond films - and already moved onto the next Batman movie - and advises me to drive the real DB5 first. "Trust me, you want to experience the new one last."
The proper DB5 is a definite tick on the bucket list, with a dashboard that seems to be equal parts black metal and chrome-bezelled instruments, and an uncompromising driving position requiring knees to fit around the unadjustable wooden-rimmed steering wheel. The gearshift seems almost impossibly dainty - I remember my granny's Austin 1100 having something very similar - and the floor-hinged pedals are massively offset. It sounds great, wuffly low down and rortier further up, and performance is impressively keen; something in marked contrast to both the limited retardation and the massively heavy unassisted steering. Front end responses are more gum than bite and body roll is copious, but the really scary moment is the one when my foot finds the clutch where it's expecting the brake pedal to be and the Armco seems to be accelerating towards me in somebody else's seven-figure classic. Fortunately I find the true middle pedal in time to make the corner with not much to spare, but I'm back in the pitlane very shortly afterwards. The real DB5 is definitely best experienced on road rather than track.
The replica feels much more intimidating at first, thanks to the need to clamber in over a fat rollcage and end up strapped into a proper competition-grade carbon fibre bucket. There's no niceness in here - the dashboard is unfinished as a cosmetically perfect original car would be used for interior shots. There's no heating or ventilation system either, something Higgins admits was an issue when working in 40-degree temperatures in Italy last year. Instrumentation is limited to a speedo and rev counter, there's an AP racing pedal box in the footwell and the similar wooden rimmed steering wheel has been positioned further back and lower. There's also a hydraulic handbrake that I'm ordered not to try and use, plus a bulbous gear shifter with a familiar shape that quickly negates Aston's official refusal to say where the powertrain has been donated from.
Between the lever and Aston's admission that the motor is a naturally aspirated straight-six producing around 340hp, it's not hard to produce a list of candidates; the fact there's a definite sensation of cams shifting to a more aggressive profile at higher revs is another broad hint. Put all that together and you're left with a shortlist of approximately one.
Regardless of where the powerplant comes from, the driving experience is properly special - a complete contrast to both the original car but also the presuppositions you make about something that looks so grand and staid. The replica DB5 is pure hooligan, with a 1,000kg weight and much stiffer structure giving it a serious turn of pace, plus suspension through twin wishbones at each corner with rallycross-derived springs and dampers. Steering is hydraulically assisted and feels absolutely connected, there's none of the heave or slowness of the original car and responses are as sharp as Erno Goldfinger's genital-threatening laser. There's a surprising abundance of mechanical grip considering both the narrow period-look tyres (which use motorsport grade compounds), but also the need for sideways action in the film. Yet it doesn't take much effort to discover the potential for plenty of that, too - the replica DB5 easily powered into what feel like impressive slides. Somewhere nearby Lewis Hamilton is driving the new Merc F1 car for the first time, but I'm pretty certain that I'm having more fun hooning James Bond's Aston.
It takes a passenger ride with Mark Higgins to show how much more the replica is capable of, with a lap of Stowe mostly conducted at the sort of speeds and angles a professional drifter would be proud of. Higgins reckons that repeatability is the core skill for any stunt driver - the need to hit marks and deliver the same sequence again and again. He's spent hundreds of hours in stunt cars doing just that, sometimes even driving them through what is known as the "pod" - with electronic throttle, brake and steering communication, normally mounted on the roof - to allow Craig and co-star Léa Seydoux to deliver lines while being driven at speed.
Of course, the DB5 sequence is only going to be one part of what promises to be the longest and most expensive Bond film yet - the new Land Rover Defender also has a separate sizeable role of its own. But the return of the car that started it all is going to be one of the stand-out features, not least as the scene in Matera ends with the Aston sprouting multi-barrelled miniguns from behind its headlights, blasting a surrounding mob of baddies through the simple expedient of a massive tyre-smoking donut. Even at outrageous multiplex prices that's got to be worth most of the cost of admission by itself.
As for what happens to the stunt DB5s, a mostly peaceful retirement based around promotional work and museum exhibition seems to be on the cards. A shame, because I reckon we've got the basis for what would undoubtedly be the most exciting one-make historic racing series in the world right here. Bagsie me the one with the gadgets.
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