Aston Martin Wins Le Mans… 60 years on.
Aston Martin Wins Le Mans… 60 years on.
They came from such different places. Carroll Shelby, from Leesburg, Texas, was famous for his Cobras and business dealings. Roy Salvadori hailed from a small seaside town in the southeast of England. Yet they came together in a shared Aston Martin to win the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans, which Shelby described as, “the highlight of my racing career.”
Their car was one of five Aston Martin DBR1s built under the leadership of owner David Brown from 1956 to 1959. Brown liked the competition and figured racing would promote sales. This led to a variety of postwar Aston Martin race cars including the DBR1s and the DB3S.
Ted Cutting can be credited for much of the design, including that rounded, muscular body with the D-shaped front fender vent that still shows in one form or another on Aston Martins. The car body was formed with a weight-saving 20-gauge magnesium alloy around a new steel tube space frame. This DBR1 build brought racing prominence to Aston. DBR1s weighed in at 1764 pounds and were 158.5 inches long on a 90.0-inch wheelbase.
DBRs began in 1956 with a 2493-cc twin-cam, 12-valve aluminum inline-six. As of 1957, they had a 2992-cc version with 254 horsepower. The 5-speed gearbox behind this inline-6 is generally credited to David Brown. They thought it could be a problem. Shelby kept recounting about what could’ve gone wrong at Le Mans, “You think of everything that can happen and we knew we had this old [crummy] gearbox. Salvadori and I laughed years later. We never made a shift that we didn’t crunch it.”
Le Mans in 1959 was basically a battle between Aston and Ferrari. Aston Martin came in fresh off a win in the Nürburgring 1000 km. But the Italians, led by 1958 winners Phil Hill and Olivier Gendebien, brought six Ferrari 250 Testa Rossas versus just four Aston Martin DBR1s.
The Aston Martin team, managed by the legendary John Wyer, sent Stirling Moss out as a “hare” in one of the DBR1s to tempt the Ferraris at the 4 p.m. start, but that only lasted a little over an hour. One of the Astons ended up in an accident during the sunset. Around 10 p.m., the Stirling Moss/Jack Fairman Aston was out. Accidents and mechanical woes were so frequent that by midnight, more than half of the 54 starters were parked, but those various retirements put the Shelby/Salvadori Aston in the lead.
Then around 2 a.m. the leading Aston had a 10-minute pit stop. Shelby reflects, “Salvadori came in and we couldn’t see anything. He went around again, came in and said I got a big vibration. They took the wheel off and found a big chunk of tread in the wheel well that threw the whole thing out of balance.”
By this time, the Ferrari of Hill/Gendebien had taken the lead. At 11 a.m., the Ferrari team led by 3-laps, but soon suffered a seized engine after 263 laps. With the last of the big Ferraris out, the Aston team had a 1-2 lead and backed off. It was time to conserve. “You’re sitting there,” Shelby recalled; “You’ve slowed back down to 5500 rpm. It’s like, ‘Oh God, hold it together.’ The only thing you’re conscious of is, ‘Don’t screw up, don’t lose your concentration.’”
At the 4 p.m. finish, Shelby and Salvadori were a lap up on the 2nd place DBR1 of Paul Frere and Maurice Trintignant. Ferraris finished 3-4-5-6, but they were various GT models. The third place finisher was 25 laps behind Frere/Trintignant. Only 13 cars completed the 24 hour race!
No one could be happier than David Brown. Shelby, who took the checkered flag, laughed when he rejoiced, “Brown had gone in, when he saw we were probably gonna win and had taken a shower. [Brown] put on new slacks, blazer and scarf. Well, we had this hole in the bottom of the floor pan and they put him in the left seat that was soaked with oil.”
Shelby continued, “I started to run the race track and, I’ll never forget, he just looked at his pants. He looked at his coat. Then he took his handkerchief out and tried to wipe it all off. He was 10 times more interested in cleaning himself up…except he was really ecstatic to win the race. He had really tried hard.”
What a proper English gentleman!
Here is an excellent 29-minute video of that 1959 Aston Martin win on YouTube via Silodrome.
Pour a latte or un verre de vin and enjoy and consider that the last DBR1 sold went for $22,550,000.
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Aston Martin at Le Mans 2019
This year Aston has taken another step to commemorate their win 60 years ago. Starting with the 715-horsepower, 664 lb-ft of torque, 211-mph DBS Superleggera model, Q by Aston has reworked it as the DBS 59. Appropriately, only 24 were built. The power is from a twin-turbo 5.2-liter V-12, which is backed by an 8-speed automatic with tall shift paddles. And it claims to go from 0-60 mph in 3.2 seconds.
Naturally all of the broad-shouldered DBS 59s are finished in the classic Aston Martin Racing Green paint, with a modern touch of gloss-finished carbon fiber on the roof. Each car comes with a number for each corresponding 24 made.
Chestnut Tan and Obsidian Black leather are the main interior colors of the DBS 59 with bronze detailing. Following the race theme of this commemorative car, there are saddle leather helmet pods in the compartment behind the seats. These are for the special DBS 59 crash helmets, blue racing suits, and string back leather gloves that Shelby wore when winning Le Mans. There is also a 2-piece luggage set of the same materials as the interior and a car cover.
Aston Martin will showcase the DBS 59s at the 2019 Le Mans weekend. The owners of the 24 cars made will get the chance to do an honorary lap of the Circuit de la Sarthe, before the start of this year’s round-the-clock race. They will most likely cheer on the pair of Aston Martin Vantage AMRs racing in the LMGTE Pro class and the two Vantage GTEs vying for a win amongst the LMGTE Am entries.
John Lamm worked for Road & Track for 37 years and is equally happy behind a keyboard or a camera. He has written ten automotive books and has been honored with the International Motor Press Association’s Ken Purdy award and the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Batchelor award for writing. He is on the organizing committee for the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion and has been a judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance for two decades.