The outside appears almost indistinguishable from an original Aston Martin DB5, but the criss-cross of the roll cage gives the game away. Then you’ll fold yourself into the modern racing seat, bend your legs over the cage, fire the unusually vocal inline-six engine, and proceed to thrash the living daylights out of it. This strange mutant car is more fun to drive than any modern supercar, any old classic, or any racing machine. Give me a purpose-built, big-budget movie stunt car, one meant for 007, over anything else.
More on that car in a moment. The Aston Martin enthusiast has never been better served by a James Bond film. The company’s sports cars have featured in half of the 24 Bond films released so far, but for No Time To Die—due to hit theaters in November now, thanks to delays related to the coronavirus outbreak—the producers seem to have gone Aston Martin mad. As well as driving a 1970s V8, 007 also gets into a spot of bother in a heavily-armed, and heavily-armored, Silver Birch DB5. What’s more, a female 00 agent who we haven’t met before is seen at the wheel of a dark DBS Superleggera, while the forthcoming Valhalla supercar makes a cameo appearance in Q’s workshop.
Four Aston Martins. Overkill? Maybe, maybe not. No Time To Die is effectively a silver anniversary outing for the Bond franchise, what with it being the 25th installment in the series. It’s also a kind of valedictory tour for Daniel Craig in his last performance as the untamable MI6 agent. With all of that in mind, I suppose a quartet of Astons is the least this film deserves—and you deserve to experience them from the driver's seat.
The Hero Car Gets a Stunt Double, Too
It was at a bright but bitingly cold Silverstone Circuit, a couple of hours northwest of central London, that I got behind the wheel of all of them (minus the Valhalla). Each was fantastic in its own right, but the one I enjoyed most wasn’t even an Aston Martin at all, but a custom stunt car designed to look exactly like a DB5 from the outside while sharing precisely nothing with it beneath the skin—one of eight constructed for the film, the first time the Bond franchise has run a fleet of replica Astons in filming like this.
The lengths to which Aston Martin’s special projects engineering team went in the build are astonishing. And all in six months, too, from the brief coming in from Eon Productions to all eight cars arriving on set. The chassis at its core, for instance, is purpose-built, as a space frame setup with an integral roll cage. Aston’s designers digitally scanned a number of original DB5s before recreating its flowing curves flawlessly in carbon fiber. Interestingly, given all DB5s were originally built by hand and subject to huge variation one to the next, these stunt cars are actually far more mathematically precise than any genuine example.
Suspension is by double wishbones all round using motorsport componentry, while the dampers are rallycross-style long-travel remote reservoir Ohlins. On authentic wire wheels you’ll find radial tires with period correct tread patterns. Like all DB5s, the stunt car uses a normally-aspirated straight-six engine. Aston Martin’s representatives chose not to disclose exactly where the powertrain came from, saying only that the motor was good for more than 300bhp, but given the eagerness with which the engine spun out, the rasping soundtrack it made and—to be blunt—the unmistakably BMW gear lever, I’ll bet my house on the entire drivetrain having been lifted from an E46 M3. Good choice.
The cabin, of course, is all wrong. It’s trimmed in nondescript black carpet and although the enormous wooden steering wheel, its rim no fatter than your index finger, does look the part, the Tillett racing seats, the harnesses, the modern pedal box, and the cage are pure stunt car. Even the tiny four-gallon fuel tank is described by the car’s minder as a “stunt tank.”
Overall weight? Just 2,200 pounds, which is around 1,100 pounds lighter than a real DB5. Electronic driver aids? Absolutely none whatsoever, not even ABS. Limited-slip differential? Of course. Manual gearbox? Obviously. Anything else? Only a drift-style hydraulic handbrake, useful for initiating slides in tight situations.
The fact it looks exactly like an Aston Martin DB5, conventionally one of the most beautiful cars ever built, quickly becomes the least interesting thing about the stunt car. But it sits at the back of the queue today; before I can drive it, I must first have a go at two real examples of the classics from the film—a genuine 1963 DB5 and a 1980s V8—plus the DBS Superleggera. All in the name of research.
No Mr. Bond, I Expect You to Drive
For many years, the little Stowe Circuit coiled up within Silverstone’s infield was effectively a nursery track used by racing schools before students were let loose on the full layout. Today, it’s Aston Martin’s Test and Development Center. This is where the Valkyrie hypercar is being honed, and handy though it must be for Aston’s current engineers to have a circuit of their own, it isn’t exactly flattering of a 57-year-old classic like the DB5.
The steering is heavy, so much so that around the tighter corners, you cling to the steering wheel’s polished wooden rim with strained fingers, hooking a knuckle or two around one of the thin aluminum spokes to stop it from slipping free. And you cling to it even harder in the middle of the bend to stop yourself sliding off the smooth leather seat, which offers about as much lateral support as a barstool.
Coming into a curve, you articulate your right ankle deliberately to meet the throttle pedal at the same time as the brake pedal, meaning every heel-and-toe downshift is a slow, unhurried affair. The brake pedal wants a meaningful shove before it’ll do anything and the 4.0-liter straight-six engine, throaty and muscular, won’t be rushed, instead building revs patiently. The DB5 isn’t quick around the Stowe Circuit, and it demands real physical effort throughout.
The V8 is a mid-80s Series 4, newer than Bond’s 1970s Series 3 car (Aston made the V8 for 20 years) but still achingly cool to look at, more Detroit muscle than British beef. A smaller steering wheel with a grippier, thicker rim and power assistance mean you don’t work anywhere near as hard in corners as the DB5, but nor do you have any instinctive sense of how much grip the front axle has in reserve; the steering rack is completely numb. The brakes still need a good stomp and the manual shifter keeps the left-hand side of your body busy.
The newer car isn't any faster than the DB5 around the track either, the 5.3-liter V8 and its 300 horsepower feeling distant, almost hollow.
Meanwhile, the DBS Superleggera needs only the hint of plantar flexion to send it rocketing around the circuit. Once the rear axle has hooked up in third gear and the twin-turbo V12’s 664 pound-feet of torque can grab tarmac, the car really takes off. The paddle-shift gearbox requires no effort at all, while the brakes are easy and the steering light. The chassis electronics work ceaselessly to keep you pointing in the right direction.
What the DBS does demand of you, however, is every ounce of mental effort you can summon. Its performance is so startling, its cornering grip so absolute, that you have to give it your full attention. There’s hardly time to breathe. So while the original DB5 gives your body a complete workout, in the DBS it’s your grey matter that’s kept busy as you're chasing down evil henchmen through some medieval European city.
"What You Want in a Stunt Car... Is a Manual Transmission and No Driver Aids Whatsoever"
Speaking of henchman, it was as an unnamed baddie wheeling an Alfa Romeo in 2008's Quantum of Solace that today's master of ceremonies made his franchise debut: rally driver-turned-stuntman Mark Higgins. You might know him from his numerous record-breaking laps of the deadly Isle of Man TT course, or that time he drove a Subaru WRX STI rally car down an Olympic bobsled course. But of course, where most people have seen his handiwork is in the Bond flicks, where he stood in for 007 himself during Spectre and No Time to Die's key driving scenes.
Being an otherworldly hot shoe helps one bust into the movie business, but so does being friends with someone like Ben Collins, the original white Stig on Top Gear and a stunt driver himself. Collins recommended Higgins for his rallying experience when producers needed someone good on gravel back in the late 2000s. "Was I interested? Of course, I was," says Higgins. "A Bond film! I didn’t hear anything for a while, then a week beforehand they called to say they needed me for three months."
Higgins later stood in for Miss Moneypenny in a Land Rover Defender on Skyfall before graduating to Bond’s stunt driver for Spectre. One of the highlights of his movie career so far, he says, was drifting at 90 mph in third gear through Vatican City in a purpose-built Aston Martin DB10. "We did give the Pope a wave," he laughs. "Apparently he was in that night."
No Time To Die’s DB5 stunt cars are therefore his domain. He is the authority. "What you want in a stunt car is an engine in the front, a gearbox in the middle, and rear-wheel drive," he tells me. "You also want a manual transmission and no driver aids whatsoever. The stunt DB5 has all of that. I would like more steering lock and a fully locked differential rather than the diff that’s in there at the moment, which makes it a little twitchy, but otherwise, the car is perfect."
Why not just use genuine DB5s and save the expense of building eight new cars? Higgins says an original car could probably be made to do what the stunt team wanted, but it’d be fragile and downtime on a film set is a big no-no. For No Time to Die, Higgins spent seven weeks on location on the ancient streets of Matera, Italy, after rehearsing the car chase sequence for several weeks beforehand both in the UK and Italy.
"It does look stunning, but I wouldn’t necessarily choose Matera for a car chase because the streets are narrow and the cobbles are slippery. Although we found that pouring Coca Cola down and letting it dry doubled the amount of grip we had."
I hope you won’t think me immodest if I share with you my small claim to fame: I might well be the only person in the world not affiliated with Eon Productions to have driven both the Jaguar C-X75 stunt car from Spectre and the No Time To Die stunt DB5. I sampled the former four and a half years ago in Mexico and adored it, just as I did the Aston Martin at Silverstone. There’s something wonderful about movie stunt cars. They’re built to take punishment, set-up to be controllable without being balanced on a knife-edge like a racing car, and they have decent grip without being smothered by the stuff.
The imitation Aston is nothing at all like the real thing to drive. Where the original DB5 labors under its own weight and moves to the rhythm of a blacksmith’s hammer blows, the stunt car is alert and alive, buzzing about like a housefly. It feels light enough to take off in a stiff breeze, though the racing seat and harness clamp you tightly in position. The motorsport pedal box is perfectly spaced for rapid-fire heel-and-toe downshifts and the motor, treacly-sweet like candied honey, spinning out with the freedom of a racing engine, its power perfectly matched with the lightness of the car so it pulls hard and strong.
On historic racing tires—radial construction but with ye olde tread pattern—there’s enough grip to get the front end turned into a corner, but once fixed on a line the car wants to settle into a drift, after which you simply choose your angle with your right foot.
And with the imitation DB5’s BMW M3 engine barking angrily through open pipes, the rear end swinging around on the way into a bend before drifting out even wider under power, thin steering wheel sliding through my fingertips, I realized that while I started the day wanting to be James Bond when I grow up, I’d rather be Mark Higgins.
Update: This story has been updated to reflect the new release date for No Time to Die, which was announced after publication.
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