11 September 2015

Driving The Speedback GT, A $753,000 Modern-Day Aston Martin DB6

“This wasn’t intentional,” I’m told. And yet there it is, a pristine Aston Martin DB6 sat in an inconspicuous underground parking garage in Monterey, Calif. Next to it, in precisely the same silver hue, David Brown Automotive’s Speedback GT — a $753,000 modern-day version of that iconic DB6, with David Brown himself standing next to me, gawking in amazement.

The resemblance looks uncanny, even more so when you’re witnessing them both face to face — more DB6 than DB5, I’d say. And yet one is actually more Jaguar. Mostly because, under some new Italian-trimmed metal, it is a Jaguar.

To add to the cognitive dissonance: the David Brown handing me the key has no relation to the late David Brown who brought Aston Martin to greatness in the ‘50s and ‘60s — the “DB” in James Bond’s DB5. This David Brown earned his fortunes in construction equipment, and the Speedback represents his first step into slightly smaller vehicles.

The Speedback GT began its life as an XKR convertible. The car was stripped to its core and replaced, Brown says, mostly with handmade, custom parts. Left intact: the thumping 510-horsepower supercharged V-8, the gearbox and all the suspension components, which received a slight softening at the rear but retain the same spring rate it was birthed with at the front.

Climbing aboard you’re reminded of the Jag. Some of the dials and the knob to select a gear appear the same, although they’ve been dipped in chrome to appease the affluent. Other parts, like the air vents, have been redesigned to give it a more vintage ‘60s flavor — as well as the wooden steering wheel and genuine oak accents (unpolished) that festoon the cabin. It feels like Prince Charles’s living room, much like the Jaguars of yore.

The question is, for $753,000, does it feel special enough? Probably not, but then what car does feel worthy of a price tag rivaling a 7,000 square-foot midwestern mansion? Having said that, the Speedback GT casts a particular kind of old-world British air, grand and opulent in a way the wood steering wheel only magnifies.

On the road it’s much of the same. The engine in the XKR is a blinder, so it comes as no surprise that it’s stellar in Speedback application too. The exhaust note still has that raspy gargle to it, and yet when cruising it mutes nicely to deliver an almost serene experience. The “slightly softer” rear springs feel quite a bit softer to me, but Brown — who’s in the passenger seat — tells me that has more to do with the larger tires used.

My first question to Brown is an obvious one: “Was Aston pissed when they saw it?”

He tells me he invited them for a gander prior to launch (the car has been selling in Europe for a short while now). When they saw it, he says, they “were wowed,” with just a slight hint of distaste present: “I think that was because they wished they’d made it themselves,” Brown says, smiling.

You could call it a knockoff or a copycat, but as I’m driving along 17 Mile Drive in Pebble Beach, the Speedback GT draws attention in bushels — even during the heart of Monterey’s car week, where thousands flock in their ludicrously expensive machines, and Lamborghinis are like Camrys and Ford GTs barely cause your pupils to flicker. In this surreal world, standing out requires something closer to a spaceship, and yet people flock around the Speedback GT as if I’m Sean Connery himself.

There will never be more than 100 Speedback GTs built, and 10 are already in production. The car I’m in — the original prototype — is the only finished car in the world, and Brown is keen to keep it intact.

We’re lost, hacking through the surrounding roads of Pebble Beach being directed by actual children dressed as cops (they were legitimately brought in from up to 100 miles away to help direct traffic, apparently). In many other cars, this would be frustrating, but in the Speedback GT it feels relaxing, and even Brown isn’t concerned about me dinging his prized “one-of-one” baby; it’s a car you don’t want to drive fast, even though you could. It’s a lovely cruiser and a pleasant place to spend time.

But there is nothing that stands out about the way it drives. It goes like a softer XKR, which is basically what it is. It has new old clothes stolen from Aston, a gigantic price tag, and some oak. It’s lovely, but hardly revolutionary.

Then you open the trunk.

How British is the above picture? David Brown watches on, the Brit perched aboard his DB6-inspired machine with its stitched leather tailgating seat, as if he’s sipping a gin and tonic by the polo grounds. It’s brilliant, and it takes a mere five seconds to put up or down and it doesn’t impede luggage space. If I were a rich chap, this would be worth the price of admission alone.

And yet I’m not a rich chap, so I view this car as I would every other car I review: Is it worth the money? No, not at all. But then to the well-heeled cigar/polo aficionado on the Monterey Peninsula, where Bentleys are a daily sight, who’s to say what value is?

Brown spends some time talking about his vision, refusing to linger on the whole DB6 thing. He talks about the ‘60s, and the inspirations that era provided when designing the Speedback GT. I just see a picture of an Aston and photocopy machine.

Brown’s creation, then, may not be a car I’d select to drive out of a lineup of exotics, but I come back to the attention that swirls if you do. I had people hanging out of the windows taking pictures, to the point where I thought I might mow some clumsy gawker over. I still wonder today whether these people knew what they were looking at. Perhaps they thought this was a new Aston, or maybe even an original DB6? I mean, I couldn’t tell the difference. Even when the damn things were right next to each other.

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