Before Tony Stark’s Audi R8, before the Bumblebee Camaro in Transformers—yes, even before Steve McQueen’s Mustang in Bullitt—there was James Bond and Aston Martin.
The British marque has made hay from its 55-year relationship with 007, and now it’s making green: Aston Martin is building 25 factory replicas of the Q-equipped, gadget-laden DB5 that Sean Connery drove in 1964’s Goldfinger, right down to their fender-mounted Browning machine guns, revolving license plates and more. Each model was presold for a cool $3.5 million. Sure, it’s a cash grab. But at least it’s a classy cash grab.
For an even-richer spy’s ransom, an Aston fan can own the real thing. I popped by RM Sotheby’s in New York the other day and sat in a knee-wobbling DB5 that may fetch an estimated $4 million to $6 million on August 15 at the company’s Monterey auction during the Pebble Beach Concours weekend. That Snow Shadow Grey DB5 is one of four cars (with three surviving) that Aston Martin loaned to Eon Productions for the filming of Goldfinger and a promotional tour for 1965’s Thunderball, in which the DB5 also briefly appeared.
This version spent 35 years as the centerpiece of the Smoky Mountain Car Museum in Tennessee. It then underwent a lavish restoration in Switzerland that included refurbishing all 13 of the spy gadgets created (in real life) by cinematic special-effects master John Stears. Aside from the .30-caliber machine guns—their fire mimicked by an onboard tank mixture of oxygen and propane—they include working smoke, oil and nail dispensers at the rear, the better to ditch the bad guys. And the Ben-Hur-style “tire slashers” that Sean Connery’s 007 used to shred Tilly Masterson’s Mustang on Switzerland’s Furka Pass. (In Bond’s world, that passed for foreplay). There’s also a pop-up rear bulletproof screen; a charming, pre-GPS “tracking scope” and chromed hydraulic rams on both bumpers to butt rivals out of the way. Only the famous,fighter-jet passenger ejection seat is (and was) a non-working movie prop, “triggered” in the movie via a red button atop the slender five-speed manual shifter.
Aston Martin, being synonymous with British automotive elegance, fit Bond like a tuxedo and a Vesper martini. Which is why author Ian Fleming put Bond in an Aston Martin DB Mark III in his 1959 novel Goldfinger.As such, the relationship far predates the era of calculated product placement in movies—to the point that Aston Martin founder David Brown initially rejected the producers’ request for an Aston Martin to shoot in the Goldfinger movie. Can you imagine a modern corporation turning down a request from, say, Marvel Studios, to have Captain America drive their car, drink their brand of beer or apply their Windex to his shield? No, which is why paid product placement has become a $10 billion annual business in America.
Stears and set designer Ken Adams had to convince a skeptical Brown that the car wouldn’t be relegated to the background, but integral to the movie and its chase scenes. Brown initially loaned the production a worn-out DB4, which was retrofitted with gadgets and used strictly as a static “effects car.” That special-effects gear added at least 400 pounds to the car, so the producers secured a DB5 to film actual driving sequences. Two more DB5s were then equipped to Q-Branch spec for promotional tours around America, including the model at Sotheby’s. Naturally, all the cars built at Aston’s historic Newport-Pagnell plant were right-hand drive, as befits an agent of Britain’s MI6.
In today’s more-enlightened times, Bond women are no longer relegated to Moneypenny roles. (Or, Moneypenny is rewritten as an ass-kicking agent herself, albeit one whose aim could use some work.) The same is true at Aston Martin, where Laura Schwab is president of its American operations.
With Bond 25 in the works as the 25th installment in the movie franchise—including an Oscar-minted Rami Malek in the choice villain’s role—Schwab tells me that three different Aston Martin models will be featured in a 007 film for the first time. As I chat with Schwab at Sotheby’s, the classic Aston exerts its magnetic pull on pedestrians, who detour through the auction house’s revolving doors to admire this classic GT with its fender-mounted mirrors and bodywork by Italy’s Carrozzeria Touring Superleggera. Sitting at the curb, and further prettifying this stretch of Manhattan, are a pair of modern Aston bookends: The roughly $305,000 DBS Superleggera, a 715 horsepower, twin-turbo V-12 (versus 286 for the DB5’s inline six) underlines the outrageous state of modern performance; and a lovely Vantage coupe, whose relative-bargain $150,000 base price and 195-mph top speed make it a welcome addition to the lineup.
Schwab explains why the connection between Aston and 007 is real and organic, and not the typical product placement. (The less said about Daniel Craig sipping a Heineken while in bed with a Bond girl, the better).
“Even people who don’t know much about Aston Martin will say, ‘That’s James Bond’s car.’ There’s a romantic relationship between the two,” she says. “And the car is really connected to the character and the story: They’re both calm, collected, not too flashy.”
I still recall watching Skyfallin a Brooklyn movie theater in 2012, and my amazement when Daniel Craig’s on-the-run 007 requisitioned a vintage car from a darkened garage: The crowd burst into cheers and applause at the sight of Connery’s old DB5.
As M, Judi Dench gets the killer, martini-dry punchline: “Oh, and I suppose that’s completely inconspicuous?”
There have been great, middling and bad Bond cars over a half-century, from Pierce Brosnan’s fling with BMW roadsters—both pretty poseurs in their Bond roles—to Craig’s mercifully brief roll-up in a cynically placed Ford Mondeo sedan, back when Ford’s brand stable included Aston Martin, Jaguar and Land Rover. (007, straight from the Hertz counter).
But just as no 007 has ever topped Connery’s suave original—Craig, to me, comes closest—no Bond car has ever topped the DB5.