Test-driving the DBA Speedback GT

David Brown created the car to fulfill his need for a modern machine with a classic body.

The car has been likened to the Aston Martin DB5, but Brown says the differences are significant. Courtesy DBA
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"Maverick" is possibly a strong word for David Brown, the entrepreneur behind the latest niche car brand from the UK. He's an entertaining character with a colourful and interesting past – spanning a varied career that has included rock 'n' roll, industrial machinery and an award-winning department store close to his native North Yorkshire, among many other business concerns.

But he’s not wilfully eccentric, nor are his motives difficult to understand; in his own no-nonsense way, and if you’ll forgive the patent observation of labelling him a straight-talking Yorkshire man, he asserts: “I’ve never been frightened of making something from scratch, whether that’s a physical product like an articulated off-highway dump truck or whether it is, for example, starting a restaurant in an empty building.”

But it’s what has brought us to the beautiful Yorkshire Dales, only a few weeks after the Tour de France has breezed through the area, that piques interest like nothing else. You have to concede that his latest brainchild is certainly risky. His very name is part of the problem, as is the aesthetic he has bestowed upon his latest creation. For he has set up David Brown Automotive, and DBA’s first machine, the Speedback GT, is a “modern classic” that bears more than a passing resemblance to an Aston Martin DB5 – and guess what the two letters in DB5 stood for?

Let’s sort this out, because we can understand you being confused. David Brown, a Yorkshire man, made agricultural machinery. Another David Brown from Yorkshire began making construction machinery. One of them eventually owned Aston Martin, lending his initials to many of the iconic cars that issued forth from its Newport Pagnell base (and still do). The other saw his company form such a close relationship with Caterpillar that, one day, the former was purchased by the latter – although, by this time, the company was run by his son (also David), who is the man behind DBA. So a trio of Yorkshire men with the same name, all moving from heavy-duty vehicles to making cars.

That inadvertent association with Aston has led to a few issues. Internet dissenters have come pouring out of the woodwork in the months since DBA revealed ‘Project Judi’ to the world back in April. Accused of being an ungainly pastiche of a DB5, with particular venom reserved for – of all things – the Speedback’s wire wheels, and with mutterings of cashing in on the convenient Aston namesake never fully subsiding, it is a car to divide opinion. But Brown is unrepentant. He never set out to just copy the DB5, he says. “I love 1960s car design, it is the most beautiful of the lot,” he explains. “This car is supposed to evoke that period. It is not like a DB5 at all; I own a DB5 myself and, when they’re parked alongside each other, the differences are huge. All I really wanted was a car that looked like a classic but had all the convenience and reliability of a modern car.”

Designed by Alan Mobberley, a man who was chief designer at Land Rover among other roles of distinction, this is one of those vehicles where pictures simply cannot convey how successfully it works in the metal. Under a lowering northern sky, in its beautiful gunmetal paint (more on this later), the Speedback looks fantastic. There’s a wonderful, crisp swage line running the length of the car, while proportionally it is excellent. OK, the influences of the other 1960s classics within its shape may be a little overwhelmed by the more apparent Aston theme, but it has an identity all of its own with a wealth of exquisite detail touches to lift it. Later on, during our test drive, people stare unreservedly as it rolls past; it is clearly very striking.

But perhaps more pertinent is the sheer quality of the build. Each of the Speedback’s aluminium panels is hand-beaten in the same way as those on the DB5 were, but unlike the older car – when wooden “bucks” for shaping them were made from a clay model – this has been fully computer designed to ensure the best shut lines possible. “While the way they built a car in the 1960s resulted in such beautiful machines, there are endless possibilities for things to go wrong when scaling production up from a clay model to the full-sized thing,” says Brown. “My DB5 is about an inch-and-a-half longer on one side than it is on the other. Computer-aided design prevents that from happening with our car.”

He’s not wrong there. The tightness of the panel gaps would shame much larger, more mainstream manufacturers and although this is officially a “prototype” that Brown will be keeping for himself, it looks like it was built on a huge engineering budget. Though he is coy about precisely which companies they are, he does claim a number of long-established carmakers have told him they could not build a first-time car to this exacting standard. “It is only possible for us now,” he adds, “because of advances in low-volume production techniques. Thanks to five-axis milling machines and CAD, we can make a lot of the parts for a limited production run car like this and know they will fit together so well; it just wasn’t possible before. I always wanted to bring the art of coachbuilding into the 21st century – I think we’ve done that with the Speedback.”

Sure, the Speedback is bound to put a few noses out of joint at Aston Martin, but it is a wondrous thing in its own right and anyway, there’s another British luxury car company that’s getting behind the DBA Speedback – and that’s Jaguar. This is because underneath that swooping coachwork are the chassis and running gear of an XKR Convertible. The open-top was chosen because it has extra structural bracing lower down in the chassis, which helps the rigidity of the finished DBA. The Speedback’s kerb weight is quoted as 1,976kg and its performance stats – 0-100kph in 4.8 seconds, 248kph limited top speed, fuel consumption of 12.3L/100km – put it pretty much on a par with the base car. And a long way ahead of anything from the 1960s.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the interior, which is exceptional. There are signposts to the XK heritage, but with elm panelling, differently shaped, leather-trimmed seats and bespoke dials and display graphics throughout, it looks marvellous. There’s still some refining to be done for customer cars, but practicality and comfort were key drivers for Brown. The rear seats fold down for instance (they don’t in the Jag) so a set of golf clubs can fit in the boot, while a clever picnic bench emerges out of the Speedback’s boot floor.

Nor is there anything wrong with the way the car confidently goes about its business. Based as it is on a fantastic performance coupé, it uses smaller wheels than the XKR at 19 inches in diameter. This allows for Dunlop SP Sport rubber of 40-profile front, 35-profile rear, and that translates into a ride quality that surpasses that of the Jaguar on which it is based. Those tight panel gaps mean wind noise is simply not an issue and more than 500 supercharged horses ensure the DBA can make indecent progress when requested. It is precisely what it says on the tin, a grand tourer, capable of mega distance without exhausting its occupants, yet possessed of ample performance should the need ever arise.

A testing route involving the Buttertubs Pass was devoured with consummate ease by the Speedback, although prudence – and, more to the point, the presence of Brown in the passenger seat of the car; “it’s like watching your daughter go up the stairs with her boyfriend!” he exclaims as we cut round one tighter bend – prevented me from prolonged, effervescent driving. But the few times the DBA was opened up and asked to dissect a challenging corner or two, it more than stood up to the task. And the V8’s noise is fabulous, with the acoustics seemingly embellished by the unique shape of the DBA’s body.

There’s one more issue to deal with and that is price. At the moment, the quoted figure is £495,000 (Dh3.014 million) excluding VAT, which in its home market would push the final cost to £594,000. But DBA will sell cars overseas, with the price adjusting according to local taxes. In fact, two of the current six confirmed orders are for left-hand drive examples. The Speedback, therefore, doesn’t come cheap. However, it should be borne in mind that for genuine, potential buyers, the 100-off exclusivity of this “modern classic” will make it worth the entry fee; that, plus the purchase cost of an XKR, the removal of its body, the creation of the Speedback’s handcrafted aluminium panels and the bespoke interior finish.

Brown also says the colour combinations can be anything buyers like, because it’s their car – even if he would be unsure of one finished in lime green with a brown interior, say. And as for the hue on this one: “It has a lot of burgundy in it to complement the interior. And seeing as I am inspired by all sorts of things, including rock music, when we were asked to name our paint we called it Guns N’ Roses. Which is doubly appropriate, because the car can be like a weapon one minute and then a delicate flower the next.”

It’s easy for “internet heroes” to criticise the DBA Speedback GT, but Brown has to be admired for thinking of an idea and then executing it in such a short space of time; it was only March 2013 when he began this project in earnest. And the end result of his automotive passion is genuinely remarkable. It is dynamically resolved, elegantly styled and supremely comfortable, and like nothing else out there. If there are enough similarly minded folk to David Brown in the world – and I rather suspect there are – then he’ll have no trouble shifting the 100 Speedbacks he plans to build. He currently has a stock of 10 XKRs and six firm orders, and with each DBA taking around six months to construct, that’s a starting point for the continued future of David Brown Automotive. Who knows where this maverick “classic” car firm will go from there, should the Speedback be successful? I, for one, wish DBA all the luck in the world – because vehicles like this fully deserve their place in automotive history.