There's an absurd scene in Goldeneye, where agent 007 races a hottie through the winding roads above Monte Carlo. James Bond is behind the wheel of a DB5. The girl is driving a Ferrari 355. Guess who wins? Preposterous. That said, if you're not the type of person to take an informed view on the relative merits of Aston's straight six vs. Ferrari's 32-valve 8-cylinder power plant, or the handling implications of conventional vs. electronically damped suspension, the scene made perfect sense. Handsome Bond in beautiful car duels beautiful girl in gorgeous car. That's more than enough information for the average moviegoer.
Encountering a fully restored DB5 39-years after its screen debut (in Goldfinger) it's easy to understand the filmmakers' choice. The Aston still looks fast enough to take on a Ferrari – any Ferrari. Although Touring of Milan sculpted the shape, the DB5 is nothing like the delicately proportioned Ferraris and Maseratis of its day. Examined in detail, the Aston appears to be an automotive farrago, combining a 'smiling bulldog' front grille, muscle car front air scoop, mini-Cadillac tapered wings and Volvo-esque rear window. Taken as a whole, it's the automotive equivalent of a Saville Row suit: butch, yet infinitely elegant. Like Bond himself, the DB5's design somehow manages to combine infinite sophistication with unbridled aggression.
Of course, driving the beast is entirely another matter. 'Maximum Bob' Fountain of The Aston Martin Workshop recently gave me the chance to pilot the non-Corgi version of the car that launched a thousand childhood fantasies. Specifically, I sat behind the wheel a silver DB5 that had just soaked up £175,000 of a California collector's hard-earned cash. And a very nice place to sit it is too. The DB5's wood and leather cabin is an instant, visceral reminder of a time when 'hand made' was synonymous with 'quality'. All the controls, from the gleaming aluminium choke lever to the rock hard plastic turning stalks, snick home with sensual precision. The simple, tasteful décor inspires the same feeling of well-being you'd expect from a London gentleman's club.
Turning the key of the restored car brings the DB5's tuneful engine to life. Fellow anoraks will know that the DB5 was no great mechanical leap forward. Although the car incorporated Aston's full range of engineering expertise, it wasn't as fast as the revolutionary (and vastly less expensive) Jaguar E-Type. It wasn't meant to be. Despite Aston's distinguished racing heritage, the DB5 was designed as a Grand Tourer. Polish engineer Tadek Marek created a 282bhp engine that could generate tremendous (for its day) low-down grunt. Mated to a five-speed gearbox, the 4.0-litre engine propels the relatively heavy DB5 to 60mph in 8.1 seconds, and on to a not inconsiderable 141mph. Multi-pot disc brakes on all four wheels help brave drivers haul the beast back from such 'vigorous' speeds.
After a suitable warm-up, I was free to see what the figures mean in the real world. Doing so on County Durham's country lanes immediately increased my respect for Mr. Brosnan's stunt driver. Bereft of power steering, hustling the car demands a firm hand, muscular shoulders, total concentration, a little talent and a lot of practice. Not to mention bravery. And accuracy; you need the timing of a goalie and the aim of a darts champion to quickly slot the box into the right gear. The brakes are effective, but require both full commitment and a good old-fashioned shove. The suspension? Well, it does nothing to help the car corner at speed. If you persist in thrashing a DB, you'll need to install a racing harness or get a good hold on that wheel; the seats provide no lateral support whatsoever.
Why stress yourself? The DB5 was born to drive on a wide-open road, with a wide-open throttle. That's when the car's unique appeal starts to come through. Everything settles down. The engine provides a soundtrack as quietly reassuring as the steady hum of a twin-engine airplane. Even at 80 miles per hour, you can talk to your passenger or listen to the radio. Meanwhile, minor road imperfections are dismissed with aristocratic disdain. As long as the bends are long and flowing, you can exploit the DB5's structural integrity. Easy does it though. Nice and easy.
The DB5 is an automotive icon as deeply, uniquely British as a pair of gently glowing Lobb shoes or a Purdey side-by-side shotgun. Compared to any modern car, it drives like a truck. So what? The lesson I took away from this encounter was that great design is ultimately more important than outright performance. If you love something, you forgive its shortcomings, and continue to cherish it long after its been eclipsed by something newer and ostensibly better. Goldeneye's producers understood this perfectly. Manufacturers like Ferrari, whose new FX/F60 indicates they're chasing performance at the expense of beauty, or Porsche, whose Cayenne is a bastardisation of a noble design heritage, don't.