When he bought Aston Martin in 1947, David Brown was on to a winner, says Giles Chapman

Aston Martin made its reputation in the 1930s with 1.5-litre sports cars that were stylish, reliable and ideal for endurance racing – one finished third at Le Mans in 1935. Like most small manufacturers, Aston Martin has hit frequent crises, but there's always someone ready to rescue it. This year, it's the rallying guru Dave Richards, but just after the Second World War, it was David Brown.

An engineering tycoon and lifelong speed freak, Brown was browsing the personal columns in The Times one day in 1947 when he spotted an advert offering a sports-car maker called Aston Martin for sale for £20,000. He bought it and vowed to propel the marque to victory at Le Mans. Soon after buying Aston, Brown also bought Lagonda (for £55,000) because it had a brand-new six-cylinder 2.3-litre dual overhead cam engine on the stocks, designed by the legendary W O Bentley. It was ripe for marriage to Aston's promising Atom chassis.

First, though, the works' test driver, St John Horsfall, took an Atom powered by a four-cylinder 1970cc pushrod Aston engine to victory in the 24-hour race at Spa, Belgium, in 1948. It was Aston's best racing success, and a Spa replica went on sale alongside a two-litre convertible later known as the DB1 – the opener of the David Brown era.

For Le Mans in 1949, a new Atom-based coupé was prepared, styled by Lagonda's Frank Feeley. Two of the team cars had Atom engines, while the third had the Lagonda, enlarged to 2,580cc to give 116bhp. This 2.6-litre car retired after six laps with a faulty water-pump. However, a return to Spa saw the 2.6 finish third overall, and the Aston Martin motor was discarded.

The DB2 that went on sale in 1950, at £1,920, was derived directly from the lightweight racer, with small revisions. The windows had opening quarter-lights, the large cooling vents in the front wings had gone, and well-heeled customers could opt for a coupé or a convertible, both two-seaters panelled in aluminium, with a gear-lever mounted on the floor or steering column.

Standards of finish and trim were top-notch, but the DB2 betrayed its origins as a competition machine. The coupé's tiny rear window gave rotten visibility, and the luggage area could be loaded only from inside. However, the bonnet hinged forward for superb access.

In standard form, the DB2 had 105bhp, with a 125bhp Vantage engine optional, and this label has been used since by Aston for its high-performance models. It offered 116mph and 0-60mph in 11.2 seconds, which was no match for the Jaguar XK120, but the Aston package was sensational – roadholding, style, quality and sheer character. From being a make of appeal mainly to racing anoraks, Aston Martin was now the first purveyor of a race-bred yet refined GT car. It was twice as expensive as the Jag, but only two-thirds the price of a Ferrari.

At Le Mans in 1951, the Aston Martin team excelled itself, with DB2s finishing third, fifth and seventh. The cars took a class hat-trick, too, while two privately entered DB2s came 10th and 11th. Five finishes from five starters in this 24-hour killer was unheard of. David Brown had every reason to feel chuffed. Monied connoisseurs naturally craved DB2s of their own, and 410 were built. In 1953, it was modified as the DB2/4, a more refined, user-friendly and roomy road car with a one-piece windscreen, raised roofline, collapsible children's seats and a novel hatchback-style boot.

The 125bhp engine was standard and, although heavier, the DB2/4 retained the earlier car's sparkling road manners and performance. The DB2/4 MkII of 1954 went further still, with a 140bhp three-litre engine making it a virtual 120mph car at last.

In any form, the DB2/4 vied with the Mercedes-Benz 300SL as the best GT in the world. But by 1957, when the DB MkIII arrived with front disc brakes and up to 195bhp, Aston Martin had fierce competition from Maserati and Ferrari. Both firms built quicker and sexier-looking GTs, and Aston would scheme the brilliant DB4 in 1959 to see them off.

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