INTERNATIONAL - The Geneva Motor Show this year was characterized by what might as well have been alien life forms.
There wasn’t much room to navigate between the $2 million electric cars in carbon fiber exoskeletons and $3 million jet-propelled bugs designed to break 300 mph. But those who paid attention to more mundane matters were rewarded by a stylish Brit sitting quietly in the center of it all—“mundane” being a relative term.
The £520,000 ($685,000) Speedback GTs on display from David Brown Automotive are hand-built odes to times past. Open their doors, elegant and long like a woman’s glove, and encounter such sundry pleasures as burled-walnut steering wheels, tartan interiors, hand-braided saddle-leather accents, picnic sets of enamel crockery, and silver plated tools ingeniously folded into hatchback trunks. The ruby-red Speedback GT sitting at the center of the display was a dead ringer for a Jaguar Jane Birkin would have driven—at least, from the front. From the back, it looked like a svelte Aston Martin.
You could be forgiven for guessing it’s a remake of either. The cars are built using an original chassis, transmission, and suspension from a Jaguar XKR—that’s the one featured in Die Another Day—with a custom-built aluminum body styled to look like an Aston Martin DB5. That’s the one 007 drove in Goldfinger.
David Brown, the eponymous founder of the Silverstone, England-based manufacturer, started selling them in 2014 after finishing a vintage motor car rally of his own and facing disappointment with the performance and reliability of the Ferrari Daytona he borrowed for the occasion. (By coincidence, a different David Brown owned Aston Martin and was the namesake for the “DB” nomenclature of its cars—DB5, DB9, etc. That DB died in 1993.)
“The steering was heavy, the brakes by any standard poor, and it was woefully underpowered,” Brown said of the Daytona at the time. “It was also very uncomfortable.”
He was forced to abandon the rally after just two days, on account of the car getting stuck in second gear.
The experience got him thinking about how much more fun, driving-wise, it would be to combine the style of those beautiful cars from the late 1960s and early ‘70s with contemporary power and technology that modern drivers expect—things such as air conditioning, power steering, disc brakes, and adequate sound systems. So Brown partnered with designers from Land Rover and employed 40 builders to debut the first Speedback GT and then, just this year, almost painfully endearing Minis to go along with it.
These classic gran turismo cars could travel long distances in comfort, but with the kind of allure a vintage car exudes from every crack.
For context on the work involved, prices on the discontinued XKR hovered in the $90,000 range new; used ones can be found now for $27,000 to $47,500 on Autotrader. Brown representatives say each Speedback build takes about 8,000 hours over nine to 10 months.
Brown is hardly the first small-batch builder to make modern jewels out of vintage cars. Many of them seem to be located in California. Rod Emory and Jonathan Ward’s small shops do beaucoup business on Porsches and trucks, respectively, and others have made one-off, reimagined Ferraris of their own, though Singer Vehicle Design is perhaps the best-known at the moment. Singer trotted out its own special project in Geneva, too—a $1.8 million “superlightweight” Porsche DLS “reimagined” from a 1990 964 and created in partnership with Williams Advanced Engineering, a racing company.
That car, which initially debuted at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, comes on the heels of other six-figure Singer models that have become hugely popular with collectors. Wait times can range from a year to three years, depending on how prominent the buyer is, or how close she or he is with company founder Rob Dickinson, former lead singer of a British rock band, Catherine Wheel.
Business is good for Brown, too. Sales have increased every year, to eight Speedbacks sold in 2018, according to a representative manning the Geneva stand. Peter Haynes, a spokesman for DBA, says the shop has capacity for five to 10 Speedbacks annually and will build 50 Mini Remastered models this year (the first full year of production) and 100 in 2020. This year saw the most models yet on public display—five of them in Geneva, ranging from the £75,000 Minis to a £620,000 Speedback Silverstone Edition.
Brown will only ever make a total of 10 Silverstone Editions; depending on options, pricing can hit $1 million. The 601-horsepower two-seater amps up the standard Speedback with enamel badging along its svelte front and sides, a signature grille, 20-inch alloy wheels, twin LED headlamps set in dark ceramic and brushed chrome, and a cockpit made to look like a classic jet plane, complete with antique tanned leather seats and detailed broguing. Where the rear seats would be, a bespoke luggage set is custom-fit to store. The cockpit includes satellite connectivity, Bluetooth, parking sensors, and surround sound from Bowers & Wilkins. In short, it’s like the other GTs but more extra.
And while its V8 engine covers 60 mph in 4.2 seconds, with a top speed of 155 mph—not exactly world record stats—it’ll be just as rare and coveted as those million-dollar hypercars. By the end of the show, it had nearly sold out.