It is October 2012 and the royal world premiere of Skyfall is in full swing at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Just as a fleeing Bond declares to the accompanying M (Judi Dench) that ‘the trouble with company cars is they have trackers’, our suited hero pushes open a lock-up garage to reveal his dormant Aston Martin DB5. In the presence of the Aston owning Prince of Wales, Daniel Craig and the whole EON Bond family, the Albert Hall guests quickly erupt from amused surprise at the shimmering DB5 to a fully blown round of enthusiastic applause. That does not happen at movie premieres. That does not happen at regular screenings. But such is the affection and recognition of the DB5 and the Aston Martin brand within Bond that audiences genuinely loved that 2012 moment. And it is a movie marriage that is nearly as old as the cinematic 007. It is certainly agreed to be the mid-Sixties point when Aston’s [then] vulnerable businesses were handbrake turned into gold as Goldfinger not only changed Bond and changed cinema. It changed the fortunes of an entire British motor manufacturer, became an iconic union forever more, put a bit of 007 aspiration at the heart of every subsequent order and elevated both brands onto a more bespoke standing they have remained at ever since. One could argue that both the Aston and Bond bolstered each other’s destinies.
Despite owning a few remote control and toy Aston Martins, I am no petrol-head car geek. I don’t own a car. I rent when I need one and don’t get picky about what I get. But I probably know more about cars and marques through Bond. And the one car that will turn my head in the street and leave me with my second lottery winning bucket list fantasy is owning an Aston Martin. The company’s press officer Sophie Tobin later explains how those that can afford it don’t necessarily purchase an Aston because they want to be Bond. That applies only to a small rare few. Those that commission and buy an Aston are often doing so because of the aspiration pedestal James Bond 007 has positioned the Aston on. Bond and Aston are tailored in all sorts of ways to stand out and to stand above – to be bastions of British minded excellence, dexterity and quality. There is nothing off the rail about OO7 or Aston Martin.
“The Aston is a vehicular extension of Bond himself – of his metallic grey tailoring with its jacket-pocket side gills, a front breastplate of stitched metal grillwork and a bulletproof back-window raised like a lapel to divert all menaces.’
‘The Designer Bullets’ / CATCHING BULLETS – MEMOIRS OF A BOND FAN
Whilst Roger Moore is the only 007 to not get behind the wheels of an Aston onscreen – though he makes up for it in 1981’s The Cannonball Run by Moore-ing it up on the Nevada highways in a silver DB5 – the marque has starred in twelve Bond films to date. Whilst the 1960s and 1971 appearance of the Astons were firmly pinned to the era and [then] contemporary editions from those times, from GoldenEye onwards the casting and role of Aston Martin began straddling both the contemporary and vintage traits of Bond. Pierce Brosnan drives the retro-hued silver DB5 in the Brit Pop, Sixties-steered bullets GoldenEye (1995) and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). In an era of British pop-cultural supremacy based on a swinging 1960s pop-cultural history, it made total sense for the DB5 to be Brosnan’s onscreen Bond grammar. However, by the time of a new century and 2002’s Die Another Day the V12 Vanquish is a pointed contemporary wolf in invisible clothing. However, in the spin of Bond’s movie steering wheel none straddled both the old and the new incarnations of Aston Martin more so than Casino Royale. Not only did the 2006 speeding bullet usher in both a new Bond and a golden age of onscreen Bond, it was the first film to embrace both eras of Aston Martin’s 007 associations – with both the returning DB5 and the new DBS flanking Daniel Craig’s soaring introduction. Such was – and is – the cultural and movie hold of Aston that one film got away with two cars from the same house.
Bond doesn’t have a sidekick. Beyond Felix Leiter and the Whitehall Avengers that aide him back home and occasionally pop up abroad to boost their company air miles, Bond is now often on his own with nothing but the Aston. It is the nearest he has to a returning sidekick. And it is not just tech help and speed the car now lends. It is the Aston that Craig’s Bond turns to when he has been fatally poisoned at the hands of Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. It is after winning the Aston in Nassau that teaches him his first lesson in being responsible for the deaths of innocents. It is the Aston Martin DB5 that takes Bond home in Skyfall and whose destruction spurs him on more than any attack on that unloved ancestral home. And it is the DB5 that signs off Spectre with such a closing flourish many assumed that a car’s exit suggested it was Craig’s departure in the role too.
So, it now makes total sense that in the summer Secret Cinema presents its biggest production yet and its quickest ticket shift fever so far with this summer’s Casino Royale, this bullet catcher should be invited by Secret Cinema and EON Productions to truly gauge what goes on in this made-to-measure relationship between an agent and his car – and one which has no signs of pulling over just yet.
Casino Royale is one of the showcase films for Aston and James Bond. Its mark and marques defined OO7 for a new generation. Secret Cinema’s keyword is ‘immersion’. Their events are not just populated by tour guides in character, dress-up instructions and pumping remixes of soundtrack favourites. They encourage a different sensory perception, association and experience with our much-loved cinematic classics. How we experience our movies is changing gears (October 2019’s Skyfall In Concert at the Royal Albert Hall is further testament to that). It is no longer just enough to lug a cool box to some muddy English field to drink Pimms tins and not be able to hear Grease projected half a mile away. Secret Cinema wants to attempt to put you in, on and around the action. And when it comes to Casino Royale, there is nothing more immersive than test-driving Aston Martins with Bond stunt driver Ben Collins (Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, Spectre, No Time to Die) on the very tracks the famous Royale multi-roll was filmed at.
It is a beaming English Saturday in June 2019 at Millbrook Proving Ground in the UK’s Bedfordshire when the full might, engine power and tailored elegance of Aston Martin really comes home to this Bond scholar. Met at the Aston Martin clubhouse by half a dozen contemporary Aston Martin beauties and an equally welcoming team of Aston Martin drivers and minders (these cars have their own minders), soon all apprehensions about the responsibility of driving such ornate beasts are flicked away like a Goldfinger heavy in an ejector seat. And if all else failed this bullet catcher bought two of his own Aston Martins – albeit a Corgi DB5 from Goldfinger and a remote control DBS from Die Another Day – which did its absolute best to keep up with its rather larger, more horse-powered big brothers.
There is a serious care put into each and every Aston Martin. Often made to order with the client’s specs leading the bespoke assembly process (yes, a billionaire once ordered a bubble-gum pink Aston and those making it had to bite their lips), every Aston purrs like a cat just waiting to be transformed into an asphalt biting lion – and all with the perfectly pitched roar of a Welsh male voice choir as soon as you hit triple digits on the speedometer. And part of that care is one of total reassurance. Not only do the Aston team completely put you at calm ease. The cars do too. It is not just the exteriors and interiors that are couture excellent. The Aston’s sense of safety and control is almost personalised with the same style. Whether it is the familiarity of these wing-logoed cars from countless Bond minded films and associations, or maybe the relaxing angles the dimensions of the seats inside get you into – but very soon these high-end automobiles feel very familiar. The psychology of the design is one of utter reassurance. And when you are tasked with handling cars whose asking price is well over £120,000 (and rising) any nervous drivers who arrived in a rental car need all the reassurances they can get.
I have been a passenger and sat in many an Aston and famous Aston over my Bond years. But this was not a day of more backseat awe. This was a day framed by Secret Cinema and EON Productions’ sense of submersion and quality engagement. And very quickly and with zero fanfare an Aston driver comes up to me taking photos of the glistening bodyworks in the June sun and asks ‘are you ready to do the Hill Route in the Rapide?’. ‘Of course,’ says I – fully aware Millbrook Proving Ground’s Hill Route is the location of the car roll in Casino Royale – which translates as a hilly, twisty and potentially precarious road. Not that there is anything twisty or precarious inside the flawless interior of the Aston Martin Rapide S with its beautiful Sahara Tan interior, airtight stitching, leather skin and retro-minded dials.
‘The DB5 is given a sleek mind and character of its own. It is a presence so durable in Goldfinger that it becomes symbiotic with 007 and the Bond brand forever more.’
‘The Designer Bullets’ / CATCHING BULLETS – MEMOIRS OF A BOND FAN
And with my awe and impending wonder at being about to drive the Rapide around the Hill Route as both road and car were designed totally making me overlook the good advice the expert was imparting, I was doing that kerbside driver swap thing and easing myself into the driving seat of an Aston Martin. Okay, so before Bond tries to rescue a kidnapped Vesper Lynd in the last act of Casino Royale he never once starts off with a jokey ‘mirrors, signals, manoeuvre’ and a sign of the cross. Yet, with my little nervous tic out the way and an invite to move off and start shifting up the gears, I was powering an Aston Martin Rapide S excitedly through the alpine conditions of the 1970 designed man-made testing ground purposely engineered to mirror various road (and maybe car chase) conditions the world over. I say excitedly. I am not sure my first lap of the Hill Route at Driving Miss Daisy speeds was quite as excited as Daniel Craig’s sleek car ballet through Spectre’s Rome. The blown-up DB5 in Skyfall went faster than my first lap of the Hill Route. However, with Timothy Dalton’s ‘time to leave‘ observation from The Living Daylights in my head, I immediately wanted to take things to OO7th gear and prove my own Bond car mettle.
The proving ground here is not just designed for technical expertise and research advancements. It is also used for anti-hijack, trailing techniques and evasive driving training. Though there was a realisation early on that I would not be able to rescue Vesper Lynd at the drop of a poker chip – even if I did have the keys to an Aston. World terrorism or not, this bullet catcher would never jeopardise my third-party insurance liability. Fortunately, the Aston Martin is already ahead of its driver and their proficiencies. These supercars curiously reassure you that these cars are not designed to crash, roll or losing their footing. It takes a lot of de-safety amendments to get an Aston to do the things a Bond film requires. Rolling seven times on the 6.5km Hill Route circuit will not be happening today. And before one could say ‘invisible car’ this bullet catcher was mentally humming Chris Cornell’s theme song, checking wing mirrors for approaching menace, changing gear in a mental close-up and raising an eyebrow or two at non-existent helicopter missiles.
Naturally, this driver did still pause at the spot Bond evades Vesper Lynd’s bound torso only to roll multiple times into a grassy clearing in 2006. It is hard to avoid as the road is still repaired in four places where the DBS hit and then bounced before crashing into the verge. Millbrook and Aston Martin are proud of that carefully calculated moment which still saw off a few cars, repair bills and false starts as filming commenced through various nights on the Millbrook course in 2006. Those movie moments are left to the experts – the seasoned drivers and second unit deity who really make the movie magic happen. It is a movie magic that Secret Cinema are keen to incorporate into their Casino Royale production whilst honouring the two-fold casting of Aston Martin in Craig’s 2006 bullet. And the Remy Julienne of the Daniel Craig era is stunt driver, Ben Collins. A racing veteran of NASCAR, Le Mans, Formula Three, Top Gear and more, Collins fell into movie driving by accident. Literally. A car injury u-turned his fortunes and he found himself in a new niche doubling for A-Listers, screeching around the world’s greatest movie sets and franchises, and quite relishing the new gear. The likes of Mission: Impossible, National Treasure, The Dark Knight Rises and Solo – A Star Wars Story have all benefitted from Ben’s skills. But the gig that put him in the racing line of Bond and Bond audiences was 2008’s Quantum of Solace. One of the most visceral car chases ever committed to screen, that bullet’s pre-title cacophony of crunching metal, pained turns and ricocheting menace took at least three months of training, planning and filming to complete. Ben doubled for Daniel Craig behind the wheel and was soon asked back for the subsequent Skyfall and Spectre. He didn’t handle the Royale roll, but is keen to try and emulate the DBS’s airborne jump when we later return to the Hill Route in the Rapide for a great carpool chat that can be viewed below. Naturally, what seems like a fast bump to this passenger riding shotgun with one of the fastest – and calmest – stunt drivers in the world was of course a ‘bit light’ to Mr Collins. My cameraman and his recent lunch thought otherwise.
Ben Collins is one of the lesser known components that keep the current OO7 wheel turning metaphorically and literally. Ben is also a huge Bond fan who knows his OO7 history, his Bond films and cites one particularly different car moment as his favourite – to which this bullet catcher let out a little internal scream of joy. I suggest to Ben he is the new Rémy Julienne (legendary car stunt designer of A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights, The Italian Job and Frantic). Ben is too humble to admit that and suggests the stunts on a Bond are ordered and maintained in very different ways compared to the 1960s and 1970s. But he does love the invention of the more caper-minded Roger Moore era of vehicular co-stars that Julienne often
oversaw – including the Renault car chase in A View to a Kill which Ben admits he is rather fond of alongside the rest of the film. He is keen too to also cite his love for the first Aston he noticed as a Bond fan kid – namely the V8 Vantage from The Living Daylights which he lauds as a ‘meaty car… a proper Matchbox toy car’. That proper Matchbox car has also now got a returning role in the new Bond film as the Aston from the silver anniversary film The Living Daylights (1987) is now going to star in the silver Bond bullet No Time to Die and Mr Ben Collins will be behind the wheel. The Vantage V8 was also the first non DB5 this Bond writer could also name as a kid. Though after this glorious day behind various Aston wheels the Rapide and the DBS Superleggera are also now favourites too. And the Vantage. And the Volante. Yep – you cannot pick your best Aston. Although, from its menacing front hexagonal grille and its more youthful curves and rounded profile, the white DBS Superleggera on the Aston catwalk today stood out like the endearing younger brother of its rigid, contoured older siblings. Not that it handled any differently as Ben Collins proved when he took it for a literal spin on the Steering Pad to demonstrate those quadruple salchows, handbrake about-turns, sideways gliding and precision halts. It was here one immediately saw why Ben Collins gets the call up to take Daniel Craig’s Bond out for a spin when the need arises. Another thirty seconds balletic driving across the pad and Collins admits the rather commanding tyres on the Superleggera would have been a write-off. It is then you realise the sub-industries and costs of mounting any Aston sequence in a Bond film. It is not just Tom Ford’s suits which have expensive back-ups in the wings for our man Bond. The Astons do too.
This bullet catcher was able to get a proper spin (with crash helmets) in the Superleggera – where the flattest, most apparently mundane course of the day proved to be the most rollercoaster-minded as I was holding on for dear life like Tiffany Case in a Vegas drive-by shooting. In his mind Ben was no doubt coasting. In my mind, I was in the midst of the pre-credits overture to Quantum of Solace and mentally chewing through various rosaries for dear life. And then that quote from Daniel Craig and that DB5 reveal in Skyfall had sudden prescience. One of Aston Martin’s understandable safety mechanisms is to fit trackers into these cars to monitor their speeds and locations. Whilst Mr Collins and I tried our best to ignore the recurring Moneypenny safety alerts we were both fast and curious at the intrusion and eventually had to pull over to silence said safety voice. Twice. As our carpool chat gathered great pace, Collins is nothing but congratulatory when it comes to working for Bond. ‘I had to pinch myself first time working on a Bond movie’, he suggests. ‘The stunt team they put together for these films is first class.’. Ben admits it is always a good day when the call comes to take the steering wheel of a new Bond film. His rainy Sunday afternoon TV Bonds were the same as a whole generations of Bond fan’s entry point into the series. Although we only get to play at driving like Bond whilst humming various theme tunes – something this Bond kid is not afraid to admit to Mr Collins… who then admits he does the same himself. And one can imagine why he does get that call from EON every few years. He had never driven the Rapide before yet made it look and move like he was married to it – knowing its quirks and grips on the corners, how it can be pushed and what respect it needs. He knows what has gone into the fast and furious history of Bond’s vehicular activity – whether it is a tuk-tuk from Octopussy or the inventive velocity of a yellow 2CV in For Your Eyes Only. As someone who explains to Ben how my entry point into Bond was through the cars and my grandfather’s own Bond steer, it is clear that 007’s cars and particularly the various Astons are many generations’ vital provisional licences into the onscreen world of our man James.
The early GPS maps of Goldfinger’s DB5, the first time Bond drives a female co-star (Tilly Masterson, Goldfinger), the introduction of the very first new Bond framed from the anonymity and safety of an early DBS (George Lazenby, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), the frantic communications back to the office of Casino Royale from a fledgling agent, the post-titles christening of Pierce Brosnan in the GoldenEye DB5, the romantic picks ups and frenzied rescues, the overture to the pop-art heritage of Thunderball’s title sequence, the ejector seat notoriety and the death of a wife. The Aston doesn’t just lend movement to the action and adventure of Bond. Through Aston Martin and the driving performances of the likes of Ben Collins, the marque lends movement to his story, whims, romances and losses. And no Bond bullet probably underlines that more than Casino Royale – the starting pistol on OO7’s new golden age. It is a relationship that has every chance of continuing as both Daniel Craig, James Bond and Aston Martin evolve and continue their partnerships on the roads ahead. As No Time to Die gathers a production pace throughout the globe, Aston Martin can now formally announce that the DB5, the Aston Martin Vantage V8 and the brand new hypercar the Aston Martin Valhalla will now feature alongside 007 in the first time three of the marques will star in one Bond film. 007th gear is looking good for our man James.
Mark O’Connell’s full carpool chat with Ben Collins can be watched here:
Special thanks to Secret Cinema, Joe Lamb, Sophie Tobin, the Aston Martin drivers and Clubhouse team, EON Productions, Elliot Fabian and of course Mr Ben Collins.
Secret Cinema Presents Casino Royale played out in London for the summer of 2019 and due to a phenomenal demand for tickets extended its run into October 2019 before taking the whole production to China’s Shanghai as its next pit stop.
‘The Aston Martin – like James Bond himself – can be regenerated.’
‘The Designer Bullets’ / CATCHING BULLETS – MEMOIRS OF A BOND FAN