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License to Thrill

Shaun Tolson

He’s one of the most enduring characters ever created. Equal parts savage and suave, with a disposition as cold as his shaken martinis, James Bond delivers something for everyone. As Christie’s specialist Nicolette Tomkinson puts it: “All men aspire to be Bond, and all women want to be with Bond.”

Sixty years ago, Ian Fleming put the final touches on his first spy novel, Casino Royale, then sat back to see how the world would receive it. His editors weren’t enthralled by his story, which chronicled the missions of a British secret service agent, but they published it anyway. The general public, however, couldn’t get enough—three print runs were needed to quell the demand. The novel’s success led to 11 more, along with two short-story collections, all of which Fleming wrote between 1953 and 1966.

Within a decade, Bond had catapulted from the printed page to the silver screen and soon millions of men yearned to be the character that Sean Connery so urbanely portrayed. “On the surface you see the glitz, the glamour, the gadgets, the superb locations, and the beautiful women,” says Bonhams’ automobilia specialist Toby Wilson, who as a child discovered the character though Fleming’s novels and later watched the films once his parents deemed him old enough. “The glitz and glamour got me first, but then I understood the darker side later on and I think that’s part of the appeal.”

From his post in London, Wilson has watched global demand for James Bond–related memorabilia intensify over the years (see “Buying into Bond” below). It’s simply another indication of men’s desires to live the fantasy. But as Wilson sees it, some acquisitions can bring that fantasy a few steps closer to reality. “There are some gadgets which, if you’re able to get them, would be quite high on the cool meter,” he says, “but you couldn’t use them every day [or at all]. But if you can get behind the wheel of a DB5, then you could almost be James Bond, couldn’t you?”

The mystique associated with the infamous MI6 secret agent had its effect on Harry Yeaggy, an American automobile collector who, in 2010, purchased a 1964 Aston Martin DB5 used in the filming of Goldfinger and Thunderball. The car, which Yeaggy acquired for £2.9 million(about $4.6 million), is equipped with revolving license plates, Browning machine guns, and a Martin-Baker fighter jet ejector seat, among other MI6 gadgets, and it is believed to be the sole survivor of a pair of Aston Martins that Eon Productions procured for the films. “This is the car that I’ve always wanted,” Yeaggy remarked after the RM Auctions sale that brought him the vehicle. “After all, it is the most famous car in the world.”

Once film production ceased, Eon Productions commissioned two additional DB5 press cars to be made and equipped with all of Bond’s gadgets, which the company later used to promote the films. One sold to a private collector for almost $2.1 million in 2006, while the other remains on display in the Louwman Museum—the Dutch national motor museum—where it has resided since 1991. “It’s the most important car that James Bond drove,” says Ronald Kooyman, the museum’s managing director. “It’s really the start of the marriage between Aston Martin and James Bond.”

Only a handful of DB5s boast a connection to Eon Productions and a direct link to James Bond. Nevertheless, hundreds of enthusiasts no doubt feel like secret agents in vintage Aston Martins of their own. The company produced slightly more than 1,000 DB5s between 1963 and 1966, and it’s believed that at least 90 percent of those models still exist. They may not be the James Bond cars, but according to Doug Redenius, cofounder of the Ian Fleming Foundation, “if you’re driving an Aston Martin, you’re driving a Bond car.”

Orlando Herrera aspired to own a DB5 since he was a teenager. As the 62-year-old Aston Martin enthusiast recalls, his first exposure to the car occurred in a darkened movie theater while watching Goldfinger. “My father took me to the film and then to an auto dealership to see the car,” he says, “and it was like love at first sight.”

Decades passed before Herrera could afford one, but once he could he contacted Kevin Kay, an Aston Martin restoration specialist and owner of Kevin Kay Restorations in Redding, Calif. As Kay explains, DB5s don’t often appear on the market—many owners tend to hold on to theirs, and it’s not uncommon to find a car (even a downtrodden example) in the same owner’s care for 30-plus years. When those owners do finally sell, they almost always make a sizable profit. According to Kay, one DB5 owner who bought his car for $4,000 about three decades ago recently sold it (in inoperable condition and in need of a complete restoration) for $450,000. “DB5 values are far above DB4s and DB6s primarily because of that James Bond connection,” he says. “It’s a very similar car, but it’s that connection that makes the DB5 so much more valuable.”

Herrera is familiar with those similarities; his first Aston Martin was a DB6, because he couldn’t find a DB5 owner who would sell. However, once he did acquire a DB5 in the late 1990s he noticed a couple of significant differences. For starters, when he was seated behind the wheel the car felt less spacious. “The DB5 was tighter,” he says. “It felt like a tailored suit.” Additionally, the car attracted a lot more attention. Over the seven years that he owned the car, Herrera didn’t feel like James Bond when he initially sat in it, but that changed once he was out on the road. “Even if you didn’t feel that way, people would make you feel that way,” he says. “The car tends to cause a bit of a commotion. On the freeway, people would drive past me, leaning out the window trying to take a picture of my car with their cell phone, or they would run down the street trying to take a picture of the car.”

The DB5 that Herrera acquired (for $80,000) needed a complete restoration, and when the time came to determine a new paint scheme, Herrera didn’t hesitate to re-create the classic silver car that he remembered from his youth. “In the DB5 market, you have two categories of people,” he says. “You have the purists who would have it restored to its factory condition and you have the people who want the car to look like the Goldfinger car.”

The Goldfinger fans far outnumber the purists. In the 25 years that he’s focused on vintage Aston Martins, Kevin Kay has restored only half a dozen DB5s, which speaks to their rarity. However, he says the overwhelming paint choice for a DB5 or any other vintage Aston Martin is Silver Birch. He’s also seen plenty of James Bond–related vanity plates and has appeased owners who have wanted to modify their Astons to include secret compartments and other special-agent details. “It’s impossible to not think of yourself as James Bond,” says a 48-year-old DB5 owner who wishes to remain anonymous and who fondly recalls watching every Bond film growing up. “I even downloaded all of the theme songs from James Bond films to play while I’m driving the car.”

Last year, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first James Bond film, Dr. No, director Stevan Riley created Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007, a documentary that revealed the inside story behind the creation of the Bond film franchise and the efforts that kept it alive. Riley believes that the movies’ success is dependent upon the main character. “He’s a hero who takes on evil and fights for good,” Riley says of Bond, “but he embodies a lot of contradictions. He’s very refined but he can abandon himself to drink and other pleasures of the flesh.

“It was a widening spectrum over the years of where the character could go,” Riley continues. “Without [Roger] Moore you probably couldn’t have [Pierce] Brosnan. Licence to Kill was a very violent movie, but Timothy Dalton’s pioneering on that front paved the way for Daniel Craig and allowed the character to return to the essence of the books. Everyone has an opinion on Bond, but it’s up to the producers to determine which direction Bond goes.” As Riley explains, at any time of crisis or when a film introduced a new actor to play Bond, the producers always reverted back to Ian Fleming’s novels for direction. Most of the time, they also reverted back to Aston Martin.

The concept of a secret agent’s modified sports car didn’t infiltrate the plots of the first two Bond films, Dr. No and From Russia with Love. When the idea gained traction in the 1964 film Goldfinger, Sean Connery battled Gert Fröbe from behind the wheel of a silver Aston Martin DB5. When George Lazenby later swept in—albeit briefly—as the next face of the infamous double-O agent, he did so while driving an Aston Martin DBS. Eighteen years later, Timothy Dalton reprised the role and brought out more of the character’s cold-blooded nature, but not before he was seen driving a V8 Vantage Volante. Thus far, five of the six actors to play James Bond have done so while sharing the spotlight with at least one model from the 100-year-old British automaker’s fleet of sports cars.

BMW roadsters temporarily held Bond’s favor during Pierce Brosnan’s tenure in the 1990s (more on this later), but not before Brosnan raced his DB5 against a Ferrari F355 GTS on winding mountain roads in the 1995 film GoldenEye. As for the latest trio of Bond films starring Daniel Craig, Aston Martin has monopolized the roads. In Craig’s first film, Casino Royale, the producers finally had a chance to tell the story of Bond’s beginning, and in doing so, they also chronicled Bond’s introduction to Aston Martin. The first Aston that Craig drove? You guessed it, a DB5.

“The way they’ve reinvented Bond in the modern age is exceptional,” says Matthew Clarke, head of Aston Martin public relations for the Americas. “Daniel Craig does a great job of moving Bond into modern times; he’s a tough guy in a suit. There’s a certain strength about him, it’s disguised in a very understated and cool way. We see our brand in a similar way; our cars are very elegant but there’s a sense of understated power beneath the surface.”

With a universally recognized brand thanks to James Bond films, Aston Martin doesn’t need to invest in many other marketing initiatives. Instead, the company has used the recent Bond films to introduce new models. In Casino Royale, when Bond sees his new Aston Martin DBS for the first time, the rest of the world sees it for the first time with him. “That’s how highly we value that relationship,” Clarke says.

Another auto brand implemented a similar marketing effort a decade previously. In 1995, Eon Productions unveiled a new James Bond—Pierce Brosnan—and a new Bond car—a BMW Z3 roadster. At the time, Jim McDowell was vice president of marketing for BMW North America, and he recalls the company’s chairman issuing a challenge to introduce a car in a new way. One of the proposed, ancillary ideas involved a movie tie-in, but once McDowell and his team learned of the upcoming Bond film, GoldenEye, the proposition of movie integration became the primary strategy. “This was a way of being true to our brand but living out a fantasy,” he explains. “This gave us the opportunity to show our brand from a completely different perspective than what people had seen before.”

The film not only introduced a new Bond car, but at $27,500, it was a Bond car that a much larger slice of the general public could own. BMW launched an initiative where, for a limited time, prospective owners could order a roadster with the same specs and color scheme as the car in the film (the only time that would be possible). BMW’s only mistake was underestimating the demand. “By the time we realized we had a problem on our hands, we had orders for almost 200 cars,” McDowell says, adding that production had to be moved back to the company’s German headquarters to fill those initial orders.

Even today, BMW Z3 owners look at their roadsters and see James Bond’s car, and that also can be said for collectors who own a number of other makes and models. Redenius drives his Lotus Esprit every week and acknowledges that the car’s connection to the 1977 film The Spy Who Loved Me was his sole motivation for acquiring it. “I never would’ve been in the market for an exotic, foreign sports car if it weren’t for the fact that it was instantly recognizable as a Bond car,” he says. (One of the two 1976 Lotus Esprits driven by Roger Moore in that film sold for £111,500 (about $174,000) at a Bonhams auction in 2008.)

Conversely, Stephen Brauer knew nothing of his 1954 Bentley R-Type Continental’s connection to James Bond when he bought the car, but he has embraced it as one of the convertible’s charms. As Ian Fleming fans know, Bond’s car of choice in the novels and short stories is a Bentley, first a 4.5-liter supercharged open-air racer, which he destroys in Moonraker, then a Mark VI cabriolet, which he acquires in the same book, and finally a Bentley R-Type Continental, which he comes to own in Thunderball. During the late 1950s, Fleming knew of a prospective H.J. Mulliner project to convert a Bentley Continental into a drophead coupe, and he used that information to create a new personal car for his main character. “The cool thing about Ian Fleming and how he differentiated himself is he would specify products,” Brauer explains. “It made the stories much more fun.”

When introducing this new car to the world, Fleming wrote: “Bond had gone to Mulliner with 3,000 pounds, which was half of his total capital, and they had sawn off the old cramped saloon body and fitted a trim, rather square convertible two-seater affair, power operated, with only two large buck seats in black leather. . . . She went like a bird and a bomb and Bond loved her more than all the women present in his life rolled, if that were feasible, together.”

Despite knowing this, Brauer doesn’t envision himself as 007 when he drives the car. “It doesn’t occur to me; I don’t feel like James Bond,” he says. “I’d much more identify with Ian Fleming.”

Redenius doesn’t harbor musings of secret-agent life when he drives his Lotus Esprit, either. “I wouldn’t drive a car like that Lotus and pretend to be James Bond,” he says. “However, you do feel a sense of being special. It’s a wonderful sports car and it’s so agile and so quick.”

There was a time a few years ago when the 57-year-old collector managed the Dezer Collection in North Miami, Fla., a 250,000-square-foot car museum with a section devoted to the vehicles and other memorabilia from 50 years of James Bond films. The collection includes a DB5, and Redenius acknowledges that his disposition changed whenever he was behind the wheel of that particular automobile. “When you drive an Aston Martin DB5, you can’t help but feel like James Bond,” he says. “There’s no other way to describe the feeling, you just become Sean Connery. The love that everybody feels for that car is no different than the love that they feel for a beloved character. The car truly is a beloved character.”

For that reason, a DB5 and most other Bond cars will continue to turn heads, and as Redenius reveals, the collectors who own them wouldn’t have it any other way. “As we move through life, it matters how we do it,” he says. “I like doing it and being noticed, and that’s what Bond cars do.”

Buying into Bond
There’s more than one way to connect with the world’s greatest secret agent.

When asked recently what it’s like for him when he’s not playing James Bond, actor Daniel Craig responded with a matter-of-fact answer: “I’m always Bond.”

Other actors who have played Bond in the past—including Sean Connery, who pioneered the character on the silver screen—have shared a similar connection with and passion for the character. “I care about Bond and what happens to him,” Connery once said. “You cannot be connected with a character for this long and not have an interest.”

Only six men—Sean Connery, Roger Moore, George Lazenby, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig—have made the proclamation that they were or are “Bond. James Bond” in the official film franchise. Yet countless men around the globe aspire to live like the infamous British secret service agent, if only in vicarious ways.

The most fortunate of Bond enthusiasts—those with both the means and the patience—may enjoy the luxury of sliding behind the wheel of a car used in the films, but only if they first have the fortitude (and the disposable income) necessary to outlast all other bidders when such a car comes up for auction. Alternatively, fans of the films and collectors can own a connection to Ian Fleming’s most famous character when props and clothing from the Bond films come up for sale. But if the Christie’s event last October in London, 50 Years of James Bond: The Auction, is any indication, owning a sliver of Britain’s suave and savage assassin is only growing more exorbitant.

It used to be that the older a Bond film was, the greater the price that its related memorabilia would command at auction. The Christie’s sale last October, which included 42 lots sold online and 11 lots sold as part of a live auction, proved that that may no longer be true. Six of the top 10 lots were pieces that appeared in the most recent three Bond films, including an Omega Automatic Seamaster Professional wristwatch in titanium (£157,250 / $254,273) and a Tom Ford–designed, two-piece tuxedo (£46,850 / $75,756), both worn by Daniel Craig in Skyfall, a film that hadn’t even premiered at the time of the auction. “We thought it would be the earlier items that would command the highest premium,” says Nicolette Tomkinson, a director at Christie’s who served as head of the golden anniversary Bond sale. “But now, given Skyfall’s enormous success—it’s been the highest box office success for any Bond film—it makes you wonder if they [the Skyfall items] came out now, if they’d sell for even more. You just don’t know.”

This auction had plenty going for it that other Bond-specific sales in the past have not. For starters, Christie’s held the event on October 5, the date of Dr. No’s premiere in 1962. Also, all proceeds from the auction went to charity, which Tomkinson believes influenced the hammer prices for almost every item that crossed the block. Perhaps most important, all of the items came directly from the Broccoli family’s Eon Productions, the company responsible for producing the Bond films over the last half century. “The overriding factor was the provenance,” Tomkinson says. “People were keen to know that they were buying right from Eon productions, and [they knew] that wouldn’t be happening again.”

Though collectors are aggressively acquiring memorabilia from contemporary Bond films, vintage Bond mementos continue to set strong prices as well. A Walther air pistol used by Connery during a publicity photo shoot for the 1963 film From Russia with Love is now worth more than £120,000, though when it first came to market in 2001, it only commanded £14,100. Additionally, a black wool, burgundy satin–lined dinner jacket worn by Sean Connery in the 1965 film Thunderball sold for £33,600 (about $65,400) during a 2007 Bonhams sale in London.

According to Katherine Williams, a specialist in Bonhams’ entertainment memorabilia department, film-used props and clothing from that era are rare, simply because most production studios either reused items or threw them away when filming was complete. Owning a piece like the Connery-worn dinner jacket provides collectors with an enhanced connection to the film, the character, and its legacy. “It’s buying into the glamour and the allure,” she says of how and why these items spark such a strong desire. “It’s knowing that it was a dinner jacket made for Sean Connery in Thunderball and wanting to be part of that in some small way.”

Then again, she believes that applies to James Bond films from all decades. “It really does appeal to male collectors,” she says of James Bond memorabilia. “It’s everything that encompasses cool.”

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