Road test - The Aston Martin Vantage

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An exhilarating fireball, exquisitely crafted

A new performance standard has been set amongst so-called “super-cars”. And it originates not in Modena or Stuttgart, but in urban Newport Pagnell. For the most breathtakingly exciting, adrenalin churning example of all that rarefied breed, indeed the fastest accelerating current production car in the World is the Aston Martin Vantage.

I can sense some readers scoffing right now. “Aston Martin b…… great lorry.” It happens all the time. But this “b……. great lorry” accelerates from 0-60 m.p.h. in 5.3 seconds, has been timed by Astons at 180 m.p.h. and, for all its weight and girth, handles superbly. Into the bargain it carries four people and adequate luggage in absolute luxury and is exquisitely hand-built. Like Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin refuse to disclose brake horsepower figures, but a good authority intimates that another journalist’s estimate of 425 b.h.p. was pretty near the mark, making the Vantage’s four-cam, 5,340 c.c. 100 mm x 85 mm. V8 the most powerful current production car engine in the World.

I too was sceptical. I have not been the most ardent admirer of modern Astons, although I have nothing but admiration for the craftsmanship involved in their manufacture. Now, after testing the Vantage, I am lost for adequate superlatives. I have driven most of the World’s fastest, most expensive production sports cars, but I can’t think of one that has surprised me, excited me quite so much as the Vantage. It does not have the supreme chassis characteristics of the new Porsche 928 (a 928 fitted with the Vantage engine would be the absolute ultimate!), the uncanny smoothness of the Turbo, the silence of the XJS, or the charismatic styling of the Boxer and the Countach. But it will out-perform them all in a manner which is as untemperainental as it is shattering, and makes no sacrifices for the sake of outrageous styling and the current mid-engine cult. Such power is not for the faint of heart or muscle, or for the unskilled, but allowing for those obvious strictures this Vantage is remarkably vice-free and forgiving, another bonus from conventional layout.

It is heartening to be able to lay such praise at the door of a so very British company which three years ago had floundered over the brink. Not many people would have projected success for the Anglo-American consortium of individuals which rescued Aston Martin in that disastrous year. Yet now the company is back in profit, with a full order book and with the first production, revolutionary Lagonda scheduled for delivery to the customer at the end of this month.

Aston Martin resurrected the Vantage name and its theme of being a higher performance version of the standard car early last year as an aid to polishing the tarnished image. It is built to special order only, an average of one per week sells for £23,000, by no means immodest in super-car terms and has had apparently the desired effect by reflected image of attracting customers for the standard V8, itself a vastly improved motor car since 1975.

Motor Sport should have had a Vantage, for test last year; two had crashes in which Aston’s Press test car – a converted standard V8 – was involved prevented this. Aston had not replaced the car on their fleet, but thanks to the cooperation of Aston Martin Sales in London ‘s Sloane Street, we were able to borrow their 3,600 mile-old demonstrator, a proper production Vantage. It was certainly worth waiting for.

The Vantage makes no bones in appearance about its performance purpose in life. A deep front spoiler, a high tail spoiler contoured smoothly into the coachwork, a blanked-off power bulge in the bonnet, a blanked-off grille carrying two dipping, long-range Cibie auxiliary lamps, massive 255/60 x 15 in. Pirelli Cinturatos on 7 in. GKN alloy wheels, give this six-toot wide monster an air of wickedly muscular purposefulness which is not belied. Its appearance in the mirror moves dawdlers out of the way faster than anything I can recall, including the Countach.

When the Vantage was introduced last year it boasted a 40% power increase over the then current V8. Improvements to the V8’s engine gave that 15%, boost in mid summer and at the same time the V8 adopted the same suspension revisions which had been essential to cope with the Vantage’s extra power. The most important improvement was to fit Koni telescopic shock-absorbers all round. Early Vantages had stiffer front anti-roll bars; this, was found unnecessary and the model now has the standard V8 item. A change in castor angles has given more steering feel to the Vantage, which has a standardised-effort, Adwest power-assisted steering rack mid-way between the heavier and lighter choices which used to be available to Aston customers.

At the heart of this astonishing car is that 90 degree V8 engine, built in that small factory at Newport Pagnell. Each engine is built by one man, as I described in an account of the Aston Martin factory in the September, 1976 issue of Motor Sport. I liked the personal touch on the offside cam cover of the test car’s engine: a little brass plate announcing “Engine built by Fred Waters”. By chance, he was the long-serving engine builder we portrayed in that 1976 colour feature. This mainly cast aluminium engine has two overhead camshafts per bank, driven by twin two-stage Duplex chains with automatic and manual adjustment (they need attention every 10,000 miles – servicing intervals on the car as a whole have been extended from 2,500 to 5,000 miles), The heads have hemispherical combustion chambers and the block contains chrome vanadium iron wet liners. The nitrided crankshaft runs in five main bearings and is fitted with forged steel conrods.

The Vantage differs from the standard V8 engine in having bigger inlet valves, new cam profiles with increased Overlap on the induction side of things and a redesigned inlet manifold.

The most obvious change; however, is the move from four downdraught Weber 42DCNF27. twin-choke carburetters to four massive downdraught, twin-choke Weber 48 IDF2/100s. Prompted by a consequent increase in fuel consumption (the test car averaged 12.96 m.p.g. on a long, very fast run and about 10 m.p.g. around town), the Vantage has a 25 gallon fuel tank instead of the V8s 21 gallon tank. Twin SU fuel pumps are mounted in the offside of the boot. The Vantage engine retains Lucas Opus ignition, but Champion N9Y plugs give way to NGK BP6EV.

While the ordinary V8 offers automatic transmission as an option, the Vantage comes only with the ZF five-speed gearbox with ratios of: 1st, 2.90:1; 2nd, 1.78:1; 3rd, 1.22: I ; 4th, 1.1:1; 5th, 0.845:1. The Salisbury differential contains a Powr-Lok limited slip device and a 3.54:1 final drive ratio, slightly lower than the V8s ratio. This gives 26 m.p.h./1,000 r.p.m. in fifth.

Bodywork changes are restricted to the aforementioned aerodynamic and cosmetic aids. This Vantage retains the modern Aston tradition of hand-formed aluminium alloy panelling over a rigid steel superstructure integral with a platform chassis. It seems almost superfluous to. add that this magnificent bodywork receives over 20 coats of paint.

Suspension modifications have already been detailed. The basic design is unchanged, with unequal length wishbones, ball-jointed king pins, co-axial coil springs and shock-absorbers and an anti-roll bar at the front, and that substantial De Dion located rear end, located by parallel trailing links and a Watt’s linkage and suspended by coil springs and, nowadays, telescopic Konis instead of the old Armstrong lever shock-absorbers. The all-disc brakes are outboard at the front, inboard at the rear.

The wide doors, which have automatic warning lights in their trailing edges, open smoothly and clunk satisfyingly to entrap one in an interior which will be condemned as old-fashioned by some, praised as one of the few remainingbastions of traditional, hand-made luxury, a reminder of almost forgotten qualities of life, by others. A lovely smell of hide pervades the air, from the Connolly products which so neatly cover the luxurious seats, the door trims, centre console, rear quarter panels and even the screen pillars. Wilton carpets cover the floor and a smooth, cloth headlining has replaced the ribbed lining of earlier V8’s. The doors carry substantial leather-trimmed arm-rests, the driver’s containing a remote lock for the passenger door. There are neat, leather map pockets in the doors and in the tip-up, reclining backs of the front seats. The big, high, fascia is a little bit overpowering, but functional. The instrumentation, recently revised, is contained in a cowled, crackle-black oval ahead of the driver. A clearer, 170 m.p.h. speedometer has replaced the impressive, but cluttered, 200 m.p.h. device of earlier cars and has been juxtaposed with the 7,000 r.p.m. tachometer, which no longer bears a warning line. Other instruments include a battery condition indicator, fuel gauge, water and oil temperature gauges and a precise oil pressure gauge mounted prominently between the two main instruments. These recent current Astons have been given sensible rows of warning lights above and below the instruments. Matching light master switches and panel switches are on the fascia on each side of the steering column. Headlight, flash and dip, winkers and horn are controlled by a positive right-hand column stalk and two-speed wipers/ washers by the left-hand stalk. Although the wipers have a facility for flick-wipe they do not have an intermittent wipe facility. A row of auxiliary switches is contained in the leading edge of the centre console. These include a changeover switch for the electrical or air horns and another for the auxiliary lamps, which are wired through the dip switch. Switches for electric windows operation flank a Smiths clock in the centre of the fascia. Below these are the controls for the Coolaire air conditioning, a standard fitment. A Pioneer stereo AM/FM radio/cassette player is fitted though there is no storage place convenient to the driver for cassettes. A wide, lockable cubby hole on the passenger side contains a vanity mirror and a map-reading light. The centre console carries a large ash-tray and a cigar lighter.

One of the most admirable aspects of this Aston Martin performance package is that it is a genuine four-seater. The contoured rear seats with fold down centre arm rest, are a work of art in the execution of their leather trim. True, a tall driver would leave little room for anything but the legless, but with the driver’s seat in my own position I could sit behind it in absolute comfort and, into the bargain, gain entry through the wide doors without having to tip the front seat.

The driver’s seat lacks height and cushion tilt adjustment facilities and may be too short in the cushion for tall drivers. However, Aston could no doubt come to some sort of bespoke arrangement for first-owners. The steering wheel has telescopic adjustment for reach and the old-fashioned, pivot-on-the-floor, brake and clutch pedals can be set in two alternative positions. As a concession to modernity, the old organ throttle pedal has given way to a pendant device. One thing which hasn’t changed, thank goodness, is the good old fly-off handbrake by the driver’s left leg, so convenient and effective.

To sit behind the Vantage’s dished, leather-trimmed wheel for the first time is awe-inspiring. The massive power bulge towers at the base of the screen and the vast expanse of bodywork seem to confirm that lorry simile. The bellow as those four-hundred-plus horses spring to life is edifying, even more so because they become rampant so easily; no choke is fitted and two prods of the throttle when the engine is cold suffices to prime the carburetters adequately for first-time starting. After a short warm-up period the engine runs without a splutter. Hot starting is just as undramatic.

First gear in the ZF box is selected on a dog’s leg down to the left, the other four being in H-pattern (with reverse on another dog’s leg up to the right). Modifications have been made to lighten the clutches on current manual Astons and the test car’s was a shade lighter and a good deal more positive and progressive than that of my old Jaguar 3.8. It gave my left leg no qualms in heavy traffic. The big ZF ‘box displays the characteristic chattering when the engine is ticking over (at a steady 900 r.p.m.) in neutral and, if beefy, is delightfully positive and quick so long as the driver is equally positive in his actions. The toe of my 8 1/2 clutch foot occasionally grazed a protruding piece of metal when depressing the pedal.

A furious, throaty roar from the Webers and twin exhausts greets modest pressure of the right foot, rising to an ecstatic howl when the power starts to come in above 2,000 r.p.m. By no stretch of the imagination could this be called a quiet car, yet the nature of the noise and its level is not painful to the cars to the enthusiasts who are likely to buy the Vantage it will be joyous music, as it was to me.

Its performance is simply stupendous and relentless. While Boxers, Countachs and Porsches habitually eat their clutches if full-power standing starts are attempted, this Aston simply lays a trail of rubber as the big clutch bites positively, and then takes off like a scalded tiger, the tachometer needle hurtling round the clock so fast that there is hardly time to ram the lever forwards into second. Recommended maximum revs are 6,250 r.p.m. but Aston’s Director of Engineering, Mike Loasby, tells me that the engine is safe for 7,000 r.p.m. The performance is such, the torque so massive, that few will be brave enough, or find the necessity to use high revs. After all, the advisory 6,250 r.p.m. limit offers speeds of 45 m.p.h., 73 m.p.h., 107 m.p.h. and 130 m.p.h. in the gears. This powerful engine never runs out of breath or at least the driver runs out of road or bravery first! – and the continuing surge of power as the speedometer needle soars past 120 m.p.h. in fifth is a rare experience in a road car. I had that needle as far as 150 m.p.h. and even then there was no sign of the acceleration tailing off, which suggests that a Turbo would be hard-pushed to hang on to a Vantage. Mention of the Porsche Turbo reminds me that with the Aston’s beautifully crisp, normally aspirated engine there is no question of a “step” in the acceleration, as there is when the Porsche’s turbocharger cuts in and out with the rise and fall of engine revolutions through the gears: the Vantage power is consistent. Traction and acceleration out of corners (the combination of De Dion, limited-slip and massive tyre footprint really works), its overtaking performance in any gear is simply incredible.

Those Vantage spoilers have far more than a cosmetic effect. Loasby was loathe to divulge their influence on penetration and drag, but confided that the results were impressive, the figures as low as any he knows, and a big improvement on the standard bodywork. Their effect on high speed stability is unmistakeable to the driver. The last V8 I drove, in 1975, started to become light on the front end and to wander slightly as soon as three figures were reached; this Vantage showed absolute stability up to my 150 m.p.h. maximum, making it a very reassuring and comfortable high-speed cruiser.

So this Aston sounds like a racing car on the road? In outright performance yes. Yet this is matched by remarkably fuss-free, flexible low speed behaviour in town, the engine happy to run down to below 1,000 r.p.m. Part of the secret lies in harnessing the immense power with a very progressive, smooth throttle action. Too much throttle with too few revs will cause the occasional hiccup. A healthy crackle from the air box and exhausts accompanies over-run from high revs, although I suspect this might have been exaggerated on the test car by a loose silencer baffle. The idea of blanking off the radiator grille seems strange; in practice, more than enough air passes through the radiator to keep the water temperature at a steady 95 degrees in or out of town, which Loasby says is about right (the handbook recommends 85 degrees for the earlier, standard V8 apparently the latest type of Smiths instrument, as fitted to the Vantage, has varied the reading).

Not only in performance does this Aston prove that the mid-engined exotica are not the be all and end all. This 35 cwt. projectile has leech-like roadholding (almost 0.9 g. cornering power, says Mike Loasby), which suffers little on wet roads, although I would suspect the fat tyres might be prone to aquaplaning in really heavy rain, a common super-car drawback. When it does start to slide it does it gently, predictably, with none of the mid-engined viciousness. Excellent handling and positive steering which shows hardly a trace of assistance shrink this big car into a joyful plaything, a driver’s delight. It rolls somewhat if pushed very hard, though this doesn’t seem to upset the equilibrium of its handling. Such speed and weight has enforced very hard pads for the 10.75 in. front, 10.38 in. rear vented and grooved disc brakes, so that hard pressure is needed to stop from slow speeds on cold pads. In fact the twin-servoed brakes need a hefty touch at all times, but they reward with marvellous stopping power, capable of 1.2 g.

The stiff Konis have tautened the far from velvety ride. It has to be firm to give this 35 cwt. car the sports car handling it possesses and the owner capable of appreciating the fine qualities of this Aston’s performance and handling is unlikely to be upset by the occasional jolt on his backside.

Looking back at what I have written, and prompted by a similar observation by our MD, who happened to look over my shoulder, I wondered whether I might have been over-enthusiastic about this bulky, yet astonishingly agile Newport Pagnell product. On second thoughts I think not: it excited me, enthralled me, I enjoyed every moment of driving it and that is, surely, what a car built purely for the fast-driving enthusiast is all about. Here is a car with the performance and handling of a racing car and the luxurious appointments of a limousine, with none of the accommodation or visibility drawbacks of mid-engined super cars. The Vantage may look old-fashioned in some eyes, but traditional style and hand-built quality has a lot to recommend it. Fortunately there are sufficient wealthy connoisseurs around to make it viable. Long may it survive! C.R.

 

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