It has long been my ambition to produce a car which would be equally suitable to drive or to be driven in, offer great comfort, large luggage carrying capacity yet still be exhilarating to the owner driver and capable of effortless sustained high performance.
“There is such a similarity between modern cars that one is fearful of the day when all will look, and be, alike.
“Motorists to whom a car is just a means of transport have many from which to choose. This new Lagonda will appeal to those who prefer a car of outstanding merit, possessing the thoroughbred characteristics and distinctive appearance of a high calibre British car.
“The new Lagonda is the result of three years’ intensive development by my design staff and craftsmen. When the project was promoted, no one concerned had any wish to make just another very good motor car or even one with superiority on individual features to anything we had yet produced. We wished rather to create something which should, from the outset, invade the future audaciously and set such an advanced standard of mechanical perfection, beauty of form and all-round performance, that no other car would compare with it. Had the car now offered fallen short of this concept, its introduction would have been further delayed.”
Those were the words of the late Sir David Brown when, at the end of 1961, he masterminded a fresh revival of the Lagonda marque. The aspiration was to produce what his sales brochure described as The finest of fast cars’, something altogether more sporting than the preceding 2 1/2 and 3-litre offerings.
Sadly, the Lagonda failed to live up to such lofty ideals. It hadn’t been under development quite as long as he had suggested, although it had been a germ in his mind since the elegant 3-Litre had gone out of production in 1958. The truth was that the Rapide indeed lacked development, and had been pushed through by Brown against the recommendations of General Manager John Wyer, who was strongly opposed to its introduction.
The Rapide made its public debut at the Paris Motor Show in 1961, and received a lukewarm welcome. Its ‘Chinese’ twin headlamps and upright grille were perhaps a little too reminiscent of the unlamented Edsel, and the treatment was not as elegant as the Mulliner Park Ward Bentley Continentals even in their single-light guise. The rear was happier, and the fact that it bore a strong resemblance to Maserati’s 3500GT was scarcely surprising since Italian coachbuilder Carrozzeria Touring had had a role in the creation of both cars. It was much more elegant from the three-quarter rear view, but in its January 1962 edition, Road & Track’s Henry Manney III was only moved to comment: “Aston was another house to pre-jump the London exhibit, choosing the time to reveal a convertible on the DB4 and also the new Lagonda. The Lagonda proved to be a rather undistinguished 4-door sedan, bearing a resemblance to the late 1900 Alfa saloons. It is powered by an enlarged (3995-cc) version of the well-known Aston Martin 6-cyl. A 3-speed automatic is standard, 4-speed manual optional — for those who want something besides a Jag or Bentley.”
For all that, the Rapide boasted an impressive specification. The uprated Aston engine produced 236bhp at 5000rpm, and 265lb.ft of torque 1000rpm lower down. There were disc brakes on all four wheels, the front suspension was via wishbones and coil springs, and the rear end featured a well-located, racing practise de Dion axle with transverse torsion bars. Performance was a claimed 125mph, which was entirely reasonable. The seats, naturally, were hide leather, the wipers twospeed, the windows were operated electrically, and the heating and ventilating system (with air-conditioning as an option) was impressively elaborate. An electric release allowed the driver to operate the fuel filler flap from the cockpit, something we take for granted today. There was even a very nice little tool that gently eased off the hub caps to gain access to the perforated disc wheels’ centre-lock nuts. The Lagonda owner, or his chauffeur, did not have to resort to anything as crude as levering them off with a screwdriver.
Touring’s famous Superleggera construction mirrored DB4 methods and comprised a platform chassis clothed with unstressed aluminium panelling over a framework of thin steel tubes welded to the chassis structure. It all weighed in at 3780Ibs. By comparison, its principal rival, Jaguar’s new Mk X, produced 265bhp at 5500rpm and 260Ib.ft of torque at 4000 from its similar 3781cc twin-cam six, but weighed 3990Ibs. The Lagonda sat on a 9ft 6in wheelbase, but was 16ft 3 1/2in long and 5ft 9 1/2in wide. The Jaguar was five inches longer but markedly wider at nearly 6 1/2ft.
Lagonda! As a kid I loved the sound of the name, the image it conjured of untrammelled luxury and performance. The Rapide was everything I wanted in a car. This was Simon Templar’s Hirondelle incarnate. It was rakish, elegant, fully suited to the car snob that I was and would always be. But it was as rare as hen’s teeth. You could find the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot and the yeti quicker than you could locate one. An elderly friend of mine owned a 3-Litre, but until we tried Michael Groves’s car recently I’d seen but four Rapides in 27 years… Funny how you remember them, too. There was the maroon prototype 92 MY on the factory forecourt in 1966. A sable version that we espied in Kentish Town one day in 1967; I sulked for days at my father’s reluctance to drive quickly enough to catch it up. A dark blue example at Brent Cross a few years later, and another in Harrow in 1986.
When first announced the Rapide was initially priced at £5251 in 1961, which fell shortly thereafter to a more modest £4351 in a vain attempt to attract buyers. Used examples were usually advertised in the back of MOTOR SPORT and Autocar for £2250 for a long time in the late Sixties, dropping as low as £1350 before rising again to the current market level. What’s a Rapide worth now? Well, bear in mind that only 55 were made, and that Classic & Sportscar’s well-based guide lists a Condition 1 car at £17000; Condition 2 £12000; and Condition 3 £8000. Michael Groves’s car is the 54th of the production run and has agreed value insurance of £40000 with General Accident, on a collector’s car policy. It has, however, been totally rebuilt . . .
Only seven cars were made with the optional four-speed manual transmission (although some automatics have since been converted) and JHR 302B is one of them. He bought it January 1990, and now its mileage currently reads 08962, “but that’s not accurate! When I bought it it said 47,000
The car was for sale in South Africa and he flew out to view it. “I had to go all the way to Johannesburg to look at it, and of course I knew I wasn’t going all that way and not buy it! It took two months to get it home.
I then had a big argument with the VAT man, because when it was exported in the first place, of course, no purchase tax had to be paid. Of course I had also bought it at the height of the classic car market, so there we were in this customs place at Southampton, where they wouldn’t release the car because we hadn’t agreed a correct value. I had given £55,000 for it – really I should only have paid £30,000 – and it wasn’t as if I had tried to smuggle it in, either. It was all done above board. But they said it was worth much more than £55,000, and even called Astons. The customs people tried to suggest that it was worth £100,000, but whoever they spoke to seemed never to have heard of the Rapide!
In the end I paid another, £8250 on top of what I paid for it, and probably it was worth a third of what it cost me!
“It had all been stripped right down to the bodyshell, with the bits stored in boxes until the Aston agent in Johannesburg rebuilt it. When we finally got it back here, we rebuilt it all again, right down to the window switches.”
The mechanical work was carried out by Goldsworth & Young, the Aston Martin specialists down in Mere. It helped that john Goldsworth is Michael’s nephew. “Mechanically it was very sad. It had been put together with a Jaguar clutch, for instance, and there were some terrible vibrations as a result. The Aston agent out in South Africa had obviously had difficulty getting the right parts.”
The paintwork had all been refurbished professionally in South Africa, and whoever was responsible did a superb job in metallic Burgundy, described by the factory as Dubonnet. “It is a difficult colour to match, but where we have had to touch it up now and then I don’t think they’ve done a bad job at ADP Coachworks.” Groves volunteered.
The tan leather upholstery was initially retrimmed in South Africa, “but we thought they must have used some old cows that had been out roaming the plain for years, so we threw that all away,” he recalls cheerfully. Back home it was all redone by Robert Berridge, whose expertise extended to manufacturing a neat cover for the battery which lives under the back seat.
As we discussed how Brown had forced the car into production against Wyer’s practical counsel, Groves recalled a time they had met. “We had a gathering for all the BARC Gold Medallists a couple of years back, and Sir David attended. I told him I had bought one of his Rapides, and he looked at me aghast and replied: “Dear boy, what on earth did you do that for?”
Groves, a BARC member for 40 years and the current Chairman of the club, also owns an immaculate Jaguar XK120 and a new XJ12 (as everyday transport), and his past vehicles include an XK150S and a Jensen CV-8. He has driven the Lagonda round Thruxton several times, and vows that he does not believe in papering his cars. When the time comes, he expects them to work for their living. The week after he charmingly let me realise an ambition he was an entrant in the RAC European Classic Rally, a four-day event that set out from Brands Hatch, headed to Le Touquet and went to Belgium before finishing at the Nürburgring. And yes, he would be giving it a few laps there, too, he said. “Rather! It’ll have been hauled round Croix, Chimay and Spa before then, so why not!”
“Like all old cars it lurches and squawks around, but it handles quite well until you get the boot full of luggage,” he says. “Then a lot of the weight at the back is outside the wheelbase.” Filling the twin fuel tanks, one mounted in each rear wing in the style Jaguar would later adopt on the XJ6, would also influence the handling too, one suspects.
The Rapide provides a good driving position, upright but with a good view all round through the wraparound screen and the relatively shallow side and rear glass, even though the interior and door mirrors on Michael’s car vibrated badly because the Avon Turbospeed-shod front wheels needed balancing. The bonnet stretches ahead and its central section and both front wing rips are easily visible, which helps with positioning the car. Despite its length, it feels small and can be placed easily through tight gaps. It’s easy to reverse, too.
The front seats are comfortable even if they offer little lateral support, but despite Brown’s claims passengers in the rear are rather less catered for, even with the compact de Dion rear end which was chosen specifically to minimise technical intrusions. Headroom is generous enough, but there is no more legroom than there is in a MkII Jaguar, which is more than a foot shorter. That means that there isn’t very much room at all – it’s a bit like a four-door 2 + 2!
The Goldsworth & Young twin-cam six fires readily, and with a lovely throaty burble at low speed which warms into a delicious hum when you pick up revs. Groves insists the six cylinder unit is very smooth by normal Aston standards, and it’s also oil-tight, which is quite an achievement. G & Y also rebuilt the suspension, steering, gearbox and rear axle – the latter a phenomenal job – and everything is very smooth apart from repeated clonks from the rear axle. Herein lies the Rapide’s Achilles Heel.
The problem arises because the driveshafts are angled forward an inch between the final drive (which was bolted direct to the chassis) and the rear wheels. This not only passes vibrations directly into the chassis, but also results in heavy wear on the splines, which tend to wear out every 10,000 kilometres.
Some of the remaining cars still go back for service at Aston Martin Lagonda’s factory in Newport Pagnell, where they are remembered fondly by Service, Restoration and Retail Sales Director Kingsley Riding-Felce. “The rear ends can be clonky, but it is possible to set them up really well to overcome most of the problems. You do need to be sure that the carburation is spot-on too, though to avoid any chug-chugging in traffic which magnifies things.”
We were warned that the interior can get “red hot – an old Aston Martin tendency” – and indeed this proved the case even on our relatively cool day which had started out wet but then turned reasonably sunny. The only answer is to risk using the Piper electric windows. One stuck down for a while, but after being left to its own devices for a few minutes elected to function properly again.
Interior heat is inevitably linked with under-bonnet heat, and G & Y fitted twin Kenlowe fans and a non-standard oil cooler, which have since ensured that the engine temperatures stay precisely where they are required.
“One of the big problems that we have only just cured in the last six months,” Groves reveals, “was smoothing out the idle and stopping it oiling its plugs.” The two twin-choke Solex 44PHH carburettors are to blame here, for they are notoriously difficult to set up accurately. “Very few people seem to know how they work, but luckily Gower & Lee just north of Hyde Park do. The trouble is that after a while the venturis go oval, but these seem to be okay in that respect.”
The speedometer reads 10% slow on JHR 302B, which had to be taken into account when we saw 3400rpm at 70mph (which was thus really closer to 80). That’s still very low geared, due to the 3.77 to 1 rear axle ratio that Groves prefers over the alternative 3.54 to 1. Certainly this Rapide didn’t seem likely to touch the claimed 125mph maximum without running out of revs, but Michael prefers the ratio for cruising, and there’s no doubt that the Lagonda has plenty of urge in fourth gear as a result. At one stage my use of third gear – Cosworth thinking – was gently chided on a country road, and sure enough the Rapide would pull forth without even thinking about it. There is a lot of torque.
The gear lever has a surprisingly delicate……appearance, but nice short throws and a notchy but precise movement. In common with old Moss units, it’s best to pamper the all-synchromesh gearbox by pausing in the neutral plane on up changes from first to second to avoid an unseemly crunch. However, that little foible is offset by a lovely clutch action. It’s nowhere near as heavy as I’d expected, and it takes up gently, facilitating smooth starts.
On ‘our’ car the brake pedal took up right at the top of its movement, which is reassuring, especially as at times you get the impression that the brakes aren’t quite going to work until you give them a final good push. “I’ve never got them to lock,” beams Groves. “It’s as if they have their own inbuilt ABS system.” Really, it’s just a matter of mentally deprogramming the higher standards one has become used to with modern systems.
The steering is heavy, being devoid of power assistance, but it’s direct and pleasant, and relays faithfully to the driver what the front wheels are doing. The wheel is large with a diameter of 17 inches, but the thin wooden rim and the sharp-edged spokes are a tactile pleasure. Unlike my old Jaguar MkII, with its 4.9 turns between locks, the Lagonda’s rack and pinion steering is far more sensibly geared at 3.75.
Noise levels were higher than I’d expected, partly perhaps because of the exhaust’s tone, but it’s nothing you wouldn’t enjoy. The ride is good too, soaking up bumps and undulations well enough to suggest that in its day it would indeed have been in the extremely good category. There’s a little bit of float in some situations, but the car tracks well and goes where you point it. In slow corners the inevitable understeer obliges you to do a bit of wheel twirling, especially in roundabouts, but on more open roads the handling is well balanced, I’m told, though I didn’t have the opportunity to experience it, that it shifts gently towards oversteer when you push really hard at high speeds. It’s not quite in the class of the original XJ6, (and certainly not of later variants) but it is sufficiently impressive even today for a car that weights getting on for two tons, and I would imagine it could embarrass a lot of more vaunted machinery in this department. As a vehicle for modern-day traffic, the Rapide can more than hold its own. The price is high fuel consumption, something else that the low geared rear end doesn’t help, but you pay for the pleasure one way or another.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – and when I finally beheld the Rapide close-to and then drove it, it was the culmination of a 27 year-old dream. Ugly? Clumsy-looking? Ill-balanced? Not to me. It’s still as impressive as I thought it was in the naïve days before it was totally apparent to me that I would never own one. (The closest I ever got was buying the keyring.) I once saw a factory prototype 92 MY at Newport Pagnell in 1966 with the front end modified along the lines of Touring’s Sunbeam Venezia, and one other Rapide was converted to a DB4 front end with, to me, unfortunately consequences. It’s a car that looks better in darker colours, but it certainly still turns heads in traffic. It didn’t invade the future audaciously, but David Brown was certainly closer to the mark than history remembers when he aspired to create something that would stand among the finest of fast cars.