A hint of the future?

The last Lagonda was produced in May 1990, but the Vignale seen at the Geneva Show last March was a curtain-raiser for the revival of the name, although certainly not with such an immensely large, rounded car as made its controversial debut in Switzerland.

To loathe or to love? Like the Italianate Rapide that we also drive this month, that was the question. “Vignale believes that it was not shown at Geneva in its best light,” says Aston Martin Lagonda’s director of public relations, Harry Calton. “We believe that it deserves a fresh appraisal.”

So MOTOR SPORT was invited to Millbrook, not only to see the Vignale in all its glory but to drive it, to see whether our first impression was just a little. . . well, unfortunate.

The Vignale does, after all, have a future, whether or not it ever goes into production, as it is currently at Ford’s design centre in Dearborn being prepared for the most intimate of automotive examinations, a series of customer clinics.

Standing on a concrete apron in deepest Bedfordshire, the Lagonda immediately discards the impression of colossal size. Warm sunshine glinted on the gunmetal paintwork and the elephantine dimensions – it is nearly 17 ft 6 in long and 77 in wide – seem to be diminished by the fashionably short overhangs.

The appearance is changed, too, by the aluminium five-spoke AZEV wheels which are fitted for road work. They are 18-inch diameter with huge Pirelli tyres, 355/55. and visually they make the Lagonda look more hungry for driving than the 19-inch, Goodyear equipped wheels seen at Geneva.

A minute button on the satin finish stainless steel door strip releases the electronic catch, and as the driver’s door swings open the steering column rises to make more space. The doors seem very light, and this is explained by the fact that carbon fibre is used for the entire body!

This was not disclosed at Geneva, simply because the composite material was chosen for easy, and speedy production. There will be a MkII and it will be made in hand-beaten aluminium, in Vignale’s traditional way.

Can you afford the Vignale? A wealthy, persistent customer was told at the Geneva Show that he could have the first replica for $250,000, which cooled his enthusiasm a little.

Exterior designer Moray Callum set out to produce a “timeless capsule”, with styling a redolent throwback to the ’30s. His colleague Sally Wilson has designed a most sympathetic interior, capturing the sumptuous clubhouse atmosphere of that era, but incorporating some futuristic ideas.

A miniature screen in the centre of the dashboard is used for satellite navigation, and the circular satin finish discs at the sides of the front seats have push-button controls for the comprehensive in-car entertainment system.

Natural hides, fine carpet and unusual beechwood applications on the dashboard, doors and even the steering wheel rim make the Lagonda Vignale look, and feel, something out of the ordinary.

The mechanical specification is almost irrelevant in the context of evaluating the Lagonda Vignale. For the record though, it is based on Ford’s Lincoln Town Car and is powered by a run-of-the-mill V8 engine, though a modular V12 is being developed for the MkII.

Within minutes of taking the controls I learned to appreciate the push-button control of the transmission system. Nearer the driver are the D (drive), L (low) and OD (overdrive) buttons, and on the further panel are the P (park), N (neutral) and R (reverse) buttons, each with a colour lamp.

What could be simpler? Select P or N to start the engine then D to drive away. You have to know, though, that the Americans have a new fail-safe: D can be selected only when the driver’s foot is on the brake pedal, the answer to the ‘unintended runaway’ syndrome.

The rest is easy. The Vignale glides away, and if the 4.6-litre Ford V8 protests rather loudly about getting this gargantuan into motion, you have to close your ears and imagine how nicely a seven-litre V12 would do the job.

The ride, of course, is boulevard smooth, and at the modest speeds allowed in this priceless prototype the handling was quite impressive. You have to allow that this is a mobile studio, and forgive minor imperfections such as tyres binding on the arches near full lock.

The trouble with a ‘blob’ is that the extremities cannot be seen. Everything beyond the base of the windscreen, or the rear window, had to be guessed at . . . and there’s an awful lot of guessing to be done in such a vehicle!

But never mind. A competent driver should soon gain in confidence, and the Vignale becomes very satisfying. It is extremely quiet (though not silent), comfortable and habitable. The white-faced instruments with black and green figuring look clear and interesting, although nonfunctioning at the prototype stage.

Will Lagonda ever make the car?

Although AML chairman Walter Hayes said at the Geneva Show that there is no capacity at Newport Pagnell, this does not rule out a low volume production starting in 1997. Between 100 and 150 units could be produced comfortably each year, with bodies made by Ghia’s Vignale subsidiary in Turin.

A production car, if it were to be made, would have a unique perimeter frame chassis of extruded aluminium, which is considered ideal for low-volume production. This method was favoured by Pininfarina for the Ethos 2, and by BMW for the ZI3, and is certain to be adopted by other specialist manufacturers in the future.

It is well known that the Scottish brothers, Ian and Moray Callum, respectively designed the Aston Martin DB7 and the Lagonda Vignale; Ian was working for TWR Design in Kidlington, Moray for Vignale in Turin.

So strong is their agreement not to “talk shop” that, despite spending last Christmas together, they had no idea that they were both working on sister projects for Aston Martin Lagonda until told, by Calton, in February!