The last Lagonda

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The last Lagonda, the long, low razor edge saloon of the 1980s is the epitaph that designer William Towns wished for. It was a quirk of the market at that time that made it the choice of Arab sheikhs and wealthy Americans and, when the recession came, it was curtains for the rakish car.

After persevering with it for 14 years, during which time 645 examples were built, then chief executive Victor Gauntlett finally pulled the plug in 1990 when the recession bit the world markets.

Lagonda was a big name in the sports car world in the 1930s. The marque was founded by an American, Wilbur Gunn, who emigrated from Springfield, Ohio, at the turn of the century. He named his cars after Lagonda Creek, Ohio, and by 1935, when a 4 1/2-litre car driven by John Hindmarsh and Luis Fontes won the Le Mans 24 Hours, the make had virtually ousted Bentley from the pinnacle.

WO Bentley was appointed chief designer in 1936, and his great contribution was the design of an advanced straight-six dual overhead camshaft engine, with 2.6-litre capacity, which replaced the bought-in Meadows unit.

In the post-war period industrialist David Brown first bought Aston Martin and then, casting around for a decent engine. acquired Lagonda as well, to bring the two marques together. Fate decreed that Lagonda would always play second fiddle although in ‘positioning’ (that phrase so favoured by marketing men) Lagonda was some way above Aston Martin.

“Don’t forget,” says chief executive Walter Hayes, “that Lagonda used to be Bentley’s rival. They did make big cars, and the Vignale is not really meant to be practical. I am not so interested in what people think of the appearance as in the general concept: it asks some challenging questions about seating and packaging.”

The Vignale came about as the result of a conversation last May between Hayes, 69, a former Ford vice-president, and Ford’s design chief, Jack Telnack.

Ghia, a Ford subsidiary, was already working on a high-luxury model based on the Lincoln Town Car, and the possibility of turning it into a Lagonda focussed everyone’s attention.

Moray Callum, 34-year-old younger brother of TWR’s resident stylist Ian, was given the task of turning his notional prestige model into a Lagonda. By an amazing coincidence Ian was transforming a JaguarSport project into the Aston Martin DB7 at exactly the same time, but neither was aware of the other’s plan. Walter Hayes, though, was the catalyst for the two projects.

The VI2 engine is another element in the development of the Lagonda Vignale. Rod Mansfield, former head of Ford’s SVO department in Essex, briefly AML’s technical director, now head of special projects in Dearborn, has ‘discovered’ the modular engine in the engineering division and secured its birthright. It is, apparently, an expanded version of the Lincoln’s V8 which suggests a capacity of 6.9 litres.

The interweaving of Ford, Jaguar and Aston Martin Lagonda is getting stronger all the time. In recent months Nicholas Scheele, Jaguar’s managing director, Tom Walkinshaw and Jackie Stewart have all been appointed to Aston Martin’s main board.

Hayes, always remembered as the ‘father’ of the Ford-Cosworth DFV engine, the most successful unit ever in the history of Grand Prix racing with more than 150 victories, is the architect of all these things. It was he, at the side of Henry Ford II (and his biographer), who added Aston Martin, AC Cars and Jaguar to Ford’s empire in 1987-88.

AC Cars has gone back to private ownership, somewhat acrimoniously, but Jaguar and Aston Martin Lagonda are prestige names which have cost Ford dear, in monetary terms. When the recession ends these marques are nicely placed to start repaying their debt, and certainly the spirit in Newport Pagnell is as high as ever as the Lagonda name sits on the brink of yet another comeback.

At present we cannot divulge the full details of the exciting new project, but suffice it to say that Aston Martin Lagonda is developing four-door saloon and estate car derivatives of the Aston Martin Virage, which will bear the badging of Wilbur Gunn’s original creation.

M L C/D F T

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