New cars: Aston Martin Zagato

Non-Homologation Special

Italy has always been fruitful ground both for dedicated manufacturers of sportscars and for inventive coachbuilders. A healthy interest in competition meant that there was always a new lightweight model to be bodied and while coachwork was handbuilt on separate chassis, individual variations were simple — indeed inevitable. But beginning in the Sixties the almost universal adoption of monocoque construction has altered the role of the coachbuilder, in most cases to that of a specialist small-scale development facility charged with such limited runs as convertible and homologation specials.

While such work as this fills an essential niche in the motor manufacturing world, offering a flexibility the production line cannot, it lacks the glamour of an era when designers vied to put their creative mark on a car, and on sportscars in particular. As in most things, favourites come and go, and it has been a long time since the “lightning Z” for Zagato graced an entirely fresh production body. Yet such a project has come to fruition only recently, as if to prove that its instigator, Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd, has put its troubles behind and is again ready to compete on equal terms with the Grand Tourers of Italy and Germany.

In its near seven decades existence, Carrozzeria Zagato has been closely tied with the racing successes of several firms, particularly, Fiat, Lancia, Abarth, and most gloriously, Alfa Romeo, with whom a continued and intimate connection both pre-war and postwar brought about some of the very greatest automobiles.

Always distinctive, the house style has not been static. The slender lines exemplified by Zagato’s designs for that most desirable of Alfas, the 6C 1750 of 1929, gave way over the years to the consistently more aggressive and muscular style pursued by Ercole Spada, chief designer between 1960 and 1970.

In between were the years of racing glory: Zagato cars dominated Italian racing and won class and overall victories again and again in international events. In the early Fifties these were usually Fiats, a collaboration which brought about one of Zagato’s greatest cars, the Fiat 8V, whose simple, powerful proportions hinted at the slender tail and massive bonnet which characterised the company’s work in later years.

In 1956 both Lancia and Abarth turned to Zagato for special bodies, and the series of tiny Abarths which followed taught Elio Zagato (son of founder Ugo and himself a successful driver) a great deal about minimising aerodynamic drag. Zagato-bodied Lancias had less impact on the racetrack (with some notable exceptions), but culminated in the highest production run of any Zagato: over 7000 Fulvia Sports were to be manufactured between 1965 and 1972.

Of the many Zagato Alfas of this time, the 159 with which Fangio won the 1951 World Championship and the TZ sports racer of 1963 are perhaps the most glamorous. But not all of Zagato’s work was for Italian companies: Jaguar, Renault, MG and Bristol chassis all received prototype bodies, and one more went into extremely limited production — the Aston Martin DB4GTZ.

Although a mere 19 AM Zagatos were built, and its racing successes limited, the model remains one of the high points of the histories of both companies, and it was this memorable association which the idea of a new Zagato sought to invoke.

With its long-running V8 Saloon and Vantage models still a long way from replacement, and the big Lagonda appealing to a necessarily restricted group of buyers, the company could not expect to grab headlines at the important shows. But that was exactly what Ferrari did when it announced the 288 GTO at Geneva 1984; and Victor Gauntlett and his co-chairman Peter Livanos immediately decided that Aston Martin not only could but should build such a car. Zagato was the obvious coachbuilder, and at the Geneva show the following year, the Aston Martin stand had something to show — a styling sketch. No full-size mock-up or prototype photographs, not even a model; yet that was enough to bring forward the 50 buyers that the company envisaged. Each committed himself to a cost of £87,000, giving Aston Martin the promise of over £4m to run the project. It was a clever plan in which the very exclusivity of the product guaranteed that it would be economically viable.

But the Zagato was to be more than an exclusive luxury coupe: it had to be able to claim position as one of the fastest road cars available, if not the fastest. It would be based on the phenomenally fast and powerful Vantage, already possessed of some 400 bhp; it would be shorter, lighter and lower, and would sport even more power, together with a claimed maximum speed of 186 mph.

At the 1986 Geneva show, three finished cars were shown, and at the Le Mans 24-Hour race that year a bold attempt was made to prove the company’s speed claims along the Mulsanne straight before the race. It did not quite come off — minor engine difficulties held the car back to some 175 mph — but this failed to quell enthusiasm from customers and car fans alike, and the fact that soon afterwards a Zagato did indeed achieve its target speed seemed of minimal significance. Aesthetically the new Zagato is very distant from the old; its forms are linear, extruded rather than plastic; its headlamps rather intrude on a flattened but still recognisable grille, and the front-heavy bunched-tail profile has been supplanted by a shallow Eighties wedge with a separate glass area added.

Aston Martin will keep strictly to the intended figure of 50 Vantage Zagato coupes, but at Geneva this year, a variant was shown: a convertible version fitted with the standard injection engine. This means the disappearance of the huge bonnet hump needed to clear the downdraught Weber carburetters of the Vantage spec unit. Twenty-five of these cars will be built when the coupe orders are fulfilled.

When we visited the company’s Newport Pagnell premises, a pair of the last few Zagato “chassis” were just ready to go off to Italy. The folded steel floorpan is assembled with all the running gear over here, and is then dispatched to Zagato in Milan where the body is hand-built, trimmed and painted, before coming back to Aston Martin ready for its final inspection.

This arrangement is one of the few processes which occur out of the factory, which is proud of sub-contracting very little indeed. Quality is central to the products of Aston Martin, and it is a fascinating sight to watch the separate alloy pieces (wings are shaped outside, bonnets and valances inhouse) being welded into a complete V8 front end which is checked over a solid steel master former. The three main subsections— nose, tail and roof—are then riveted onto the steel floorpan and welded together.

Once doors, boot and bonnet are mounted and the shut-lines painstakingly adjusted, all shells (saloon, Vantage, Volante and Lagonda) pass through the paint-shop, receiving all except the last colour coat, which will not be applied until after the first of two road-tests.

From here the cars converge on to a hand assembly line. Each sub-assembly receives careful attention: for example, the rear discs are fitted to the Salisbury differential and then dynamically balanced before being bolted to the chassis. Wiring, hoses and ancillaries follow, before the enormous engine is hoisted into the engine bay. It takes one man one week to build each engine, the alloy castings being machined at Aston Martin, and each unit is bench-tested prior to fitting either a ZF manual or Chrysler Torqueflite auto box.

Trimming and upholstering is the end of the line for fixed-heads, though the Volante hood, recently revised to include a glass rear window, is completed in the inspection hall. Only a second road-test, minus carpets, separates the car from its waiting purchaser:

After looking over the assembly process it was time to sample the product — the Zagato itself. Opening the door with its Zagato-inscribed handle and sliding inside reveals that this is a low car, and a compact one: gear-lever and centre console are close to the wheel, only a few inches remains behind the seats, and there is little headroom to spare. Instruments are grouped tightly behind the thick wheel; leather abounds, and air conditioning is a welcome fitment — only a small portion of the flush side-window slides open. Wheel, pedals and gearstick are well placed, and the seat is nearly comfortable —nothing wrong with its shape, but it seems to slope forwards instead of back.

Every control reinforces the message of power: the hard clutch, the firm throttle, the click-clack of the narrow ZF gearchange, but most of all the burst of sound when the 5.3-litre V8 lights up. The car quivers even at idle, and blipping the accelerator twitches the body to the right in reaction to the immense torque. Motor Sport’s bill of automotive fare can heavily deplete one’s stock of superlatives from time to time, but Aston Martin’s Zagato deserves most of them.

Sensational, yes, but also composed; brutish but obedient, razor sharp without being difficult to control. Effort is needed to change gear, but of an entirely pleasurable sort, it is electrifying to listen to the revs surging and dying away as you snick down from fourth to third to second, the huge discs rumbling as the speed plummets to the chosen turn-in point where you release the brakes, shift the right foot to the vital pedal and gently feed in more power than a 32-ton truck.

Huge Goodyears respond instantly to mild movements of the wheel and propel the Aston through bends which might as well not exist, except for the relentless lateral tug, while seemingly from all directions comes the all pervasive noise, building up to a glorious vibrant crescendo which is felt as much as heard, before snapping back in tune with the next closely-spaced gear.

Improved breathing allows this Vantage-plus unit to peak at 432bhp; yet its apparently limitless torque means that the higher gears are superbly flexible pushing the big vehicle away from town speeds with complete ease. But it is a pity our outing did not take us on to safe territory to explore the upper sixty per cent of its performance curve, because it is a hard thing to hear this engine at full stretch in three gears and not to dare let it have its head in the other two.

Such potential has to be capably contained, course, and everything else about this Anglo-Italian thoroughbred matches its magnificent engine. The dampers are quite stiff to show up any flaws in its construction but the alloy carcase feels absolutely solid over ramps and ruts, the suspension just enough to even the surface out tying the car flat to the road.

Steering wheel weight is satisfyingly heavy and informative and the staggeringly powerful brakes require a good push, which is just as it ought to be. The degree of concentration this vehicle invites needs a bare minimum of power assistance.

Handling? Superb as far as I dared experiment on the road, probably far short of any limits of grip. De Dion traction anchors the rear, while the front tyres give no signs of working hard through demanding corners. Like any well-balanced chassis, it is more secure under power in a bend, but only marginally so — a question of line trimming. It seems equally stable at 30 and 110 mph, and there is remarkably little extra noise at the latter pace — perhaps engine noise is traded for tyre and wind noise in equal proportion.

It is easy — no, more than that, it is part of a motoring writer’s job — to run down a list of prices and criticise one car for offering poor value compared to another. But there are times, and this is one of them, when something AH wrote years ago in Motor Sport comes back to me. He had been driving a Porsche 911 at the then huge price of £19,000, and commented in effect that it excelled in so many ways that it would be a bargain at any price. A car with the brio of the Aston Martin Zagato cannot in fairness be assessed on “value”, because it would be valueless to anyone who was unable to appreciate what it can do. It is, after all, merely a car with only two seats. But to a devotee of the very finest sporting motorcars, its desirability is without question. If you can afford it, you buy it. If not, you read some lucky journalist’s road test.

With the Zagato, Aston Martin has more than achieved its aim. After some worrying years during which a new car has been postponed again and again, this cost-efficient project has put the company back on centre-stage. With cabriolet Zagatos to show off this year, a twin-supercharged Lagonda under development (probably as a final version), and the promise of the new coupe at the Motor Show in 1988, Aston fanciers have much to look forward to. GC