Today’s Aston Martin seeks to cultivate a crisp, modern, James Bond in a very trim suit image. There was a time when things over there were more double-breasted, when they succeeded in building the most powerful (and possibly most moronic) car in the world.
In 1987, Ford bought a 75-percent stake in Aston Martin. In 1994, Ford bought it outright, and in 1999 rolled it into their doomed Premium Auto Group. Or Premium Something Group. I can’t even be bothered to look up its exact name, but it was a loose confederacy of Lincoln, Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover, maybe Mercury, and Aston Martin. The keen-eyed among you will note that it does not make sense to have the same company running both Jaguar and Aston Martin. They compete with each other for the ‘dumb Americans who want to look fancy’ market that so strongly defines the modern British auto industry. Needless to say, Ford’s PAG is dead and gone.
Before it gave up ownership, Ford did inject a huge amount of cash and development input into Aston Martin through the late ‘80s and into the ‘00s. By the time the V12 Vanquish rolled out in 2001, the international automotive press raved about how Aston was finally entering the 21st century, designing V12s, advancing to glued-aluminum chassis construction, and ditching its stodgy old brutality for some real handling finesse.
That’s all well and good.
But what about that stodgy, conservative, un-modern past?
As it turns out, Aston Martin was all kinds of badass. They built their cars by hand. They made them soft and luxurious and comfortable. They weren’t the most desirable on paper, but take one look at one in person and you get a sense of their presence.
That’s not quite true. Old Astons are so rare that you never see them, ever. I’ve only come across one in person and it looked like a widebody Nissan.
Aston Martin in its awkward years (basically, after the classic DB5 and 6 of the 1960s but before Ford started cleaning things up) made all kinds of wonderfully desperate cars. I don’t have time to talk about them all, from their abandoned Group C prototype program to the Icarus of the automotive world, the Lagonda. I’m going to focus on the 1990s Vantage, not only because it’s interesting in the company’s history, but also because nobody else seems to remember this car exists.
Which is weird, because by the end of its production run it was the most powerful car in the world.
The Vantage was built from 1993 to 2000, but its story starts in 1989. That’s when Aston Martin started selling the Virage. Pictured below is one such Virage.
The Virage was, as Aston so proudly exclaimed at the car’s unveiling, the company’s first all-new sports car in 20 years. They had been refreshing and updating the old V8 since ‘70s, and they just couldn’t do any more plastic surgery on the old thing.
Ford ended up funding some of the Virage’s development, but it was a free and complete Aston Martin design. It was Aston’s first big stab towards lightweight construction, high technology, and modernity. The chassis was steel, but the body was aluminum. The 5.3 liter V8 engine used the same block as Aston had been using for the past few decades, but it got new 32-valve heads designed by Callaway. Yeah, the guys who built those crazy turbo Vettes.
Aston picked Callaway because they asked Cosworth first and, as this book details, one executive stated “the price tag was pretty horrendous.”
Rowan Atkinson reviewed the Virage for CAR Magazine back in the day and was amazed by its up-to-date tech features like:
- a working heater
- air conditioning that didn’t fill your vents with ice
- seats that could be adjusted electronically
Yes, all of the creature comforts you could expect on a Toyota Camry could be yours on a six-figure GT car. Well, except ABS. Aston Martin hadn’t figured that one out yet, though they had managed to give up on their inboard rear discs. They never figured out how to keep those cool.
There are all kinds of little details of how Aston’s standards of modernity were somewhat old fashioned back in the 1980s. They proudly talked about using Computer Aided Design, but when it came to making a full-sized buck, they carved one out of mahogany. Mahogany! It weighed several tons.
The company claimed to have focused on keeping weight down for the Virage. Any guesses how much it actually weighed? 4,295 pounds. The later Vantage? A spry 4,850.
The chassis was new, but its design mirrored the 1976 Lagonda sedan. The car used a De Dion tube rear suspension (which is not entirely independent) when you would get double wishbones on a Honda Civic, let alone a rival Ferrari.
Other oddball features are that the Virage got little interior and exterior parts from GM (stalks), Ford (buttons and switches), Jaguar (doorhandles), Audi (headlights), and Volkswagen (taillights), which might be some kind of record. When Aston Martin needed an airbag for the car, they just yanked one off of a Ford Taurus. It did not look good.
It was the kind of car where the leather would be quite possibly the finest in the business, enough to put a Jaguar to shame and threaten a Rolls Royce, but the parts bin headlight dial would flex in your hand. It was the kind of car where all the instrument gauges would be beautifully designed, but the slightest bit of sunshine would make them invisible. And one of the dials would read in the opposite direction from all the others for no discernible reason.
There’s one other detail that I quite like about the Virage. The suspension was very soft, making the car squat on a hard launch. In fact, the suspension was so soft and the car would squat so much that it would scrape the inside of the wheel arches. A similarly-powerful Mercedes SL500 was a nearly a full second faster from 0-60. Actually, Aston’s quoted 0-60 time was only as quick as their own DB6 from two decades prior.
So, that’s the Virage. It was Aston Martin’s basic model. When it debuted, Aston started working on a high-performance Vantage version (pictured below), which debuted in four years later.
Here’s the big stat. While the Virage had 330 horsepower, the Vantage had 550. Five hundred and fifty. In 1993. This was as much power as you would get in a 200+ mph midengine supercar, but stuffed into the front of a large, four-seat coupe.
How did Aston get that increase? They twin-supercharged it. Not one, but two superchargers, working together. One perched on each set of valve covers. This is the kind of engineering solution you expect out of a backwoods drag racing shop, not the most cultured carmaker in existence.
Have fun changing those spark plugs!
The thing was, while the Vantage got a huge amount of power, it didn’t quite have the ability to handle it. The thing was still based on the Virage, and that just wasn’t a very good driver’s car.
Aston did everything they could. They hardened up the suspension, they widened the tires, they added a new transmission with a sixth gear, and they added spoilers front and rear to keep the car stable.
Only Aston didn’t really go far enough. It was a hard time for Aston, right in the middle of the transition to total Ford ownership. Aston actually had no engineering director when developing the Vantage, and had to go to Tom Walkinshaw (the legend behind Jaguar’s Le Mans success, among other things) to oversee the project. The Vantage’s suspension might have been stiffer than the Virage’s, but it was still softer and comfier than anything short of a Rolls Royce. The transmission was a six-speed, but they had to go to GM to get it — the Vantage got the same gearbox as the contemporary (if legendary) Corvette ZR1.
What was it like to drive, at least from an enthusiast’s perspective? Well, CAR Magazine pitched a Virage against a Ferrari 456GT, pretty much the standard for handling and design in that segment. Here are the opening few paragraphs from the writer Ian Fraser, who does indeed have a badass picture of himself powersliding that 456 around a wet Welsh b-road if you’re doubting his credibility.
There is, on our favorite high, bleak, snaking road across Exmoor, a cattle grid two-thirds of the way through a sweeping left-hand bend. It is neither vicious nor especially dangerous but it makes cars speak the truth about themselves. The Ferrari 456GT, the shining lance with which Maranello will perforate the envelope of the 21st century, was fast and assured in the face of this hinderance. I saw it, all wet and slippery, emerging through the mist, and went on stand-by to sort out the difficulties that it was sure to throw up. I had absolutely nothing to do; that was the surprise. Its steering was sensitive enough to detect every bar on the grid but the car remained entirely composed.
The Vantage loathed the cattle grid. Its great road-roller tyres (285/45/ ZR18) slewed outwards at the front and recovered only to have the rears do exactly the same thing a fraction of a second later, so the whole car was substantially displaced on the road, aided and abetted by the outside rear suspension’s going clumsily to the limit of its travel. The episode was unsettling enough for my passenger to blurt out an expletive, although it probably felt worse from where he was sitting.
The writer went on warn the reader that the advantages of supercharging in the Vantage (as opposed to turbocharging) had turned into on of the car’s major faults: boost came on early and strong, but that made it extremely difficult to survive a trip down a narrow, slippery road. It was never clear how much power the engine would send to the back tires for a certain amount of throttle. One driver called it “violently unpredictable,” made worse by the fact that the very high dashboard and long hood made keeping an eye on the road like “trying to watch a play behind a very tall man.”
Everyone who drove the Aston agreed that it was an unsatisfying novelty, and an incomprehensibly expensive one at that.
The Vantage was a Jeremy Clarkson kind of a car — nostalgic, loud, a bit of a blowhard. Naturally he loved it. Watch this old Top Gear review and you’ll see what I mean. Not only does Clarkson say everything about the car other than that it’s terrible, he also has to drive a development prototype. Aston didn’t yet have the time or resources to build a dedicated press car.
Now, if Aston Martin was concerned with production volume, they would have focused on fixing the troublesome quirks of the Vantage — the Ford steering wheel, for instance. Aston, however, was probably just busy with developing their DB7, which debuted in ‘94, and working up to their all-aluminum renaissance starting with the 2001 V12 Vanquish.
So rather than work to fix the problems with the Vantage, they just gave the it more power.
They realized their cooling for the big supercharged V8 wasn’t as efficient as it could have been, and once they fixed that with an additional intercooler, they could up the boost on the twin blowers. That, with a new exhaust, gave 50 extra horsepower, as explained here. In 1998, Aston offered a V600 package boosting power up to, you guessed it, 600 bhp. Apparently 56 people bought the package, and Aston built 25 more for reasons beyond my comprehension. Here’s a shot of the engine with its twin Eaton Roots superchargers, just because.
The following year, Aston voluntarily decided that they were finally going to give up on the Vantage. I’m kidding, of course, upcoming safety and emissions regulations were about to make the car unsellable. In any case, Aston figured they would give the Vantage a final run of top spec cars to run the model out. It was the last hand-built Aston Martin, and they called it the ‘Le Mans.’ They built 40 copies, 40 years after the company’s 24 Hours of Le Mans win in 1959. Price? £232,950, or just over half a million dollars in today’s money.
600 horsepower, 600 lb-ft of torque. Koni shocks, Eibach springs, AP Racing 6-piston calipers on ventilated discs, stiffer anti-roll bars. New vents on the bodywork, a blocked-off grill, and magnesium wheels. A bigger rev counter.
All this worked together to make it the fastest car Aston had ever made, and the most powerful car in the world. McLaren wasn’t selling the F1 anymore, and there was no Ferrari, Lamborghini, or anything else to match its double-six figure. Top speed was a claimed 200 mph and 0-60 also cited at 3.95 seconds.
Only the car never really was that fast. As EVO’s John Barker remembered in a later test, the car never bettered 4.6 seconds, even after no fewer than 20 runs. Of course, Aston didn’t have a great history of making verifiable performance claims — some French journalists attempted to max out one 1970s V8 Vantage on an illegal highway run, but could barely reach 185, under the quoted 186. This was a significant improvement’s on the company’s own best run of 150 mph at a very embarrassing public demonstration.
So yeah, good luck making that 200 mph run in your Vantage Le Mans.
But just look at the thing. It’s not a beautiful car. It’s not nimble. It’s not particularly good at putting down numbers.
What it is is impossibly charming. Somehow a bunch of old guys in rainy England managed to build the most powerful car in the world, and they didn’t do it in a cutting edge midengine supercar. They just blew a huge V8 and stuffed it into a smoking parlor on wheels. Who can’t see the wonderful terribleness in that?
In its final reckoning, the Vantage is a car in spite of itself. We think of it as hopelessly old school today, but it was a clear effort from Ford and Aston Martin to build something modern. The body was supposed to be cutting edge and aerodynamic, but the endlessly long trunk and flat front make it look ancient. The engine was the most powerful you could buy at the time, but it had its roots in a design from the 1970s. It was too cramped to be a real luxury cruiser, but too soft to be a real sports car. It was impossibly expensive, but had fewer features than an economy car.
It wasn’t a good car by any real measure, nor was it a car that many people wanted to buy. A grand total of 280 Vantages in any way shape or form were ever built. Used prices remain in the six digits thanks to this rarity.
The old men working at the factory, hand-forming the aluminum body panels, just couldn’t produce a truly current car. It wasn’t until Aston gave up on hand craft before they really reached some kind of contemporary quality.
Reviewers talked about how you had the Vantage drive it almost like a classic, throwing it into corners, skipping into rough turns and powersliding out of them. All the while the car was built like the great luxury cars of the older era. Short of Morgan or Pagani, there’s no company that builds an interior like this anymore. It looks hopelessly dated in there, but the creaking wood and soft leather construction is there.
Try as Aston did, the Vantage was still a vintage car even when it was new. Hopelessly flawed but almost painfully endearing, it maybe one of the last ‘vintage’ cars ever made.
Photo Credits: Aston Martin
This is not a complete history of Aston’s Virage lineup. I didn’t even mention the convertibles, multiple station wagon customs, the 6.3 liter Virage carryover before the Vantage, or even how the Vantage’s headlights changed multiple times during its production run! For more information on these cars, check out the sources I used for my research: