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Aston Martin Vanquish (2001) manual driven

2015-10-07 Read: 547x

What is a Vanquish really like with three pedals and a stick rather than paddles?

 It's a marketing rather than an engineering decision if ever there was one: Aston Martin's first-gen Vanquish was only ever available as a paddleshift automatic.

This car proves it - the Aston Martin Works-converted Vanquish manual demonstrator, complete with six-speed shifter sprouting prominently out of the centre console. Because it comes about not through fitting an entirely new manual transaxle from another Aston, extensive re-engineering and all... but by replacing the Tremec/Borg-Warner T-56 six-speed gearbox's Magneti Marelli semi-auto shifter pack (also used by period Ferrari 360s) with a conventional manual selector. Simple now; it would have been a breeze back then.

They didn't, because of the desire to give the Vanquish a technological-leader image. The 21st century Bond doesn't shift a gearlever, he uses paddles - and back in 2001, paddle shifters were still a little bit space age. Every single one of the 2,500 Vanquish and Vanquish S built between 2001 and 2007 was thus duly equipped.

A lesson in avoidance

Sadly, as we know, the shifts themselves weren't so space age. They were smooth enough and downshift blips were amusing but, even then, they seemed laggy. Today, it's like switching back to a Windows 95 PC. That's the thing when electronics form a major part of a car - electronics evolve, and so too do our expectations.

Then there's the nagging question of reliability and longevity. The first road test cars suffered gearbox gremlins and, apparently, Aston Martin's one-day driver training course for all Vanquish buyers even included a lesson in city centre motoring - basically, keep a gap to the car in front so you can stay rolling, rather than stopping and starting, to protect the clutch...

In theory, then, this manual V12 Vanquish should be rather nice. Particularly as those fearing a bit of a lash up will be amazed at how factory-fit it all seems. The gearknob, donated by a V8 Vantage, looks like it was born to be there, and the position of the lever is ergonomically perfect (anyone remember the awkward canting over of the Reliant Scimitar SS1..?). If you didn't know the Vanquish never came as a manual, you'd think there was nothing extraordinary here. Goodness, there's even just enough space for the clutch, meaning no original 911-like feelings of pressing down into the passenger footwell.

As if it would be a lash up, though: this is the work of, well, Aston Martin Works, the crack development department based at the firm's spiritual HQ in Newport Pagnell. They've neatly used the central ashtray to house the lever (for the Vanquish S, it became a cupholder) and because Aston covers it all in leather matching the rest of the interior, the slight remodelling required to ensure the lever has full fore and aft travel without your fist smashing into the centre console is completely hidden. The steering wheel cowl hasn't been forgotten either (the paddles are removed, not left redundant...).

Manual decision: vanquished

But for all this, you'll still pause as you start up. For a decade, this has been a paddle shift car. How do you drive a manual Vanquish? As it turns out, because of the quality of the shift, just like a normal manual (a light and crisp one at that). It snicks into first cleanly, the meaty clutch is not the feared brutal switch as you let it out and, well, everything gels nicely from the off. The only surprise is shifting from second to third, and later from third to fifth: it has an extremely narrow gate that requires a delicate hand. Mindful of expensive V12-munching downshifts, maybe Aston should revive that Vanquish driver training with a revised gearbox training module...

It soon starts to flow, so the rest of the revived Vanquish can be explored. The other surprise? How it still stands scrutiny. It feels like a classic front-engine V12 coupe, with all the handling confidence you'd hope for (the fact this original development hack was converted for Vanquish S trials helps - and explains why Y-plate registration doesn't match S-spec grille, front splitter and rear spoiler). Drive normally and it's nice and neutral, press on and it becomes satisfyingly rear-influenced, with the predictability and directness of the gearshift giving you further confidence (rather like as Dan discovered recently with the difference between manual and DCT BMW M3). It maybe even lets you drive that bit quicker, because you feel more keyed into the car beneath you - and on twisty British roads, complete predictability is what you need when piloting a sports car that's more than 1.9 metres wide. An intelligent nicely damped ride is too; you sense the magic of Lotus.

This early incarnation of Aston's V12 motor is, on reflection, also rather nice. It doesn't quite have the finishing school culture today's iterations do, so is a little rawer and more prominent, and better to a classic driver's eyes as a result. Entertainment is more important than the ultimate in driving refinement here, and with this engine, you certainly know you're driving a V12. Particularly when, deep into the test route, you notice you've used plenty of the remaining fuel, leaving the dial pointing worryingly close to zero. Enter cruise mode, and enter one more major reasons paddle shift Vanquish owners may consider the conversion: it trickles along in traffic beautifully, not a lunge in sight nor the merest whiff of a lightly-cooking clutch.

It's a super conversion that makes the Vanquish the car it perhaps ought to have been back when manual gearboxes really were in vogue. This, and the allure of the Aston Martin Works stamps and stickers, is why so many (we're talking hundreds rather than handfuls) are now having it done, despite the upwards-of-£15,000 cost (most have a few other Works tweaks while there - modern-grade touchscreen sat nav being a favourite). Vanquish manual? Thanks to Works, we know it works. 


ASTON MARTIN V12 VANQUISH S MANUAL

  • Engine: 5,935cc V12
  • Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
  • Power (hp): 520@7,000rpm
  • Torque (lb ft): 425@5,800rpm
  • 0-62mph: 4.8 seconds (est) 
  • Top speed: 200mph + 
  • Kerbweight: 1,875kg (est)
  • MPG: 16.9 NEDC combined (est)
  • CO2: 396g/km (est)
  • Price: Used Vanquish + c.£15,000

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