We seem to be operating on fast-forward. The Aston Martin Vanquish has that effect. That familiar knot in the stomach you feel when driving something really quick really quickly kicks in the moment the exhaust bypass valves open. This is the point where the angry strung-out V12 clamour makes your heart race and pupils dilate. It may be artificially amplified, but it’s utterly intoxicating. That the Vanquish copes so well with changes of camber, direction and elevation makes you want one all the more. It’s a looker too.
But that’s not the best bit. Ten years ago this dazzling machine would have cost you £158k before you so much as glanced at the options list. Today you can slash £100k or more off the figure. In no way is a Vanquish a bargain, but as price tumble – there are a few out there at around the £50k mark – suddenly that new BMW M3 doesn’t seem quite so appealing. And with this Aston you get a lot of car for your money.
The thing is, exotics tend to come saddled with a lack of reliability: all too often the only emotion a car in this class engenders is frustration. But many Vanquishes have racked up high mileages without a hiccup. All of which is in keeping with a car that in so many ways represented a mission statement for the once calamity-prone marque. That the Vanquish existed at all was a remarkable achievement considering the parlous state of Aston Martin in the early Nineties. Sure, it enjoyed the protective cloak of Ford, and Victor Gauntlett’s custodianship the previous decade had done much to bolster its flagging image, but the moment production of the old-school Virage dropped to fewer than 50 cars in single year something drastic needed to be done.
Which is where the DB7 came in. While it has retrospectively come in for a kicking – “It’s just a Tupperware Jaguar XJ-S” – this graceful GT reinvigorated a virtually comatose marque. It was fast, it was pretty and it was also quite conservative because it had to appeal to a wide audience.
The Vanquish, in contrast, was conceived with a more highbrow clientele in mind. But first came Project Vantage, a concept car that wowed onlookers at the January 1998 Detroit Auto Show. Response to the Ian Callum-styled offering was overwhelmingly positive, convincing Ford to put it into production. It also marked a way of replacing the Neolithic V8 models that had done sterling service for so many years.
“The Vanquish came about for a number of reasons,” says the man who conceived the model, former Aston Martin Lagonda chief executive Bob Dover. “Although we had used the DB7 essentially to re-launch Aston to world markets, particularly the USA and the Far East, it was just not special enough to be the sole car in the range, although the [1999-on Vantage] V12 engine helped enormously in giving us back some supercar credentials. We also needed replace the big V8s with something that was a little less daunting for many potential customers. They were wonderful cars, but relatively heavy and outdated. It was also becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with emissions legislation.
“The opportunity to de the Vanquish came about when my then boss, Ford CEO Jacques Nasser, agreed to fund a show car to help build brand awareness. What he didn’t know was that we used the money to do much of engineering for what became the prototype Vanquish, which was launched by both of as a press preview in Detroit. Media and dealer response was extremely positive and at Geneva Motor Show ten weeks later I was able to persuade [Ford chief product manager] Richard Parry-Jones and Mr Nasser to support the programme. Jacques had driven the show, but he was the only outsider to do so.”
Unlike so many cars where the transition from concept to production involves a degree of watering down, the Vanquish looked nearly identical to the show queen. “There were no particular issues during the design phase,” says Dover. “Ian Callum stuck to his brief: to design a car that showcased Aston Martin brand values but was more aggressive than the DB7. My request was something somewhere between the DB7 and the V8s in visual terms. Project Vantage had been well received, and the differences externally between the show car and the production Vanquish? Well, you’d struggle to spot them.
“The engineering was much more challenging to delivery on our budget. We had the first carbonfibre crash structure that met worldwide regulations for any car, and this had to be joined to aluminium extrusions and sheet metal which formed the body structure. We developed the first load-bearing A-post with Nottingham University, plus the use of aerospace insulation to manage under-bonnet temperatures, major use of superformed aluminium skin panels and so on. As to why we did this, I felt we needed to reinforce Aston’s technical credibility. The paddle shift transmission system was part of that. There was no market need for a [gearlever] manual at that time. The small development budget and timing plans meant we had to make hard choices. The team pulled together to create a car that was beautiful and durable, one that will hopefully become iconic.”
Lesser cars have reached such exalted status, so the Vanquish is certainly in with a shout. At once elegant and menacing, its outline is undeniably compelling. And while volume and efficiency requirements ensured the aluminium panels were no longer shaped by hand, each piece was finished manually. The 5.9-litre V12 was borrowed from the DB7 Vantage but with what insiders called a “second-generation” makeover. For its new application the powerplant emerged 40kg lighter and with uprated camshaft and manifold along with a revised crankshaft and new valve gear to provide 460bhp at 6500rpm plus 400lb of the good stuff at 5000rpm. This was sent rearwards via a six-speed transmission with shifter paddles behind the steering wheel. Aluminium wishbones formed the basic for the suspension at both ends with huge vented disc (355 mm up front, 300mm at the rear) abetted by a Teves anti-lock set up providing stopping power.
After the definitive Vanquish broke cover in 2001 at Geneva orders came in thick and fast as the world’s media gushed forth. Autocar claimed it was “Aston’s best effort yet and Britain’s finest supercar this side of a McLaren F1”. Road & Track surmised: “If the Vanquish’s endless pulling power and captivating engine rumble doesn’t impress you, its solid and competent chassis surely will.” With a claimed top speed of 196mph and 0-60mph in 4.6sec, there was little to touch it in its segment save for the Ferrari 550. And Aston Martin hadn’t finished: the Vanquish S debuted at the 2004 Paris Motor Show with six litres and 514bhp, making it a genuine 200mph proposition. On ticking the box for the Sports Dynamic Pack you got stiffer suspension and meatier brakes. The run-out Ultimate Edition marked the end of the road for the Vanquish, with 50 cars featuring cabin upgrades and Ultimate Black paint. In all 2578 Vanquishes were made to 2007, its passing also seeing out Aston manufacture in Newport Pagnell before what remained of the factory was given over completely to the Works Service business.
The pre-production prototype featured here has rarely strayed far from this enclave of bespoke automotive tailoring and acted as a test bed for upgrades and revisions. Up close, it’s mesmerising: there isn’t a line wrong. Inside there are none of ye olde slabs of timber found in previous Astons: it’s all fragrant leather, Alcantara and buffed aluminium, even if the Ford-sourced switchgear lets the side down a little. The low driving position is near-perfect, although the dashboard is set quite high and the chunky A-pillars appear to have been designed with blindspots in mind.
Now comes the good bit. While push-in starters are a naff addition on many modern cars, there’s no denying the sense of theatre here. Press the back-lit red button and the all-alloy V12 erupts into life. At tickover the Vanquish emits a deep, bas backbeat that sounds vaguely pre-war thoroughbred in pitch. And with just a hint of throttle you’re away – fast. Below 4000rpm the Vanquish seems more like a rapid executive saloon than a sports car, but above this figure it takes on an altogether more hardcore posture. It’s epically quick for something weighing 1845kg; you can better 60mph from standstill before needing second gear.
But that’s not the surprising bit. Most old Astons are fabulous things, but this is something else entirely. There are no creaks or groans in the structure and the ride quality is almost supple despite the 19in rims and super-fat rubber. The Vanquish really hits its stride on fast B-roads where it belies its heft. Body control is exemplary, turn-in is ultra-precise, the speed-related power-assisted steering is light and manageable at dawdling pace but firm enough when it really matters.
Where this car diverges from most of its siblings is the addition of a gearlever. The regular paddle shift divided opinion when the car was new. It worked well, albeit with a slight ker-klunk between changes when worked hard. But a hill start or three-point turn was often accompanied by the aroma of flambéed clutch plate. This was soon remedied, but the flappy paddle set-up has never quite shaken off its unfortunate – if largely underserved – reputation for frailty.
The six-speed Tremec gearbox is entirely in keeping with the Vanquish’s character, being suitably meaty across the gate. As Aston Work Service director Kingsley Riding-Felce points out: “Many customers said they really enjoyed the car but preferred a gearlever because they were used to using one. There was sufficient interest for us to create a business case to spend the money to support an extensive engineering programme and there is never a week now that a Vanquish isn’t being converted either in our workshop in Newport Pagnell or abroad.” At £11,500 plus VAT for a pre-2005 car and a further £2k for an S, it’s not a cheap conversion, but it’s impeccably done.
What’s clear from getting reacquainted with the Vanquish is that it remains a beguiling proposition. Unfortunately my drive was all too quickly curtailed by the weather – traction control or no traction control, low-profile tyres and snow don’t mix – but not before its blend of civility and savage power had me enraptured. The real beauty of this car is that is still feels like a proper Aston despite the divergence in build and design practices. It might lack the rustic traditionalism expected of the breed, but there’s nothing nick-of-time about its construction. It’s a blunt instrument but a surprisingly versatile one. This car didn’t so much cross boundaries as establish them.
“The market for Aston Martin Vanquish is a dichotomy,” says marque expert Tim Foster of Byron International. “The modern Aston, with its technology, complex architecture and identification as one of the world’s coolest brands, sits alongside the idiosyncratic Englishness of the classic Aston with all the faults and foibles of handmade product. The Vanquish is the first and probably only Aston to bridge that divide.
“An early, low-mileage car that has been well maintained can still command more than £50,000. But then the whole price structure runs on the basis of colour, mileage and specification; age is only a guide. The car has no major weakness; the gearbox is the only thing that divides opinion. These have more to do with individual driving styles and personal preferences. Because the car has bridged the market, building popularity among modern Aston buyers as well as enthusiasts. It’s well placed to be the next icon.”
Long-time marque specialist Desmond Smail agrees. Having driven 130,000 miles in his own Vanquish, he’s evangelical of its future status. “It’s the new DB5,” he declares. “In years to come it will be viewed in the same light. It was the last of the Newport Pagnell cars and it’s still a fantastic car to drive. I have no problem with the paddle shift. Not much goes wrong – crossmembers occasionally corrode; but as long as these cars are serviced properly you shouldn’t have problems.
Rear: independent, double wishbones, coil springs, monotube damper, anti-roll bar.
This is an article about the model Aston Martin Vanquish I
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