The same year Concorde entered service, Aston Martin introduced a roadgoing equivalent. But like the emblematic supersonic jetliner, the Lagonda embodied a future which ultimately failed to take flight.
Despite the fact that it didn’t run and wouldn’t actually enter production for another three years, the Lagonda’s thrilling sci-fi appearance caused a media sensation in the Autum of 1976 and probably saved Aston Martin’s bacon at a very difficult time. Because a year before, the Newport Pagnell-based car maker was in receivership, falling prey, like Jensen, Iso and Maserati to the fallout from the 1973 oil crisis coupled with the costs of adhering to ever-tightening safety and emissions regulations. Having been rescued by an Anglo-American consortium, the Lagonda project was aimed at giving Aston Martin something new to sell, but also to bolster a range of cars that were increasingly viewed as dinosaurs.
The Lagonda utilised a new bodyshell but mechanically, chief engineer, Mike Loasby carried over the Aston Martin’s unequal length front wishbones and De Dion rear axle, using parallel trailing arms and a watts linkage. Also retained was Tadek Marek’s 5.3 litre four cam V8 engine – mounted further back in the car for balanced weight distribution and to clear the Lagonda’s low, projecting nose.
Stylistically too, the William Towns body style, believed to have initially been proposed as both two door coupé and four door saloon – (the glazed roof panel obviating the necessity for a separate roof pressing) – seems to have been approved virtually unchanged from Towns’ original concept. Interestingly, at least one two-door Lagonda’s was built – used as a development hack for the 1989 Aston Martin Virage.
Towns’ Lagonda entered production as a four door, close coupled coupé-saloon; form in this case very much taking the driving seat, while function hitched a lift some way behind. A perfect example being the fixed rear side glass on early models. Perhaps the ultimate expression of the razor edged, wedge profiled school of body surfacing, it may have looked a little unbalanced from some angles but by 1976 standards, it was just so bracingly modern.
Nevertheless, the decision to employ solid state electronics to control many of the car’s functions in addition to its instrumentation proved to be the major stumbling block and the single factor which delayed the car’s introduction, botched the highly publicised first delivery and marred the model’s reputation. Proposed by Loasby, it was enthusiastically approved by AML owner, Peter Sprague, who in addition to running Aston Martin, also had business interests in America’s silicon valley.
The Lagonda’s dashboard used touch sensitive switches for most controls and liquid crystal displays for the instruments. The big problem was obtaining sufficient reliability in operation, particularly across varying temperatures, AML having to abandon the initial system entirely, moving to one developed in the US. But as with the car’s exterior styling, the Lagonda’s interior – (complete with Citroënesque single spoke wheel) – spoke of tomorrow like few production cars of the era, but Aston Martin paid a price for being first in the field.
Car magazine drove an early pre-production car in Autumn 1978 saying; ‘In a style that perhaps is only matched by the XJ Jaguar, ride comfort is supreme, handling secure and roll-free; even at high speed, passengers are relaxed while the driver is rewarded by the car’s controllability and sheer effortlessness’. In other words, they liked it.
Deliveries of first series cars began in 1979, with a revised series two model introduced in 1986 featuring fuel injection and cathode ray instrumentation employing three TV-style screens. This model was in production for only a year before being superseded by the heavily restyled final series in 1987.
Carried out by the car’s creator, the Lagonda’s body panels were ‘softened’, the body-side crease and pop-up headlamps excised along with a good 85% of the original design’s character. The dashboard received another redesign, now utilising similar in principle vacuum fluorescent displays to those of contemporary Jaguar’s and GM models. Production ultimately ceased in 1990.
In the UK, Car magazine apparently experienced a mid-80’s damascene conversion, dismissing it as a car for ‘chic sheiks’. Certainly, a sizeable majority of the 645 produced found their way to the affluent Gulf states, where its fragility was perhaps less of an issue – most owners having other cars to fall back upon. It’s also fair to say Aston Martin’s more traditional UK customers dismissed it as terminally déclassé.
Yes, it was probably a slightly mad idea, especially for a company desperate to escape bankruptcy, but sometimes doing the wrong thing is exactly the right thing to do. Lagonda was a daring gamble to offer something genuinely modern, and while ownership (even on a good day) was likely to have been a symphony of warning lights and blank LCD displays, as failures go, it was a pretty spectacular one. Forty years on and having slowly gained the respectability that once eluded it, Lagonda presents an alluring, if still slightly queasy appeal.
Like Concorde, it speaks of an optimism that now appears almost naive in our more cynical epoch. We’d never entertain either now, more’s the pity.