The same year Concorde entered commercial service, Aston Martin introduced what could be considered its roadgoing equivalent. But like the emblematic and embattled supersonic jetliner, the Lagonda embodied a future which ultimately failed to take flight.
In 1975, the Newport Pagnell-based luxury carmaker was facing ruin; falling prey to a perfect storm comprised of the spiralling costs of adhering to ever-tightening safety and emissions regulations, and the stark market contraction which stemmed directly from the 1973 oil crisis. Rescued from bankruptcy by an Anglo-American consortium, the Lagonda programme was aimed, not only at providing struggling Aston Martin dealers with something new to sell, but also to help bolster a range of cars that were increasingly being viewed as dinosaurs.
Despite the fact that it didn’t actually run and wouldn’t enter series production for another three years, the Lagonda’s thrillingly futuristic appearance caused a media sensation in the Autumn of 1976 – the raft of pre-orders probably helping to save Aston Martin’s bacon at a very difficult moment.
The Lagonda utilised an entirely new bodyshell but technically, 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 Aston Martin’s own 5.3 litre four cam V8, mounted further back in the car, not just for more balanced weight distribution but also 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 – is believed to have been approved virtually unchanged from Towns’ original concept. Interestingly, at least one two-door Lagonda’s was built – later used as a development hack for the 1989 Aston Martin Virage.
The 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 prime 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 trifle unbalanced from some angles but by 1976 standards, it was just so bracingly modern.
Nevertheless, like all brave designs, an Achilles heel came as standard. In the Lagonda’s case, the decision to employ solid state electronics to control many of the car’s functions in addition to its instrumentation would prove to be a major stumbling block and the single factor which delayed the car’s introduction, botched the highly publicised first delivery and marred the model’s subsequent reputation. Proposed by lead engineer, 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 employed 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 heavy 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”. Or to put it another way, they liked it. Deliveries of first series cars began in 1979, with a revised 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 is 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 follies 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 slightly queasy appeal.
Like Concorde, it spoke of an almost naive optimism that now appears almost unthinkable in our more cynical epoch. We’d never entertain either now, which does seem a pity.
29 thoughts on “Tomorrow’s World”
This was a Towns design for sure since three years before the Lagonda intro his Minisama had appeared at Earls Court with the same clean wedge look on a diminutive city car. I was so taken with this remake based on mini mechanicals that a few years later I would purchase one of his abandoned prototypes and meet the man himself.
William Towns was certainly more than just a stylist, this is shown by his ability to design the complete structure of a car as in the minisama, micro dot, and finally the hustler kit car range he sold from his home.
I was interested in the hybrid micro-dot hence my purchase of a prototype some time after the original appeared, from a company that was to resurrect the design but with a front mount mini engine.
To cut this short William finally convinced me to abandon the project due to the cost involved in producing curved glass which was a big percentage of the entire cars surface.
I finally relinquished and purchased one of his six wheel hustler kits and used the new mechanicals off the prototype to complete along with Citroen CX pod switch gear.
In hindsight would the Towns prototype have been more significant to preserve?
This comment sounds like a super article in its own right!
Just realised I misspelled Minissima in my original reply.
Yes, please D Gatewood!
Lovely article. My own take on the Lagonda is that it was a terrific idea, let down by slightly iffy styling and botched execution. Aston Martin’s own recent reprisal of the idea shows that the concept has legs. I look forward to the day I finally clap eyes on either the original or modern model in the metal.
It’s a bit like the Heaven’s Gate of cars (apart from the fact that AM(L) didn’t go bust), isn’t it?
Like the other Chris, I’d really like to experience this car in the metal, and by that I mean being able to sit inside and maybe enjoy a drive/being driven around in it. The exterior alone is certainly something to behold. I’d love to find out whether the fascination is only skin-deep or more profound than mere appearances.
Mike Loasby, having been involved in the DeLorean DMC 12’s development process as well, would have to be one engineer who can share a fair few interesting stories, I’d guess.
If only a) Towns had not tried to fit a grille so small; it’s reduced to being a badge and is thus like a moustache. It blights the car. b) it needed to properly made. Any photos I have seen show quite shoddy finishes, like a nine year-old concept car that has decayed in a warehouse.
It always looked to me like it was styled as a child might design a car, like something out of the TV series Thunderbirds. I mean that as a compliment.
I looked at the rear lamps and boot-lid to rear wings: that’s really rough. The car could be good with refinement. There’s not much industrial design polishing in evidence. This is of a piece with old-school British design.
The car’s appearance is very colour dependent, and I suspect locale dependent too. I’ve noticed in my travels, that some vehicles seem to look “just right” in certain countries, environments or light. The profile shot of the black car, in an arid area would probably look quite stunning.
The idea of looking right in a particular locale stuck me when I saw a light coloured Bangle designed 7 series BMW in the UAE. There, it seemed to look in its element, elsewhere it just looked like and elephant.
I’m one of the probably few people who think the Lagonda looks plain shit.
You’re not entirely alone. There’s so much wrong with it. Having a fancy badge helps a lot. If it had been a GM or Leyland or Fiat concept car
we would not be giving it a look today. The A-pillar is another bodge. It bends towards the top and the windscreen and side glass don’t align at the top.
Towns’ work has always been quite rough around the edges. And yet I cannot help but love the Lagonda or his Aston DBS.
Apart from Lyons-era Jaguar and Bletchley-era Rolls-Royce/Bentley, British car styling tended to be less refined than the Italian or German standard of the time. And there’s a place for that too in this world, I’d think.
Kris, you’re probably right there’s a place for cars like this, they’re just not for me. I also think the dimensions on the Jaguar E-Type are completely off. I bet few agree and it probably only shows either my lack of good taste or disqualifies me for judging automotive design.
Lagonda is definitely a binary proposition. Love: hate. In its defence, when it was conceived, this dart shaped – dare I say delta wing (to labour the Concorde analogy) inspired surfacing was very much en vogue, but by the time the car actually began trickling out of Aston’s Newport Pagnell factory, tastes had begun to move decisively towards softer forms.
Secondly, it was developed on what by current standards would be considered a pub whip-around. Aston were in dire straits (I believe they played bass) and if the detailing was crass and the design quality questionable, that wasn’t altogether unusual in the British specialist motor industry. (See Bristol)
Personally, and viewed from a very safe distance, I revert to my 10 year old self when I see a photo of an early car. I see past the clumsy detail and drink in the sheer audacious ambition of the thing. Frankly, if I had unlimited funds and a big enough garage, one of these would form part of my collection. Probably a largely static part, but there you are…
Melle, I’m with you. I still remember how grotesquely long-snouted I thought the first E-type I saw was. That was in ’61, and I haven’t changed my mind about it since.
What has changed since then is that the sporting cars of that era that I occasionally see — Fiat 1500, Giulietta spider, TR3-6, but not, for some reason the MGB — all now look narrow and spindly.
Sorry, I forgot to mention, Mk 1 E-Types look spindly, Mk 3s look bloated.
Fred: I am another who doesn’t worship E-types. The bonnet is absurdly long. The 2+2 cars might be alright from the back but not from the side. I would always prefer a Lancia or Alfa from the same period.
The E-Type engines (bot 6 and 12 cylinder) are another story though, would love to have one to power the air compressor I use for pumping up my bicycle tyres.
Yet another who won’t be applying for E-Type Fan Club membership here. And while we’re slaughtering sacred burgers, I don’t like the 250 GTO, either.
Never even heard of the two door Lagonda till I read this piece Eóin. A quick google search later and I found this…
Wow. It looks great to me. When you look back at the 4 door, the doors look almost squeezed in. Apparently it was used as a mule for the Virage and then turned back into this by a wealthy collector.
It makes me think of those American compacts made from the front bit of a full-size car and the back of a hatchback. Cars are holistic things. Every bit affects every other meaning if you take the nice doors off a nice saloon they’ll probably be dreadful on a hatchback. I tried adding 15 cm to a drawing of an XM. It didn’t work. Every line would have needed nudging to get the extra length to work.
It’s a fair point that it’s difficult to change one part without affecting the whole. That said the angle of the shutline between the front and rear doors looks awkward and too angled to me. The hinge of the front door also seems very far back from the wheel arch making the doors seem squished in. The two door looks cleaner and more natural to me.
I agree that the angles look more right on this 2-door variant. But, does it have a shortened wheelbase? The original car already has disproportionally large overhangs, this one looks even worse.
Hmm. I assume the droop is intentional, but then again it is a 1970s British car, so who knows (see XJ40 for further details).
I always thought that the 2003 Honda Accord was about the worst example of how to graft an estate back to a saloon body. But now I see it’s only a very toned-down version of that Lagonda. It looks like its tailgate actually has a reverse inclination.
To me the base sedan looks like an early concept drawing for what would become the 1977 Chevy Caprice come to life, without the revisions and refinement GM Design under Bill Mitchell gave the real Caprice, or the compromises needed to make it buildable and to have the functionality expected of a Big Chevrolet.
Interesting parallel though perhaps I have to say the design distance is too great for me to agree wholeheartedly. The key to the Lagonda is pointiness and the squashed trapezoid lower body. Critically, the Lagonda has one line from front headlamp to rear lamp whereas the Caprice´s boot deck is raised a bit above the main shoulder line so the C-pillar´s trailing edge flows rearward. If the Caprice´s boot was lower I´d be a lot more convinced. The front wing also needs to be much lower and raked more.