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.