Last of the old-school bespoke Aston Martins.
There is a somewhat hackneyed old joke that summarises the colourful history of Aston Martin rather well:
Question: “How do you make a small fortune in the automotive business?”
Answer: “Spend a large fortune on a prestige British luxury car manufacturer.”
Over the company’s 108-year history, Aston Martin has changed ownership ten times and left most former owners, if not bankrupt, then rather poorer for the experience. Such is the allure of the marque name that a succession of wealthy and (mainly) smart and business-savvy individuals (and the Ford Motor Company) have thrown their hat in the ring, thinking that this time, it will be different.
One such individual was Victor Gauntlett, who invested in and ran Aston Martin from 1981 to 1990. Gauntlett made his fortune in the petroleum industry. After serving as a pilot in the Royal Air Force, he joined British Petroleum in 1963. Four years later, he moved to Compagnie Francaise des Petroles, the parent company of Total S.A. In 1972 Gauntlett established his own petroleum distribution business. Trading under the name of Pace Petroleum, the company became one of the largest independent suppliers to filling stations across the UK.
Gauntlett, a charismatic and charming individual, had a great passion for cars and, when he heard that the owner/managers of Aston Martin were looking to sell out in January 1981, he could not resist the opportunity, bought a 12.5% stake in the company for £500,000 and was appointed Executive Chairman. Gauntlett inherited the V8, V8 Vantage, Volante and Lagonda models. The V8 and V8 Vantage were the latest versions of the long-running 1967 DBS GT coupé, facelifted and fitted with Aston Martin’s own V8 engine. The Volante was a convertible version of the V8, while the Lagonda was the futuristic William Towns designed four-door saloon, launched in 1976.
While there was still more life in the existing models, which would remain on sale until the end of the decade, Gauntlett set his team to work on the design of a replacement for the coupé and convertible in 1985. A competition was organised where external designers were given three months to submit their proposals for the new model, codenamed Design Project 2034.
The chassis of the Lagonda, shortened by 306 mm (12”) between the axles and clothed in a two-door version of the Lagonda body, was used as a development mule. The mule’s styling was actually pretty well resolved (if oddly proportioned) with none of the usual giveaway crude ‘cut and shut’ details that would identify it as merely a disguise. Sightings led to some ill-informed speculation that this was a production body for a two-door Lagonda coupé.
In the event, the duo of John Heffernan and Ken Greenley(1), both tutors in automotive design at the Royal College of Art in London, won the competition with a smoothly handsome body for the new coupé and convertible that was more cognisant of the V8 and its predecessors. It originally featured pop-up headlamps, but these would not make the production model.
Budget constraints meant that parts from mainstream cars had to be integrated into the design. Slim horizontal tail lights sourced from the VW Scirocco Mk2 neatly book-ended the rear number plate and looked custom made for the car. At the front, however, headlights from the Audi 200 C3 looked slightly uncomfortable, needing a thin body-coloured frame to incorporate them into the nose. Set into the front bumper were the long, slim indicators from the post-facelift Porsche 944. Despite the necessary scavenging, the design was a highly credible effort that successfully updated the Aston Martin style in a less polarising manner than the Lagonda. It was aerodynamic too, with a Cd of 0.34.
In May 1987, Gauntlett had a chance encounter with Walter Hayes, Vice President of Ford Europe. Their conversation turned to Aston Martin’s future development and that led to Ford taking a 75% stake in the company in September, a precursor to the 1990 takeover. Aston Martin would, for now, continue to operate independently with Gauntlett remaining as Chairman and CEO, but the new investment gave Aston Martin access to Ford technology and this certainly assisted and accelerated the new model’s development.
The existing aluminium 5.3 litre V8 engine was carried over, albeit heavily modified by US engine specialist Reeves Callaway. Callaway, renowned for his upgrades to Chevrolet Corvette engines, designed new aluminium twin-camshaft, four valve per cylinder heads for the engine. Fitted with Weber-Marelli fuel injection, this raised maximum power output to 325 bhp (242 kW) and torque to 364 lb.ft. (494 Nm). Transmission was via a Torqueflite three-speed automatic or ZF five-speed manual gearbox.
It is in the interior of the new model that the Ford parts sourcing would be most apparent. These included the steering column, with its rather cumbersome airbag steering wheel from the contemporary Lincoln Town Car(2) and other secondary switchgear. These parts looked rather workaday in the polished wood and leather trimmed interior, but did not detract too much from the overall ambience. Parts borrowed from other manufacturers included front seats that were modified Rover 800 items and the electric seat controls from Audi.
The new model would be called Virage(3). The name was selected by Gauntlett and his fellow directors from suggestions made by Aston Martin employees and owners’ club members. The Virage was unveiled at the UK Motor Show at the Birmingham National Exhibition Centre in October 1988, where it was rather overshadowed by Jaguar’s launch of the extraordinary all-wheel-drive V12 mid-engined XJ220. Production and sales of the Virage began in early 1990, at an eye-watering UK price of £125,000.
The Virage was a large car, with a wheelbase and overall length of 2,610 mm (102¾”) and 4,735 mm (186½”) respectively. Notwithstanding its hand-beaten aluminium body, it was heavy too, at 1,973 kg (4,350 lbs) with fluids on the road. Although described as a 2+2, rear seat accommodation was marginal, except for children. Boot space was also modest at just 126 litres. The car did perform as one would expect from an Aston Martin, with a 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h) time and top speed of 6.5 seconds and 145 mph (234 km/h) for the automatic, and 7.4 seconds and 158 mph (255 km/h) for the manual. The interconnected twin fuel tanks held a total of 25 gallons (114 litres) and fuel consumption was heavy, with mpg typically in the low to mid-teens.
The convertible Volante version of the Virage in 2+2 production form was unveiled at the Geneva Salon in March 1991 and went on sale in early 1992. A high(er) performance version of the Virage with the suffix Vantage was unveiled at the October 1992 UK Motor Show and went on sale the following year. The engine featured twin Eaton superchargers which raised the power and torque to 550 bhp (410 kW) and 555 lb.ft. (752 Nm). The Vantage models were identifiable by their wider wheels and more muscular front and rear wings. The Audi-sourced headlamps were replaced by triple projector-type units behind a separate glass. At the rear, the VW-sourced tail lights were replaced by Ferrari-esque twin round items.
They Vantage was, however, never sold in the US and the normally aspirated Virage models were withdrawn in 1993 as they could no longer meet stricter US emissions standards.
The Virage and Virage Volante were subjected to a facelift in 1996, adopting styling elements from the Vantage . The Volante’s wheelbase was extended by 200mm (7¾”) to increase rear legroom. The Virage name was dropped, and the normally aspirated models became simply ‘V8’, while the supercharged models became ‘V8 Vantage’. The ‘Volante’ suffix still identified the convertible version. A four-speed automatic and six-speed manual gearbox replaced the original items.
The 1994 Aston Martin DB7, heavily based on a Jaguar design to replace the XJS, was initially a six-cylinder ‘entry-level’ model, but when it was given a V12 engine and the Vantage suffix in 1999, it eclipsed the older and expensive to build V8 and V8 Vantage, whose days were numbered.
Production ended in 2000, when it was replaced by the Vanquish. Over its eleven-year lifespan, a total of around 1,050(3) were built, of which around 300 were convertible Volante models. Today the Virage and its related models are rather overshadowed by the earlier and later ‘DB’ series cars, but remain significant as the last of the old-school hand-built Aston Martins. Their relative obscurity does not mean they can be picked up cheaply, however: at the time of writing, there are six Virage coupé and Volante models on Autotrader UK for prices ranging from £50,000 to £160,000.
(1) Rather than for the Virage, Ken Greenley is, unfortunately, best remembered for the 2004 Ssangyong Rodius, a vehicle that has become a fixture in ‘ugliest cars of all time’ lists.
(2) Early non-airbag models apparently used a Vauxhall/Opel steering column and stalks
(3) Rather prosaically, ‘Virage’ simply means ‘bend’, ‘turn’ or ‘corner’ in French. If unevocative, it was at least phonetically consistent with other Aston Martin model names.
(4) An undisclosed number of coachbuilt Virage four-door saloon and three and five-door shooting-brake variants were also built for unidentified (but likely Middle East royal) customers.