Autour du Virage

Last of the old-school bespoke Aston Martins.

Aston Martin Virage. Image: supercars.net

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.

Aston Martin Lagonda based Virage test mule. Image: Niels van Roij Design

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.

Image: auto-data.net

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.

1991 Aston Martin Virage Volante dashboard.  Image: astonmartins.com

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.

HRH Prince Charles’ 1994 Aston Martin Virage Volante. Image: autoclassics.com

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.

1997 Aston Martin V8 Vantage. Image: historics.co.uk

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

42 thoughts on “Autour du Virage”

  1. I’ve always had something of a soft spot for the Virage. It’s quite an elegant big car; particularly from the rear three-quarter view, as the lovely first photo shows. The Vantage mods and later facelift were not, I feel, improvements.

    Thanks for this well-researched history Daniel. I had no idea about the Lagonda-based development car, that’s a fascinating oddity. Was the manual car really significantly slower to 60?

    1. Good morning, Chris. Yes, the original Virage was a fine piece of work and the facelift didn’t improve it, looking slightly ‘piggy-eyed’ to my eyes at least.

      Regarding the acceleration figures, it is quite a while since I wrote this piece, but I recall bring surprised by the manual being slower to 60mph than the auto and checked it out at the time. I’ll double-check my sources later.

    2. Hi Chris, I’ve checked out those figures and have quoted them correctly, but they came from different sources, so may not be directly comparable.

      A clue to the manual’s relatively slow acceleration (and high top speed) might be found in Rowan Atkinson’s review of the car, published in the May 1990 edition of Car Magazine. Atkinson commented on the manual car’s unusually high gearing. According to him, first gear was good for 60mph and the theoretical red line in fifth was 201mph! That high gearing might have made it accelerate more slowly from stationary and low speeds than would otherwise have been the case, hence the slow(er) 0 to 60mph time.

    3. 60 mph in first gear! But… why? Did they develop a sudden concern for fuel consumption at the end of the car’s development process?

    4. I think it’s more likely to have been a miscalculation, or forced compromise.

    5. I wonder if high gearing was intentional for the car to have a ‘Grand Touring’ attitude; after all, it’s hard to relax in a car that’s turning 5000 rpm at 150 kph, and you’d be mad to throw this around a technical course where you’d actually need lower gearing.

    6. Hi Alexander. That’s certainly a possibility, although I would always choose automatic transmission for my grand touring coupé. (Not that I’ve ever owned a GT coupé to be clear!)

  2. I remember when the Virage was launched and UK journalists being enthusiastic and positive in an almost patronising way towards the car. It was a perfect demonstration of the underlying goodwill and nostalgia towards Aston Martin and the swashbuckling Victor Gauntlett who was so heroically trying to resurrect its fortunes – or even, just keep the flame alive.

    Looking at the photo of the dashboard, one wonders just how far buyers were willing to forgive the parts-bin engineering, as I’ve seen better integrated kit car interiors (certainly, TVR made a much better fist of creating a bespoke feel for its later cars). One wonders today where AM might end up in the future, as it seems increasingly irrelevant in the approaching age of electric.

    1. Good morning S.V. I also recall the launch of the Virage and the patriotic cheerleading that surrounded it in the UK. Ignoring the Lagonda, which was always an eccentric outlier for Aston Martin, the Virage was the first all-new car for over twenty years, and one that many wondered if they would ever see, given Aston’s always fragile finances.

      The Virage was a great effort in the circumstances, but it was too big and (especially) heavy, not fast enough and too expensive. When it was unveiled in October 1988, journalists were told that the target price was around £90k, but when production started sixteen months later, the price was actually £125k.

    2. @Daniel; I wouldn’t say the Lagonda was an “eccentric outlier”. They made 645 of them during 12 years, and with almost all of them more or less bespoke, the profit must’ve been handsome. I would say they were Aston Martins main income during some of the worst years?

    3. Hi Ingvar. Fair comment, I don’t doubt that Aston Martin did well out of the Lagonda, temperamental and problematic though its electronic systems were. What I meant in using that phrase that the Lagonda was ‘eccentric’ in that its styling was so different to anything else Aston Martin produced before or since (Bulldog concept car excepted) and it was an ‘outlier’ in that Aston Martin was by then synonymous with coupés and convertibles, not saloons.

  3. This car was, according to a chap I spoke to on the development team, developed for about £800k in the late 80s and it really showed; the rear suspension was poor and would foul on the body under acceleration, with the Vantage and later models reverting to a full de-dion setup to solve that problem. The bodywork was a patchwork of panels with as much weight in lead as panelwork to hold the thing together, and they have a very shoddy kit car-esque look to them up close.

    The Virage is a testament to how badly AML needed Ford; there was no sustainable future lashing up cars like that anymore.

  4. Good morning, Daniel. For some reason I can’t quite explain I have never been that big on Aston Martin and the Virage in particular. The design seems a bit heavy and clumsy to my eyes, but it’s been growing on me a bit over time, if ever so slowly.

    Of all the car parts chosen by other manufacturers I miss the Citroën CX door mirrors, but that is probably because these have been used on a few other cars as well.

  5. There’s a fascinating story concerning the Lagonda-based test mule. After it had served its purpose as a mule it gathered dust in the works workshop, where a customer got hold of it. And he was so infatuated with the car he wanted it for himself. And the company obliged and put it through the works special operations, in the days they were fully occupied with the Sultan of Brunei. They restored the car to as new specificatio with a completely new drivetrain and the bodywork upgraded to Series III spec front and rear end. The engine was upgraded with the 6.3-litre conversion, in the days when that option cost fifty thousand quid alone. The interior was completely bespoke, with a rear luggage shelf instead of rear seats. The cost of the whole operation was to the owner “compared to the cost of keeping two mistresses” which must be one of the most hilarious comparisons I’ve ever heard and certainly told from personal experience with both keeping cars and mistresses.

    1. That’s interesting – I looked it up and I think it’s dark blue and now lives in Guernsey.

      I’m afraid that, in general, I agree with Freerk in that I’ve never been very excited by Astons, and particularly not by the Virage. The 4-door conversions and estates aren’t anything to write home about, either.

      On the other hand, it’s nice to be reminded about the background to them, so thank you Daniel. I thought at the time that the Virage was just a ‘holding exercise’ until a larger sponsor / buyer could be found. Without Victor Gauntlett, it would have been the end. I think the James Bond franchise has made the brand invincible.

    2. I have to agree about the other Virage variants: they were definitely a bit awkward looking, especially the saloon:

  6. I always thought these look rather good in their original form, but deteriorated as time went on with each succeeding set of changes. I don’t believe I ever saw an original model in the metal, though – I’m quite willing to believe DE about the build and appearance close up. Even 30 years ago, £800k pounds was an insanely small budget for a new car, even one containing lots of parts bin and carryover components.
    I did eventually get a look at a Virage Vantage up close. It was in for some work with a local performance car specialist, and in hindsight I could and should have taken the chance to look more closely, for I never saw it again, even on the road. I do remember being struck by how badly the front air dam had been chipped – it seemed excessive for what I suspect was a pampered car, and made me question the build quality rather…

  7. I’ve been told by several people when I was in Aston Martin circles (in my dreams) that such a car is a thug in a Saville Row suit. I believe that description fits, certainly here. The brutish looks, heavyweight stance, prodigious power yet often deployed with uncertainty and wayward if you breach the armour. And most definitely British. This car could wear a pork pie hat and reside outside shady establishments, in preparation to chase off leering drunken sots. Or be found outside royal residences; which might be the same, I’m not sure.

    I was completely unaware of the Audi parts bin being raided along with the test mule. Many thanks, Daniel for bringing such details to delight. But I did know of Rowan Atkinson’s fondness for the marque.

    Goodness only knows where I found out the information (pre-internet world) but Newport Pagnell held some form of open day back in June 1993. I took my dad to go and see what we both thought were the best vehicles at that time. I distinctly remember that red and green were the predominant colours. Another memory was seeing someone actually interested in purchasing one which had the surrounding crowd open mouthed as we knew the cost of such extravagance. One wonders if they did?

    Here’s the only two pictures I could find of the day. Naturally, I wish I’d taken more.


    And as for the third picture down in the main piece, I believe this is a location very close to me; Ladybower reservoir and the Ashopton viaduct. They flooded the valley to create the water supply. Perhaps the Virage opened the sluice gates? But quite how they got the car there is unknown to me. And don’t say pushed!

    1. Good evening Andrew. Your photos (which I’ve adjusted so that both display correctly) are interesting in that the finished car has the original front end with the Audi 200 headlamps, whereas the bare-metal nose cone is the rather beetle-browed revised version. I prefer the former.

      Well spotted on that location shot!

  8. Ah, Aston Martin: the Virage (I suppose Le Sarthe would have several “virages de quelque chose ou autre”) was the first to have some sort of modern styling (apart from the rather lovely Zagato mentioned by Charles – lovely apart from the bonnet, that is). AM went from purveyors of (nice looking) wheeled dinosaurs (produced for 20 years):

    To builders of some of the world’s most achingly beautiful cars:


    1. I always preferred the old V8 over the Virage which looked kind of bland to my eyes.
      In the village down the road from where I live is an astonishingly large Aston Martin dealer (combined with JLR).
      In their forecourt there’s always about a dozen current models for sale and in their parking area sometimes you see a Lagonda wedge and the occasional V8 but never a Virage.
      In the early 00s there was a dark blue V8 OI in the Accenture car park which seemed to be used as a nearly daily driver. It was always fascinating to see and hear this car rumble up the ramp.

    2. Hi Tom. Given the choice of those three, I’ll have the dinosaur, please!

      The V8 Vantage is, of course, achingly beautiful, but just a bit too familiar, given the ubiquity of the basic design across Aston Martin’s entire range. I never really took to the DB7. It’s just a bit too soft and ‘organic’ in that early 1990s fashion.

      That said, I could have by my head turned by the 2001 Vanquish:

      This brought back of the old-school visual muscle of the V8. Lovely!

    3. Yes, the V8 is a good looking car, but by the time I was becoming aware of cars (mid to late ’80s) it was a dinosaur with its chrome bumpers in the Age of Plastic and Squares. As I searched for an image for my comment, I was struck by how pretty it actually is.

      Daniel: I understand what you mean, although I like the shape so much that I don’t mind that much. The DB7 does have that organic (or blancmange) look about it, but for me it had just enough visual tension to get away with it. Would have made a nice Jag, too (image AROnline):

    4. Tom V: It almost did make a nice Jag. But it made a very successful and hugely influential Aston Martin. Everything AM built after the DB7 owed a debt to both it and its various (and some very illustrious) stylists.

      Year of the Cat – 1996 Jaguar XK8

  9. Thanks Charles, the Zagato Vantage is my favourite
    of all road Astons, second only to the DB4.

  10. Mr James May wrote an article for Car circa 1993, combining a memoir of his bicycle journey from from Land´s End to John O´Groats with a road trip in the Vantage. I only recall the photo of the young, short-haired Mr May throwing his bike in the sea. His current appearance, some 30 years later is a bit sobering – it´s not a criticism of May but a reflection on entropy´s effects. Despite the huge fuel consumption of the car, the bike trip cost more due to hotel stops mostly. It´s not human fuel that costs but sleeping. I saw an advert for “Carnage à Trois” where Mssrs. May, Clarkson and Hammond (I expect) wreck cars. The car shown is a flaming CX. Phil Llewelyin tested a Volante a years earlier, also in Car. His impression is mixed as I recall, with the fold-away roof coming in for criticism.
    What is the precise point of a Vantage? – it is so very heavy, not especially big inside and and not terribly involving to drive due to its girth and the heft of the steering. Also, a Ford Scorpio or Opel Senator offer a much better resolved interior and exterior design along with about 300 litres more space for Louis Vuitton luggage or just Samsonite baggage. A less prosaic Mercedes 560 SEC would do an altogether better job, if you didn´t mind the loss of space compared to the Opel or Ford. If we dial up exclusivity and look to Bristol there´s no way a Bristol Brittania/Brigand is by any measure inferior to the Aston and the cost the same. I would even suggest the Bristol managed to be the fairer of the two cars despite some very determinedly ham-handed detailing. The Bristol is truly the elephant in the room regarding the Vantage.

    1. Hello Richard. I was looking at images of the Virage, attempting to mount a defence, but instead stumbled upon this horror show:

      I know matters of taste are subjective, but it is beyond my comprehension how anyone could have thought that this Band-Aid/ prosthetic limb colour would be remotely flattering on any car.

      Here’s an earlier and better looking Virage in a much more flattering colour:

  11. Since we’re perusing AM’s back catalogue, I really feel someone should mention the original ‘George Lazenby’ DBS: For my money, the loveliest Aston of them all.

    1. But that’s a 6, not an S… I really must learn how to get images into the comments.

    2. Oops, sorry, I paid too much attention to the actor and not enough to the car! Image above now replaced with a still from the film.

      Here’s a nicer image of the Bond DBS:

    3. I expect that more recent photo of the OHMSS DBS is in Australia – I’ve seen it at a couple of shows and if there is interest I’ll go looking for a photo.

      The Virage seemed to me as if Aston couldn’t work out how to evolve their product, and basically made a newer but not better version of the previous car – while everyone else had moved on. For all that £880m isn’t a lot of money to develop a car, I would expect the results to be better – but that depends more on the major decisions and direction from the start.

  12. A couple of corrections: the early non-airbag models used a Vauxhall/Opel steering column and stalks. The climate control was from a Jaguar XJ40. By the way, the front seats were modified Rover 800 items and the electric seat controls were Audi. The front indicators were Porsche 944. Now where did I leave my anorak?

    1. Hi Andrew, and thanks for the additional information, now incorporated. Regarding your anorak, you’ll find it in the cloakroom at DTW towers, although you might struggle to distinguish it from the many others hanging in there, all in the same fetching shade of beige…😁

    2. That brings to mind the 12th Man send up of former Channel 9 Australia commentator (and Test captain) Richie Benaud and his infamous jackets – the cream, the bone, the white, the off-white, the ivory and the beige

    3. I´d like to clarify Daniel´s ironic point about the wardrobe standards by observing DTW´s consistent sartorial supremacy among motoring commentators (and we have the awards to prove it, cluttering Simon A. Kearne´s desk).

  13. I had never seen a live Aston Martin, until I heard one in a small road in the south of England. I only h e a r d it. I never s a w it, it was in an adjacent street. Another guy, who had seen it, told me it was an Aston Martin. I am an admirer of the marque since then.

  14. Can’t let discussion of Aston’s finances go past without mention of the classic tale…

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