A Seventies’ futurist landmark remembered.
Editor’s note: A version of this piece was originally published on DTW in September 2016.
Marking its debut the year Concorde entered commercial service, the 1976 Aston Martin Lagonda, like the Aerospatiale/BAC supersonic airliner it vaguely resembled, would ultimately embody a future which failed to take flight.
There was no means of placing any form of veneer upon the situation facing Aston Martin in 1975, the Newport Pagnell-based specialist carmaker was facing ruin; falling prey, like so many of their UK and European equivalents to a perfect storm comprised of the spiralling costs of adhering to ever-tightening American safety and emissions regulations, and the stark market contraction stemming from the 1973 oil crisis. Rescued from bankruptcy by an Anglo-American consortium, the Lagonda programme was aimed, not only at providing embattled Aston Martin dealers with something new to offer, but also to help bolster a range of cars that were increasingly being viewed as dinosaurs.
Despite the fact that it 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 saving Aston Martin’s bacon at a very difficult moment.
The Lagonda utilised an entirely new bodyshell but technically, Aston Martin’s chief engineer, Mike Loasby carried over the mechanical package of the existing car, featuring unequal length front wishbones and De Dion rear axle, using parallel trailing arms and a watts linkage. Also retained was the carmaker’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, Aston Martin once again turned to its in-house designer, William Towns, who had also overseen the appearance of the existing DBS-derived V8 Coupé, originally proposed by Towns in both two and four door versions. Similarly, the Lagonda design was believed to have been proposed as both two door and saloon – the glazed roof insert obviating the necessity for a different roof pressing – is believed to have been approved largely unchanged from Towns’ original concept drawings.
The Lagonda entered production as a four door, close-coupled coupé-saloon, form in this instance 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 early Seventies razor edged, set square-profile school of body surfacing, it may have looked a trifle unbalanced (naive even?) from some angles but frankly, no production car this side of a Countach would appear so uncompromisingly outré at the time.
Nevertheless, like most brave, groundbreaking designs, an element of Greek tragedy would come as standard fitment. Proposed by Mike Loasby, and enthusiastically approved by AML owner, Peter Sprague, who in addition to running Aston Martin, also had business interests in America’s silicon valley, 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 to a high profile (and ennobled) customer and marred the model’s subsequent reputation.
The Lagonda’s dashboard employed touch sensitive switches for most controls and liquid crystal displays for the instruments. The problem was obtaining sufficient reliability in operation, particularly across varying temperatures; AML reportedly 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 in this instance for being first in the field.
Car magazine drove an early pre-production car in Autumn 1978, and reported enthusiastically, 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”. 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 remained in production for only a year before being superseded by the heavily restyled final series in 1987.
Again carried out by William Towns, the Lagonda’s body panel radii were softened, the side crease and pop-up headlamps excised, along with sizeable percentage of the original design’s essential character. The dashboard received a further redesign, now utilising similar in principle vacuum fluorescent displays to those of contemporary Jaguar and GM models. Production ceased entirely in 1990.
By the mid-’80s, Car magazine appeared to have suffered a change of sentiment, now dismissing the Lagonda as being a car for “chic sheiks”. Certainly, a sizeable majority of the 645 produced found their way to the oil-rich Gulf states, where its electronic fragility was perhaps less of an issue – most owners having other vehicles to fall back upon. It is also probably fair to say that Aston Martin’s more traditional UK customers shunned it on that basis alone.
Looking at it in hindsight, the Lagonda could be considered a somewhat Icarian gambit, especially for a low-volume car business desperate to remain in business, but sometimes the wrong thing can be exactly the right thing to do. A daring attempt to offer something genuinely novel, and while ownership (even on a good day) was likely to have been a symphony of warning lights and blank LCD displays, the Lagonda fulfilled its brief. Some forty years on and having slowly gained the respectability that once eluded it, it presents an alluring, yet still slightly queasy appeal.
A car that frequently fails to proceed is not much use as a car at all – that much is incontrovertible. The Lagonda’s foibles are well (if not necessarily all that accurately) documented, but let’s just take a moment to consider the sheer unvarnished ambition to push forward that sat behind its creation – an ambition which would not have appeared out of place at Filton and Toulouse at the time.
Granted, like Concorde, it was more cramped than it looked and in service, would prove as witheringly expensive to purchase, as it was to travel in or to maintain. Also, like its supersonic equivalent, it was largely derided as a frivolous plaything of the affluent. But nevertheless both Concorde and Lagonda exhibited a quality which remains untainted by either time’s passage or the slings and arrows of narrow definitions – both not only dared to dream, but brought a vision of tomorrow to life – if only for a brief, giddy moment.
 A total of 7 Lagonda-badged four-door versions were built in 1974.
 A single two-door Lagonda was built – initially used as a development hack for the 1989 Aston Martin Virage, subsequently reconditioned and sold to a collector.
 The delivery of the first production Lagonda in 1979 garnered a vast amount of press, which backfired somewhat when it became clear that the car wouldn’t run.
Auto-Didakt.com carried out a highly recommended meditation on the Lagonda here