Tomorrow’s World

A Seventies’ futurist landmark remembered. 

aston-martin-club.com

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.

Here’s one they made earlier. 1974 Lagonda. supercars.net

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[1]. Similarly, the Lagonda design was believed to have been proposed as both two door[2] 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.[3]

The first owners: The Marquis and Marquess of Tavistock. Image: belfasttelegraph.co.uk

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.

Those road wheels look familiar. fishki.net

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.

Final series Lagonda. Cleaner, but not nicer. weilinet

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.

Equally uncompromising. Early series cabin. Road & Track

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.

autoevolution

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.

[1] A total of 7 Lagonda-badged four-door versions were built in 1974.

[2] 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.

[3] 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

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

36 thoughts on “Tomorrow’s World”

  1. While the Lagonda looks amazing from many angles, I’ve always found its side profile to be disappointing.

    It’s a combination of poorly executed details that spoils it for me. The front door leading edge shut-line look awkwardly drawn and is really dissonant against the other two door shut-lines. The wheel arches are too tall, making the car look like it is riding too high on its wheels. (Look at the space between the tyre and top of the wheel arch. This effect is exacerbated by the treatment of the lower body sides, with the wide bright trim and black paint below. I think Towns was trying to make the bodysides look very shallow, but overdid it. The car often looks like it’s carrying a lot of weight in the boot and the tail is sagging slightly, giving the car a ‘nose-up’ stance. This effect is exacerbated by the fact that the bodysides crease slopes downwards from behind the rear wheel arch.

    Maybe I should get my crayons out?

    1. Hi Daniel. The (much earlier) Monteverdi High Speed 375/4 looks just as shallow from the side, with really high wheel arches, but I think it gets away with it. Perhaps it’s the higher boot and squarer nose.

  2. Excellent article, Eóin. When I was a kid, I remember being awestruck by the Lagonda, but, as I grew up and became more and more acquainted with cars as real-world devices, devices that a middle-class professional needs to spend two or three years’ wages to buy, and that are supposed to do what a vehicle is supposed to do, my appreciation of it waned. Daniel’s criticisms are spot-on: shocking it may have been, but it’s not a successful shape, much like Sbarro’s contraptions, whose schtick was weirdness for weirdness’ sake. As for its electronics, I can’t help wondering if they asked Sinclair Radionics for help – a company whose styling-obsessed head couldn’t be bothered with unimportant things like reliability and functionality.

    1. This is not that straight forward for me. I agree with all your observations, Daniel, but once applied, the car still doesn’t look ‘right’. I’ve seen the shooting brake as well. Weirder than the saloon, if that is possible.

    2. Thanks for posting that. The Lagonda now puts me in mind of a wierd combination (and an anachronistic one) of Chevrolet Caprice, Volvo 740, Lamborhin Pointini and a Citroen XM . You could congratulate Towns on demonstrating the extremes of one form style which others applied more acceptably later on. It is indeed a clumsy beast and the engines sound like some dumb malaise-era American car (which at least looked better, cost less and worked well). I think if wanted the Lagonda experience I´d spend the cash on a Cadillac Fleetwood Talisman.

    3. These machines are delightfully mad and seem to look a little askew from most angles. The second Lagonda from the picture of the final series especially so (although that’s probably lense distortion). CSI Holland was closed due to lockdown, so I had to do my own Super Enhance, hence the poor quality:

      There’s also a Tati-esque quality to this film of eleven Lagonda’s somewhat ponderously making their way onto the road and the twelfth gingerly driving off on the opposite direction…

    4. I read an article on this shooting brake and it’s a fascinating creation.
      It was commissioned by someone who already had a Lagonada saloon and wanted something similar but with more room in the back for his dogs.
      The car was converted by a Swiss company because Aston Martin for whatever reason refused to do it themselves. It took two years to create, mostly because the electrical system was converted to a conventional design. The car has the green cathod ray instrument panel but all switchgear is conventional and the wiring was adopted to match it.
      This must have cost more than two mistresses…

  3. Right, I’ve been busy with my crayons and here’s my ‘improved’ Lagonda, with the original first for comparison purposes:

    I’ve made the door shut lines more harmonious, reduced the height of the wheel arches, reduced the width of the bodyside bright trim and lowered it, increasing the visible depth of the bodysides, and made the B-pillar narrower.

    What do we think?

    1. You could add a small radius on the black bumpers where it goes from under the car to the vertical ends. At the moment there is a nasty pointy corner making it look weak. Apart from that, the revised version is new and improved without losing anything of the original form-language or character. You can´t do that with a Tagora.

    2. The Tagora is an interesting counterpoint to the Lagonda, Richard. It’s a much more ‘professional’ looking design, really nicely detailed. Here’s a glass-fibre mock-up:

      All it needed was the wider rear track it was designed to have, as shown above. Peugeot really spoilt its stance by being unnecessarily parsimonious.

    3. Who´d have thought the Tagora would keep recurring as a design reference? The Lagonda is an example of a car with a strong main theme and inadequate detailing. The Tagora is the reverse, if we can rule out the high concept being “to have a subliminal character such that the detailing dominates”. The Tagora is, as Daniel says, all detailing. You can´t do a caricature of it, any deformation produces another car entirely. Many Japanese cars are like this e.g. the first Avensis and the Carina E. Or the Rybicki-era cars at GM.
      I don´t mind the rear track at all. The question is, does one think the Tagora better than a Granada or a 604 or an 6-cylinder Opel Rekord?
      Take a look at Julian Opie´s cars and see much the Tagora resembles his simplified versions of well-known cars:
      https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/opie-you-are-driving-a-volvo-t07207

    4. Better. But the bright trim below the rear wing should have a gentle curve for a visual match with the sill, and the front door shut lines need gentle curves too. There’s an angle clash at the B-pillar.

    5. Hello Daniel,
      I’m a bit late to the party, but: what if you move the B pillar forward a bit, and make the front shutline of the
      driver’s door align with the end of the black triangle? This would create a longer rear door aperture to help rear access; although given the tight mechanical packaging at the front of the car I have no idea if moving the front door aperture forward would be feasible engineering-wise. I prefer the shutline between the front and rear door of the original as it lines up more nicely with the angle of the B pillar, and would probably keep the wide bright trim along the bottom as per the original. I understand your reasoning and thought it would be better too but in the pictures it doesn’t quite work for me.
      Slightly off topic but by the same token also not: the Lotus Eminence prototype of 1980 by Paolo Martin was very obviously inspired by the Lagonda but displays a couple of design solutions that might have worked for an improved Lagonda (as opposed to the weak 1987 restyle):

    6. Good morning Bruno. I hadn’t seen your comment before doing some further tinkering, the results of which are below. Richard’s comment about the strength of the original design prompted me to see how far I could push it without losing its essential character.

      The Lotus Eminence concept puts me in mind of the Vauxhall Victor FE, weirdly!

  4. I remember reading the press coverage of these when they first appeared and I could never decide if I thought they looked amazing or awful……..and I’m still not sure.

    Over the years I’ve seen several close up in real life, and one thing still surprises me about them – how low they are off the ground. The roof line is not much more than waist height to an average person. Maybe the relative proportions of length/height exaggerate the effect, but this must be the lowest 4-door saloon ever made.

    1. Looking at the height on wikipedia, it seems to beat the X300 XJR by 1 measly millimeter!
      I cant think of any lower saloons right now, though some old 60 and 70s ones might come close.

  5. Although I’m not very interested in much of Aston Martin’s output, I still think these are exotic and exciting.

    Here’s a short clip from Thames Television’s ‘Drive In’ programme, at around the time of its introduction. I see the car originally had a funny little radiator mascot; better off without it. I think the responses from Alan Curtis, Aston Martin’s MD, are refreshingly straightforward. He comes across as being both knowledgeable and honest.

    And here’s a promotional film that shows the electronics in action.

  6. Would Aston Martin have been better off sticking with the 1974 Lagonda Series 1 then the Wedge-shaped Series 2, followed by say an earlier introduction of the 1994 Virage Lagonda 4 Door Saloon?

    1. Unquivocally yes. The Lagonda as it was constituted an English take on the adventurous modernity of the SM and GS, I would contend. The single spoke wheel is the clue, if we are to read the car in that light.

    2. In a word, no.
      I remember seeing the series 1 at Earls Court (and still have the kit car effort of a sales brochure to prove it), and to my 9 year old sensibilities it looked awful. The horseshoe grille element courtesy of the Rapide (a car I loved, even back then*) only managed to make it worse, and if I’m not mistaken the car was a sort of metallic brown, a colour that I loath to this day. This was definitely not a car that would have had the great and good of the Middle East queing up to write Newport Pagnell the cheques that ultimately saved the firm.
      The Towns Lagonda was the perfect car for it’s time, as was the Rolls Royce Camargue (which was also a great help in paying the bills at Crewe in times of need). Obviously, seen in the cold cynical light of later years the Lagonda was ridiculous, but that’s missing the point. Back then It was the future, it was cool, impossibly expensive and as an added bonus it was quick and went round corners way better than a car of it’s girth had any right to.
      The real shame is that Aston Martin then went in the opposite direction with the series two, because there was still plenty of money to be made in over the top four wheeled conveyances during the late eighties / early nineties – anyone that can remember the gold plated /customised/gullwing doored Mercedes SEC’s that seemingly littered London during that period will know what I’m talking about.
      In any case, surrounded as I am today with cars that have redefined the words “ugly” and “pointless”, the Lagonda is looking better with every day that passes…
      *And no, I never bought a Rapide, because of a sneaking suspicion that there was a reason so few were built. Finished up buying a Flaminia GT instead – and I still think of that as an inspired decision..

    3. I think not. The Series 1 wasn’t still appearing on magazine covers six years after it was introduced.

      I see little point in critiquing this car by comparing it to other cars. It remains in a class by itself (try to imagine it in a Giant Test, against whom?). In terms of meeting its brief, this Lagonda exceeded that, by a wide margin.

  7. Thanks all for your comments on my Lagonda rework. Here is an amended effort, taking account of your suggestions. I’ve reworked the door shut-lines to insert some curvature and allow the one below the B-pillar to flow more smoothly into it. (I’ve also blacked out the B-pillar.) I’ve reworked the ends of the bright strip to curve upwards to meet the bumpers vertically. Original first for comparison:

    One thing that still bothered me was the visual weight of the very wide C-pillar sitting above the (still tall) rear wheel arch and shallow section of bodywork above it. Here are a couple of radical solutions for that:

    The version with the spats is a bit too ‘Brougham’ for my tastes, but I rather like the version with the flat-topped rear wheel-arch.

    1. One time I was a CAD jockey and I had to a radius on a gear-lever bezel for the assistant-assistant interior design manager. He wanted it bigger so I made it bigger. Then he wanted it smaller but not as small as it was before. We toggled between big, medium and small (a range of 2 mm!) and he went for middle. It was instructive as it was infuriating. I mention this by way of saying that radii I thought could be bigger need now to be smaller but not as small as before: just enough radius so you don´t notice pointinesss. As it is th rounded lower profile between bumpers is at odds with angularity about the feature line running from bumper front to bumper rear. I´d reduce the radius by 60%.
      Redesigning a car is a great way to see how the design works! Thank you, Daniel, for doing this. It´s very, very interesting. I can see a class room tutorial coming out of this….

    2. Here you go, Richard:


      I’ve reduced the radius of the curves at either end of the bright strip.

      I’ve also altered the shut-line at the leading edge of the front door, to put more curvature into it. There was an odd optical illusion at play whereby it looked less curved than the shut-line at the trailing edge, even though it was a copy-and-paste of the latter.

    3. Brilliant work, Daniel.

      The broughamisation doesn’t work to my eyes. Too much of the Britishness gets lost.

    4. Finally, a Lagonda fastback and estate, the latter without that horrible sagging tail of the blue one pictured above:

      And a Lagonda Coupé and Shooting Brake:

      That’s enough Lagonda loveliness for today!

    5. Wonderful work, thank you Daniel!
      The fastback for Christmas for me please, and due to the lack of curves should be fairly easy to wrap.

    6. Thanks, Andy!

      Actually, I’ve just realised that I’ve designed the Bertone Jaguar Ascot!

    7. Speaking of ‘shooting brake’ Lagondas, more than one was built – several in fact. Aside from the better known (and visually challenging) Roos Engineering version, a one-off was designed and built by Dutch enthusiast, Harry Kielstra along more practical and rather better proportioned lines.

      https://astonmartins.com/car/v8-lagonda-shooting-brake/

    8. Hi Eóin. That looks like a very professional conversion, pretty impressive for a DIY effort:

      Interesting choice of wheels again!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: