Fast Aston Martins

Andrew remembers when Aston Martin went down the supercar route, a journey that included a supporting role for himself in the process

Published:  07 November, 2022

By Andrew Marsh, Engineering Director, Auto Industry Consulting Ltd

Aston Martin Lagonda has often struggled to shine in the shadow of more famous makes such as Ferrari, Lamborghini or, back in the 1960s, Maserati.

Then as now, each make drew particular clients, and a few clients likes most of the makes. Consider Aston Martin in the early 1980s; Once again it faced a difficult time, based on an annual production of 200 vehicles with a clientele who frequently not only knew ’people’ but often were ‘the great and the good’. For example, the co-owner of the company had a personal income of circa $1 million a week, back then.

Company Chairman Victor Gauntlett had some big problems. The product line was the V8 range evolved from the 1967 DBS, and the Lagonda, powered by a derivative of the same 5.34 litre quad cam engine. The engineering department had been spun out as Aston Martin Tickford, and then sold off to become Tickford. The in-house designer Simon Saunders, founder and owner of Aerial Motor Co.,  had done some clever body kits of the Lagonda, as well as various Tickford commissions, but in essence the new car pipeline was empty.

There were many projects underway to comply with emission regulations, including electronic fuel injection for the old V8, new four valve-per-cylinder heads and engine management for the update, as well as what would become Virage. So, how can a new car appear at next to no cost to create additional cash flow? Enter Zagato.
    
They had built 19 uniquely bodied DB4 GTs in the early 1960s, which were effective competition cars - except the Ferrari GTO was usually ahead. In the 1980s Zagato had built bodies for the Maserati Biturbo (coupe as well as cabriolet). A cunning plan was born; Use the V8 coupe platform with the highest output carburettor 5.34l V8 engine, with door structures, A pillar and lower B pillar from the Maserati Biturbo, clothed in super expensive glass and panels made in the finest Italian tradition of tree stump bashing. Why do this? Well, the Type Approval of doors (security and safety), seat belts and so on was expensive. By using existing components which were already Type Approved, the authorities could see documents that applied from the Maserati BiTurbo to the Aston Martin V8 coupe.

The new car created a huge fuss, and came as the supercar market went through one of its cyclic highs. There was no way this could reach the then-fashionable 200 miles per hour, but it could reach 300 kilometres per hour. So, a demo run was planned ahead of the 1986 Le Mans, which did not go too well.
    
The project – to build 52 coupes – was self-funding and profitable. To prove the performance ahead of completed cars becoming available, a much-loved war horse was pressed into action, the engineering development V8 Vantage VNK360S.

Off came the spare wheel well, and in went the finest MDF board. Out came the 20-gallon tank and in went a specially made 5-gallon tank, which I designed. Out came the rear seats, the side trims and the headliner. The Vantage engine breathed through four twin choke 48mm diameter carburettors, which were eased out to 50 mm and re-jetted by Arthur Wilson, the Head of Powertrain. Together with revised camshafts the engine fitted to VNK360S produced a reliable 440 bhp, rather ahead of the standard V8 Vantage output of between 390 and 410 bhp.

One small point; The V8 Vantage engine when cold could consume fuel at 4 gallons per mile, and when warm, driven with sympathy, could consume at the rate of 12 miles per gallon. However, this does not convey the bellow it produced in the process, nor the ability to go from walking pace to around 170 miles per hour in fifth gear. It was, and is, quite simply one of the most exquisite naturally aspirated engines ever built.

Wild card
Development proved that in order to get significantly better 0-60 miles per hour standing starts, a short diff ratio was required, which then reduced the maximum speed. The wild card was of course that the V8 Vantage Zagato coupe had a smaller frontal area than the standard coupe, and was slightly lighter than the mule VNK360S. The first prototype Aston Martin V8 Vantage Zagato coupe proved both points albeit the additional performance gain was small.

The Aston Martin V8 Vantage Zagato coupe was a sell-out success, and the Aston Martin V8 Vantage Zagato convertible – using the 2 valve per cylinder electronic fuel injection engine with around 320 bhp to remove the infamous bonnet bulge on the coupe, followed with another 37 sales.

One avid Aston Martin customer was Wensley Haydon-Baillie, who was a close friend of Victor Gaunlett. He was used to accessing things which were not ‘available’, and so pursued VNK360S. The company agreed to the sale, and the service department lined the bare interior with black carpet, installed a Connelly hide covered roll cage, fitted two Connelly hide covered racing style seats, installed four-point racing harnesses alongside the standard three-point seat belts, inserted two NACA ducts on the bonnet to reflect the Zagato bonnet, fitted Zagato alloy wheels and replaced the infamous MDF plank in the boot with sheet aluminium.

The purpose? Mr Haydon-Baillie wanted a vehicle to drive from his Mayfair apartment around Park Lane, and back to the lair very, very quickly. The trips would be completed with a six-foot-high teddy bear in the passenger seat.

The car – VNK360S – was one of the first cars to be converted to V8 Vantage specification, with a rubber rear spoiler, early front spoiler, a filler panel on the bonnet to cover the fake intake, the front grille filler with inset Cibie driving lights – and of course, the first of many uprated engines. It represents a truly special car, one that has been altered many times in its life, but somehow has retained its essential character. Owning an old-fashioned supercar is a labour of love and endless expenditure, but it does keep legendary vehicles alive. That takes a special kind of character.


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