Heavy metal. Is it a dinosaur or simply a beautiful monster? We assess one of the last of the British supercars.
The Aston Martin Vantage is a daunting prospect. If the awesome power of its near 400 horsepower V8 is not enough to set the nerve ends tingling; if the fact that our test car is the personal property of Aston’s chairman. Victor Gauntlett, does not occasion a moment’s hesitation; if the £47.499 price tag does not induce caution into even the most blase of motoring writers, then the sheer size of the beast is enough to take the breath away.
It’s massive in every way; right up from the nearly 11 inch wide tyres that plant a footprint on the ground which would obliterate the prints of two family saloon tyres. It’s six feet wide and 15 feet long, scaling in at a heavyweight 35 cwt – the weight of two Ford Escorts – and from the driving seat it feels every inch and every ounce of its size, as it curves away out of sight in every direction, the massive bonnet bulge a constant reminder of that fearsome power.
It’s been called a legend and a dinosaur – arguably with some truth to each – but it is certainly the most powerful car in Britain and Debatably, the fastest car in the world. To try to understand some of the magic that has kept the tiny Newport Pagnell company alive through years of business turmoil’s, we have been driving the Vantage; the high performance version of the V8 coupe that has been Aston Martin’s mainstay for so many years.
The Vantage’s long pedigree defines its classical mechanical layout. In an era of mid-engines, turbocharging, and even four-wheel-drive in exotic cars, it’s almost refreshingly simple: a huge 5340 cc V8 with twin overhead camshafts for each cylinder bank, driving through a five-speed ZF gearbox to a de Dion rear axle, located by trailing arms and a Watts linkage, an arrangement renowned for its theoretical purity of operation.
The body construction dates back to a time when most cars were built as the Aston still is – by hand – and uses a tubular steel chassis frame with a steel substructure. Hand-formed aluminium panels clothe the exterior, where the smooth curves and simple angles of hand finishing create a flowing elegance in the huge machine.
The V8 engine of the Vantage – in fact it powers all the AM and Lagonda models – goes back some 16 years, though it has been steadily developed ever since.
The V8 uses a pair of chain driven overhead camshafts for each cylinder bank and four huge double-choke Weber carburettors, shrouded by a massive air filter, squat in the central vee of the engine to supply fuel. The Vantage engine differs from the standard in having bigger carburettors and differently profiled camshafts to change valve timings. Aston Martin don’t quote power outputs for any of their engines: a peculiarly British deference shared with Rolls-Royce, but in Germany, where facts and figures rule. 390 bhp at 5800 rpm is listed on the car’s official homologation papers – a figure that only the Lamborghini Countach’s claimed 375 bhp comes near.
To put that power even more in perspective, a Jaguar V12 produces 295 bhp, a Ferrari Boxer 340 bhp, an Audi Quattro 200 bhp, and an F1 racing car about 600 bhp.
Other mechanical changes on the Vantage include those enormous wheels – for the 1984 model we’ve driven they are even bigger than before, with Pirelli P7 tyres on eight- inch BBS alloy wheels replacing the former seven-inch rims.
However deservedly one can praise a highly-tuned small engine or turbocharging as a way of boosting performance, in the end there really isn’t anything to compare with the outrageous ease with which a big capacity power unit delivers the goods when required.
At first acquaintance the Vantage doesn’t perhaps seem the world beater its facts and figures suggest: there isn’t the snap away from a standstill of, say a sporty BMW or the urgent revviness of a Porsche.
The big V8 just does everything with an effortless grace: drifts the car off from a standstill, smooth’s it up to three figure speeds. Everything is cultured, unflustered, relaxed and relatively quiet: let the revs drop down to 2000 or even less and it will still respond smoothly and easily when needed again.
And then… and then you begin to realise that you have only been using half revs and usually little more than half throttle. You find a longer straight and try a little harder; discover that this engine goes on and on revving; that the Vantage simply goes on accelerating. Discover that as the revs climb through 5000 this relaxed V8 gathers pace; its muted rumble becoming more and more the roar of a race engine given its head as it howls past 6000 and shows its hidden reserves of breathtaking power.
What it all means is that the Vantage starts accelerating where most other cars stop; there isn’t any need (and not a lot of pleasure) in hustling through full revs, flat out gear shifts to get the last tenths of acceleration performance to 60 or 70 mph.
But cruise in fifth gear along an autobahn at 100 mph, floor the throttle and feel it surge towards almost as if it were starting from rest, 100 to 120 mph takes just eight seconds. With the speedometer needle reading 150 mph it is still accelerating: not picking up the odd mile an hour as breeze or incline permits but accelerating positively towards its still distant goal, a maximum speed of near 170 mph.
Certainly there are but a handful of places left in the world where a Vantage driver can travel legally, let alone sensibly, at that speed, but all that power and performance doesn’t just translate into mind-boggling top speeds, it means contemptuously easy acceleration at almost any speed in any gear. Who need worry about gear shifting when 80-100 mph in fifth gear takes only a second longer (6.7 secs) than in fourth (5.7): only a couple of seconds more than in third (4.2 secs)?
Paradoxically, it also makes the Vantage a very safe car in all but the most demented of hands. The sheer momentum built up when that mass is accelerated hard is awesome and. faultless though the massive all-round ventilated discs are at stopping the beast, one is always aware that this is no lightweight racer to be buzzed casually around the lanes.
Vantage is beautifully trimmed in leather and walnut, air conditioning is a standard feature. Oddly British touches include fly-off handbrake and old-fashioned Smiths dials, front air dam gives distinct looks.
HANDLING AND RIDE VANTAGE
This is no car to be driven straight armed and Gucci shod; it’s a blood and guts machine which will scare of poseurs with its bulk and its weigh. It has to be driven like the old fashioned sports-racer it is firmly and authoritatively into corners with a firm pressure on the throttle and a tight grasp on the leather steering wheel.
The power and size of the Vantage make exploration of its handling on public roads laughably inadequate. It can consume the sort of curving country roads that are a challenge to smaller fry with consummate ease.
But on any road it is the beauty of the steering that makes the first and lasting impression. It’s power assisted: the machine would surely be impossible to move without such help but power assistance and a sensible 2.8 turns between extremes of lock have simply served to create steering which is firm and positive in character, with nothing lost in accuracy.
Latest Vantages with their Pirelli P7 tyres on those wider wheels put a usefully larger area of rubber down on the road, which makes the handling much nearer neutral in its balance. The power oversteer that could be induced in earlier models is now near impossible in the dry such is the grip of the massive rear end and it is only in greasy conditions that real care is needed (as it is with any high performer) but here too the latest Vantage feels a considerable improvement on the sometimes untidy earlier car.
The Koni dampers of the suspension have been uprated to help. Even with such big tyres the ride is generally surprisingly good, though the car does joggle and jar over some poor surfaces. It’s softer sprung than many of its peers, the de Dion rear axle which keeps the wheels vertical allowing the designers more freedom on their choice of springing, and this not only improves the ride quality but gives the Vantage the handling predictability that comes with a bit of body movement through corners.
It’s easy to be daunted by it all: the calf-straining 60 lb pressure needed on the clutch pedal: the heavy brakes; the slow, awkwardly gated gear change and. above all the Vantage’s bulk; most of it, like an iceberg, dangerously out of sight and making the judgment of width, particularly at night on busy London roads a heartstopping business at times.
LIVING WITH THE CAR VANTAGE
The controls are heavy and the clutch, in particular, genuinely tiring in traffic but once accustomed to its quirks the Vantage is a straight for-ward machine to live with by exotic car standards.
The gearchange is one of those quirks. The ZF box’s five-speed pattern puts first gear out on a dog-leg, away and back from the driver, and the change both into and out of it is ponderous. Selecting reverse is a knack in itself, too. for first must be engaged before slipping straight across into reverse; try to slot straight into reverse from neutral and you will have nothing but crunching gear teeth caused by the internal friction of the box. The change through the rest of the ’box is reasonably quick but, again, needs some practice to learn the curious springing of the gate.
The dashboard of the Vantage has a traditional and very British simplicity about its walnut veneer and straight-forward Smiths dials. As always, though, in such cars one recognises switchgear and minor details from cheaper, mass produced cars. Any small manufacturer’s car is an amalgam of bought-in components from larger companies but, somehow, they still strike a jarring note in an interior so expensively and elegantly finished in wood and leather.
There’s a full in-car-entertainment system, too and you can hear it, for the Vantage is decently quiet when cruising along. The engine is a distant rumble and only wind and tyre roar interfere. Accelerate hard or travel at steady speeds over 120 mph and it does become noisy though.
Despite its external bulk, it’s not a big car inside. The leather front scats are a generous size and shaped for comfort on a long run rather than any rally-style body hugging, which can leave the driver clinging to the wheel for side support sometimes during very quick cornering. Headroom is not over-generous but most sized drivers fitted in, the changing seat position keeping head clearance constant. There’s more back seat space than a Porsche or Lotus Esprit can offer but is still cramped, coupe style, and suitable only for occasional adult use. The boot isn’t particularly large, either; especially with the bulky spare wheel creating a sizeable hump in the floor, but as this is primarily a car for two, there’s probably room enough.
If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford the goods. Will anyone who can pay the £47,499 price tag of the Vantage seriously worry about its fuel thirst or its running costs?
If they do they’d better look else-where. Fuel consumption of 11-13 mpg was evidence of our enthusiasm for the car but, in all honesty, it isn’t likely to get a lot better on longer acquaintance.
Insurance will be the most expensive imaginable, save a handful of rarer and still more costly to repair exotics, and don’t expect servicing – every 5000 miles – to be a cheap affair either, though the straight for-wardness of its construction argues in its favour against more sophisticated exotica from foreign parts. But just as an afterthought, think of the tyres: those massive Pirellis cost the best part of £250 each and a car like the Vantage could gobble a set in a year’s motoring without a care.
Rationality cries out what a foolish car this is: too big. too thirsty, too fast for modern roads. It doesn’t have the precision and agility of a modern-day supercar like the Lotus Espirit Turbo, but where the Lotus has a clear pedigee to the racing cars of today – slippery, turbocharged, mid-engined, ultra efficient – so the Aston Martin harks back to racers of the past – bigger, heavier, less sophisticated, more forgiving but no less fast.
And that is perhaps, the secret of the Vantage’s attraction: it’s a time-less classic, it will be as much pleasure to drive in ten years’ time as it is now, for it appeals to the red-blooded enthusiast who will relish its magnificent performance and revel in the straightforward pleasure of its vice-less handling. It’s the ultimate expression of a classical motoring theme – the big capacity, front engined, supercar – and while other cars may be better all-rounders none can offer what the Vantage does: the ultimate in every respect.
|CAR||1984 Aston Martin Vantage|
|PRICE WHEN NEW 1984 UK||£47.499|
|Other models||coupe, conv|
|PERFORMANCE road tested|
|Max Speed (mph)||168|
|Max in 4th (mph)||140|
|Max in 3rd (mph)||115|
|Max in 2nd (mph)||60|
|Max in 1st (mph)||50|
|0 50 (sec)||4.1|
|0-400 metres (sec)||145|
|Termnal speed (mph)||103|
|30-50 in 3rd 4th 5th (sec)||5.0 / 6.7 /|
|40-60 in 3rd 4th 5th (sec)||4.6 / 6.1 /|
|50-70 in 3rd 4th 5th (sec)||4.3 / 5.5 / 8.6|
|60-80 in 3rd 4th 5th (sec)||4.3 / 5.5 / 7.3|
|80-100 in 3rd 4th 5th (sec)||4.1 / 5.7 / 7.7|
|100-120 in 3rd 4th 5th (sec)||6.3 / 8.4|
|Cylinders capacity (cc)||V8 5340|
|Bore x Stroke (mm)||100×65|
|Valve gear||2 x dohc|
|Injection||4 Weber 2 choke|
|Power rpm (bhp)||390 / 5800|
|Max torque rpm (lbs/ft)||400 / 3950|
|Steering||Rack and pinion|
|Turns lock to lock||2.8|
|Turning circle (ft)||40|
|Suspension rear||de Dion axle|
|Tank CAPACITY GAL (grade)||25 (4)|
|Major service miles (hours)||5000 (14.0)|
|Rear light lens||£10|
|Froot brake pads||£48|
|Headlamp wash wipe||no|
|Stereo radio cassette||yes|
|Remote boot fuel filler open||yes|
|Front headroom (ins)||37|
|Front legroom (ins)||34-42|
|Roar kneeroom (ms)||20 23|
|Track (F/R) (ins)||59/59|
|Int. width (ins)||56|
|Boot capacity (cu. ft)||9|