Fantastic beast Virage to Le Mans… 30 years on from the Virage launch, we take a 6.3 for a blast down to Le Mans. The Virage, launched 30 years ago, didn’t quite hit the mark… until Works developed the pumped-up 6.3-litre version. We take one of these bespoke brutes on a road trip to Le Mans. Words Andrew Frankel. Photography James Arbuckle.
DRIVE STORY VIRAGE 6.3 TO LE MANS
I wonder what could be engineered from scratch for £3.5 million for a company such as Volkswagen. A door handle perhaps? A windscreen wiper system? Maybe a new front bumper or wheel design? I don’t know. What I do know is that in the late 1980s £3.5 million is what it cost Aston Martin to develop what was presented to the world as its first all-new car in over 20 years.
I know this because I was told by the man who wrote the cheque, the late Victor Gauntlett, the larger-than-life chairman of Aston Martin who looked like he should have been a retired RAF pilot, no doubt because he was. Half overgrown schoolboy, half hard-nosed businessman (his words, not mine), it was Gauntlett who faced down a board-level bid to turn Aston Martin into a service and restoration business, Gauntlett who went to work on at least two occasions fully expecting to shut the factory gates for the very last time, Gauntlett who secured the company’s future by arranging its sale to Ford, and Gauntlett who had the idea for creating a ‘new DB4’, a project that was a ‘fully written concept’ at the time of his departure in 1991, though not yet called the DB7. His importance to Aston Martin could scarcely be underestimated.
‘IT FEELS FAR MORE POISED THAN I RECALL, SETTLING BEAUTIFULLY INTO FAST, SWEEPING CURVES’
The car whose entire development was bought for less than the cost of a brace of Bugatti Chirons was to be called the Virage, and it was unveiled at the Birmingham motor show 30 years ago. It would live for a dozen years in one form or another, latterly under an assumed name, and in that time undergo one of the most extraordinary metamorphoses of any Aston.
The Virage came into being because Gauntlett knew that the V8 saloon and its Vantage and Volante derivatives had had their day. New emissions laws requiring the fitment of catalytic converters would decimate the power of a V8 engine that had first been discussed as long ago as 1962 (yes, really) and had run as early as 1965. But so, too, were its body and interior stuck in the 1970s as the rest of the world prepared to embark on the last decade of the century.
Even so, one reason Gauntlett was able to create the Virage for £3.5 million was that it wasn’t quite as new as the press department would have liked you to believe at the time. Indeed, the origins of its chassis could be traced back even further than those of its engine.
Its structure was based upon an abbreviated version of the platform that underpinned the late-70s Lagonda saloon, itself a development of the DBS that first went into production in 1967.
So the Virage had de Dion rear suspension when the rest of the world had gone fully independent years before. And, as many of you will know, the DBS could trace its own evolution back through the DB6 to the DB4, first signed off in prototype form in 1956…
Nor could Gauntlett remotely afford an all- new engine. Since David Brown’s post-war acquisition of the company to this very day, Aston Martin has only designed two engines from scratch itself (the V8 and the DB4’s straight-six) and both proved to be ruinously expensive experiences, so he would have to work with what he already had. Sadly, the engineering assets required to develop even the four-valve cylinder heads that were crucial to creating a clean and still powerful V8 had long since left the company. So Gauntlett put the bid out to tender, to a few names that were familiar and one that was not.
At the time, Reeves Callaway’s Connecticut- based company was best known for knocking out hot rod Corvettes, but his bid was by far the most affordable and seemed plausible. Gauntlett went with his instincts and his bank manager’s preference and was rewarded by a motor that would be developed into a quite exceptional, and exceptionally potent powerplant, and one that would also return Aston Martin to top- level racing at Le Mans, of which more in a moment.
The body was the work of Ken Greenley and John Heffernan and still produced in Newport Pagnell by traditional techniques handed down the generations. The interior appeared akin to a Ford tribute band, lack of funds meaning Gauntlett had no choice but to raid the Blue Oval’s parts bin for almost all of its switchgear. The steering column and its stalks, however, came from General Motors, while the three- speed automatic gearbox that was fitted to most cars was sourced from Chrysler. I’d be surprised if there was another car in history to package the products of all of Detroit’s Big Three into one leather-lined interior… Outside you may not have spotted that the headlights once belonged to the Audi 200 saloon, but the rear lamps’ VW Scirocco origins are easier to identify.
It seems a harsh thing to say, particularly in a title such as this, but at launch the car simply wasn’t good enough, which is not an opinion formed in 2018 but a clear memory left over from when I first tested one for Autocar magazine in the summer of 1990. Writing in the magazine’s yearbook the following Spring, I thought that ‘fine grand tourer as it is, the Aston deserves to be a better one’. Not happy with that, I concluded: ‘Look at it and you understand why it costs £130,000. Drive it and you begin to wonder.’ My verdict read simply: ‘Too much beauty, not enough beast.’ Ouch.
At the time, however, we had to view the car in the context of anything that looked like a competitive rival in the marketplace, including cars like the Jaguar XJ-S, BMW 850i E31, Mercedes-Benz 500SL R129 and Porsche 928, all of which were far more affordable and, objectively at least, considerably better. Today such comparisons seem utterly irrelevant. Yes, they all came from premium brands, but were still intended for volume sales in the mass market. The Virage was a super-luxury GT aimed at people for whom mere ability was as nothing compared with an elegant line lovingly beaten from sheet aluminium by a man wearing a white coat with a pencil behind his ear.
So it’s time to look again at the Virage, with perhaps less of the gimlet eye of the contemporary critic and more with the benefit of a few decades’ hindsight, and after the product has had time to mature and find its natural place in the order of things.
Which is why I found myself cursing a Virage all over again in the early hours of one sunny summer morning in June. This was a very special Virage and arguably the car it should have been from the beginning, but it was still not making friends with me, not least because the bloody thing wouldn’t start. Given I needed to drive it several hundred miles to Le Mans that day, this was a trifle inconvenient.
As I waited for someone at Aston Martin Works to figure out what had gone wrong with it, I took a little time to mourn the experience it now looked like I wasn’t going to have. For this was a Virage 6.3 belonging to Aston Martin vice president and marketing director Simon Sproule. And 6.3s are rare and special cars even by usual Newport Pagnell Aston standards.
The 6.3 was so much more than a Virage with an extra litre of displacement bestowed upon its venerable V8, and herein lies the Le Mans connection. Aston Martin had offered a 6.3-litre conversion for the old two-valve V8, but it was the Group C AMR1 Le Mans racing car of 1989 that first saw an enlarged engine using the Callaway four-valve heads, first in 6-litre form, then with a 6.3-litre capacity for the fifth and final AMR1 constructed. So the engine in Simon’s Virage really is a very close relative of that used in the racing car.
The additional capacity came from widening the bore of each cylinder just a little (from 100mm to 103mm) and the stroke quite a lot (from 85mm to 95mm). Naturally a new crankshaft was required, but it came also with Cosworth pistons, a new inlet camshaft, solid tappets, Weber Alpha sequential fuel injection and reprogrammed management. In its ultimate form it resulted in a fairly staggering 50 per cent increase in power to 500bhp, accompanied by a 40 per cent increase in torque.
Which would have been at best unusable in a standard Virage, at worst terrifying, which is why the 6.3 also came with the largest disc brakes yet fitted to a production car at that time and derived directly from those used by the AMR1. It also came with Rose-jointed suspension with new geometry, revised spring, damper and front anti-roll bar rates, a rear anti-roll bar and enormous tyres fitted to OZ rims so wide the wheelarches had to be flared to accommodate them. The cost could easily add £60,000 to the price of the Virage, about half of which was the engine, though there was £10,000 in bodywork modifications alone.
Not that any of this seems relevant right now. Simon’s car fired up beautifully on the truck, but since it has been offloaded and the boot filled, it has shown not the slightest interest in going one inch further. We think it’s the infernal 1990s immobiliser, which continues to make a series of random, plaintive bleeping noises, as sorry a replacement for a rumble of a large- capacity V8 as I’ve ever heard.
But then inspiration from head office. I’m directed back to the boot, in whose rear wall an idiotically sited cut-off switch is located. Clearly it has been knocked as we piled in the camera gear. Ten seconds later, a V8 conceived by Tadek Marek, evolved by Reeves Callaway and enlarged by Aston Works rumbles into life. We shall go to the ball after all.
I take up position behind the thick, leather-rimmed wheel and breathe in the unmistakable aroma of Connolly hide. Acres of it. The bulky seats adjust electrically, and finding a perfect driving position would be simplicity itself were it not for the fact the GM steering rack has only four positions for rake and no options for reach at all, meaning I have to drive with almost straight arms. Just like Sir Stirling, I tell myself.
As with most Virages, Simon’s is automatic (the 6.3’s standard manual option was a five-speeder, though a six-speed ZF transmission was also available as a £10k option) sparing me the need for a powerlifter’s left quadriceps. Making my way through London traffic, I’m struck by several things: despite its presence, the car feels quite compact compared with modern supercars and the all-round visibility is superb. The engine is wonderfully tractable and quieter than I expected, the ride almost limousine soft. But once the roads clear, the gearbox seems slow-witted and the engine appears to have not quite the full complement of horses left in the stable.
Time is short, so once out of the Tunnel we have to make decent progress. But what speed to do? For years the French police have regarded the road from Calais to Le Mans via Rouen as something of a cash cow during race week, but last year I didn’t see a single gendarme. So I elect to cruise fairly rapidly but at a speed that still gives me a chance.
It really is a wonderful car for this sort of thing. Wind and road noise are surprisingly muted, and the V8’s voice is always welcome. Curiously, it seems to be sounding sweeter with every passing mile, too. Those seats are fabulous, offering far greater comfort over long distances than those fitted to many alleged luxury cars today.
Perhaps contrary to expectations, I’m starting to really enjoy this car, as are the spectators who stand on the bridges and in service areas to film crazy Brits in their mad cars on the way to Le Mans. The Virage gets an enormous amount of attention, and I’m quite enjoying that, too. The miles seem to disappear under those OZ rims faster than I could have imagined.
When we start seeing signs for Le Mans, we peel off and head out onto deserted French backroads. And it feels like someone has fitted a new engine since I first climbed aboard a few short hours earlier. No longer reluctant to rev, the V8’s slight hoarseness above 4000rpm has been replaced by a diamond-edged snarl. The book says its 500bhp comes at 6000rpm so I’ll go no higher today, but the motor is still hauling hard at that speed. And it’s fast, which when you consider it has similar power to a DB11 V8 (albeit with a couple of hundred kilos of avoirdupois to carry) is perhaps not as surprising as it seemed at the time. Now that its throat has been cleared, it turns out that it is an incredible engine, more powerful than any offered by Ferrari or Lamborghini at the time; it has a transformative effect on the Virage.
The suspension changes are all for the good, too, for the car feels far more poised than I recall, settling beautifully into fast, sweeping curves, the steering precise and full of the kind of feel that’s rare to find in these days of electrical assistance. Only the tyres let it down. The Goodyear Ub-Ds look new but are a pretty ancient design and limit the car’s all-round performance, never more so than in the braking areas, where the massive discs prove far too good for the contact patches through which they must do their work.
We reach Le Mans and do the obligatory shots around the circuit before settling down to watch the race. As with the AMR1 in 1989, things do not go to plan for Aston Martin Racing’s all-new Vantage GTE. Back then one car finished 11th after a troubled run; the other retired in the night. This year both works Astons finish, but well down the order despite one having a trouble-free run. The difference is that the new Vantage’s apparent lack of pace is not thought to be due to any inherent design flaw, but regulations aimed at ‘balancing’ the performance among competitors by way of limiting power or adding weight. Last year the old Vantage won outright, so the new car was always going to have its wings clipped to some extent and the view within the team is that it just went too far and will be rebalanced in the future. More important is the fact the cars were almost faultlessly reliable and their drivers loved the way they handled.
It’s been a wonderful journey, and I emerge with a respect and an affection for the Virage that I never felt at the time. How much of that is down to the mods that came with the big motor? Probably quite a lot, and a six-speed ‘box would make it better still. Most of all, however, I’m left with a yearning to drive the twin-supercharged Vantage version, ideally in ultimate V600 Le Mans form. With barely a year to go until the 20th anniversary of the cessation of production, I think it’s probably time to start bending the editor’s arm for a proper run in that.
Left and below. Just getting into its stride on the drive down to Le Mans. Below left: the AMR1 endurance racer, for which the four-valve cylinder heads were first developed. Left and below. This was the way Astons often were in the early-90s – aesthetically questionable but undeniably sumptuous. Enlarging the V8 engine from 5.3 to 6.3 litres and uprating components increased peak power from 330bhp to 465bhp (and ultimately 500bhp)
Top and above. Obligatory shots on the circuit before the start of this year’s 24 Hours. All-new Vantage GTE hampered by ‘Balance of Performance’ regs, but both cars ran faultlessly. They’ll be back… Above and left . Frankel brims the 30gal fuel tank; an alarm simultaneously sounds in Vantage HQ. Left: raft of suspension changes wrought their own transformation.
ENGINE V8, 6347cc
MAX POWER 500bhp @ 6000rpm
MAX TORQUE 480lb ft @ 5800rpm
TRANSMISSION Three-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential
SUSPENSION Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: de Dion tube, trailing arms, Watt’s linkage, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
STEERING Rack-and-pinion, power-assisted
BRAKES 355mm vented discs, ABS
WHEELS 10 x 18in
TYRES 285/45 ZR18
POWER TO WEIGHT 263bhp/ton
TOP SPEED 175mph (claimed)
PRICE NEW £189,418 in 1992 (£387,000 in today’s money)
VALUE TODAY £130,000+
‘THE 6.3 WAS SO MUCH MORE THAN A VIRAGE WITH AN EXTRA LITRE OF DISPL ACEMENT’
‘THE MOTOR WOULD ALSO RETURN ASTON MARTIN TO TOP- LEVEL RACING AT LE MANS…’