British Beef. The classic V8 Vantage was a very British supercar and its appeal remains undiminished. Here's our guide to a true Aston great. Words Peter Tomalin. Photography Matthew Howell.
BUYING GUIDE ASTON MARTIN V8 VANTAGE
The classic V8 Vantage is an all-time Aston great. Here's the essential guide
Aston Martin first kicked around the idea of a Vantage version of its V8 as far back as 1969, just after the DBS V8 was introduced. A prototype was built with what was virtually a race-spec engine and reportedly hit 170mph in testing, but the financial climate wasn't propitious, and then David Brown sold the company and the idea was quietly shelved. Tricky times followed, culminating in the closure of the factory for the best part of a year. When it reopened in 1975, Aston badly needed something special to get itself noticed again. The management soon seized on William Towns's audacious Lagonda saloon; meanwhile a small team of engineers resurrected the idea of a go-faster Aston. And so the Vantage was born.
The name had been around since the '50s but usually to denote a tuned engine. Now, for the first time, Vantage would be a stand-alone model. Not only would the engine be given a power boost, but tyres, brakes, suspension, and even the aerodynamics would all receive attention. The small team, led by Mike Loasby, achieved a minor miracle with few resources but a lot of know-how.
The first step, of course, was wringing more power from the 5.3-litre V8 engine, which was back on Weber carburettors after mixed fortunes with Bosch mechanical fuel injection. For the Vantage, four twin-choke Webers with 48mm throats rather than the standard car's 42mm instruments were chosen. There would also be bigger inlet valves, revised camshafts and a re-routed, bigger-bore (and rather fruitier-sounding) exhaust. While the standard V8 was producing around 320bhp, the Vantage saw that climb to 375bhp at 6000rpm, with a seriously beefy 380lb ft of torque at 4000rpm.
Almost all were fitted with the ZF five-speed manual gearbox. (If the Vantage you're looking at has an automatic 'box, chances are it's not a Vantage at all but a regular V8 dressed up to look like one.) To cope with the extra muscle, the suspension was stiffened with new Koni dampers, there were bigger vented brake discs, and the tyres were switched to Pirelli CN12s, 255 / 60 VR15s front and rear.
In a rare event for Aston at the time, the team wangled a session in MIRA's wind tunnel, where they found that drag could be reduced by 10 per cent by faring-in the headlights and blanking off not just the grille but also the large air-scoop on the bonnet with no detriment to either engine cooling or getting air to the Webers, while a deep front air-dam and bootlid spoiler reduced lift. The extra driving lamps set into the grille were deemed essential for the sort of speeds of which the Vantage was capable.
Above and right: For the first time, ‘Vantage’ signified a standalone model in the Aston range, not just a tuned engine. This 1987 example has the much-vaunted ‘X-Pack’ engine, which took peak power past 400bhp.
When it was launched in February 1977, independent tests put its top speed at just a smidge under 170mph with a 0-60mph time of 5.4sec. This was properly rapid for the late-70s, and while the Aston's immense weight (close to two tons fuelled) and prodigious thirst (low- teens on a spirited run) were acknowledged, road-testers of the day loved it. Here was a British car more than capable of taking on the Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer, Lamborghini Countach and Porsche 911 Turbo 930.
A revised model, codenamed 'Oscar India', appeared in October 1978, the bonnet bulge now smoothed-over, the rear spoiler incorporated into a neat, flicked-up tail, peak power rising to 390bhp, while a more sumptuous interior with lashings of walnut veneer became a popular option. By the end of the decade, Astons were rivalling Rolls-Royce for hedonistic luxury. A Volante version followed in October 1986 and production of both saloon and soft-top continued until December 1989.
There was another power increase in 1986 with the introduction of the 580X - or X-Pack - engine. This had higher-lift camshafts, larger ports to the cylinder heads and a higher compression ratio. Peak power was now 410bhp or as much as 437bhp with the optional 50 IDF Webers and a sports exhaust (the spec that went into the fearsome Vantage Zagato).
This is an X-Pack in the photos, a 1987 car in Suffolk Red, for sale at Aston Martin Works at the time of writing. It's an original right-hand-drive car, 74,000 miles from new. A glance through the paperwork shows it had an engine overhaul in 2007, transmission rebuild in 2009, suspension overhaul and upgrade in 2005, brake upgrade in 2011, repaint in 2013 and retrim in 2016, plus a comprehensive service including new tyres at Works in 2017, all of which is reflected in the £495,000 price tag. That's very much top money, even for an X-Pack, but it's an indication of how far the stock of such cars has risen in recent times.
Ed Barton-Hilton, of specialists Nicholas Mee & Co, says prices really took off between 2014 and 2016. 'Back in 2012, we sold a really nice non-X-Pack Vantage for £85,000. Two years later the same car went for £140,000. Now it's for sale again at £275,000. It was probably worth more than that at one point, but the market has cooled a bit over the last year or so. That said, we're seeing signs that things are picking up again.'
Ed reckons that £225,000 is the starting point for sound cars with history, rising to £275,000 for really good cars, with X-Packs from around £350,000. In the Aston world, Volantes usually command a huge premium, but the Vantage Volante's very '80s bodywork isn't universally loved, so £325,000 gets you a good one. The exception is the subtler 'Prince of Wales' spec (as featured in Vantage issue 24), which can easily fetch £750,000-plus.
At £225,000-£275,000, a V8 Vantage actually looks pretty decent value, considering that an equivalent DB4 would be twice as much, a DB5 more again. For a slightly younger generation, Britain's first supercar is every bit as iconic as those classic 'DB' Astons - and it's rarer, too. Across all variants, the total produced was only 534, of which just 121 were X-Pack cars.
So if you're considering buying one, what do you need to know? We spoke to Neil Calvert, assistant manager at the Aston Workshop, and where better to start than with the bodywork and chassis. The Vantage uses the classic Aston method of hand-formed aluminium alloy outer panels over a steel superstructure, and both are prone to corrosion, though it's beneath the skin that the real problem areas lie.
'With the chassis, the worst areas are the sills, the boot floor, the outriggers and, in the engine bay, the inner wheelarches and the area between the wheelarch and the bulkhead. Rust-proofing was pretty basic - they were coated in red oxide primer and that was about it. And there's not much difference between the oldest cars and the youngest ones - even the newest are 30 years old now, and they all seem to suffer.
'A good way to check the sills is to remove the stainless steel covers,' Neil continues. 'If the sills need repairs, you've got to cut away the bottoms of the wings, so there's a lot of work and then you have to get into paintwork. It could cost up to £10,000 for the whole job.
'The problems with the outer panels tend to be where there are water traps, and where aluminium meets steel. There was a membrane between the two metals, but if it deteriorates then you get corrosion. Where the bottoms of the wings meet the sills is typical. You also get water trapped between the windscreen seal and the body, so you get corrosion bubbling up around the screen, but at least it isn't structural.
'Mechanically, they're really very strong, so the most important thing is evidence of regular servicing,' says Neil. When these cars were new, servicing intervals were every 5000 miles, with manual adjustment of the timing chains required every 10,000 miles. Most Vantages today do tiny mileages, but any specialist you speak to will advise an annual service and checkover, not least to nip any developing issues in the bud and prevent larger bills further down the road.
'Oil leaks can be expensive to rectify,' says Neil. 'Replacing the sump gasket requires engine removal, as would a leak from the rear main bearing. The V8 has steel liners in an aluminium block with O-rings on the bottom of the liners to seal them into the block - there are weep-holes on the outside of the block, and oil there could indicate a problem with the seals.
'The transmission is similarly robust. Don't expect them to be particularly refined - it's old technology and you do get some odd noises: the gearbox chatters away at idle, but they shouldn't be horrendously noisy and they're generally pretty reliable. The rear diff cradle can break, particularly with the X-Pack cars; when we rebuild them we add strengthening plates. All Vantages can be hard on suspension bushes, so we'd be looking for evidence of work there.
'Parts supply is generally very good. One thing to check is that the heater and air-con both work, as that's potentially a big expense to fix, particularly on early cars with the Coolaire system with slider controls. Generally it's a good, reliable car, but as with any Aston, they can be expensive to fix. We'd always recommend getting any car inspected - we charge about £400 and I really do think that's money well spent.'
Serial Aston owner David Wright has had his V8 Vantage - a non-X-Pack but otherwise very similar to the car here, in the same Suffolk Red - since 2012. 'I'd dreamed of owning one for as long as I could remember,' he says. 'As a teenager, I just thought they were the most fantastic looking car.
'A friend tipped me off about this car that was being sold by an insolvency agent after the previous owner had gone bankrupt, and in a wonderful coincidence it was being kept in a garage on the site of the old David Brown tractor factory at Meltham Mills. The car had no history but it was in great condition; I had some other people look at it and they all said I had to buy it. So I did. By another coincidence, I later found out it was the 1984 Motor Show car - which I had photographed as a 21-year-old! Oh, and it was road-registered on January 1, 1985, which was my father's 65th birthday and the day he officially retired. It was clearly meant to be.
'All it's needed has been an annual service - usually it costs about £1000. It doesn't do a lot of miles but it's been totally reliable. I love driving it - it's not as easy as my V550, you really have to take control of it, be assertive, then it's a lovely thing. I still think it's absolutely gorgeous, and other people just love seeing it on the road, which only adds to the pleasure.'
ENGINE V8, 5340cc, 4 x 40 IDF Weber carburettors
MAX POWER 410bhp @ 6500rpm
MAX TORQUE 400lb ft @ 5000rpm
TRANSMISSION Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential
SUSPENSION Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: de Dion tube, trailing arms and Watt’s linkage, coil springs, telescopic dampers
STEERING Rack-and-pinion, power-assisted
BRAKES Vented discs, 292mm front, 264mm rear
WHEELS 16in front and rear, al alloy
TYRES 255/50 R16
POWER TO WEIGHT c245bhp/ton
TOP SPEED 170mph
PRICE NEW £59,950 in 1987 (£170,000 in today’s money)
What the road testers said at the time
‘A new performance standard has been set amongst so-called "super-cars”. And it originates not in Modena or Stuttgart, but in urban Newport Pagnell...
A furious, throaty roar from the Webers and twin exhausts greets modest pressure of the right foot, rising to an ecstatic howl when the power starts to come in above 2000rpm. By no stretch of the imagination could this be called a quiet car, yet the nature of the noise and its level is not painful - to the enthusiasts who are likely to buy the Vantage, it will be joyous music, as it was to me.
Its performance is simply stupendous and relentless. While Boxers, Countachs and Porsche Turbos habitually eat their clutches if full-power standing starts are attempted, this Aston simply lays a trail of rubber as the big clutch bites progressively, and then takes off like a scalded tiger.
The continuing surge of power as the speedometer needle soars past 120mph in fifth is a rare experience in a road car. I had that needle as far as 150mph and even then there was no sign of the acceleration tailing off, which suggests that a Turbo would be hard-pushed to hang on to a Vantage. The Vantage also shows absolute stability at 150mph, making it a very reassuring and comfortable high-speed cruiser.
Not only in performance does this Aston prove the mid-engined exotics are not the be all and end all. It has leech-like roadholding (almost 0.9 g cornering power, says Mike Loasby), and when it does start to slide it does it gently, predictably, with none of the mid-engined viciousness. Excellent handling and positive steering that shows hardly a trace of assistance shrink this big car into a joyful plaything. It rolls somewhat if pushed very hard, but this doesn’t seem to upset the equilibrium of its handling. The brakes need a hefty touch, but they reward with marvellous stopping power, capable of 1.2g.
Here is a car with the performance and handling of a racing car and the luxurious appointments of a limousine, with none of the accommodation or visibility drawbacks of mid-engined super-cars.’ - Motor Sport, April, 1978