It’s undoubtedly an Aston Martin. At Goodwood, we’re asked more than once if it’s a new prototype. Nope, it’s much older than you think. Looks familiar though, doesn’t it, rather like focusing on Smokey Yunick’s famous ‘six-sevenths’- scale ’67 Chevelle, the car that NASCAR famously never allowed to race. You know that it looks right, but there’s an element that you can’t quite put your finger on… and that’s a little unsettling. There’s a lot of Vanquish in it, but the details are different: the rear diffuser is more boldly drawn, and it’s smaller, subtly tightenedup in the process of proving all of Aston’s trademark modern cues in one taut package.
Here is the first strike from Ian Callum’s visionary mould of the millennial Aston Martin coupé, which would sire the Vanquish and set the template for every Aston since. Its bold but slippery styling with pronounced rear haunches, signature grille and discreet side vents, was built on what would become Aston’s new Vertical Horizontal platform, bonded from aluminium extrusions and carbonfibre mouldings.
It was constructed as a one-off prototype, with ‘no plans for production’. Like that Chevelle, this is an exquisitely crafted vessel that took much ingenuity and thousands of hours to build. Project Vantage set Aston Martin off in a new direction, away from “V8s and cast-iron chassis” as its owner George Georgiou puts it, and into the present regime of aluminium/carbonfibre tubs, 6-litre V12 power and semi-automatic transmissions. Incredibly, it’s almost 20 years old. Everything works. And, almost uniquely for a prototype, it avoided the crusher and made it to the outside world, with Aston Martin’s blessing.
After Project Vantage’s appearance at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, it was displayed on the concept lawn at Pebble Beach in the US, plus Amelia Island. The coupé’s only public appearances in the UK were during 1998 at the Hurlingham Club in London, and at the AMOC race meeting at Donington Park in October. In the autumn of 2003, the car was displayed in the AM Works Service reception on Tickford Street, Newport Pagnell, in the company of a V12 Vanquish – the production model that it inspired. After that, it was seen in public only once, at the 2014 UK Vanquish Day at AM Works, before heading to auction.
Keith Riddington, now of Classicmobilia, was intimately involved with the project, shepherding it around the shows and taking the first tentative lap of Millbrook with Jac Nasser, then head of Ford, Aston’s parent firm at the time. He was service manager at Works Service, as it was then called, but so small was the company that it had limited numbers of ‘exterior-facing’ staff who were used to meeting and dealing with the public – “so it was down to me”.
“It was Ian Callum’s project,” he recalls. “Bob Dover was in charge then [chairman and chief executive, late of Jaguar, also under Ford ownership]. The press launch was on 5 January 1998.
It was a Newport Pagnell car, whereas the DB7 had been done at Bloxham. But it was done at Lotus. It wasn’t until Jac Nasser came over that we saw it, and they said: ‘This is our new concept; what do you think?’ That was the good thing about Bob – he got the whole staff involved.”
Callum, now at Jaguar, had been responsible for the DB7, and Project Vantage is obviously of the same family, with similar treatment around the headlights, and strong undertones of DB4 GT Zagato. Georgiou says: “Ian Callum told me that the chassis and suspension were designed by Dan Parry Williams [later of McLaren P1 fame], done in-house at TWR because Tom Walkinshaw was in charge. Lotus definitely did the production chassis and suspension.”
The motor is a prototype 6-litre, 48-valve, all-aluminium V12. Designed with input from Aston Martin, Ford Advanced Vehicle Technologies and Cosworth Engineering, it’s shared with the GT90 and Indigo concepts and is pretty close to the 5935cc engine that made it into production… though for now Georgiou is hoping that nothing breaks.
A six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shift was a first for Aston Martin, and the 19in magnesium wheels are unique to the prototype. Inside, it’s all brushed aluminium and Connolly leather that looks fabulously opulent yet also rugged, light and functional at the same time – but most importantly could be made by hand. Manual seats à la Ferrari F40 keep the complication and weight down. The odometer is stuck on 007 miles, a cheeky but knowing touch, because Vanquish did indeed go on to co-star in a Bond film – Die Another Day – in 2002.
Riddington says: “It started and ran but the windows were fixed Perspex then, and the gearbox didn’t work very well. We said to Jac: ‘It’s one lap only, and take it steady, but he put his foot down, and later Bob Dover went out in it as well. “We took it to Detroit, where it went down like a house on fire; they went crazy. Then we took it to lots dealers asking if they would buy it.”
The response must have been good, because the Vanquish made its debut just three years later. Project Vantage has a number of features that didn’t make it though to production, such as the pushrod suspension with the front spring/dampers mounted horizontally and feeding loads into the bulkhead (hello, Rover P6), and the doubleskinned carbonfibre roof and aluminium honeycomb where the production cars use sheet.
There were supposed to be actively managed anti-roll bars, powered by the same hydraulic feed that controls the transmission; they weren’t actually fitted, although the Vanquish has them. Its brakes are 15in discs up front and 14in rears, with six-pot AP Racing calipers all round using titanium bridge bolts, plus ABS and a balance valve under the bonnet. The press release talked of 0-60mph in 4 secs, with 140mph coming up in the standing quarter-mile and 200mph-plus, and all this with 20mpg (US) or about 25mpg in real money. That’s not too far off the mark if you compare it with a Vanquish, which appeared in 2001: 450bhp, 4.8 secs to 60mph and 190mph, though it did weigh 1835kg, which helped to account for the 16mpg overall fuel consumption. This car is quoted in the blurb as 1500kg.
Look more closely and you can see how they did it. Rolling aluminium for the skin would have been no problem for Aston, something it had been doing for decades. It’s the details that give themselves away. The Ford switchgear is obvious, along with the generic inner door pulls, and the air vents are from the Ka. The rear diffuser is little more than a sheet of aluminium with riveted ports where the exhausts poke out, which could have been fabricated in a couple of hours – and almost certainly was. The door mirrors are possibly moulded from BMW E46 M3 components, but nobody’s quite sure. The tail-lights are probably Land Rover items, but behind neat smooth fairings that were made by hand. Therein lies a story, because Project Vantage eventually became Vanquish. “And on that, tooling up for the tail-lights was the biggest cost of the job,” recalls Riddington. “Even then we had to add reflectors bought from Halfords, because someone forgot to design them in.”
In the pre-Ford days, cash had been desperately short at Aston Martin, a recurring theme since David Brown sold the company in 1972. As Riddington puts it: “Then it was a case of ‘how long can we keep the doors open’. Aston had been doing all sorts of weird and wonderful projects and one-offs for wealthy clients, such as a four-door supercharged Vantage and other specials just to keep the cash flowing through the door so they could build cars for customers.
“I once had to fly to the Middle East to collect a large cheque and take it straight to the bank in London on Monday morning so that we could keep the company afloat. Project Vantage couldn’t have happened without Ford money.”
Dover said at the time: “We are looking forward to receiving feedback on all of the features incorporated in this concept. It has involved us in a new way of doing business, while retaining and strengthening the virtues and brand values of this world-famous marque.”
We’re used to this kind of PR-speak in the modern world, in everything from confectionery adverts to politicians pushing unpalatable realities, but coming from traditional Aston Martin then it was something of a breakthrough, along with the new-style ownership and management.
So this prototype – and the modern supercoupés that it directly led to – marks a turning point in the company’s fortunes. Georgiou spotted it consigned for Bonhams’ annual fixture at Aston Martin Works, Newport Pagnell in 2016, and billed as a running prototype. It had been offered the year before in a slightly less completed state, but hadn’t found a buyer.
Georgiou, who had owned a few classics but never an Aston Martin, decided that it was for him: “I saw it come up at Bonhams and put a cheeky maximum bid on the car because I was flying out on the day of the auction. I was looking at buying a Vanquish but saw this and realised how rare a running prototype was, especially an Aston being sold by the factory. It wanted saving. I didn’t think I had a hope of getting it because it’s such an important car, the genesis of everything coming out of the factory this millennium.”
Project Vantage needed to go back into AM Works because, despite being sold as a working prototype, it didn’t function very well, notably in the gears and brakes department, which is a bit serious if you’re a 450bhp Aston Martin.
“After the initial shock of accidentally buying the car, it was delivered dead, with signs all over it saying not to attempt to connect a battery or start it,” remembers Georgiou. “A quick call to Bonhams before I transferred the money had Works pick it up and get it running again, minus front brakes and with an intermittent first gear.
“Back at Storacar, the glass was fixed and tidied by Keith at Supreme Glass, as were the boot catch and trim. Instead of fixed Perspex, it now has functioning electric windows. He thought the job was only okay until I showed him the magazine articles of the time, which pleased him, because it now looks better than original.”
So at Goodwood, as it rolls out of the trailer, Georgiou is itching to drive it for the first time. As well as the regulation three slow tours behind the camera car, he manages to squeeze in a sneaky quicker lap by going the long way back to the pits after photography on the starting grid, and reckons that he saw 3000rpm in sixth on the Lavant Straight – you work it out…
“That’s probably the furthest it’s travelled under its own power, and it probably works better than it ever did, including the paddle shifters and auto and reverse buttons,” he says. “It’s fantastic, but it gets very hot inside.” Understandably, because, as a show car, it wasn’t fitted with air-con or any heat or sound insulation in the cockpit. Underlining its show status, the dash is basically held in by gravity. Georgiou adds: “I fitted the starter button to the console because it was just hanging down when I got it. Pulling up the carbon and aluminium console reveals bits of ply holding dummy switches and sliders – standard practice on any prototype.”
As the auction catalogue said, ‘a possibly once-in- a-lifetime opportunity for the serious collector to acquire this historically significant Aston Martin prototype.’ Georgiou paid a bit over £100,000, “plus God knows how much getting it to the point where it can be run and demonstrated”. Will it get more track time?
“Probably not. No, that’s it. I think I’ll show it: the AMOC has put it forward for the Concours of Elegance, so I’ll drive it in the grounds of Hampton Court if it makes the cut. It’s a fascinating milestone in Aston Martin’s development history, and it’s incredible that it escaped. Not bad for an impulse purchase!”
‘IT’S THE FIRST STRIKE FROM IAN CALLUM’S VISIONARY MOULD OF THE MILLENNIAL ASTON’