We drive Johnny English’s Vantage. Astons on film Johnny English Vantage. We meet the star of the new JE movie and chat to its co-star, Rowan Atkinson. Johnny English is back - at the wheel of a missile-equipped Vantage. We drive the car from the film - and its stunt double - and talk to Rowan Atkinson about his enduring love of ‘analogue Astons’. Words Peter Tomalin. Photography Dean Smith.
THE FULL ENGLISH
COVER STORY 'JOHNNY ENGLISH' VANTAGE
That is it with British secret agents and Aston Martins? Cinema audiences famously cheered during screenings of the Bond movie Skyfall when 007 opened his lock-up to reveal his beloved DB5. There were similar cheers during showings of the original Johnny English film when the titular hero launched a missile from his DB7 Vantage to take out an incriminating Gatso speed camera. There are missiles, too, in the new Johnny English film, the third in the series, which opens in early October. There is also, as you may have gathered by now, an Aston Martin...
Johnny English has always been something of a Bond tribute act, which naturally enough extends to the cars and the gadgets. In his second outing, 2011's Johnny English Reborn, our hapless hero had his head turned by a tricked- up, voice-activated Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupe. But in Johnny English Strikes Again, we find him back at the wheel of an Aston Martin. Or two Aston Martins, as we're about to discover.
The Aston that gets most of the screen-time in the new film is the one you see here, BAV 862T, and right now I'm driving it across Vauxhall Bridge in central London towards the architectural absurdity that is the MI6 building. It's a slightly surreal moment - and completely marvellous and rather nerve-wracking all at the same time. Not only is this the actual car from the movie, it's also Rowan Atkinson's personal property. Try not to break it, Tomalin...
Spool back a couple of hours and I've just arrived at the impressive new HQ of Aston specialists Nicholas Mee & Co, nestled in the Hertfordshire countryside just outside the M25. Nick and his team have been looking after Rowan's car ever since filming ended a few months ago. In that time it's had a general health check, a gearbox rebuild and - most strikingly - a complete retrim in magnolia leather. Nick opens the driver's door and invites me to stick my head inside the cabin. It looks - and smells - absolutely wonderful.
Nick's relationship with Rowan goes way back, to the early 1980s, when the young comedic actor was enjoying the first fruits of fame and fortune - and just starting to indulge his love of slightly eccentric British sports cars. Nick himself, then sales director of Aston Martin, sold Rowan his very first Aston, a V8 of a similar vintage - and hue - to this one, though not a Vantage. It would be the first of a string of Astons that Atkinson would own over the next decade and a half and would seed a lasting affection for the classic V8s.
Hence the acquisition of this 1979 Vantage early last year. It's an 'Oscar India' model, the variant introduced in October 1978 and identifiable in Vantage form by its integrated rear spoiler (rather than tacked-on 'flip-tail' spoiler of the earliest cars) and the lower, smoothed-over bonnet bulge where the early Vantages had a much bigger bump, originally designed as an air scoop but blanked-off for the performance flagship, as was the grille below.
The spec and colour combo are original - with one deviation. 'On most Vantages of this period, the dash was covered in black vinyl, sometimes leather, which is what this one had,' says Nick, 'but Rowan decided to have a full retrim after filming and I showed him some pictures of a car we did in 1980, which had the whole lower dash in the interior colour, which happened to be magnolia, and he decided to go for that. I think it looks so much nicer.'
I agree. In fact as I settle into the newly upholstered driver's seat and survey the impressive array of dials and switches set into the swathe of magnolia hide - including a period-fit graphic equaliser - it's hard to imagine a late- 70s /early-80s Vantage has ever looked finer.
As dusk begins to fall, we set off for central London. In the new film, the Aston is briefly shown powering along Whitehall, so the plan is to head there after we've bagged the MI6 building. But before we plunge into the metropolis, there's a decent run across country and a couple of dual-carriageways on which to stretch those 170mph legs.
The Vantage has an aura of brutishness, and the triple-Weber-fed engine catches with a deliciously throaty roar, but in fact it's not scary at all. The clutch bites progressively and it's easy to trickle away on a breath of revs; the assisted steering is weighty but manageable, and while the gearshift with its dogleg first - across to the left and back - requires a little deliberation and is long of throw, the more you relax with it, the easier it gets. Brake and throttle pedals are even ideally placed - and the brake pedal firm enough - to indulge the odd heel-and-toe downshift.
Through roundabouts and sequences of turns, the big Aston reacts smartly enough to steering inputs but you'd never mistake it for a sports car. That said, while you sense the weight (close to two tons fuelled), it never feels unwieldy. The Vantage is often described as Britain's first supercar, but I reckon 'super-GT' fits it better: think of it as the grand-daddy to the Vanquish (both generations) and the DBS Superleggera.
Stealing every scene, as so often with Astons of this period, is the engine. It fluffs a bit on part-throttle, but drive through the hesitation and it pulls with increasing vigour. There's a real bark to it at higher revs, a reminder that as well as powering several generations of Aston road cars, this magnificent quad-cam all-alloy V8 led a double life under the bonnets of various racing cars.
What's every bit as impressive is that it behaves itself impeccably when we hit the West End. This is just as well because, although it's now getting dark, the roads are still pulsing with traffic. And everywhere we stop to take photos, the Aston draws a small crowd of admirers. One woman tells us that she's a retired freelance photographer. 'I shot an Aston Martin once, for The Times,' she tells us. 'It belonged to the actor Rowan Atkinson and it had just been in a film.' Honestly, you really couldn't make it up.