Power Surge. Twenty years ago, the DB7 Vantage became the first production Aston Martin to be powered by a V12 engine. We drive an early example on some of the test routes that helped make it great. Words Andrew Frankel. Photography Tim Andrew.
DB7 VANTAGE It's 20 years since the DB7 debuted the 5.9-litre V12. Cue a celebration drive
History has a strange and, at times, frustrating ability to gloss over the truth, especially when it gets in the way of a conveniently simple narrative. Marie Antoinette never suggested anyone ate cake, Einstein did not flunk maths at school and the evidence for Hitler being uni-testicular is mixed at best. Likewise, the DB7 is not the car that saved Aston Martin.
Hell of a thing to say, I know, but the truth is not so clear cut. Yes, the DB7's role was crucial to the company's survival because without it Ford would have shut the doors at once; but it was another car, the DB7 Vantage you see here, that did far more to convince Ford that Aston Martin was worthy of long term investment.
Semantics? Not at all. Another fact that's been lost to most over time is that the DB7 Vantage was anything but a DB7 with a V12 engine. And it wasn't just that the car was comprehensively re-engineered, the far more significant point was who was doing the engineering. Until recently I always presumed TWR - Tom Walkinshaw Racing - was responsible for the Vantage in the same way it had been responsible for the DB7 itself. Not so. Twenty years after its launch, it's time to take a drive.
‘Don’t chuck it into corners, hut let it flow instead. It’s an approach the Vantage never stops rewarding’
But before we do, let's have a quick look at where the car actually came from with the help of the man who knows best. Today David King is in charge of Aston Martin's special projects - cars like the Valkyrie - but in the mid 1990s he was a Jaguar man who went to Aston Martin in 1995 on a career development secondment and never went back. His job was to see what step, if any, the DB7 should be making next.
'The DB7 was a good car, especially given where it had come from,' he says, referring to its veiled but well-known XJS origins, 'but TWR was spread too thin. When I went down there they used to move people from the Volvo office into the Aston office to make it look busy...'
And King confirms Aston Martin was by no means out of intensive care at the time, despite the critical acclaim and, by Aston's modest standards, sales success of the DB7. 'There were plenty at Ford who wanted to get rid of it because it was a distraction.' He cites Jim Padilla, who would go on to be Ford's COO, and Jac Nasser, then head of Ford's car division, as the men who kept the faith. 'The problem was Aston had lost all its engineering ability, which is why TWR did the DB7 in the first place. But Padilla saw that if Aston was to have any kind of future, those skills would need to be recaptured. And that's what we did with the DB7 Vantage. Although it was built in Bloxham, TWR had nothing to do with its engineering. It was entirely an Aston Martin project.'
‘This is one of the key roads on which the team honed the Vantage’
King knew this car was far more important than the Vantage badge on its tail, and that there might not be another chance. So the team decided to go for broke. 'We wanted a car that moved Aston Martin towards supercar territory, which meant more than adding power; it needed proper cooling, Brembo brakes, the whole package.'
But the engine came first. Obviously Jaguar's extant but ageing V12 would fit into an engine bay very little changed from that of an XJS, and Tom Walkinshaw had already put a highly tuned Jaguar V12 into a DB7 to show Aston Martin what could be done. But the decision to bring the project in-house had already been made. 'We looked at all sorts of engines - Jaguar's 4-litre six, Ford V8s and so on, but in the summer of '1996 I was asked to do a package study to see if Ford's Duratec V12 could be made to fit.' It was not simply a question of planting one big V12 where another had been: the Jaguar engine had narrow, two-valve cylinder heads, while the Ford motor's four- valve head spilled over into the chassis rails.
It was a big job, especially as the V12 needed re-engineering to productionise what was still a concept engine, but with the impetus provided early in 1997 by the arrival at the Aston Martin helm of Bob Dover, King and his team got the mandate they needed to do the job the way they wanted. Two years later the car was on sale.
Visually, it was subtly but unmistakeably updated. A deeper nose, expertly crafted by Ian Callum, provided not just an additional sense of purpose but, crucially, sufficient additional airflow to allow the V12 to breathe and be cooled. The chassis was stiffened around the transmission tunnel and the suspension altered in both geometry and spring rate to improve the handling with as little penalty to ride quality as possible. A six-speed Getrag gearbox replaced the old five-speed unit while Brembo did indeed provide additional stopping power, increasing front disc diameter from 285mm to 355mm, important for a car whose top speed had just risen from 157mph to 185mph... Wider rear wheels with fatter tyres completed the picture.
This car, on sale from the Runnymede Motor Company in the Thames Valley at time of writing, must be one of the nicest examples of those you'd actually choose to use. The 52,000 miles on its clock is, to me, pretty ideal - not nearly enough to worry about durability issues, more than enough to reassure it's not spent most of the century on axle stands. Resplendent in Skye Silver, it looks fabulous: in retrospect Callum didn't like the Vantage's look as much as his original DB7, but I think it's every bit its equal.
The inside never did live up to that promise thanks to a fairly shambolic hotchpotch of undisguised Ford switchgear. Two decades ago it grated and it still does today. But the cabin in general and the seats, swathed in Connolly hide, in particular have stood up remarkably well to the passage of time. Despite their skeleton staff, it seems TWR built them to last.
I'd forgotten that the driving position is odd for someone over 6ft. No lack of legroom here, unlike in the DB9 that replaced it, but I'm sitting higher than I'd like with what little is left of my hair brushing the headlining. The seats are electric but clearly off-the-peg items, because the buttons that control them are so close to the sills I have to squash my fingers to use them.
It has a key you slot into an ignition barrel - imagine that! - then spoils it by still giving you a red button to press, but with no ECU to prevent accidental starter motor engagement at speed. I remember my then very young daughter giving one a prod all those years ago, eliciting some fairly hellish noises from the engine bay, but mercifully no apparent damage.
The V12 gives a woof of approval, pre-programmed as a sort of automotive amuse bouche for your ears, before settling down to an impeccably even idle. But what's exciting me more is the gear lever sprouting proud of the centre console. These manual cars are rare: I am told just 229 manual right-hand-drive Vantage coupes were built, compared with 4658 Vantages of all descriptions, of which who knows how many have survived.
Not sure why, but I'm surprised by the heaviness of the clutch. But first slots home easily, the pedal connects the gearbox to the engine smoothly and soon we are rolling. On King's recommendation, we're on the A4035 from Banbury to Shipston-on-Stour, not just because it passes within a few miles of the Bloxham factory where this car was built, but because it was one of the key roads on which he and his team honed the Vantage. It's a fabulous stretch - light on traffic, long on quick corners, changeable surfaces, unpredictable cambers and tightening radii. A chassis developer's dream.
We go slowly for a while, because the car's already telling me things I need to remember. Like how involving is the sensibly geared hydraulic steering compared to the artificial 'feel' of modern electric systems. But I'm reminded, too, of how far cars have advanced structurally. Some of the bones beneath the Vantage's body date back to the XJS's formative years in the early '70s, and while David and his team did good and vital work providing additional rigidity, I'd be surprised if it had half the torsional stiffness of a DB11, so it shudders a little and is less precise than a modern car.
And, of course, the engine is of a kind that no longer exists. Almost all high performance engines are turbocharged today, and those few that are not squeeze well over 100bhp from each litre of capacity, necessitating power delivered in the upper reaches of the rev-range. The DB7's V12 is not like this. Given the engine displaces over 5.9 litres, its 420bhp is languid to the point of indolence and, indeed, has a lower specific output than had the Ford 3-litre V6 Duratec (in the Mondeo ST220 of the era), from which it was loosely derived. Funny to consider that in the V600 also tested in this issue, the engine makes almost 600bhp with no change of capacity.
Not that the engine's laid-back approach is in any way bad, just different. Indeed it rather suits the character of a car that, despite its supercar aspirations, remains very much a touring machine. It means that instead of concentrating all its firepower into a narrow little band near the red line, the Vantage hauls quite hard whatever it says on the clock. So you can slot third gear at literally walking pace, sit back and savour its sweet and cultured voice for as long as you dare, and because the engine runs to 7000rpm and over 100mph in that gear, you'll likely run out of nerves or road long before it runs out of revs. Indeed you could tackle the A4035 without changing gear with very little effect on your point-to-point pace.
But where would be the fun in that? Despite its age and diverse parentage, the Vantage doesn't feel like a car cobbled together. It feels coherent in its consistently heavy control weights, and composed up to what would today be considered quite modest limits. It's not difficult to ask questions the chassis is disinclined to answer but nor is there any hardship keeping within the bounds of what it's happy to do. So listen to that engine, use the slow but slick-shifting gearbox and don't chuck it into corners, but let it flow instead. It is an approach the Vantage never stops rewarding.
If it has a problem, it is simply one of time. It's too old to have a hope of matching modern standards, yet too young to earn automatic forgiveness for the things it can't do. It is not yet quaint. Which is probably why it is also not yet expensive. You can buy a DB7 Vantage for under £30,000 - though I'd look hard before you do - and even this beautiful car with its rare manual gearbox can be yours for under £40,000. And that is a hell of a lot of great-looking, fine- driving, V12 Aston Martin for the money.
Back in 1999 it went on sale for £92,500, a mere £7500 more than the standard DB7, which rather predictably it killed stone dead. 'We created the illusion that you could still buy a six-cylinder DB7,' says King, 'but in reality it died pretty much immediately.'
And with good reason. The DB7 Vantage became the most successful Aston to date, effortlessly outstripping its parent. 'Suddenly we went from selling 600 cars a year to 1200, and that was critical, not just for the company's finances, but how we were perceived by Ford.' Instead of closing the company, Ford decided to invest in it. Massively. A brand new factory was built, the DB9 was commissioned and the rest is history. I'm not saying the DB7 Vantage was the only reason Ford took the plunge, but its role in convincing Ford's top brass that there was life left in the brand is not to be underestimated. Drive one and you'll see why.
With thanks to the Runnymede Motor Company, where this DB7 Vantage is currently for sale.