Ferrari 400i vs. Jaguar XJ-S, BMW 850 E31, Mercedes-Benz SL600 R129 and Aston-Martin DB7 – the best V12 from £5k

2017 Drive-My and Jonathan Jacobs

V12 bargains our best £5k-40k buys. Serene or brutal , effortless or intense, the romance of these V12s is impossible to ignore. Five cars and 60-cylinders. It’s V12 o’clock. Time for our 60-cylindered showdown to choose the best V12 from £5k: Ferrari 400i, Jaguar XJ-S, BMW 850 E31, Mercedes-Benz SL600 R129 or Aston-Martin DB7? Is it time to submit to overendulgence and buy a V12 coupé? Just £5000 buys a 12-cylinder GT with power and panache, but is it wise to spend so little and expect so much? Words Andrew Noakes. Photography Jonathan Jacobs.


From the moment when the starter spins with that unwavering hum, as though it’s not connected to an engine at all, romance comes as standard with a V12. Serene or brutal, effortless or intense, these are engines that are impossible to ignore.

But does that mean they must also be impossible to afford? It doesn’t, and the five fine GTs we’ve assembled here are the proof. Variants of these cars start from under £5000, which is ridiculously little to pay for so many cylinders and so much class. But just because something is cheap doesn’t mean it’s good value, so we’ve also talked to owners and specialists to find out the pleasures and the pitfalls of running these upper-crust coupés – and we’ve driven them all to see if the experience really matches up to the promise.

Our five chosen cars span more than three decades. The Jaguar XJ-S and Ferrari 400i are both products of the Seventies that were developed over many years of production. The BMW 8 Series and R129-generation Mercedes-Benz SL were born in the Eighties, and Aston Martin’s DB7 Vantage arrived in the Nineties. Which stacks up best as a V12 that delivers on the road without breaking the bank?


Ferrari 400i, Jaguar XJ-S, BMW 850 E31, Mercedes-Benz SL 600 R129 or Aston-Martin DB7

Ferrari 400i vs. Jaguar XJ-S V12, BMW 850CSi E31, Mercedes-Benz SL600 R129 and Aston-Martin DB7 road test


 

Ferrari 400i

The oldest design, and the one with the longest direct lineage, is the Ferrari 400i. It feels like a throwback to a different era the moment you swing open the wide, low door and settle into an airy cabin that drips with hand-made charm. Light tan hide that would be dismissed as boring beige in a car from any other nation somehow becomes stylish in the hands of Italian trimmers, and contrasts with the dark brown dashboard and Pininfarina-badged centre console peppered with over-sized, over-styled switches. It’s a stretch to the angled, alloy-spoked Momo, behind which sits a comprehensive collection of deep-set Veglia dials that spring urgently to attention when the engine fires.

Remarkably, the 4.8-litre, fuel-injected V12 in this mid-Eighties 400i can be traced all the way back to the first cars Enzo Ferrari made under his own name in 1947. Ferrari engaged ex-Alfa engineer Gioacchino Colombo to design the engine, which originally displaced just 1497cc, but soon swapped to a bigger naturally aspirated V12 designed by Colombo’s erstwhile assistant, Aurelio Lampredi. However, that was far from the end for the Colombo V12. Capacity grew progressively, up to 4.4 litres when placed in the 365 GTB/4 ‘Daytona’ and the 2+2 fastback 365 GTC/4.


Ferrari 400i road test

1984 Ferrari 400i road test / A544 MFD UK reg


The latter lasted fewer than two years before it was replaced by the longer-wheelbase 365 GT4 2+2, which became the 400 in 1976 when the venerable V12 was increased to 4823cc, which made 335bhp. The 400i of 1979 added Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection but dropped the power output to 310bhp to satisfy emissions regulations, though a few of the missing horses were restored in a 1982 update that introduced new cams and exhaust manifolds.

The 400 was the first Ferrari with the option of automatic transmission, a three-speed GM Turbo-Hydramatic. Maranello diehards were aghast but buyers had no such qualms, and most 400s were speciied as autos. It was probably a transmission better suited to torquey American V8s rather than thoroughbred European V12s, and though it made the 400 easier to drive and vastly more convenient to use on a daily basis it knocked the edge of the Ferrari’s performance – particularly at low speed where the near-two-tonne overall weight was a handicap.

Pulling a big automatic transmission selector back into D seems an odd thing to do in a Ferrari. At low speeds there’s more commotion than action: you’re aware of a multitude of cylinders, valves and camshafts whirring away up ahead but that doesn’t seem to translate into much forward progress. Low-geared steering that’s dead near straight ahead just adds to the stodgy feel and the angled wheel makes this a cumbersome car to handle.

That, and its sheer size, make it a handful in the city or on a tight country lane. It’s only when you have the space to pick up the pace a little that the 400i really starts to make sense.

Load up the suspension through a fast, sweeping corner and the steering becomes more fluid and more precise, and the big Ferrari maintains its line even if the road surface is less than perfect. As the speed builds the transmission begins to work in harmony with the big V12, but noise levels stay low. The 400 revs with a cultured hum – it doesn’t have the raw edge of Ferrari’s mid-engined cars, and for some that is an essential ingredient that makes a Ferrari a Ferrari. But this isn’t the Italy of blood red racing cars and fiery temperament, it’s the Italy of opera and art, of Leonardo and Puccini and Armani. The three-box body penned by Pininfarina’s master stylist Leonardo Fioravanti is as elegant as they come, with crisply folded corners and a wedge silhouette that was in vogue at the time and has aged surprisingly well, thanks to the fine proportions of the basic design. It lived on beyond the 400i to become the 412 in 1985, when the Colombo V12 was expanded once more to 4943cc, and a higher rear deck was introduced to enlarge the boot at the expense of a slightly plumper profile.

Today 400s start from around £15,000, and at that level you need to look out for body corrosion, exhaust condition (they’re expensive to replace) and the cost of tyres because many have metric-sized wheels. Cheaper 400s are also likely to be automatics. The best cars can fetch £70,000 or more, with the rarer manuals inevitably fetching the highest prices.


‘There’s plenty of choice of sound examples around £8000 and above‘


Ferrari 400i

Despite purist outcries, most 400s were specced with GM’s three-speed auto… …which doesn’t suit the Colombo V12’s revhungry Demeanor. From 356 GT4 2+2 to 412i, the Ferrari enjoyed a 17-year production window.


Owning a Ferrari 400i

Mike Wheel of Rardley Motors says ‘the 400 range provides an entry point into classic V12 Ferrari ownership. They’re handsome and useable.

‘All variants imported into the UK amounted to only 342 cars. Assuming 15% have been written of, exported, scrapped or you just wouldn’t – that means there are fewer than 300 potential cars to buy, before you start looking at personal preferences of carburettor/ fuel injection, manual/automatic etc.

‘The newest car is now 32 years old, so go in with eyes wide open. This range of cars became very inexpensive to buy, therefore they were bought by people who didn’t necessarily have them properly maintained. So get the car checked by a known marque specialist, and buy the best you can afford. We encourage our buyers to have the car independently checked even if we prepare the car ourselves – it reinforces what we do.

‘Budget for £2500-£3000 to run a car doing 6000 miles or fewer a year, as an average. Oil, filters, brake fluid each year in conjunction with an MoT will keep the history maintained, and help to prevent problems. Most parts are available but trim items can be a problem – I’m sure 3D printing will soon be more common.’


TECHNICAL DATA FILE 1984 Ferrari 400i

Engine 4823cc V12, dohc per bank, 24-valve, Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection

Power and torque 311bhp @6400rpm, 304lb ft @ 4200rpm

Transmission Five-speed manual ZF gearbox or GM TH400 three-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive

Suspension Front and rear: independent, double wishbones and coil springs.

Steering Power-assisted recirculating ball

Brakes Servo-assisted discs all round

Weight 1814kg

Performance Top speed: 152mph; 0-60mph: 7.5sec

Fuel consumption 13mpg

Values now £15,000-£70,000

{module Ferrari 400}


 

 

Jaguar XJ-S

A manual gearbox also pushes up the value of Jaguar’s XJ-S, because they’re so rare. Just 352 were built before the option was dropped in 1979, and it’s easy to see why it was never popular – the box was a four-speeder and there was no overdrive option, which meant the ratios were widely spaced. Behind the wheel of Robin Sherwood’s superbly well-preserved 1976 car I find that the gearchange isn’t very encouraging, either. The tall lever, with its spherical knob, is heavy and a bit notchy, but the V12 saves the day with its wide spread of torque.

It’s a fine engine with a split-personality soundtrack. It’s smooth and punchy at low speed with a gentle woole, but as the revs rise the engine note gains urgency and builds into a distant mechanical thunder as it hurls the XJ-S forward. What’s extraordinary about it is how quiet the XJ-S remains when you’re pressing on. Throw in some bends and the XJ-S grips well, the smaller Moto-Lita steering wheel on this car adding a bit of feel to steering that was criticised in period for being too light. But the Jaguar is happier sweeping through fast, open bends than being forced into tight turns.


1975 Jaguar XJ-S V12 road test

1975 Jaguar XJ-S V12 road test / MCF 460P UK-reg


Based on a shortened version of the XJ saloon platform, the XJ-S carried over all-independent suspension with only detail changes. The 5.3-litre engine was already familiar from the XJ12 and Series III E-type, but was now fed by a fiendishly complex Lucas fuel injection system. Jaguar aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer was responsible for the original shape of the car, which was reined by William Lyons (who had by now retired but retained a consultancy role) and Finished of by stylist Doug Thorpe. Its most controversial aspect was the rear, where there were buttresses over the rear quarters to improve body stiffness and reduce drag. Traditionalists hated them as much as they hated the lack of a proper front grille, or the absence of wood interior trim.

Wood was later added to give the rather austere cabin a lift, but the buttresses remained and became part of the essential XJ-S DNA. More significant changes were made to the powertrain, with the adoption of Michael May’s swirl-inducing ‘Fireball’ combustion chamber for the XJ-S HE in 1981. By then sales had dropped to just over 1000 a year, but the new engine revived interest in the XJ-S by offering a small increase in power and, more importantly, improved everyday fuel consumption. A 3.6-litre straight-six cabriolet variant was also introduced, and XJ-S sales increased every year until 1989, by which time cabriolet and then full convertible versions of the V12 had been introduced.

Meanwhile Jaguar’s on-track partnership with TWR had extended into road cars with the XJR-S, at first in 5.3-litre form but with a 6.0-litre V12 from 1989. But even these cars, ultimately with 338bhp available, were no quicker in a straight line than the original 5.3-litre manual XJ-S from 1975.

In 1992 the mainstream V12s were expanded to 6.0 litres and itted with a GM four-speed automatic with overdrive top gear, the rear brakes were moved outboard and the body was re-engineered. Fewer panels were needed to make it, cutting costs, and at the same time the styling was refreshed with tidier side windows, body-coloured bumpers and new rear light clusters. In this form the car continued until 1996, when it was replaced by the XK8.

With 115,413 cars built over a 21-year production life, values have remained low. The priciest cars are the rarities – the early manuals, the XJR-S and the runout Celebration models – which can fetch up to £40,000. But it’s still possible to find a mid-Eighties XJ-S HE for under £5000, and there’s plenty of choice of sound examples around £8000 and above. Rust is always a concern and it’s vital to check that the complex injection system is complete and fully functioning, but choose with care and you can end up with an accomplished V12 GT at a bargain price.


1975 Jaguar XJ-S V12 road test

Familiarity has helped the controversial rear buttresses age well. Lucas fuel injection makes the V12 complicated and expensive to ix… …but its torque helps to overcome the four-speed manual’s wide ratios.


Owning a Jaguar XJ-S

Robin Sherwood went out looking for a manual V12 XJ-S because of their rarity. ‘How many V12s, of any make, come with manual gearboxes? I think these early cars with the Kent wheels look really good. I’ve had all kinds of different cars and I like what you might call BL curios, so that was another part of the appeal. It’s also in the launch colour.

‘The reason not many early cars survive is because they rust, and that they weren’t worth much for a long time. Make sure the V12 is running properly, because it’s immensely complex. Some fuel injection parts for the earlier V12s are hard to find, and it has a notoriously unreliable ignition module.

‘If you’re bothered about aircon check it works because it’s a big job to ix. This is the first long journey I’ve done in it – it tracks the road very positively and feels modern. You can see how it was so advanced for its time.’


TECHNICAL DATA FILE 1975 Jaguar XJ-S

Engine 5340cc V12, sohc per bank, 24-valve, Lucas fuel injection

Power and torque 285bhp @  5500rpm, 294lb ft @ 3500rpm

Transmission Four-speed manual gearbox or Borg-Warner (later GM) three-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive

Suspension Front: independent, wishbones and coil springs. Rear: independent, coil springs

Steering Power-assisted rack and pinion

Brakes Servo-assisted discs all round, inboard at rear

Weight 1681kg

Performance Top speed: 143-153mph; 0-60mph: 7-7.5sec

Fuel consumption 15mpg

Values now £3000-£40,000

{module Jaguar XJ-S}


 

BMW 850CSi E31

Just as Jaguar never really intended the XJ-S as a direct replacement for the E-type, so the E31 8 Series BMW introduced in 1989 was never seen by Munich as a latter-day 6 Series. Instead this was a supremely rapid and reined touring car, built for traversing continents in comfort. BMW put enormous effort into reining the shape of the new body so aerodynamic drag was low (the Cd was a creditable 0.29) but without compromising the stability of the E31 at high speed. The result was quiet, effortless autobahn cruising.

The 8 Series’ new remit also explained why it carried a 5.0-litre V12 in its nose, instead of the raucous 3.5-litre six that had powered the BMW M635CSi E24 – the V12 offered only a small increase in power but was far quieter, smoother and more linear in its power delivery. The 5.0-litre M70 was related to the long-running M20 ‘small six’ unit, though the 60-degree V12 was clearly a more modern unit with an alloy cylinder block and maintenance-free hydraulic valve lifters, plus a drive-by-wire throttle. Most were mated to a ZF four-speed automatic (ZF 4HP), though there was also the option of a six-speed Getrag manual.


BMW 850 E31 road test

BMW 850CSi E31 road test


Buyers looking for a faster 8 Series had to wait a while. BMW Motorsport had developed an BMW M8 E31, with a 550bhp 48-valve V12, but the car was never signed of by the company’s management. Instead a slightly more sober project was initiated – this time the motive power came from a 5.6-litre variant of the V12, developing 375bhp. The resulting 850CSi of 1992 also featured BMW’s new rear-wheel steer system (which also became an option on the 850i), faster steering, bigger wheels and tyres, uprated brakes and stiffer, lower suspension. Sean O’Neill’s 850CSi is stiffer and lower still, a modification made by a previous owner. The ride is stiff, but stops short of being bone-jarring, and the well-controlled suspension keeps roll in check even at silly cornering speeds.

Despite a big airbag steering wheel – which many owners swap for a smaller E36 item – the steering needs a fair bit of effort, and there’s more information feeding back through the wheel rim about what the front tyres are doing than you get in a lesser 8 Series. Grip is never short of phenomenal, and the 850CSi rockets out of corners, regardless of which of the six forward ratios you’ve selected using the short-throw shifter. Pick a low number and the big V12 bellows through the four fat tailpipes and attacks straights with a venom that was never part of the regular 850i’s character. Few other big coupés could keep up. Yet, driven sensibly, there’s enough composure and refinement about the CSi to make it an accomplished grand tourer.

In 1993 BMW introduced a V8-engined 840Ci and expanded the M70 engine in the regular 850i – now renamed 850Ci – in bore and stroke to increase the capacity to 5.4 litres, also updating the valvetrain with roller rockers. The changes boosted power from 296bhp to 316bhp, with a matching improvement in maximum torque. By 1996 the CSi was gone from the range, a victim of tightening emissions legislation, and in 1999 the 850Ci and 840Ci were both withdrawn after a ten-year run during which sales were consistently disappointing, with just over 30,000 sold.

Just 1510 of those were CSis, which makes the performance 8 Series a rare and sought-after machine. Prices start around £15,000 and the best reach £80,000 or more. You can find examples of the 850i and Ci from £4000 – though at that level body corrosion is likely and you can also expect to find problems with the electrics, an early CAN-bus system.

Spares are generally not a problem to source because many of the mechanical components are shared with other BMWs, but parts specific to the V12 and to the 8 Series can be pricey. On high-mileage cars a compression test would be a wise precaution. Good cars are more likely to be found around £10,000, and low-mileage examples in good condition and with comprehensive history can make £25,000. Like the XJ-S, at the right price – and provided you can appreciate it for what it is rather than wishing it was something else – it makes a fine modern classic buy.


BMW 850 E31 road test

CSis were only offered with a six-speed manual. The CSi’s S70 V12 was M-bred – and is a close relative of the McLaren F1’s. BMW 850CSis E31 are low, but not usually this low – this example has been modified.


‘It rockets out of corners, regardless of which of the six forward ratios you’ve selected using the short-throw shifter’


Owning a BMW 850CSi

’When the 8 Series first came out I saw it, had no clue what it was. I decided that as soon as I could afford one I’d get one,’ says Sean O’Neill.

‘The years went by and then I saw one and remembered it was the car I had promised myself. I wanted the CSi because it was the performance model, and the rarer one.

‘There’s a big difference between the 850i and CSi in acceleration, and the roadholding on this is incredible. It had been well looked-after but completely specced up with electrics – reversing camera, satnav, a music system with a hard drive – and it had been lowered. It’s now on the road back to originality.

‘The colour is original – it’s one of only two right-hand-drive CSis in this colour. I’ve had it re-upholstered because the original leather was shot. The top end of the engine was rebuilt by Chris Burton, who made a great job of it.

‘I had to get a new bonnet, because fluid from the headlamp washers gets under the weld at the front and rots the bonnet. The 8 Series is relatively low, and the paint is often scraped of the sills underneath, which is when they start to rot. Almost everything is still available – at a price, of course.’


TECHNICAL DATA FILE BMW 850i/Ci/CSi E31 8-Series

Engine 4988-5576cc V12 / M70 / M73B54, dohc per bank, 24-valve, Bosch fuel injection

Power and torque 296-375bhp @ 5200-5300rpm, 330-410lb ft @ 4000-4100rpm

Transmission Six-speed Getrag manual gearbox or ZF four/five-speed automatic ZF 4HP / ZF 5HP, rear-wheel drive

Suspension Front: independent, coil spring strut and wishbone, and anti-roll bar. Rear: multi-link, coil springs and anti-roll bar

Steering Power-assisted recirculating ball

Brakes Servo-assisted discs all round, inboard at rear

Weight 1975kg

Performance Top speed: 155mph; 0-60mph: 6.0-7.4sec

Fuel consumption 17mpg

Values now £4000-£80,000

{module bmw 8 e31}


 

Mercedes-Benz SL600 R129

Mercedes-Benz followed BMW into the V12 arena in 1991, but the Merc M120 V12 engine was an altogether more substantial effort than BMW’s M70. It displaced six litres rather than five, and had twin overhead camshafts on each cylinder bank where the BMW engine made do with a single cam each side. The BMW was good for just under 300bhp but the Merc made just over 400bhp in its initial form, though with full-throttle enrichment removed to placate Germany’s environmental lobby it was down to 394bhp.

In this guise it was slotted – with some difficulty due to its size – into the R129 SL that had been available with straight-six and V8 engines since 1989. The result was the 600SL, which became the SL600 in 1993 when Mercedes re-jigged the nomenclature of its entire model range.

All the V12 SLs had hydraulic suspension which provides rideheight adjustment and adaptive damping with two settings. In its regular mode the SL wafts along even the roughest road, and the only disturbance to the occupants of the leather-clad cabin comes from the patter of the tyre treads over the surface. It’s perfect for pockmarked city streets, but as soon as you get out of town and onto a winding country lane it offers too little body control and allows too much roll.


Mercedes-Benz SL600 R129 road test

Mercedes-Benz SL600 R129 road test / S859 JNH UK-reg


Fortunately there’s a switch on the centre console that firms up the damping, but even then it’s clear that the SL has been built for comfort rather than agility. It corners well enough, but there’s a vagueness about its response that discourages you from pushing too hard. Effort at the leather and wood rim of the big steering wheel is always low, and there’s never a hint of kickback to disturb the driver, but there’s much less indication of what’s happening at the front tyres than in some of the other cars here. Nor does the mushy brake pedal inspire confidence, though there’s nothing wrong with the capability of the brakes to haul down the two-tonne SL from high speeds.

“It’s an extraordinary experience, going so fast with such a lack of fuss – hardly anything can be heard from the engine”

And high speeds are what it’s good at. Wriggle the transmission selector lever back through the serpentine gate into Drive, hit the throttle and the SL surges away with little more than the blurring of the scenery and a gentle increase in background hum from the tyres to give away the rise in speed. Hardly anything can be heard from the engine unless you hold one of the intermediate gears to maximise acceleration, eliciting a muted growl from up front as the revs build towards the start of the red sector on the tacho at 6000rpm. It’s an extraordinary experience, going so fast with such a lack of fuss, and it’s this extra composure that separates the SL 600 from the V8 SL500. The 500 is almost as fast, and in most company you would think of it as wonderfully reined, but it can’t match the SL 600’s serenity.

Solid construction and quality engineering mean these cars can handle high mileages with ease, but because values are low and spares are expensive you need to be wary of examples that have been minimally maintained. On early cars the wiring looms are fragile, leading to curious intermittent electrical faults. Later cars suffer less, and the 1997-on facelift cars are also worth having for their slightly more rounded bumpers, bigger brakes, and more modern gearbox with electronic control and an extra ratio.

Whatever the age of the car, make sure all of the electrical and hydraulic systems work properly – particularly the roof, which can be expensive to ix. A hardtop should be present because all SL 600s came with them as standard, the panoramic glass roof being a worthwhile extra that brightens up the cabin.

SL 600s have been seen below £5000, but prices appear to be firming up so if any remain at that level they are likely to be in need of expensive recommissioning. Sound SL 600s are more likely to be £15,000 or more, and for low-mileage examples some dealers are now asking over £40,000.

Other cars in our group better fulfil the role of sporting GT, but if effortless cruising, a supple ride and a convertible roof are top of your priorities the SL has the others well beaten.


Mercedes-Benz SL600 R129 road test

The Merc SL600 still offers exceptional  value for money, especially considering stratospheric values of its AMG cousins. ‘Do you have a 50p coin? I want to show you something…’ An accomplished interior hailing from the days before Merc’s build quality nosedived.


Owning a Mercedes-Benz SL600 R129

‘I bought it because of the cachet of the V12,’ says Peter Burton. ‘It’s much rarer than other R129s and a better investment proposition.

‘The performance difference to the 500 is small on paper, but the extra torque of the V12 enables far more effortless progress. The 600 is the pinnacle of Merc engineering, built by enthusiasts with a blank chequebook before the Daimler-Chrysler merger in 1998. It weighs two tonnes and that’s predominately down to over-engineering.

‘You can get close to 20mpg if you drive very sensibly, but 17-18mpg is more realistic, and single figures in town. Spares are very expensive and anything AMG is just ludicrous. They’re not too bad to work on, but there’s very little clearance around the engine. ‘I don’t mind spending money on it because it’s going the right way in value and it’s a great summer toy with the roof of.’


TECHNICAL DATA FILE Mercedes-Benz SL600 R129

Engine 5987cc V12, dohc per bank, 48-valve, Bosch fuel injection

Power and torque 394bhp @ 5200rpm; 420lb ft @ 3800rpm

Transmission Four or Five-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive

Suspension Front and rear: independent, hydropneumatic strut and wishbone

Steering Power-assisted recirculating ball

Brakes Servo-assisted discs all round, with anti-lock

Weight 2050kg

Performance Top speed: 155mph; 0-60mph: 6.1sec

Fuel consumption 18mpg

Values now £5000-£25,000

{module Mercedes Benz r129}


 

Aston-Martin DB7

The DB7’s story involves not just Aston Martin, but also Ford, Jaguar and Tom Walkinshaw. Ford had owned Aston Martin since 1987, and added Jaguar to its portfolio in 1989. It inherited a longwinded development project for an ‘F-type’ Jaguar, codenamed XJ40/XJ41, based on the XJ-S but using a twin-turbo version of the AJ6 4.0-litre straight six engine. Meanwhile Tom Walkinshaw’s TWR Racing company was masterminding Jaguar’s successful return to sports car racing, first with the XJ-S and then with a series of purpose-built prototypes. When Ford concluded that the F-type would be too expensive to make in high volume, Walkinshaw proposed turning it into a smaller, cheaper Aston Martin. So the DB7, launched at the Geneva show in 1994, was an F-type redeveloped by TWR and restyled by TWR’s chief designer Ian Callum, and powered by a supercharged engine based on the AJ6 straight-six.

Walkinshaw had a one-of V12 DB7 built with a 6.4-litre, 48-valve Jaguar V12 that TWR had developed for racing, but a production V12 DB7 didn’t happen until 1999. Development of the engine started in 1993 and a mock-up was seen in public in 1994, then the running engine appeared in the back of the Ford Indigo concept in 1996. Much of it was based on the 3.0-litre, 24-valve Duratec V6 that powered the Ford Mondeo in Europe and the Taurus/Mercury Sable in the US. But to dismiss it as nothing more than a doubled-up V6 is to sell it short: the V12 had a deeper crankcase and bigger main bearings with cross-bolted caps, and was stiffer than the V6 despite its extra length. Cosworth designed the new cylinder block and cylinder heads, and also built the engines in Wellingborough.


1999 Aston Martin DB7 Vantage road test

1999 Aston Martin DB7 Vantage road test OU51 VTD UK-reg


The new engine went into a DB7 that was comprehensively revised. Springs were stifer, wheels and brakes were bigger, and the front end had bigger air intakes and a new combination fog/ side/indicator lamp. The transmission tunnel was enlarged and inside it was a choice of two new gearboxes – a Tremec six-speed manual or a ZF five-speed automatic (ZF 5HP). In the cabin there were new seats, a tidier dashboard and more modern switchgear.

Punch the red starter button on the centre console and the V12 erupts into life. The sound of that engine is ever-present – a melodic purr when the DB7 is ambling that becomes a full-throated snarl as you squeeze on more throttle and the rev-counter needle races past 6000rpm. This car is an auto, with a small leather-wrapped shifter sprouting from a matt black plastic shroud. It’s about as far away from the bold chrome T-handle of the Ferrari as you can get. Gearchange buttons inset into the steering wheel allow manual changes, but the ’box does a decent job if you leave it to make up its own mind, and either way the changes are smooth and swift. Progress is rapid provided you keep the engine spinning hard – the Aston has the most power of the group and less weight than the BMW, Mercedes or Ferrari.

There isn’t much need to slow down for the corners as the low nose of the DB7 turns keenly into every apex. The supple chassis soaks up mid-corner bumps with aplomb and from inside it seems hardly to roll at all. The steering is smooth, nicely direct with only two-and-a-half turns between locks, and deliciously linear in its weighting. It has some heft to it, which tallies with the firm efforts required at the pedals, and even the solidity of the column stalks.

There’s a cohesion to the way the DB7 Vantage drives that belies its complex parentage. It’s beautifully balanced and finely resolved. Higher-mileage, private sale examples with patchy history can be found for less than £20,000, but low-mileage DB7 Vantages with good provenance will be in the £30,000-£50,000 range.

Special editions are rarely worth more, though the later GTs tend to be over £50,000 and Zagatos are stratospheric. Build quality was never the best, so look out for rust in the front bulkhead, jacking points and suspension mountings, and poorly repaired accident damage leading to strange handling and uneven tyre wear. Check that the aircon works because repairs can take a lot of labour.

There’s plenty to look out for so – as with all these cars – an inspection by an expert is a wise investment. But find a good one and the DB7 Vantage makes a strong case for itself.


1999 Aston Martin DB7 Vantage road test

Ignore the much-maligned Ford parts-bin fittings – the interior is otherwise high quality. This Cosworth-tweaked lump made the DB7 Vantage the first V12 Aston produced. The new V12 brought with it all-new front and rear suspension to the DB7.


Owning an Aston DB7 Vantage

‘A lot of people are buying them purely for investment potential because DB4/5/6s are hundreds of thousands and V8s have followed,’ says Derek Campbell of the Chiltern Aston Centre.

‘Looking after a Vanquish is exorbitant and New Era cars are plentiful and hard to ix – which leaves the DB7. There’s not so much power that you can’t use it all and it becomes a handful. It communicates to you really well and is a great driver’s car as a result.

‘The six-cylinder manual is twice as good as the auto, but for me the automatic V12 is the better car. A manual V12 is a rarer proposition, but the automatic is a much better piece of engineering – the engine and gearbox go together very well. The ZF is about as good as automatic boxes get. An automatic DB7 will return 18-20mpg most of the time.

‘You’ve got to know what you’re looking at. You could buy a £15,000 car, spend £20,000 on it, and it still wouldn’t be worth £25,000. But find a good one, change a few bushes, spend £2000 every other year looking after it – and you’ve got a fabulous piece of engineering. It’s a good all-round car with future prospects, and it has that classic-car appeal.’


TECHNICAL DATA FILE 1999 Aston Martin DB7 Vantage

Engine 5935cc V12, dohc per bank, 48-valve, Visteon engine management

Power and torque 420bhp @ 6000rpm, 400lb ft @ 5000rpm

Transmission Six-speed manual Tremec or ZF Five-speed automatic ZF 5HP, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip diff

Suspension Front: independent, double wishbones and coil springs, anti-roll bar. Rear: independent, double wishbones, longitudinal control arms and coil springs, anti-roll bar

Steering Power-assisted rack and pinion

Brakes Servo-assisted discs

Weight 1780kg

Performance Top speed: 185mph; 0-60mph: 5.0sec

Fuel consumption 18mpg

Values now £20,000-£50,000

{module Aston Martin DB7}


‘The DB7’s low nose turns keenly into every apex and the chassis soaks up mid-corner bumps’


 

The big test V12s for everyone

The Jaguar XJ-S stands out in this company for its extraordinary value. While early cars and manuals go for a premium, a presentable Eighties XJ-S HE can be yours for £5000 – giving you an awful lot of V12 panache for the money.

The Mercedes wins this contest hands-down if you’re looking for the last word in refinement, and for me the Ferrari wins an equally easy victory if the chief criteria are about elegance and badge cachet.

Which leaves the Aston Martin and the BMW, the two fastest cars here. The BMW is the more sensible of the two, and the one that’s likely to be the most usable and the least trouble. But the Aston is at least the BMW’s equal in straight-line performance, has more fluid handling and a more engaging character; and although you’ll find examples of the 850CSi undercutting DB7 Vantage prices, the best of the Astons will set you hack less than really fine CSis. And that’s impossible to ignore.


Ferrari 400i vs. Jaguar XJ-S, BMW 850 E31, Mercedes-Benz SL600 R129 and Aston-Martin DB7 - the best V12 from £5k

Ferrari 400i vs. Jaguar XJ-S, BMW 850CSi E31, Mercedes-Benz SL600 R129 and Aston-Martin DB7 – the best V12 from £5k


Thanks to: Mike Wheeler at Rardley Motors (rardleymotors com). Graeme Hunt (graemehunt.com), Chris Burton Cars (chrisburtoncars.com), Derek Campbell at Chiltern Aston Centre (chilternaston.com) and Graham Greenwood at the XJS Club (xjsdub.org)


Ferrari 400i vs. Jaguar XJ-S, BMW 850 E31, Mercedes-Benz SL600 R129 and Aston-Martin DB7 - the best V12 from £5k

Even the finest DB7 Vantages are being capped by a price ceiling – for now… The BMW and Jaguar can both be found for less than £5k – the danger zone! 400i’s rear deck is lower than that of the 412i that ultimately replaced it. More than 115,000 XJ-Ss were produced over 21 years; most were V12s. The S signified ‘Sport’ and added features such as rear-wheel steering. V12 SL 600 had £22k premium over V8 SL 500 when new. The DB7’s svelte silhouette was penned by Ian Callum. Touchtronic replaced DB7’s traditional automatic gearbox in 2000. A variant of the SL 600’s M120 V12 was used in the FIA GT Championship. For the first time, this signified a new engine, rather than a tuned variant. The R129 SL came with an aluminium hard-top as standard – panoramic unit was an option.

{CONTENTPOLL [“id”: 109]}


 

Willson’s favourite four-door V12s

V12 saloons are just as rare as V12 sports coupés and GTs, and the same engine manufacturers crop up again – Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

Jaguar’s V12 was introduced in 1971 in the XJ12 and Daimler Double-Six, and survived throughout the Seventies and Eighties as the only mass- produced V12 engine despite a couple of oil crises and the fuel price hikes that went with them. When the Series III XJ6 was replaced by the XJ40 generation in 1987 the old XJ12 continued, allegedly because the new car had been deliberately designed with a narrow engine bay so Leyland couldn’t it a Rover V8 in place of Jaguar’s own engines. But Ford had taken control of Jaguar in 1989 and a review of all its new car projects delayed the introduction of a V12 XJ40 until 1992. V12 versions of the XJ40 and its successor, the X300, only ever sold in tiny numbers, ending in 1997 when Jaguar switched to the new AJ-V8 engine.

The Mercedes M120 V12 that went into the SL600 was first seen in the 600SEL version of the W140 S-class in 1991. Longer, wider and significantly more expensive than the outgoing W126 generation, the W140 introduced double-glazed windows and power-assisted closing for the doors and bootlid, and as the flagship model the V12 was available with wood and leather interior trim that was a cut above other S-class cars. When Mercedes revamped its naming system in 1993 the 600 SEL became the S600, then in 1998 it was replaced by the slimmer-looking W220 series that had a series of V12 models using the M137 and twin-turbo M275 engines. Today V12 W140s, if you can find them, are about £4000-£10,000.


Willson's favourite four-door V12s


BMW’s 5.0-litre, 300bhp M70 V12 was introduced in 1988 in a long-wheelbase version of the E32 7 Series, the 750iL. The BMW E32 was replaced by the BMW E38 7 Series in 1995, which brought with it the heavily revised 5.4-litre M73 V12 with 320bhp. Despite their rarity, all these cars are relatively cheap to buy, at around £3000-£8000.

The M73 V12 also went into the Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph, which replaced the Silver Spirit and Silver Spur in 1998. Soon after that Vickers sold Rolls-Royce Motor Cars to Volkswagen, but BMW secured a deal with Rolls-Royce plc, the aero engine manufacturer, to use the Rolls-Royce name. The Seraph was built at Crewe until 2002, and then BMW’s Rolls-Royces took over, while the related V8-engined Bentley Arnage soldiered on under Volkswagen ownership until 2009. Today Seraphs are £30,000-£90,000.


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