We grant a reader’s Aston dream. The List. Your dream drive made real Charlie Valdes-Scott has a lifetime’s experience with the best of British, from polo ponies to Challenger 2 tanks and military helicopters. How will a 2002 Aston Vanquish compare? Words Emma Woodcock. Photos Adam Shorrock.
‘I’d keep this one For the weekends!’
Army man Charlie learns to tame the unorthodox Vanquish transmission
The List This month’s lucky reader swaps his company vehicle – a Challenger 2 tank – for a day driving another Great British destroyer, the Aston Martin Vanquish
Six new Aston Martins shine at our backs. They sear with lurid paintwork and the glimmery tease of carbonfibre but they can’t break our trance. Outside, a complex growl, a low-flying roofline. The Vanquish has arrived. A voice breaks the silence. ‘Oh golly!’ It’s Charlie Valdes-Scott, serving Army officer, ex-competitive bobsleigher and incurable classic car fan. Today, he’ll be driving.
But not quite yet. The car finds a parking space and, back in the showroom, Paul Spires begins to speak. Well-dressed and factory-fitted with the V12 of handshakes, he’s the Aston brand incarnate. As president of Aston Martin Works, he boasts 37 years of marque experience and has an especially close relationship with the first-gen Vanquish. ‘I was at the initial launch in London’s Imagine Gallery,’ he tells us. ‘I did all the dealer training on the cars and I had one of my own back in 2010. The world’s a better place in a Vanquish – get in and there’s a smile on your face.’
‘You really do need to be taught how to drive an electro-hydraulic manual transmission properly’
Our 2002 Mendip Blue example stands outside, beckoning Charlie with 12 cylinders and 460 horsepower, yet we can’t tear ourselves away. Enchanted by the depth of Paul’s knowledge, we listen a little longer. ‘It was like living in two different worlds, back when the Vanquish was launched. On one side of the Newport Pagnell site there were buildings that hadn’t changed since the DB4 era, where you could still hear the bang-bang-bang of panel beaters. Walk behind the wall, on to the new Vanquish production line, and it could have been an alien planet. The floors were pristine, the lights were white and it was all so different.’
Charlie is about to enter his own brave new world; the Vanquish will be his first experience not just of Aston Martin, but of 12-cylinder motoring. ‘There really is a degree of excitement,’ he says on his walk over to the grand tourer. ‘In part, that’s because Paul has taken the time to come with us but it’s also because we’re all able to relish this car for a whole day. That never would’ve happened if I’d walked in off the street!’ With Paul instructing for the first leg of our trip, he’ll also benefit from some quality tutelage. We reconvene at Ivinghoe Beacon, a stark yet beautiful spot in the Chiltern Hills. ‘The trip over has been tremendously useful and it’s really helped to have a heads-up on how to drive an electrohydraulic manual transmission. And you do need to be taught how to use it!’ Charlie drops four fingers past the Aston’s curling, handsome shoulders and tweaks the door handle. The frameless window drops from its roofline home with a velvet squish, the transmission hydraulics murmur to life and we drop down into a pair of Connolly-trimmed seats. ‘Now, this is a special experience. I hadn’t expected the blue dashboard but I love how it contrasts with the cream leather and I really appreciate the sense of quality.’
‘I’d love to be able to see the cylinder heads, but it’s a very modern finish’
Brimmed with leather, broken only by a glossy centre console that shares the exterior’s shade, the Vanquish exudes old-world class and Charlie soon gets comfortable. Shuffling the seat back and forth, enjoying three buttons’ worth of electrical adjustment, he continues. ‘This isn’t an overstated place to be – the later models really go to town but the Vanquish is very uncluttered in comparison. What really stands out is the absence of drama.’
Rousing the 5.9-litre V12, however, demands a very specific ritual. ‘I’m almost looking for my flight reference card! As an Army helicopter pilot, I have sheets and sheets about how to start up my aircraft, while you have to consciously remember the Vanquish start sequence. Of course, it never hurts to get in a reference to flying helicopters for a living…’
‘Given the right pitch, speed and power, the steering weights up and the chassis really embraces you. It’s very biddable’.
Charlie rotates the ignition key slides and waits for the gear indicator in the binnacle to spell out ‘1’ in bright red lights. One foot on the brake, he pulls both gearshift paddles in union and stabs the pulsating-red starter button. ‘I do like having a button,’ he comments, ‘but I’ve never thought I’d have to hold it down for quite this long…’ Ahead of us, the starter rolls for seconds, the cabin filled with a show pony whinny until the exhausts erupt in a bassy flare. One click of the right paddle for first and we’re away.
‘This is one hell of a car yet it really is straightforward to operate,’ Charlie comments as we wind down to ground level. ‘Only the two-footed driving seems unusual in an auto. That’s not something I’ve done before but Paul recommended it for pulling away – I need to feel the clutch engage and the only way to do that is through the accelerator.’ The loud pedal also provides the first surprise of the drive. ‘My Ferrari is very sensitive. I’d expected the Aston to be similar but it’s far more genteel; it gives you plenty of options. ‘I’m getting a feel for the car now, really listening to it, and that’s very important,’ Charlie continues. Just as well; the skies soon crack open, unleashing a storm as epic and British as the car below.
Scudding towards the Bedfordshire border, the Vanquish feels nervous as we thread through waterlogged minor roads, yet all is calm in the driver’s seat. ‘The 255-section front tyres do pick up cambers but you should try driving my non-power-assisted 348! A Vanquish has very light steering in comparison and it doesn’t feel like it’s driving you. It doesn’t take off like a sports car either; it has to be coaxed. Once you know how far to put your foot down, you know how best to take it off too.’
Cold spring showers aren’t such things as dreams are made of and, as we hum through the aptly named Ivinghoe Aston, the road finally provides. Rising, falling, twisting and, most importantly, dry, it’s a chance to explore the model’s most divisive feature – its transmission. ‘The moment you touch the shift paddle, drive disengages and that is a surprise. The electronics take over: it’s the system changing gear and the system that kicks back in again. As a result, there’s a temptation to treat it like an automatic but, essentially, you’re still driving a manual car.’ He’s right. Despite the custom Magnetti Marelli electronics and 400-millisecond shift time, the Vanquish employs a Tremec T-56 six-speed, a manual box that also appeared in the Dodge Viper.
‘It’s far more rewarding to drive when I interface myself with the car. Lift off at the right moment, reapply the power at the perfect time and the shift is as smooth as I make it. I can be in control of the process and that keeps me from acting the hooligan. It reminds me that I’m driving a refined grand tourer.’ Only the automated rev-matching, a spirited bark that rings through the twin exhaust pipes on any downshift over 3500rpm, shakes the civility. ‘That sound is gratuitously excessive but a lot of fun with it. It could sum up the whole car.’
As the path ahead spreads into a Hertfordshire dual carriageway, the Vanquish takes a final opportunity to impress. Powering away from a roundabout, our smiles couldn’t be much wider. ‘Given the right pitch, speed and power, the steering weights up and chassis really embraces you in the car. It’s very biddable and I can feel that, in the right environment, it’d handle beautifully.
‘It’s a surprisingly big car up close. The front and side views have aged beautifully, though, and the whole car fits together well. It still works’
There’s no lack of acceleration either and the car comes alive now it’s opening up. Just listen to the bellow of that V12.’ Chasing the watery afternoon sun, forging past slower traffic, Charlie and the Aston are in their element. ‘This is effortless and I’ve relaxed now; you almost forget you’re in a near-500bhp leviathan. That’s the pleasure of it. What an ultimate grand tourer!’
All too soon, it’s over. Clear tarmac turns to traffic; high-speed horizons melt into a clutter of retail parks. Charlie doesn’t seem too bothered; he’s behind the wheel of an Aston Martin, after all. ‘This isn’t to be underestimated,’ he agrees. ‘Anyone would feel pretty privileged to be driving a car like this.’ One wrong turn later – unintentional, I’msure – we’re cruising down Newport Pagnell high street in search of Aston Martin’s spiritual home.
It’s a curious tableau, a combination of antique housing, spiritualist storefronts and kebab joints, yet it presents yet another side to the 12-cylinder GT. ‘The proof is in the pudding here,’ Charlie comments, sliding over a series of brick speed bumps.
‘We’ve been down some horrid, potholed roads today and, though you can feel those imperfections, the suspension is really quite forgiving. The gears sound like they’re clunking a little at very low speeds, and it feels like the differential isn’t too happy, but the electronics are dropping us down into first when it’s needed. It’s clearly a very hospitable car.’
Thirty seconds later, we’re back at Works and the engine signs off with a complex thud. Crouched behind the Vanquish, taking smartphone snaps of our grimy chariot, Charlie’s grin is infectious. ‘Just to sit in a Vanquish would have been exciting but to drive it? It’s not every day someone can take command of one of Aston Martin’s prize possessions. What a bloody good day out!’
It’s not over yet. We’ve got one more treat in store – a guided trip around Works itself. The next half hour passes in a blur of hand-beaten classics and million-pound moderns. ‘This is an amazing experience. I’ve read about Newport Pagnell and the workshops are superb. Walking past the newer cars into the Heritage department is like stepping through a door in time. Seeing the attention to detail here, especially in the trim workshop, really brings home how hand-built and how special cars like the Vanquish are.’
Perched behind the modern workshop, looking out over Zagatos, Vantages and more, talk turns to Charlie’s own garage. ‘I’m very attracted to the classic grand tourer shape,’ he muses, ‘and, having three children, I have to think about models that can carry them around from time to time. I’m ready for something with that V12 spirit now, something that’s a more of a refined space to be.’ Something a little more Aston Martin.
‘The Vanquish has far exceeded all my expectations,’ Charlie continues, ‘but would I own one? That’s easy to ask and very difficult to answer! It sits between the DB7 and the late DB9 cars, bridging between the two eras, and it’d certainly be very easy to live with in two-plus-two configuration. In an ideal-world, I’d have a DB7 as my weekday runner, then keep a Vanquish for the weekend!’ As we part ways, rolling exhaust and cri-crack downshifts on our lips, a single question hangs in the air – what comes next?
Blunk! My desk lights up, whipped into life by an early morning email. It’s from yesterday’s Vanquish driver. ‘Dear Emma,’ the message reads, ‘I managed to get back in time last night… after placing a deposit on a DB7 Keswick.’ Powered by a 420bhp version of Aston’s heartfelt V12, outfitted with charcoal leather and wrapped in smooth yet simple bodywork, the limited-edition four-seater will provide everything Charlie loved about its bigger sibling but with a little more practicality. It’s the perfect solution. A Vanquish was his dream; now an Aston Martin will be his reality.
Thanks to Aston Martin Works for the loan of the car.
Ian Callum-styled bodywork clothed all-new bonded aluminium structure. Charlie settles in ready to enjoy the Rolex of driving experiences. Auto-blip downshifts over 3500rpm give off an addictive snarl. Body-coloured dash took Charlie by surprise. The V12 engines of the non-S Vanquishes were Cosworth-built. ‘The rounded rump is less classic GT and more saloon,’ says Charlie. But can it tempt him into Aston ownership?