When retired Aston the Martin V8 after finally 20 years, it was well past its prime, resembling an old pop star, a faded idol clinging to a greying fanbase. Production had fallen to just a dribble and was a grave concern for Victor Gaundett.
Even Giuseppe Mittino’s 1986 V8 Zagato, as startling and modern as it was, couldn’t lift die image of Newport Pagnell’s old campaigner. Aston was in serious danger of becoming Buckinghamshire’s Morgan , a company then resolutely stuck in yesteryear.
It was definitely time for change. ‘The V8’s heir was DP 2034’ die Virage. It marked die opening page of Aston Martin’s last hand fabricated chapter yet, despite its importance, it is also arguably one of die marque’s most overlooked models. A life less extraordinary nestling amid A-list sisters; an Aston Martin as forgotten now as Cathy Gale in The Avengers or Mick Taylor’s spell in The Rolling Stones. A sorry affair illustrated by die hitherto unmarked passing of its 30th anniversary, and not even so much as a petrol station bouquet…
This by Aston die Bond Martin franchise for the being 1.990 paralysed in court, so, unlike die DB5 P DBS and VS, its profile didn’t benefit from a sprinkle of 007 stardust. Instead the Virage was, and remains, a bespoke article bereft of licence-to-kill glamour. It’s a GT that – set against today’s traffic widi its Mr Creosote waistline, monster truck wheels, rhinoceros surface detailing and angry frontal aspects – suggests a welcome reminder of understated calm, English sobriety and genuine exclusivity.
Now Octane has been welcomed to die Virage s birthplace, to Aston Martin Works in Newport Fagnell, where die Touring Superleggera DB legend first took shape in 1955. We re in die Olympia building, part of die beautifully preserved and updated Works facility. Through die drizzle, on die other side of Tickford Street, looms die old Tickford Works – a forlorn red-brick block, boarded-up and blinded by wooden cataracts. Sitting nearby is Sunnyside, die old administrative building that looks more like a suburban pub than a one-time hive of industry management.
Pointing out the lay of the land is John Heffernan, the Virages designer and one half of Heffernan Design Associates, an informal partnership with Ken Greenley. After studying industrial design and moving into the car business, Heffernan worked for General Motors (at Vauxhall and in Michigan) and Audi. His time in the States, for someone who names Bill Mitchell along with Giorgetto Giugiaro amongst his influences, must have been some tiling of a pilgrimage.
When freelance, and working for the British Airports Authority followed by Leyland Bus, Heffernan also taught part-time on the Royal College of Art’s transportation design course.
Greenley – another Vauxhall alumnus – was by then head of the department, and the pair won the contract for the Panther Solo. This was the start of an immensely busy period for the duo.
Hot on the heels of the Solo was work for Rolls Royce on Bentley Project 90,then the Corniche proposal and ultimately the Continental R – the first standalone Bentley for decades.
‘Victor Gauntlett phoned Ken and said “Right, you’ve done a Panther, you’ve done a Bentley – you’re probably about right for us now.” Verylaconic, was Victor. The brief was to replace Bill Towns’ DBS, which I’d always liked a lot, but it had stopped selling.
“The only brief we were given was a chassis drawing, which was a shortened Lagonda, and we were told to do a model or two for a competition. I must say we produced two very good models because we were used to General Motors’ way of doing tilings-veryprofessional.
So ours were fully painted , fully finished models. We were never shown the competing designers’ work, but I’ve subsequently seen them and nobody else tried that. Instead they just showed unfinished clays and tilings. Bill Towns was so annoyed at not being chosen automatically that he didn’t try very hard. Bill was a very good designer but he obviously wasn’t very bothered. Anyway, mine was chosen because Victor thought Ken’s was more of a Corvette than an Aston and we got the job.’
‘The design was limited by the shortened Lagonda platform, Aston’s build techniques, and budget – but it was the Lagonda DNA that made the biggest, ahem, impact. The retention of its boxy bumper infrastructure dictated a less rounded planform than Heffernan desired.
Plus, the company’s experience with pop-up headlamps meant that those on his original proposal were exchanged for fixed lamps from VAG. SO just as those rear DBS lamps followed Towns from the Rootes Group to Aston Martin, here Audi 200 headlamps followed Heffernan from Ingolstadt to Newport Fagnell Money would be the biggest hurdle, however: Aston sought to save costs when introducing its first home-grown model for many years. One budget-shaving initiative led to a potentially disastrous mistake that almost endangered the car that would arguably save Aston Martin.
‘We were never seen as “insiders” by Aston and we had a bit of a hard time on the Virage,’ says John. ‘They didn’t have much budget at all.
Victor did what he could, but he wasn’t like Ford! The whole programme probably cost as much as a Ford door handle, so they jumped some stages, which really upset us. They wouldn’t do a full-size clay model, and went straight into hardwood from our scale model – every designer will tell you that is an impossible situation. When you’ve got a full-scale model, it’s the surfacing, the proportions and the play of light on the surfaces that you tune.
‘On a car, five or 10 mmis very important to change the proportions. The full-size wood model was not right, because they’d made a mistake with the zero grid line. So they chopped the roof down 100mm to preserve the overall height and they wouldn’t let us change it. We were pretty worried about the whole tiling – we were also doing all the packaging too (the legals and things). We thought that we were going to have to resign, but resigning would have been a disaster on such a high profile project.
‘We hired an ex-Vauxhall colleague, technical draughtsman Bill Hunt, and he noticed that the seat H-point was 100mm too low compared to the windscreen base point, creating an illegal vision angle. It was enough for us to cut the top of the model off and amend the problem in clay. This did two tilings for us: it got us back to the right proportions and the engineering team at Newport had to accept it because it was their mistake! Anyway we got the car out within two years and – at the time -to a great reception.’
Paul Spires, president of Aston Martin Works Ltd, joined Newport Pagnell in 2-012.
Prior to tills he had been the Aston Martin sales manager at HWM and so he has firsthand experience of selling the new Aston. We discuss the role of Works today and how they have started to see an increase in Virages returning home, finally as appreciated classics.
He says: ‘When the Virage came out it was radically different. There really wasn’t a carryover component on the car – chassis, body, engine [the Calloway cylinder head, but the architecture of the bottom end was pretty much the same].Expectations were high.
Having come from owning X-pack Vantages and driving those cars daily, the first time I drove the Virage it was a little disappointing – but we came out of 425bhp cars and into 330bhp cars. I think we all, land of, discounted the horsepower tiling and thought it would be really quick.’ It was a sentiment echoed by the motoring press at the time and a recollection from Heffernan now that ‘Victor did admit that it should’ve been faster and more exciting’. All of which explains the later 465bhp/460lb ft 6.3-litre conversion that was introduced under Gauntlett’s successor, Walter Hayes.
Is this all still relevant though, from a classic car perspective? After whirring into position behind the 2OOmpli speedo and 7Q00rpm taclio of Keith Artus’s beautifully presented Virage, were about to find out.
The Marek V8 may wear snazzy 32-valve Calloway headwear – boosting output to 330bhp at 6000rpm with 3501b ft at 4000rpm – but its 5.3 litres snail into life with a familiar rabidity. Exiting Works and accelerating up Tickford St, the trim gently twitters and the Torqueflite slurs between its three speeds. On kick down the V8 sits up and pays attention as the note lifts from preoccupied hum to chant.
Then, above 3000rpm, it turns into something raunchier with an urgent offbeat menace. Customers willing to eschew the ZF five-speed manual soon benefited from a new four-speed auto that was more responsive when dealing with the Virages 3?40lb ( 1787kg ) mass.
‘The power steering is nicely weighted if not hugely communicative, but it co-operates diligently with the front suspension. The brakes could be better –they need a well-timed shove – but the Virage corners flat and with grip aplenty on wet and filthy roads. As the miles increase, so does your understanding of the Aston’s character. The spacing of ratios – and the fact that this is just one of 355 coupes built – banishes notions of holding gears and tackling corners with derring-do and glowing knuckles. Undoubtedly, if you were to slip into one of these cars pumped with expectations of snarling, neck-snapping adrenaline, then you would be hurtling headlong into an anticlimax. Albeit one that is capable of 0-60mph in six seconds and a maximum speed of ISSmph. No, this is not a muscle car, this is a relaxed and refined GT – a continuation of the family business that started with the DB6 and sired DBS, DBS VS and VS. Relax, enjoy the interior – whether playing ‘spot the switchgear source’ or feeling spoilt by so much Wilton tufted , veneered and leathery decadence.
Visibility past the snake-hipped glasshouse pillars is, like the view ahead, wonderful, allowing you to enjoy admiring glances from passers-by or to caddishly indulge in gobbling up delicious roads. Who could possibly dismiss such a smooth, swift GT that perfectly balances dynamics with svelte yet muscular styling? The final word really should be left to John
Heffeman: It was meant to be a conservative car; it wasn’t sensational. A lot of the English magazines were critical of Aston building a front-engined car when the Italians had gone mid-engined. Now 30 years later, Ferrari is still coming out with lovely front-engined designs – it’s twists and turns, isn’t it?
‘It was always my ambition to design an Aston Martin. At school I would draw them; I still have those drawings. It was a pleasure and an honour, and I was very grateful to Ken for his knowledge and support throughout the project, even though he was busy with college and developing the Solo 2. We were doing a Bentley and an Aston Martin at the same time! It was a moment in motoring history before every manufacturer had its own studio.’
He then takes another look around , gazing over at Sunnyside. A lot of money came in from deposits for the Virage. One day I was in the office with Victor and he was sitting there rubbing his hands with glee because there was so much money and he’d had a hard time during the previous years. It gave us the chance to do the Vantage. Obviously, we had to keep most of the hard points, but we put a new roof on it and new wing panels. Personally, I was much happier with the Vantage – but you have to realise that the Virage was before Ford acquired Aston and it was all being developed with hardly any funding. Considering that, the Virage is a nice car.’
‘There’s a pause. Then: It’s funny, it’s over 30 years ago now, something like that…
END OF AN ERA
The Virage wasn’t the last Aston Martin built at Newport PagneU, but it was the last built the old way, as these people remember Words Glen Waddingion
AFTER 32 YEARS trimming Aston Martins in Newport Pagnell, Chris Brewer is now retrimming many of those he helped create originally. T often find my own signature on the back of trim parts as I strip them/ he says.
Brewer started his apprenticeship as a coach trimmer in 1988, towards the end of VS production, and also worked on the Lagonda. In 1990, the production line switched to the Virage.‘We had people who did the prototypes, working with the engineers; they sorted the patterns out, then each of us would learn the new process. More modem shapes and bigger panels, but the same leathers. Trimming is one of the first and last elements during the build: some parts go in early, carpets first over the sound deadening, then we’d do the back end.
‘The car evolved, with changes to the dashboard and other trim parts, plus of course we had the Votante. We tweaked the patterns according to the engineers and planners. It was still very much a traditionally built Aston Martin, but a new launch, the next stage towards a sleeker body. They were good times.
T came back to Aston Martin Works after four years at Caydon and worked alongside John Crout for five years until he retired. He had more than 40 years” experience; I had 25, but I was still very much his apprentice* 1 had to learn about all the older cars.’
Terry Durston worked as an engine builder, and was responsible for the V8 that powers the Virage on the cover of tills magazine. T started there in 1985 and left to go to specialist Ecurie Bertelli in 2000, from where I retired in 2015. I’ve been in die motor trade all my life, and saw an ad in die Job Centre for an engine builder; I didn’t know where, but I got die job. I’d always wanted to work for Aston Martin.
‘I did all die V8s, including die last of the carburettor cars, dien went on to die supercharged version. I built die Erst and last of diose, including chassis 007, die only supercharged Volante. ‘There were about five of us, building from scratch to completion; the blocks came from the machine shop nest door and wed hone them, then begin assembly with all die components. We even tested our own engines; they all did eight hours on the test bed of course, every Aston Martin V8 engine wore a plaque bearing die name of its builder. It was a matter of personal pride,’ says Durston. ‘Like a stick of rock, it goes right dirough you.
There were a few customers who always requested “my” engines. I built 500 in total Today, Paul Spires is president of Aston Martin Works. Back in die 1980s, he sold Aston Martins, bodi as an independent dealer and dien in the Aston Martin network. ‘We’d had so much success with die V8s and there was a lot of pent-up excitement with die new launch., he says. I got wiped out in die economic downturn and dien joined die network in 1991. At first, die cars had been changing hands for a premium. We had such a long waiting list. But die new car went on sale at exactly the wrong time. Things had changed. We were very proactive. There were only seven dealers. They were tough times but with passion, dedication, reining back, and thanks to loyal customers, we got through it.’
Spires joined Aston Martin Works in 2012, but he had worked as a development driver on die Virage 6.3, and die supercharged cars. ‘They went like die wind, virtually unrecognisable compared with die original Virage. They were great days.’
THE 1990 Aston Martin Virage was the last new Aston Martin that I ever bought. I had been a faithful customer throughout the 1980s, adoring the ears, relishing the spirit and rarity of them (in that decade, Aston Martin made between 80 and 200 cars a year, a scarcely believable level of production in modern terms ] , and I enjoyed close relationships with the characterful individuals running the company. And then, come the ’90s and the Virage, it all went a bit pear-shaped.
The new Aston was a monumental undertaking for the marque, as it finally turned its back on the. William Towns-designed V8 that had sustained it for 20 years and created a brand spanking-new car. Bringing such a tiling to production is a challenging exercise for any manufacturer, of any size, but when you are a tiny company and you make only one car, the burden of anticipation that falls on its replacement is huge. For Aston Martin, the Virage was the biggest deal imaginable.
Because of tightening legislation, production of the outgoing V8 had been forced to end in September 1989 and the Virage staggered, blinking and frankly a little unready (after a rocky development process), into the cold , harsh light of day in January 1990. I know something of the state of the car because I had ordered chassis No.10. It wasn’t a terrible car, given the development difficulties; better than chassis No.9, I suspect, itself probably a big step up from chassis No.8. But it wasn’t great.
The handling was poor, there were lots of issues with engine management: the antiquated ZF manual gearbox that had felt so right in the preceding V8 didn’t gel at all with the new fuel injected engine. And Ford, which had recently bought the company, had scattered the car’s interior with unappealing Escort switchgear.
Externally, however, it was a very attractive car, penned by Heffernan and Greenley, who had designed the Continental R for Bentley, and the Virage did feel like something truly modern. It was blessed with heating and air conditioning that actually worked, not something to which the outgoing V8 could lay claim. Yet the car faced two serious and, ultimately, insurmountable problems.
First , in performance terms, it felt disappointing after the fire-breathing, carburettored Vantage of 1989, which had left the stage (in X-pack form) with 432bhp. ‘The Virage’s 330bhp felt limp in comparison. Of course, a Vantage, was always intended to follow but, as a launch vehicle for the range, the standard car lacked impact. As one redoubtable northern customer described it: It looks like a racehorse and goes like a carthorse.’
Second, the Virage arrived at a terrible point in the economic cycle ( a bit like the contemporary DBX, I fear). Orders had been placed on the back of the rampant classic and performance car boom of the late ’80s, the car priced at a fairly outrageous £ 120,000 by the ever commercially creative chairman of Aston Martin, Victor Gauntlett , with a hefty deposit of £20,000 being taken on every order.
The combination of what was perceived to be a disappointing car and the dung hitting the fan in the market in early 1990 had many prospective owners trying to wriggle out of their contracts, moves that Aston Martin resisted vigorously. It may have needed to do so for its survival, but it’s never good PR to be seen to be forcing customers to buy your cars.
I kept my Virage for a while and dutifully took it for many factory updates, but you can’t make a silk purse etc. Eventually I sold it, disappointed and , as it turned out, disenfranchised.
ASTON MARTIN VIRAGE SPOTTER’S GUIDE
Aston Martin may have focused on just one model hut there were myriad variations
Aston Martin was always accommodating when it came to performance upgrades for existing owners through Works Service and, from 1992, any Virage could be fitted with a substantial 6.3-litre engine upgrade. Thanks to its Group C-inspired developments, power was increased to 465bhp, with wide arches, deeper valances, rear spoiler and big brakes housed within a set of OZ split-rims to match. In 1993, power from the upgrade was increased to 500bhp.
With traditional ston Martin customers crying out for a convertible, the Virage Volante was launched in 1992. It proved to be a (relatively) big seller, and this 2+2 soft-top featured the same running gear as the standard Coupe, but could also be fitted with that 6.3-litre engine upgrade. A wide-body 5.3 version was also offered, primarily for the US market. The Virage name was dropped after 1994.
With the Vantage in full swing, demand for the Virage was waning, so production came to an end in 1994. In order to use up the remaining nine Virage bodies, the run-out Limited Edition Coupe was conceived, with a unique V-patterned grille and updated 349bhp 32-valve engine — in effect a naturally aspirated version of the Vantage’s V8. The last Volantes also used this engine.
Representing a leap in performance from the Virage, the twin-Eaton supercharged Vantage came along in 1993 —known as the V550 because of its mighty 550bhp peak output. The Vantage was given an extensive re-style, with only the roof and doors carried over. The new front end was smoother and there were also new round rear lights. Huge brakes were needed to stop this brute, which weighed a whisker under two tonnes. Aston Martin claimed a mighty top speed of 186mph.
Last of the Virage line, the Le Mans was built to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Aston’s famous 1959 victory. Limited to 40 examples, here was a Vantage with all the best options thrown at it: the big brake upgrade, magnesium wheels, vented bonnet, and an eye-catching blanked radiator grille with two large, flared openings. The wing vents were also re-styled to emulate the ones on Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori’s race-winning DBR1. Although built with the standard Vantage engine, many were converted to V600 spec from new, or in subsequent years.
Although the Vantage in effect superseded the Virage, there was a significant gap left in the range for a slightly more civilised and less extreme handbuilt coupe. This was filled in 1996 by the V8 Coupe, in essence a narrow-body version of the re-styled Vantage, fitted with the naturally aspirated V8 and four-speed automatic gearbox. Only 101 were built.
Known as the ‘long-chassis’ V8 Volante, the Virage Volante’s replacement received a 200mm-longer wheelbase. Not only did this make the rear seats far more accommodating, but it also gave the car a completely different look.
For those who found the regular Vantage lacking, Works Service offered the V600 package of upgrades from 1998. At the heart of it was the ultimate version of the twin-supercharged Tadek Marek V8, which became Aston’s most powerful engine to date at 600bhp. There were also lightweight magnesium alloy wheels, AP Racing brakes and stiffened suspension. These upgrades took the Vantage to 200mph.
Thanks to the flexibility of Works Service, there is very little it couldn’t turn its hand to. There are far too many one-off specifications to list here, but among the more extreme conversions was the Shooting Brake, which was offered to Virage owners from 1992. Then, in 1994, came the extended four-door Lagonda Virage, as well as a Shooting Brake version, all built in low single-figure numbers. This is, of course, just a fraction of what Works Service completed in terms of one-off customer commissions, many of which remain shrouded in mystery to this day.
Watch this video for Development of Aston Martin Virage’s During 30 Years