Aston Martin. As far as names go, it’d be difficult if not impossible to come up with a better one to stick onto a beautiful and quintessentially British sports car. Add to this a stunning double winged logo involving and an intricate connection with Britain’s number one fictional spy and the result is a company that speaks to the automotive imagination like few others. So I was never going to turn down an invitation to visit their historical home — which is also the place where they are busy building something really, really special.
Founded in 1913, Aston Martin sounds like it could well have been named after the chap that founded it, but that’s not exactly how it happened. In fact the company was started by Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford, the latter obviously being in grave danger of being overlooked by anyone who can’t be bothered to use Wikipedia. There appears to be no certainty about who exactly was responsible for tacking on the “Aston” bit, but the origins of that appear to lie in the fact that Mr. Martin was racing at a place called Aston Hill. It must’ve sounded as good back then as it does now, I suppose is the best explanation.
As with most companies that have been around for over a century, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Two world wars and a handful of bankruptcies later though, Aston Martin are still alive and kicking. Probably in no small part to the James Bond franchise, the success of which has obviously been a stroke of well deserved luck. But I’m not going into the entire history of the brand, nor each and every car they ever produced. It suffices to say that some have been brilliant, others slightly less so perhaps but each and every one that’s ever been made has character in spades. As a car enthusiast, one tends to perceive human traits in certain cars. Special cars anyway. I couldn’t really tell you which kind of human elements are present in a Toyota Camry but Aston Martins just look and feel as though they have a soul. And a moustache.
It’s not hard to see how one could fall in love with the cars they build, which explains how this tiny outfit called Aston Martin Works in a sleepy English village is in fact producing the most expensive new car in the world. There are of course a couple of asterisks that should go below this fact to put it in context, but I’ll get to that in a bit. The car is called the DB4 GT Zagato Continuation, and it is essentially a bottle of concentrated nostalgia. At six million pounds, it’s more than a little bit special. Which is of course what you’d expect from a car with a name like that in the first place. It’s not like they called it Dave. The continuation part is what explains the astronomical price tag. They’re essentially continuing an unfinished production run from decades back in time. It is often said that, given enough money, you can build just about anything. Well. that’s precisely what Aston is doing here. Building a very old car brand new for the lucky few whose pockets are deeper than the Mariana trench.
Of this particular continuation model, only 19 units will ever be built. Which makes the adjective “rare” seem woefully inadequate. And it’s not like they’re slapping them together on a Wednesday afternoon either. 4500 hours go into building each and every one of these cars, and it’s all done by hand. They even had to completely rethink how to make the super light body panels as the usual method of shaping metal just doesn’t work on aluminium this thin. It’s so thin, in fact, that it’s strictly forbidden to lean yourself against one of these 19 resurrected legends as you’re almost certain to put a dent in them. They can handle the pressure of the air rushing over them at high speeds, but that’s about it. The 4.7 litre straight six engine has been built from scratch after scanning and X-raying the old 3.7 litre engines from the originals. There are a few modern touches such as the carbon bucket seats and modern racing-spec fuel cell but by and large this is a car from the 1960s built today, only a lot better and more accurately.
Six million pounds, then? Well yes. Plus tax. But they do throw in a brand new DBS Zagato for free. Which I suppose is a bit like advertising the most expensive letterbox in the world but throwing in the house, driveway, garden and butler at no extra charge. Although to be fair it’s obvious that the resurrected DB4 GT Zagato is by far the more expensive car to build in this mandatory package deal. It should be priceless and tying the purchase of it to another car solves the headache of having to put a price on it. Also, let’s face it, although these will never be the most liquid assets in the world, they’re unlikely to ever be worth any less than what you paid for them. Of course, for anyone who went for one of these two-for-one deals, money was never the deciding factor but it’s hardly a foolhardy investment. Unlike those magic beans I got last week. But I digress. This most expensive of package deals also helps in terms of the delivery process. The DB4 GT Zagato, you see, is not a street legal car. It could never pass contemporary safety standards so it’s very much a car that you can only use on a racetrack or (as a tempting secondary option) you could just stare at it in your garage or living room for hours at a time. The modern day DBS Zagato, on the other hand, is a regular road car. So after handing over the six-million-plus-tax cheque you at least get to step into a brand new Aston and drive away in it.
Aston Martin Works previously produced 25 “regular” DB4 GT Continuation cars, and a James Bond “Goldfinger” spec DB5 Continuation is on the cards for next year. So they are very much looking at making this a thing. And you can be sure that they’ve got a couple of customers who will want one of each. So you would think that building cars this expensive means that Aston Martin executives spend their time off jumping into a Scrooge McDuck style swimming pool filled with money. But that’s not exactly the case. Not just yet, anyway. Expensive though their sports cars may be to buy, they’ve been even more expensive to create, produce and sell. Profitability for Aston is still a goal at the moment, not yet a result. And the way that they’re planning to achieve that does not depend on the Continuation cars. It won’t even depend on the Valkyrie, a completely bonkers hypercar designed by Formula One car design wizard Adrian Newey. No, Aston Martin has bet its immediate future on, what else, an SUV.
Like others before them, they’ve realized that simply being a low-ish volume sports car producer is not financially sustainable in this day and age. You need a bread and butter car that you can sell into a much bigger market at better margins. Porsche came up with the Cayenne, Lamborghini did the Urus and a Ferrari SUV is on the horizon too. It’s not that they all felt an inspired compulsion to build large heavy vehicles with massive ground clearance. In the long term it’s the simple matter of keeping the lights on. Until the car buying world smartens up and realizes that their weird preference for a high seating position does not weigh up against all the downsides inherent to an SUV, but I’ll save that rant for another day. Aston Martin has already introduced the DBX, and a lot is riding on it. With a bit of luck I’ll be driving it in 2020 to see how good of a job they’ve done.
Anyway, while I was in Newport Pagnell, it would’ve been rude to not at least test drive one of their cars. It would actually be the first time that I drove an Aston Martin full stop, but there wasn’t a whole lot of time so it was only going to be a short drive in a single model — a Vantage or DBS. This being the first time driving one of their cars, I went for a DBS Volante mostly on account of it having a true Aston Martin V12 engine. The smaller Vantage, whilst slightly more appealing to me being the smaller and sportier car, comes with a Mercedes-AMG V8 which I already knew well enough. But the DBS also simply looks the part. It’s an almost painfully beautiful car to look at and with classic Aston proportions. Being a Volante meant that the roof could come down at the press of a button, exposing the occupants to the crisp autumn air on an uncharacteristically nice autumn day in England. As a bonus, with the roof down, the exhaust sound goes straight into one’s ears too.
I didn’t mind having an instructor in the passenger seat either. For one, he was a nice chap to have a chat with. But mostly, when you’re not used to driving on the wrong side of the road as they do in the UK, it’s useful to have a second set of eyes onboard. My first impressions of the DBS were absolutely positive. Aston Martin had a stretch of time (under Ford ownership for example) where they weren’t particularly well put together, the interior especially, but this new DBS was superb and very luxurious indeed. And things only got better when I fired up the engine, a massive V12 with two turbochargers strapped to it. Not that I feel those were necessary though. Even before they added the turbochargers when they modernised this engine, it was producing well over 500 horsepower. It was plenty. And the sound of twelve naturally aspirated cylinders fighting to suck in as much oxygen as possible was simply better than the muffled sound you get when force feeding them compressed air through a turbo.
Of course the DBS still sounds great, hearing any V12 sound is a rarity these days. And adding forced induction has undeniably had a fairly dramatic effect on performance. There’s loads of torque everywhere in the powerband, so you get fired down the road at quite a rate of knots very quickly when you bury the throttle pedal. Then again that’s not unexpected with seven hundred and fifteen horsepower. On public roads, you can only keep the throttle pinned for 3 or 4 seconds at best before you’re well in excess of what is reasonable. But the DBS Volante is just as enjoyable, if not more so, when driven sensibly. Well, I say sensible, I thought the car was best in sport mode with the gearbox in manual mode and using partial throttle inputs to make most of the V12 symphony. And with the roof down, of course. At that point, it’s quite a unique experience and the historical baggage adds another layer to the intrigue.
I feel like I’ve only just grazed the surface of what Aston Martin is about, but after being submerged in the brand’s special sauce I came away with a very good feeling. Like any exclusive brand that’s been around for as long as they have, there’s a family feeling about it all. But they’ve also come a long way in a short time, and I think their current lineup of cars is the best they’ve ever had. Both outright and relative to the competition. I can’t wait to get a better look at them in the upcoming new year.