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Popular Classics (Aug 1993)

Reproduced from POPULAR CLASSICS, August 1993

Power Games

‘Our Favourite Cars’
Mark Dixon
Aston Martin Vantage

The Aston Martin V8 looks wonderful, but isn’t really that quick …unless it’s the 7-litre version, that is. Mark Dixon blew the cobwebs away with 510bhp-worth of 1978 Vantage.

Everyone’s played the game at some time or other. You settle back in a hot bath with a steaming cup of tea and try to decide what would be your all-time, never to be repeated, absolute and irrefutable favourite car. You may refine the concept slight, setting yourself imaginary price limits to narrow down the choice. But how do you decide when there are not restrictions – when you could genuinely have any car in the world?

Now it so happens that my all-time fave is red, very powerful and extremely fast – but, sadly, we’ve already featured the Ferrari F40. So here is another red, very powerful and extremely fast car. And it’s British.

Once, when I worked on another classic car mag, I was criticised by a reader for saying that driving an Aston martin DB5 around the lanes of Surrey made me feel like breaking into a chorus of Land of Hope and Glory. There’s no place for such jingoism in a classic car magazine. He said. Well, yes. I take his point: but for heaven’s sake, we have so little to be proud of in this country today that surely we can celebrate the superb craftsmanship that an Aston Martin represents? We’d be in a right old state if Sir Leslie Mitchell had thought to himself, ‘Sod it, I can’t be bothered to design the Supermarine Spitfire tonight. I’ll go and have a drink with the lads instead’, wouldn’t we?

Richard Stewart Williams is the chap who brought about the 7-lire V8, which is a tweaking of the 6.3-litre version he developed some five years ago. Aston Martin liked it so much they bought the company – well, actually they didn’t but they did buy the test-bed car, the very same 7 EXY featured here, and offered the bigger engine as a factory-approved conversion.

Richard trained as an apprentice with Aston Martin and has worked with Astons all his life. Now 46, he’s a chunky, affable bloke whose uncompromising high standards are immediately apparent when you walk around the immaculate workshops of R S Williams Engineering Ltd., where the 7-litre conversions are carried out.

For a car to qualify as my all-time favourite, it has to have more horsepower than any man could reasonably need. Whatever other merits a car may have, I have yet to find anything to beat the sheer thrill of vicious acceleration of the sort that distends your eyeballs. It’s what makes the hassles of owning a car like a Ferrari F40 or Lotus Esprit Turbo worthwhile.

Your average Aston Martin V8 of the late seventies puts out roughly 330bhp from its 5.3-litre engine, respectable enough, but not excessive given the weight of the car it has to push around. The RSW 7-litre offers a rather more impressive 510bhp at 5500rpm and, even more importantly, 520lb ft of torque at 4000rpm. Let’s put that into perspective: the figures for Lamborghini’s Diablo are 485bhp and 428lb ft respectively ….

Most of that extra grunt is thanks to cleverly redesigned cylinder heads, which have reshaped combustion chambers, among other things, to optimise the way the fuel/air mixture is burnt. Proof of this engine’s efficiency is that it’s no more thirsty than the standard 5.3.

Of course, efficiency is relative, here – over 800 miles of mixed driving I recorded 13.9mpg (and that was taking it easy). I’ll bet if you tried hard you could quite easily get it down into single figures.

Of course, it’s all very well having ultimate horsepower, but street credibility is severely reduced if the outside package looks as though it was styled by Duple or Metro-Cammell. Fortunately, Aston Martin rarely put a foot wrong in that respect, and the V8 is a beautiful car, its William Towns lines standing the test of time as well as any previous Aston, DB5 not excepted.

“The V8′s lines have stood the test of time as well as any previous Aston”

OK, you can criticise some details, like the deep vertical panel below the rear bumper which no amount of matt black paint can successfully disguise, but it is still staggeringly beautiful. That snub front end, its blanked-off grille backed up with a boxer’s nose of a power bulge on the bonnet, is one of the most impressive you’ll ever see.

So much for the theory. How does the V8 score in practice?

This is an enormous car. It’s the size of a sixties American muscle machine, and there’s even more similarity in the shape of the rear flanks, which remind me irresistibly of a Chevrolet Camaro. The doors are huge; great sheets of metal which make for an awkward reach for the seatbelt once you’re installed in those comfortable leather seats.

It’s very dark inside, black leather everywhere, but not clinical like some German cars; this is a handmade cabin, as characterful in its own way as the wood and leather trim of earlier Astons. The reverse slope of the fascia on the passenger side is the only point which shouts ‘seventies’, although there are some bizarre touches, such as the positioning of the horn button on the transmission tunnel between a couple of identical switches, or the huge knob for the headlights, which looks as though its previous role was lowering an aircraft’s undercarriage.

The sheer scale of the car, which seems to be 30 per cent larger in all departments than any other British offering, means its best suited to big people. I’m about six-two in height, and this is the first car I can remember where I don’t need the seat all the way back. It’s not ideal for short people (Randy Newman would love it …) who would find the gear lever too far back to be comfortable.

Starting the engine involves pumping the throttle half-a-dozen times to prime the carbs, before turning the key. It’s not as loud as I’d expected – perhaps I’d been misled by the bright red paint, the flashy alloy wheels and the stainless steel sill covers. Unmistakably a V8, of course, but nothing to give away the power lurking beneath that bulging bonnet. Just a quiet rumble like the sound of a distant storm gathering.

Talking of storms, as I’m settling into the cabin and mentally checking what’s what, it starts to rain. A passing mechanic gives me a knowledgeable grin. “You’ll have fun with that in the wet,” he comments. Thanks, mate.

Heading cautiously out towards the M25, the car’s worst feature becomes quickly apparent: the gearbox is like a truck’s. Which is not surprising, because that’s literally what it is.

The gearchange has a long throw and a heavy action, while the clutch has to be depressed right to the end of its travel for acceptably smooth changes – no quick dips and slick shifts here. Furthermore, if you try to pull away on a handful of revs, or in second gear – which this engine is more than capable of doing, given its phenomenal torque – the gearbox graunches ominously; and when the oil is hot and you come to a standstill, there’s a strange rattle from the layshaft at idle.

It’s not just that the gearbox in this car is getting on a bit; apparently they are like this when new.

It’s a long time before there’s a chance to see what this Aston is made of. It’s a Friday night and the M25 and A1 are crowded with traffic, although I notice that few cars dare to challenge the big Aston’s position in the outside lane. Its muscular stance is sending out some pretty clear signals, even at 70mph.

The following day I’m up in Yorkshire and getting used to this challenging car. You never forget its battleship dimensions, by dynamically it’s very user friendly – gearbox apart. The power-assisted steering is direct and light enough to make piloting the dreadnought easy through the narrow country lanes, while the brakes are excellent and responsive.

Grip on a dry road is huge; in the torrential rain I also experience, speed is limited not by the car’s cornering powers but by the way that standing water grabs the big tyres and pulls the car to one side with tremendous force.

The sheer weight of the car means that unless you work the engine quite hard, it’s true capabilities are not at first apparent. For normal driving you don’t need to exceed 3000rpm, thanks to all those dollops of torque, but the real urge only comes when you pass that imaginary barrier.

Press the accelerator hard and the Aston leaps forward, engine roaring; there’s a wheezy induction sound from the triple carbs as you lift off to change gear, then the power’s on again and you’re still accelerating at incredible speed, like a dumper truck on reheat. To 100mph it’s apparently quicker than a Countach … yet it’s also perfectly docile when trickling along in a traffic jam, never overheating, never fluffing or oiling its plugs.

As with most cars of this performance, the real thrill is in short blasts of acceleration. Having trouble with that irritating Gti snapping at your heels? No problem – foot down at 60mph and he quickly shrinks to a pin-prick in the background. That brawny, brick-shaped front end has its own effect on a dual carriageway, the sight of it in a rear-view mirror parting cars as effectively as Moses tackling the Red Sea.

If it were my car, I’d have it resprayed British Racing Green, I’d change the alloys and possibly paint over the sill covers. Then, just possibly, it would be my all-time favourite car – and maybe I’d learn to live with that gearbox ….

Mark Dixon’s Top Ten

  1. Aston Martin Vantage
  2. Ferrari F40
  3. Plymouth Fury (1958)
  4. Sunbeam Tiger
  5. Jaguar Mk VII
  6. Napier (1906-’08)
  7. Buick Riviera (1950)
  8. Low-chassis Invicta
  9. Jaguar D-type
  10. Land-Rover Series III

FORGET Morris Minors and Farina Cambridges: we’re talking ultimate cars here, and I’m afraid there’s no room for mass-market porridge in my list.

The more observant among you will notice a slight trend towards high-performance sporting machinery here: the Ferrari, Aston, Sunbeam, D-type Jag, Invicta… The one thing all these cars have in common is that not only were they terrifically fast cars in their day, but they all look stunning.

OK, the Sunbeam isn’t in the same class as the rest, but there are times when you want something which looks a bit understated, and I know from experience that a mildly tuned Tiger will go like manure off a garden implement.

The low-chassis Invicta was a pre-war supercar, as was the Napier – pre First World War, that is.

These two win places because of the special quality of the very best vintage machinery, and the extra challenge involved in driving them.

Like thousands of others, I fell in love with the 1958 Plymouth Fury after seeing the film version of Stephen King’s novel Christine. Apart from a certain amount of identification with the lead character in that film, who buys his first classic car against enormous parental opposition (sounds familiar?), I found the choice of car inspired: huge fins, sweeping coupé lines, menacing grille and powerful V8 engine. What more could you want?

Continuing the American theme, I had to include a 1950 Buick, which for me is the epitome of late-forties American styling. Its fastback looks have an echo, as far as I’m concerned, in the Jaguar MkVII, which is also on my list. Both cars are emblems of their respective cultures: the Buick’s lashings of chrome and straight-eight engine are the perfect complement to Jaguar’s restrained wood-and-leather interior and twin-cam ‘six’.

All the above I’d consider essential to the Dixon motor house, but the last on my list is an indulgence. A few years ago I co-drove a Land-Rover from Britain to Iraq, where I worked for some months. It was an ex-army vehicle which had to cover thousands of miles in all sorts of conditions, from deep snow in Yugoslavia to blistering heat in Iraq, and yet it performed faultlessly.

A Land-Rover may not have the same glamour as an Italian exotic, but there’s a special relationship between driver and vehicle, based on trust and appreciation. You can have a passionate affair with a Ferrari, but a Land-Rover is for life.