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Classic Cars (Sept 1995)

Reproduced from CLASSIC CARS, September 1995

Beauty and the Beast

Roger Bell drives two outstanding but contrasting Aston Martin Zagatos, separated by 25 years. Which one does more for him : the savage or the subtle?

The first time Carrozzeria Zagato designed bespoke bodywork for a limited-run Aston Martin, it came up with a gem of Italian artistry that stands comparison with Pininfarina’s best. The 1961 DB4GTZ was a worthy contemporary of the outstanding Ferrari 250GTO. When Zagato attempted an encore a quarter of a century later, however, it created not another breathtaking classic but the eyesore of the supercar set. The 1986 AM Vantage Zagato is widely regarded as the studio’s design nadir.

Here, Beauty meets the Beast. The 1961 Zagato’s flowing curves, accentuated by bulging haunches, humped bonnet, domed roof and tapered cockpit, could hardly contrast more with the 1986 car’s brutal angles, slabby flanks and mean turret. Wearing the light-green suit, then, Zagato’s zenith in the shape of the most beautiful Aston Martin of them all; in the blue livery, Zagato at its most controversial, clothing an Aston noted more for blistering speed than elegance of line …

The DB4GT Zagato of Paul Michaels, proprietor of Hexagon Motors, is one of only 19 such cars made, excluding the four ‘Sanction 2′ replicas. A lightweight version of the short-wheelbase, Touring-bodied DB4GT, the 3.7-litre Zagato was a thinly-disguised track car with road aspirations. Aston Martin never officially raced the DB4GTZ but in the early Sixties John Ogier’s team – the 1 VEV and 2 VEV twins campaigned by Jim Clark, Roy Salvadori, Jack Fairman, Innes Ireland and others – fought a sterling rearguard action against the Ferraris before being superseded by AM’s 200 mph Project 212 coupés. Both were on show at the recent Goodwood Festival of Speed, as was Michaels’ DB4 Zagato – first in class and second overall in the Festival’s Mulberry Challenge, driven by Nick Faure and Annabel Nahon.

The later Zagato Vantage, number 15 in a limited run of 50 (52 counting the two prototypes), was not built as a homologation special for the track, though it’s more powerful and faster than its straight-six predecessor. This ex-Nick Mason car, now with Straight Eight, is much faster. Beneath the obscene bulge in its bonnet is not the 5.3-litre, 432bhp V8 with which Rowan Atkinson bought the car in 1987. Instead, there’s a 7-litre, 510bhp version with a mountain-moving 520lb ft of torque. Ferrari’s F40 is well short of that. Mason bought the car from Atkinson several years ago and used it regularly as family transport.

The engines of both Zagatos are gems, fettled by Cobham-based AM specialist R S Williams. Tadek Marke’s big twin-cam six – a hefty lump of polished metal that sits high in its bay, to the detriment of a low centre of gravity – can be shatteringly noisy and tiresomely temperamental when tuned for maximum power. Michael’s car has been prepared for docility and torque so that it can be used on the road without distress. Not that power has noticeably been sacrificed by changing the ports, chambers, cams, jetting and timing. Williams reckons to have achieved 312bhp – short of the hyped 325bhp that AM once claimed but up on the 310 or so bhp that a premium engine was said to deliver in reality.

To start, you simply prime the three Webers with a few dabs on the throttle then twist the key. The engine erupts into life with a gruff yet creamy growl from the paired tailpipes. Up front, the busy sizzle of chains, tappets and slapping pistons, dissolves into a whirring wail when the supersensitive throttle’s blipped open. As the revs subside to a clean and lazy idle, the sizzle resumes. Here beats the heart of an iron-fisted titan.

Initially, it’s not so much the strong performance that impresses as the engine’s delicious tractability, its ability to waffle lazily without fouling its 12 spark plugs – two per cylinder, each sextet sparked by a camshaft-driven distributor. There’s no need to rev up when moving off, though first gear is tall. The engine chugs like a steamer, though it won’t accept full throttle without pinking until the tacho needle is swinging freely. There’s no kick-point, no sudden ‘cammy’ surge of virulence: power simply burgeons, along with the exhaust’s bellow, as the revs race toward a six-two limit. Performance is as effortless as it is strong. Call it 15 seconds from rest to 100mph, more than 150mph all out, according to gearing (several final-drive ratios, from Goodwood sprint to Mulsanne Straight, are available). Even with the highest ratio available, the car’s top-gear spirit would not be severely blunted.

Although the ratio gaps are of interstellar proportions for a part-time race, the engine’s wide spread of gushing torque effectively masks them. The agricultural strength of the four-speed David Brown gearbox is betrayed by the stiff action of the stubby, knitting-needle gearlever, which you attack decisively when the engine’s extended, as baulky synchromesh hinders the quick movement encouraged by the sharp throttle response.

Monstrous Power

The 3.7-litre DB4GTZ, with around 250bhp per ton, is no more than endearingly quick. Its 7-lite V8 successor is nothing less than frighteningly fast. ‘Greenhead’ doesn’t have the same emotive connotations as Testarossa (Redhead) but the emerald cam covers of Mason’s Zagato V8 signify truly tarmac-shredding performance. The standard 5.3 is no sluggard. Testing it in 1986, I wrote in Car magazine: ‘Bottom-end vigour, impressive by any standards, is the feeble end of a ferocious wedge of power. Unlike its all-or-nothing turbocharged rivals, the Porsche 959 and Ferrari 288GTO, the Aston has a huge spread of awesome urge … its fabulous thrust gets ever more violent, so it’s not until the tacho needle is dancing above 5,000rpm that the engine’s in fully cry…’

Although the Zagato failed to clock the promised 300kph (187mph) in a hyped high-speed demonstration run at Le Mans in 1986, leaving Aston Martin’s luminaries red-faced, it did redeem itself later with an independently-clocked 185mph. That was with 5.3 litres, remember. Now stretch the imagination by adding another 80bhp and a huge extra slug of torque.

Still with Weber carburation rather than injection, the big V8 catches immediately on the starter with a muted snort that masks brooding, brutish malevolence. Forget the lumpy stereo beat of a typical big-banger V8: the Vantage delivers in mono with a creamy, soft-edged vroom interrupted only by pop-popping on the overrun. Enlarging the bore and stroke has done nothing to mar the refinement of a howitzer engine that’s as docile as a purring puss when idling and ambling. Yet caress the switch-like throttle – any gear, any revs – and the 7.0 takes off with a ferocity that’s startling. I last experienced such unbridled, head-jerking acceleration at the wheel of a Ferrari F40, which the Zagato has in its sights for sheer straight-line speed. The nose-heavy Aston’s problem is off-the-line traction: with 255/60 rear tyres (standard 5.3 wear) bearing only 42% of the weight, it cannot hope to match the slingshot getaway of, for instance, the rear-engined, 4WD Porsche 959. An older, heavier, 1978 Vantage equipped with the same blockbuster engine clocked 4.9 seconds for the 0-60mph dash, and 10.7 to 100mph, so talk of 4.5 and under 10 seconds for the Zagato is not unrealistic. If the 5.3 could do a genuine 185mph (60mph in first gear), the 7.0 must be capable of nudging 200mph all-out.

The 7.0 Vantage’s best shot by far is the performance of its thunderous engine. With the possible exception of mighty brakes, nothing else quite matches up to it. Although the five-speed ZF gearbox is entertaining to use, especially when downshifting (heel-and-toe changes are easy), it is not without fault. The throw is long and first is in the unfashionable left-back position, opposite left-forward reverse, which, without any detent or collar protection, is far too easy to select by mistake. The smooth, sensitive clutch is a thigh-bender, and the sharp rim of the gearknob tends to accentuate the notchiness of the shift. No matter. This car will surge from 60 to 80mph in top in about four seconds. Muscling its way into the record books with titanic torque, the 7.0 displays none of the lesser 5.3′s peakiness.

Docile one moment, belligerent the next, there is nothing lightweight about the Vantage Zagato. The tilt-adjustable steering wheel is so heavy that you question the presence of power assistance. You grip the wheel firmly, not least because it tends to kick and writhe in your hands as the suspension – coil/wishbone up front, de Dion behind – bucks and jiggles. Only on table-smooth roads is the ride less than agitated: on poor secondaries it can be quite turbulent. The tyres tend to follow ridges and cambers. The seats would be better for tilt and height adjustments but they locate you well enough behind the thick-rimmed wheel, especially if you’re broad in beam. Slim people tend to loll about.

Nothing is inert or sanitised about this extrovert Aston Martin, at its best through fast, sweeping corners (as most supercars are) rather than tight twisters. Despite all the fidget, the Vantage – this one with an additional anti-roll bar at the back – turns into corners with an agility that belies its size. The neutral, even-keeled Zagato may lack the pin-sharp responses of some mid-engined cars but its cornering powers are high, its poise and balance fine, even if the inside rear wheel’s eagerness to lift and spin on slow bends suggests limited action from the limited-slip diff. Despite clunking servos, the brakes are terrific, and progressive. Ditto the heavy clutch, which bites decisively, smoothly.

It is the brakes of the DB4GT Zagato that really betray its age. You need to heave on the long-travel, unservoed pedal to get the unventilated discs to work with any conviction; even then, narrow tyres of limited bite discourage late brakers. Crude though its platform chassis is, the old DB feels taut and together. It can be thrown around with considerable abandon, too, in the knowledge that it will do nothing to undermine your faith in its predictability. R S Williams’ modifications to the suspension – coil and wishbone up front, live axle located by trailing arms and Watt linkage behind – have made the handling even more user-friendly and entertaining. Williams speaks of altered roll centres and spring/damper rates but he’s vague about details.

Rewarding Drive

Cumbersome it might be but dead the unassisted steering is not. Through the thin, wooden rim of the big three-spoke wheel, you can feel the car’s slight but insistent tendency to understeer, not to mention every bump, ridge and rut. Indulgent power slides come naturally in the old Zagato. Few cars communicate with the driver so intimately as the DB4GTZ, which goes a long way towards explaining why it’s so rewarding to drive. It’s tolerably comfortable, too, with a ride that’s less knobbly than the later car’s.

So-called ‘lightweight’ construction – hand-formed aluminium skinning a steel-tube frame – is betrayed by flimsy doors that don’t clunk shut like touring’s more substantial constructions. The basic trim does little more than cover bare metal inside and the crackle-black dash, housing a cluster of no-nonsense instruments, is none the worse for being simple and workmanlike. Where there would normally be a boot, there’s a long-range fuel tank and spare wheel. Any luggage goes behind the seats in a cockpit bereft of creature comforts.

Not so the later Vantage, which has all the usual trappings of luxury, including a fabulous sound system (what else for a rock musician?) and air conditioning. You sit tall in the airy cockpit, looking down on the low-line dash. The Zagato’s glasshouse may not be a pretty sight (inset powered windows that foreshadow those of the Subaru SVX do not help aesthetically) but it is disarmingly practical compared with a Lamborghini Countach. You get a wonderful panoramic view in every direction through the big, slim-pillared windows.

The Vantage’s finish was never that of a car costing £87,000 new in 1987. Body shut-lines are inconsistent and mostly wide; switchgear and facia are tacky. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the contribution of Zagato, who built the car on running gear transported from England, failed to meet Aston’s standards. Build quality apart, this squat, inelegant bulldog of a car lacked the visual charisma of rival exotics. With its 1961 predecessor, which has a competition history to back sensational looks, it was the other way about. Aston Martin did a worthy job with the obsolescent hardware at its disposal but it was Zagato’s suit of clothes that turned the DB4GT from a fine car into a great one.

If I had to choose between these two rare and delectable Astons, lottery win allowing, I’d go for Beauty, not the Beast. Trouble is, even though prices have tumbled since 1 VEV changed hands for £1,540,000 in 1990, beauty would still command crazy money. The ex-Nick Mason Beast, bereft of racing pedigree, is yours for a mere £125,000 at Straight Eight.