Aston Martin Gymkhana
Aston Martin’s entire back catalogue sliding sideways around a Welsh hanger. Eeek
In a little under three years, Aston Martin will be building cars in this hangar. There will be people and machinery, infrastructure, logistics, components and, at the centre of it all, a production line, down which will fow the forthcoming DBX SUV and potentially something wearing a Lagonda badge. But that’s not until early 2020.
Next week – by the time you read this in other words – they will start tearing up the foor in here. That’s a crying shame. It’s polished concrete, smooth, refective and untouched since the RAF moved out a few years back.
Right now, and for the next two days, this hangar is ours. Well, ours and a flm crew’s. But we can share – we have not one, but three hangars to choose from. Correction: not hangars, super-hangars, 11,000 square metres each, or expressed another way, 2.7 acres. Located at St Athan in South Wales, they were built for the RAF to service their fast jets in, could accommodate something like 48 Tornados at a time, but they moved out in 2012, and the place has been empty since.
And then along came Aston, needing a new manufacturing facility to fulfl its plans to double production to around 14,000 cars per year. A match made in heaven, albeit one that requires an investment of something like £200 million before 750 jobs can be created and 7,000 cars a year can start rolling out the doors.
Confronted with several acres of covered space, Aston Martin decided to do the decent thing: delay the redevelopment people getting in for a few days and bring along a bit of their back catalogue to make a flm – 28 cars, to be precise, with a combined value of £65 million. Oof. Throw in a few racing drivers, a couple of cameos from Welsh rugby players, some noise, smoke, drama and a decent storyline that involves a cheeky bit of illicit after hours “borrowing”, and you have a cool viral flm.
TopGear was instrumental in this happening. Charlie Turner and I were chatting with Aston Martin last year when the conversation swung to the deal they had struck with the MoD over the hangars at St Athan airfeld. TopGear creativity swung into action, and I think the next words uttered were “skidding about, indoors, in Astons”. Our contribution ended there.
Until today, where I fnd myself doing precisely that. Our breadth of imagination clearly has few limits. I’m in hangar three. The main shoot for the flm doesn’t start until tomorrow, but all the cars are arriving of the backs of trucks and trailers in hangar two right now. I’d love to tell you that I have carte blanche to go and grab keys and razz stuf around, but, well, £65 million.
Just two cars, the DBR1 and DB4 GT Zagato, account for more than half that, but that still leaves £30-odd million-worth of metal and cars dating back to 1921 – the A3 is the oldest Aston Martin in existence. There are concept cars, stunt cars, racing
cars… and a DB5. This one’s worth £800,000, but I’ve never driven one and this isn’t an opportunity I’m prepared to pass up.
The noise when it fres is instant Connery. The 4.0-litre straight-six sucks air through three SU carburettors and sounds instantly recognisable from all those chase scenes. It’s captivating. Clearly I’m not going to learn much about how it drives when all I have to play with is a few hundred metres of hangar, but this isn’t about that, and to be frank it’s not really about skidding around, either. I can’t bring myself to do it, to treat such a beautiful, elegant thing clumsily or harshly. So instead I potter up and down, fngers guiding the willowy steering and fve-speed gearlever, ears tuned in to the sucking carbs, the fuel starvation through the long corner at either end. In Aston’s flm, it’s paired with the DB10, but that car’s a whole diferent kettle of fsh. It’s the stunt car from SPECTRE – open the door and all you fnd is roll cage, harnesses and a hydraulic handbrake. I want to drive it, but it’s inauthentic when there’s so much real history here.
I go for a wander along this ridiculous line of cars for what to drive next. Honestly, it’s real pinch-yourself stuf. There’s a One-77 next to a wedge of Lagonda, the Aston Martin Lola Le Mans racer from 2009, a pair of modern Zagatos, the CC100 concept, a black manual Vanquish (what a sweetie); behind me a red Vulcan squeezes out of a transporter with barely an inch of clearance either side of its wing. I wander further: GT8, DB2, Valkyrie, DB11, V12 Vantage S, Taraf, Virage, there’s even a Cygnet kicking around. Over the course of the day, I drive about a dozen, but none means as much to me as the 1980 V8 Vantage.
I have a lot to thank Top Trumps for – primarily my job, but also a recollection for car stats that did me precisely no favours with the opposite sex during my formative years. This was Britain’s frst supercar: 435bhp, 170mph, 5.3 seconds to 60mph (didn’t have to look those up). Better acceleration than a Ferrari Daytona, more power than a Lamborghini Countach, the most powerful car in the pack, in fact. What a bruiser. That solid grille, the extra driving lights, the small, deep-dish steering wheel, a naturally aspirated 5.3-litre V8 that rumbles and roars, flling these halls with echoes, a dinosaur in more ways than one.
It’s a bounder’s car, perfectly attuned to its pre-yuppie era, and it’s a whole heap of fun careering around a hangar, imagining you’re in some upmarket Sweeney- style chase, probably escaping a furious husband. After ten minutes a fug of fumes has permeated every cubic inch of the hangar to the extent that our eyes start to water. Time for a change.
I drive the 6.3-litre Virage (the mighty V600 is of-limits because a private buyer has just paid the thick end of half a million for it), and that’s a hoot but has issues with cooling and ends up piddling out a load of coolant from its expansion tank.
I’m concerned for its welfare, but Aston has its own car whisperer, Paul Spires, the director of Aston Martin Works, who assures me this is no issue. His ability to coax life into the more reluctant members of the ensemble is astonishing.
A vast 600bhp of twin-turbo V12 makes the DB11 dance and glide around here like Ore Oduba, likewise the 2001 Vanquish with its lovely steering feel and precision power delivery. Turns out the gearbox in the One-77 is as bad as everyone says, but what a sensational object, and 7.3 litres of V12 makes a noise to rival any aircraft that once called this hangar home.
There’s less room to play the following day. The hangars are now referred to as a “set”, and they’re on “lock down”. Aston’s pro racing drivers, Darren Turner and Nicki Thiim, plus Matt Becker, the chief vehicle attribute engineer, are getting into the swing of “acting”. Not just “driving”, but actual “walking” and “talking”. They take to it pretty quickly, despite the repetition needed for diferent camera angles, lighting, sound, etc. They’re having fun. Well, up to a point.
There’s a bit where I’ve been promised a small role – do some skids outside in a Rapide and flm Darren and Nicki being thrown around in the back seats. Trouble is, Matt had a go at pitching them around frst, and they’re both looking a bit green. Undaunted I go and have a play anyway, hopeful that a fraction of a second of smoke creation might make it into the fnal cut.
Elsewhere, synchronised drifting happens in hangar two, which has had its foor swept and cleaned of all marks ready to have a load more fresh black lines etched into it, while another sequence calls for the three V8s – Virage, V8 Vantage and V600 – to charge through all three connected hangars at, well, speeds which must have made those doorways feel very small indeed.
It’s safe to say St Athan’s super-hangars haven’t seen anything like this before – and never will again. By the time you read this, the lovely polished, squealing foor will be no more. But that’s fne, because it’s getting ready for something even more exciting and far more important to happen – the next stage of Aston Martin’s future.
“I go for a wander along this ridiculous line of cars for what to drive next”
600bhp meets a polished floor. They get on like a house on fire
“‘What did you say? Come round here where I can see you...” 1991 Virage proves ballet dancing has run in the Aston family for years Bruising V8 Vantage makes a break for the doors, “and no Virage is gonna stop me”
Drone was captivated by the way DB11’s lights reflected off the floor
DBR1 gets ready for its closeup. Just not too close when it’s worth £20 million, OK?