New Zealand Classic Car - - Feature - Photos:

hen we think of su­per­cars of the ’80s, we tend to imag­ine the Lam­borgh­ini Coun­tach’s ridicu­lous tail end and door seams that didn’t quite meet prop­erly. Fer­rari’s F40 and 288 GTO still de­fine what a su­per­car should be — raw beasts of metal and power poised just a very small step from the track. Porsche had the ill-fated 959, which will go down in his­tory as one of the ugli­est, yet most de­sir­able, cars of all time, along­side the far more ac­ces­si­ble 930 Turbo. And As­ton Martin? Well, As­ton Martin took a slightly dif­fer­ent tack. Rather than cre­at­ing an over-the-top mon­ster like its com­peti­tors, As­ton Martin en­gaged de­sign house Za­gato to take a V8 Van­tage base and de­sign a ve­hi­cle that would be built in very lim­ited num­bers and could foot it with the afore­men­tioned ve­hi­cles.

The re­sult was the some­what vis­ually un­der­whelm­ing V8 Za­gato. If you only took a quick glance at it, you could be for­given for think­ing you’d spot­ted a Mazda Cosmo or a Subaru SVX. In­stead, you had, dare we say it, one of the rarest road cars in the world.

‘Za­gato’ who?

Fol­low­ing a stint in the aero­nau­ti­cal in­dus­try, Ugo Za­gato opened his own shop to work on build­ing and re­pair­ing car and aero­plane bod­ies. His ex­per­tise in con­struct­ing light­weight fuse­lages soon got the at­ten­tion of Alfa Romeo, which wanted to use light­weight avi­a­tion tech­niques on its race cars. In the decades that fol­lowed, the Za­gato brand be­came known for ‘ dress­ing’ some of the most suc­cess­ful race cars on the Euro­pean cir­cuit, work­ing with man­u­fac­tur­ers from Fer­rari and Lam­borgh­ini to Volvo; Honda; and, of course, As­ton Martin. Za­gato states that func­tion­al­ism and ra­tio­nal­ism are guide­lines in­spir­ing its de­sign prin­ci­ples and rep­re­sent­ing its unique and dis­tinc­tive el­e­ments. Its work con­tin­ues to im­press clas­sic and new­car lovers around the world, with sev­eral gen­er­a­tions of the Za­gato fam­ily hav­ing helmed the com­pany from the early 20th cen­tury un­til to­day.

Sub­stance meets style

This As­ton Martin V8 Van­tage Za­gato was the sec­ond car to be born from the wed­ding of the two brands, the first be­ing the sim­ply stun­ning DB4 GT Za­gato — with just 19 race ver­sions built, they now reach well in ex­cess of $15M apiece — and, more re­cently, there’s been the DB7 Van­tage Za­gato, the 2011 V12 Van­tage Za­gato, and the freshly re­leased Van­quish Za­gato.

In the early 1980s, As­ton Martin en­gaged Za­gato to take a look at the Van­tage shell with a view to mak­ing it a sleeker, faster beast by im­prov­ing aero­dy­nam­ics and short­en­ing the chas­sis. The re­sult was a mod­ern, if some­what de­mure, take on what a road-go­ing race car should be. The only hint of Za­gato’s in­volve­ment may be the ‘ dou­ble-bub­ble’ roofline, which has be­come a hall­mark of its de­sign on As­tons old and new.

We have it on good au­thor­ity that just 51 of the Van­tage Za­gatos were ever pro­duced and sold, with one ex­tra as a mule. Every ex­am­ple des­tined for show­rooms in 1986 was pre-sold on the car’s re­lease at the 1985 Geneva Mo­tor Show, where three cars were dis­played: one on the As­ton stand; one on the Za­gato stand; and one on neu­tral ter­ri­tory, atop a wa­ter­front ho­tel. When cus­tomers who had pre-or­dered the Za­gato ar­rived at the mo­tor show, some were so sur­prised at the fin­ished prod­uct com­pared with the line and con­cept draw­ings, they threat­ened to can­cel their or­ders. In the end, none of them did.

Prior to the Geneva event, As­ton Martin had known it needed a few cars to show the buy­ers, but it was run­ning short on time. Za­gato was di­rected to rush pro­duc­tion of four pro­to­type cars for the show, all in red. To pro­vide per­for­mance data at the Geneva show, As­ton Martin put Roy Sal­vadori be­hind the wheel of one of the pro­to­types (in fact, the same car that was even­tu­ally owned and raced

Dou­ble dou­ble-bub­ble

Our fea­ture car is owned by Bri­tish ex-pat John Den­nehy. John has had a long and pas­sion­ate love af­fair with As­ton Martin, from own­ing and rac­ing one of the very few race-prepped 235kw (315hp) DB5 Van­tages in the world — driven in the As­ton Cham­pi­onship, the Thor­ough­bred Se­ries, Her­itage GT, and In­ter­mar­que — to build­ing a col­lec­tion of other rare rac­ers, in­clud­ing, at one time, an As­ton Martin Group C Nim­rod.

This green fea­ture car is not the first or only V8 Van­tage Za­gato John owns. He picked up his first car in the very early 1990s, when the mar­ket had tanked (the most re­cent sale for one of these had been £440K; John man­aged to pick his one up for cents on the dol­lar as a re­pos­ses­sion), and he still owns it now. Over time, he has learned a bit more about that car, dis­cov­er­ing that it was one of the orig­i­nal pro­to­types with the V-spec en­gine.

to re­duce the weight of the car by about 300kg. All of this sounds a bit like some­thing Mr Bean might do! Well, not ex­actly, be­cause Rowan Atkin­son was the only other cus­tomer to de­sire his V8 Za­gato in full race spec, but his ap­proach was slightly dif­fer­ent in that he sent his car back to As­ton Martin it­self for a 6.3-litre en­gine with wa­ter-cooled brakes. John and Atkin­son of­ten ex­pe­ri­enced the cars go­ing head-to-head at race meets all around Europe, at which spec­ta­tors didn’t know which was more bizarre and fun — Mr Bean rac­ing or the fact that these two en­thu­si­asts had taken rare-as-hens-teeth cars and put them on the track. John is proud to ad­mit that, de­spite not hav­ing the re­fine­ment of Atkin­son’s car, his 7.0-litre con­ver­sion proved quicker, and won the V8 Class of the As­ton Cham­pi­onship in 1999. It seems odd to say of a lim­ited-run car, and such a ridicu­lous idea, but the 7.0-litre con­ver­sion was, and still re­mains, rel­a­tively com­mon for Wil­liams.

It was pretty well ac­knowl­edged by en­thu­si­asts and As­ton that this par­tic­u­lar car was the best road car it had ever built — no elec­tron­ics, and a ZF five-speed mated to a fire-breath­ing V8. “As a road car, the for­mula was per­fect,” John says.

While some own­ers re­serve their cars for the oc­ca­sional week­end run af­ter ex­tract­ing them from the cot­ton wool they live in, John used his cars every day. He and his wife would take it to the su­per­mar­ket, and they took it on hol­i­day around Europe — these were no cod­dled pieces of kit. When John got the rac­ing bug with the Nim­rod, he de­cided he wanted to give a big V8 a go around a track, and what bet­ter to per­form that duty than a car he al­ready knew in­side and out?

He ini­tially took it to the track in its orig­i­nal guise, but the brakes and tyres would dis­ap­pear within four laps of Don­ing­ton, so he knew that he needed to make a few tweaks to get her track ready. These tweaks quickly turned the car into full-blown race-pre­pared track beast. The mod­i­fi­ca­tions in­clude a dif­fer­en­tial and gear­box cooler, while the air con­di­tion­ing was re­moved as part of the weight-re­duc­tion process. Fol­low­ing the

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