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.
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
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