We drive new Taraf and original super-saloon
here’s something perversely satisfying in the fact that the Aston Martin Lagonda was styled by a man with a very ordinary name. You might expect to see the name ‘William Towns’ engraved on the dial of an 18th Century longcase clock, perhaps – but Bill Towns as the designer of one of the most avant garde cars the world has ever seen? Cool Britannia, indeed, more than 20 years before the term passed into mainstream usage.
We weren’t short of visions of the future back in 1976. At home, children were glued to TV sci-fi shows such as
Space: 1999. At school, with fingers often stained with fountain-pen ink, the more fortunate ones tentatively stabbed at the buttons of newly launched Texas TI-30 electronic calculators, or checked the time on their Casiotron digital watches. We still hadn’t given up on the dream that one day we’d all be flying in hover-cars.
Until that day came, the new Lagonda, launched at the Earls Court Motor Show in 1976, was surely the next best thing. Long, low, and as sharp of edge as any schoolboy’s folded-paper aeroplane, it was a completely radical take on the luxury saloon. Yet it was being announced by the ultra-traditional marque of Aston Martin, and had been sketched by a bloke named Bill. Go figure.
The Shock and Awe tactic worked brilliantly for Aston Martin, a company that was then in as deep a financial hole as any it had fallen into during its history. In 1975 it had gone into voluntary liquidation and was moribund for about six months, before it was resuscitated by a small consortium as Aston Martin Lagonda (1975). And it was the last part of that name that would keep the company afloat for the crucial remaining years of the 1970s. Buyers, particularly in the Middle East, loved the Space Age looks of the new Lagonda, and during the honeymoon period following its launch it outsold the more conventional AM V8 model by a considerable margin.
Fashion is a fickle mistress, however, and Lagonda owners soon found that she could be a particularly expensive one, too. As the 1980s passed into the ’90s and then the new Millennium, the inevitable problems suffered by ageing 1970s electronics – and, it has to be said, the Lagonda’s love-it-or-loathe-it looks – saw these cars slip quietly down the metaphorical Cool Wall and become the preserve of a handful of bloody-minded, not to say obsessive, enthusiasts. Everyone could see the appeal of a classically elegant Aston Martin V8 two-door; not many still carried a torch for the peculiarly 1970s optimism enshrined in the wedge-shaped Lagonda.
Until now. Almost overnight, it seems, fashion has come full circle and the Lagonda is suddenly cool again
– so much so, that a brand new Lagonda inspired by the William Towns original has just been launched by Aston Martin. It’s called the Taraf and we get behind the wheel of that car on pages 74-82. But first, let’s pay homage to the car that car designers would like to own. MAREK REICHMAN has been the head of design at Aston Martin for more than a decade. He can still remember the exact moment he first saw a William Towns Lagonda.
‘It was in London, not far from Berkeley Square, and it was finished in silver-grey. With that striking low nose, it looked so different from all the other cars around it, like it really was from another era. I was about 17 or 18 and I’d made a rare trip down from Sheffield to see an art exhibition. In those days, we didn’t have mobile phones and I didn’t have a camera with me, so I just stood there for what seemed like hours, drinking it in.
‘If you asked a lot of designers, I think you’d find it had a big influence on their thinking. Is it a perfect design? No. Is it dramatic? Yes. At the time, Towns was pushing the boundaries and drama was more important than the realisation of a perfect design. If you went to someone like Giugiaro or Gandini, or any one of the great Italian design houses, you might get something with superb proportions in the classical manner, but Towns was striving for something else, something more challenging. Look at the car – with that ultra-low bonnet and steeply raked windscreen, it’s like a sketch, isn’t it? And I can imagine the manufacturing guys outside of anywhere bigger than Aston Martin saying “No chance!”, but because we were handbuilding cars we could just say “Yeah, great, I can fold that panel, I can build that…”
‘That’s the advantage of a small company with great ambition and a bold designer. A bigger outfit would have ironed out some of the character on the way to production. I’m convinced that, as the world’s great concours events start to admit more recent cars, the Lagonda will be right up there among them.’ ASIDE FROM its outrageous style, one of the most remarkable aspects of the Lagonda was the speed with which it went from drawing board to press launch. The refloated but still perilously waterlogged Aston Martin needed something spectacular to show in 1976, and it needed it quickly. William Towns and chassis engineer Mike Loasby rose to the challenge: the first sketches of the body appeared in February 1976, and ten months later, on 12 October, the finished car (albeit a non-runner) was shown to the press.
To dismiss those ten months of intensive labour in a single sentence is almost obscene, of course. The existing
V8 chassis was deemed not strong enough, so a new one had to be designed by Loasby, with a large twin boxsection central spine sprouting welded steel panels. And then there was the issue of shoehorning the V8 engine beneath that incredibly low bonnet. The solution was to fit a particularly low airbox and a modified sump.
The engine was also detuned from AM V8 spec to give a more appropriately limousine refinement, with a milder camshaft but bigger valves to compensate for some of the power loss. A Chrysler TorqueFlite automatic transmission was chosen for reliability; a manual ZF option was mooted but would never materialise. SO FAR, so conventional: mechanically, under the razoredge skin there was nothing to frighten the horses. It was a different story inside the cabin…
You already know what we’re talking about, but let’s maintain the suspense a little longer. Unlike most Aston Martin products, the Lagonda was a genuine four-seater, with proper accommodation for passengers three and four on appropriately squashy, soft leather seats. Never mind that the headroom was a little tight, and space for knees somewhat at a premium; more controversial were the fixed rear windows, necessitated by the body’s pronounced tumblehome, which wouldn’t allow them to retract. Air conditioning was the fallback position – something of a gamble for any handbuilt car targeted at particularly hot parts of the world. Buyers could just be grateful that the front windows opened, for that wasn’t guaranteed when the car was being developed.
Any concerns about trivialities such as legroom or the ability to breathe would surely be forgotten, however, in the light – literally – of the Lagonda’s spectacular LED, touch-panel dashboard. The original plan was to have nothing as old-fashioned as knobs, switches or levers for the driver to operate. Instead, everything would be controlled electronically, using touch-sensitive ‘circles’ that detected the electrical resistance in a finger. In the event, the boffins at Cranfield Institute of Technology couldn’t get the system to work properly and an American outfit, Javelina Corporation of Texas, was subcontracted to sort it out. The cost of doing this was four times the estimated budget for the entire car.
By the time the first production cars started to trickle out to customers in 1978, slight compromises had been made to this sci-fi concept. Switch count had been reduced and there were now a mere 17 touch-switches on the dash, and a further 14 in the driver’s door, plus three rheostat knobs and a slide lever for ventilation. The practicalities of being able to drive the car safely had won out – slightly – over the idealistic dream. BUT DID IT WORK? Yes. And no. The concept was brilliant: all the usual dials are replaced with little red LED readouts – just like you’d find on a 1970s calculator – that display units or percentages. So, for example, the fuel level might be showing ‘80’ (percent) or the oil pressure ‘60’ (pounds per square inch). Speed and engine revolutions are also shown numerically, top right.
The drawback is that it can be quite difficult for the human brain to process such information at a glance while otherwise engaged in, say, not crashing a car. At least, so it seemed in the 1970s. You have to wonder whether today’s generations, weaned on a diet of touchscreens and apps, would find it such a problem.
A test drive from Aston Martin Works in the fine Lagonda pictured here proves that it’s a strangely hypnotic experience. Oddly enough, there’s no touchswitch for the ignition: you actually have to turn a key. And you have to pull back a gearstick to engage Drive, and push levers (Vauxhall Carlton, reputedly) up or down to work flashers and wipers. Otherwise, however, you’re transported to a vision of the 21st Century, as it was imagined 40 years ago.
The engine catches instantly on start-up and burbles away quietly to itself; this is a limousine, remember. Your attention is already caught by the LED digits fluctuating in line with the engine’s ever-changing state of health, like waiting at the bedside of a patient hooked up to a monitoring station. But almost as fascinating is the tiny, go-kart-like steering wheel that seems lost in such a large car. It out-Citroëns Citroën in terms of weirdness.
You expect that miniature wheel to be massively overassisted but, in fact, there’s a decent amount of weighting and some feedback from the tyres; the Lagonda has no pretensions to be other than a Grand Tourer but you can really hustle it along quite nicely, thanks to good balance and a well-controlled ride. It’s not particularly fast, but that hardly seems to matter, although a twin-turbo
prototype was in fact built – and raved about by Ian Fraser in Car magazine, when he test-drove it. Problems with force-feeding the carburettored V8 in a cramped engine bay led to that idea being dropped.
Apart from the subdued background beat of the V8, which is all part of the car ’s charm, it’s remarkably quiet and an extremely comfortable way in which to cover ground. Motor Sport’s tester drove more than 500 miles in a single day on British roads for its January 1982 issue and reported that afterwards he ‘…was no more tired than if he had sat in an armchair all day’.
A gentlemen’s club, laidback driving style seems only appropriate, because you will attract attention like never before. Returning along the High Street in Newport Pagnell, we passed a couple of housewives chatting in the street. The last people to take any notice of a flash car in a town that’s been making flash cars for six decades, you would think, and yet they paused their conversation to turn and stare. The Lagonda is just so different from anything else, Aston Martins included. DESPITE A PRICE that rose as rapidly as the LED digits on the dashboard when you depressed the throttle – it spiralled from £24,570 in May 1977 to £56,500 in February 1982 – the Lagonda sold well, accounting for nearly half of all the company’s sales in 1979. But it had problems, not least with that signature dashboard, and in September 1983 the car was extensively revamped. There were now (shock!) partially opening rear windows, BBS pepperpot alloys superseding the original’s distinctive painted/stainless steel discs, and a new type of digital dashboard that used cathode-ray tubes instead of LEDs.
Trying to improve the limitations of the interior space proved virtually impossible, however, as young designer Simon Saunders – who joined Aston Martin in the late 1970s and would achieve lasting fame with the Ariel Atom – quickly discovered. ‘One of my jobs was to try to sort out the interior’s “reverse Tardis” character, in that it was smaller on the inside than it looked from outside!’ he remembers. ‘There was an interior styling buck that William Towns had made, but it turned out to be bigger than the actual car was…
‘It was a flawed car, although it probably kept Aston alive at a time when there was very little money about. We were always encouraged to put miles on engineering development mules when we needed to go anywhere – but we’d always try to take the company Cortina!’
The really big changes to the Lagonda came in 1986, in an attempt to freshen up the looks and halt declining
sales. Inside, there was yet another type of dashboard, this time featuring Audi Quattro-style vacuum-fluorescent displays flanked by conventional push buttons – a more conventional Aston Martin steering wheel had already appeared. Outside, the dilution of the 1970s radicalism continued with a softer, less angular reworking of the Towns design, with tail-lights moved from bootlid to lower body, and pop-up headlights ditched in favour of multiple shallow lenses either side of the radiator grille (which was actually a transmission cooler). It was a better car, but one that had lost some of the idealism with which it was conceived.
By the time production ceased in 1990, a total of 645 Lagondas had been made, about half of which went to the Middle East. Inevitably, in a part of the world where supercars are routinely abandoned by their super-rich owners, the attrition rate has been high. And these Lagondas have never been famed for their trouble-free ownership experiences… FORTUNATELY for the would-be Lagonda owner, help is at hand today in the very capable form of Aston Martin Works, which maintains and restores all ages of Aston at the company’s old Newport Pagnell factory. They are well used to the car ’s foibles and can fix anything – even the infamous dashboards.
‘The CRT versions are the least reliable, because they depend on very high voltages and are susceptible to damp,’ explains Nigel Woodward, head of the Heritage Division. ‘We offer an analogue conversion that uses conventional V8 dials for reliability, but the digital dashes can be made to work again. The only caveat is that they’ll only work as well as they did originally, which was never particularly brilliant to start with.
‘Not being used often enough is the car’s biggest weakness, because connections fail and batteries go flat. There’s a lot of wiring in a Lagonda so, for everyday driving, fitting a heavy-duty battery and bigger alternator is a sensible upgrade. Otherwise, the jobs we most frequently have to undertake are structural repairs to sills and floorpan; mechanically they’re pretty sound, and 90% of the components are shared with the AM V8.’
Such work is never cheap, of course, but at least the owner can take comfort in the rising value of his vehicle. ‘Prices have definitely stiffened over the last 18 months,’ confirms Nigel, pointing out that a particularly nice 1984 example fetched nearly £100,000 at Bonhams’ Works Sale last May.
And there’s the irony. Back in the day, the Lagonda was sometimes pitched against the Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit or, in later years, the Bentley Turbo R in that perennial motoring magazine feature ‘Who makes the best car in the world?’ Usually the testers would conclude that it wasn’t Aston Martin. Now, the very best Royce or Bentley from that era will struggle to crack £15,000. William Towns would be satisfied with that.
‘almost overnight, fashion has come full circle and the lagonda is suddenly cool again’
Top and above
Room for four occupants, although rear-seat passengers
don’t fare so well for space as those in the front; V8 engine was slightly detuned for use in the Lagonda, in part due to height restrictions imposed by the
ultra-low bonnet line.
1984 ASTON MARTIN LAGONDA
ENGINE 5340cc all-alloy V8, DOHC per bank, four twin-choke Weber 42DNCF carburettors POWER 280bhp @ 5000rpm TORQUE 360lb @ 3000rpm (est) TRANSMISSION Chrysler TorqueFlite three-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive STEERING Hydraulically assisted rack-and-pinion SUSPENSION Front: double wishbones, coil springs, self-levelling dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: de Dion axle, trailing arms, Watt’s linkage, coil springs, self-levelling dampers BRAKES Discs, vented at front WEIGHT 2097kg PERFORMANCE Top speed 145mph. 0-60mph 7.9sec