LAGONDA LIVES!

We drive new Taraf and orig­i­nal su­per-sa­loon

Octane - - FRONT PAGE - Words Mark Dixon // Pho­tog­ra­phy Matthew How­ell

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

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– 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

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