Responding to requests from Middle Eastern customers, Aston Martin has revived the Lagonda brand with an all-new four-seater – named Taraf
Not quite so wedgy, still rather wonderful
Right This Taraf is finished in Topaz Gold, a subtle colour that seems to shade into platinum in certain lights. But then, Taraf customers are allowed to specify any colour they like. Even black.
Coventry on a wet Tuesday night in winter; hardly the most glamorous location in which to photograph a £700,000 luxury car. A chill wind whips discarded chip wrappers along the pavement, and the occasional band of well-lubricated students stumbles by on the way back from the pub.
Then comes a surprise. ‘Is that the new Lagonda?’ asks one of the students, slightly less inebriated than his mates. It’s an unexpected question, given that this car is one of only two in the UK and hardly familiar even to well-informed petrolheads. Turns out that our questioner is a student on Coventry University’s famous automotive design degree course and he can’t believe what he’s stumbled across while on a night out with his mates. Full marks to him for recognising it; the lad will go far.
Whether he’ll remember it in years to come, in the way that Aston Martin design chief Marek Reichman can recall the day he first saw a William Towns Lagonda (as recounted on page 65), we may never know. But what is certain is that the new Taraf – it means ‘luxury’ in Arabic – was directly inspired by the 1970s car, and has been built by Aston Martin to satisfy a demand from Middle Eastern customers who loved the original.
At first, the plan was to build only 100 examples, but that figure has recently been doubled so that customers in some other global markets can take advantage of it being EU-legislation compliant. The total is being firmly capped at 200, so we’re told, which means this will always remain a very exclusive Lagonda – and which means it’s even more of a privilege that Octane is one of very, very few magazines being allowed to drive it.
To be honest, when we first open the driver ’s door and slip into the cocoon of beige leather, there’s an initial tinge of disappointment. It’s a perfectly lovely place to be but it’s not noticeably different from any other Aston Martin cabin in terms of design, a niggle that would not seem hugely significant were it not that the Bill Towns Lagonda was so peculiarly defined by its spaceship dashboard. Reichman himself acknowledges the point, advising us to wait until the Aston Martin DB11 appears later in 2016 – the unvoiced implication being that the DB11 has had all the focus in this respect.
Externally, there is no doubt that the Taraf references the Towns original. Reichman is an unashamed fan of that car but his own creation eschews outrageous futurism in favour of a more restrained, more elegant and, yes, much more beautiful shape. As with many interesting cars, your fascination builds the more you study it from different angles, and our first thoughts on seeing it in the metal are that it would make a great Lancia. Reichman is not offended by the comparison. ‘There is certainly an Italianate nature to the car, with its long nose and balanced tail, and that was a deliberate move away from the more Germanic trend towards a short nose, which is what BMW brought to the party.’
All the more remarkable, then, that Reichman has been able to incorporate several design cues that pay tribute to the Towns original without looking in the slightest way contrived or retro. The headlights may flank a deep grille – something conspicuous by its absence from the Towns car – but they have the shallow, flat-fronted aspect of the 1970s original, and are complemented by tail-lights that recall the thin, horizontal strips of the earlier model.
Even more noticeable is the relatively upright line of the D-pillar, which, as on the Towns car, contrasts dramatically with the shallow rake of the A-post. Reichman explains that it’s intended to give the impression that it’s pulling the windscreen rearwards, while emphasising the rear occupant space.
And that’s the crucial point: the Taraf is all about the man in the back (and, given the market this car is aimed at, it will almost certainly be a man) rather than the one sitting up front. Of course, it sacrifices absolutely nothing in terms of performance: 0-60mph in 4.4 seconds and a maximum speed ‘greater than 195mph’ are hardly a disgrace. But, ultimately, this car is a limousine rather than a sports car or even a GT. The way it drives, while hardly an irrelevance, is further down the priority list than it would be for other Aston Martin products.
Insert the infamous crystal keyfob into the centre of the dash and the 5.9-litre V12 comes to life with a muted roar; there’s no theatrical bark from the exhaust. The Taraf is basically a stretched Rapide S – more accurately, it’s a further variation on Aston Martin’s established VH platform – and that car’s engine has been very slightly detuned to suit its new role here, down 10bhp from the Rapide S’s 552bhp. Damper settings and spring rates have also been played around with, but the Taraf still rides in the manner typical of a modern luxury car, with an underlying tautness. It’s never harsh; indeed, it’s notably supple by today’s standards, but it’s not as pillowy as the balloon-tyred Towns Lagonda featured in the preceding pages.
You do notice the similarity between the two cars in the way that the Taraf’s windscreen pillars sweep away from you like the light streaks on these night-time dual carriageways, but outward vision is actually pretty good. The Taraf never feels like a small car – it is, after all, 5.4 metres long, or 17ft 8in in the old money, with a wheelbase extended by 19.9cm – but it’s in no way cumbersome; you’re just vaguely aware of the car’s extra length when turning out of a junction. Or trying to find a space in a typical British car park.
Handling? Well, bear in mind that this is an incalculably precious engineering prototype, and that we’re circulating on greasily wet roads in the middle of Coventry, so let’s just say that there are no worries on that score. With its mid/rear-mounted eight-speed transaxle and a front/mid-mounted engine, weight distribution is excellent. Given the room to do it, you could doubtless have fun using the extra length and rear-wheel drive to provoke some pendulous oversteer, but that isn’t going to happen tonight in Coventry.
The mechanical layout posed a particular challenge with the interior packaging, however. You can’t help but notice, when you swap front seats for rear, that the accommodation out back is dominated by a large lump of leather-swathed transmission tunnel. There’s been much in the press recently about men’s tendency to sit on London Tube trains with legs sprawled apart in the fashion of Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart, and you might expect that the one place you could do this in privacy would be in the back of your Taraf. Not so.
The seats are generously proportioned but there are most definitely only two of them, and the tunnel encourages you to sit with both legs primly canted slightly to one side. There’s lots of legroom, much more so than in the Towns car, and plenty of headroom, but a compromise has had to be reached.
No one will want for luxury in a Taraf, however, that’s for sure. The quality of fixtures and fittings is first class, and in any case Aston Martin is confident that pretty much every buyer will opt to have their car customised by its ‘Q by Aston Martin’ department. Special materials, colours, textures, fittings can all be incorporated at the buyer ’s whim. Need a bespoke cage in which to transport your saker falcon to the desert? Aston Martin will be only too happy to oblige.
All this comes on top of the basic list price, of course, which in the UK is a healthy £580,000 plus VAT. But Lagonda saloons have always been expensive. The original Rapide of the early 1960s, based on a modified DB4 platform, was priced at £4950, when a typical British house cost £2770.
Then came the first William Towns Lagonda – not the ‘wedge’, but the DBS-based four-door, of which only seven examples were originally made: it cost £14,040 at launch in 1974, when the average house was £9970. The Lagonda would have seemed dear at the time but the asking price for the ‘wedge’ Lagonda that followed it – confusingly labelled the Series 2, as a result – had a considerably more eye-watering price tag: at the time the first cars were being delivered to customers in early 1979, it retailed for £49,333, when a house cost £17,793.
So, given that a typical UK house is now valued at around £197,000, the Taraf’s tax-inclusive price of £696,000 is par for the course. And for that you get a bodyshell entirely clothed in carbonfibre panels, courtesy of Canadian specialist Multimatic’s UK operation based in Thetford, Norfolk. Not that you’d know: Aston Martin has patented a curing process that guarantees the weave will never be visible through the top coat.
Carbonfibre has many advantages for a limitedproduction car like the Taraf, says Reichman. It’s hugely strong, of course. Moreover, unlike aluminium, it holds its shape perfectly when moulded, with no tendency to spring back like the metal does when it’s removed from a press tool – which means that an alloy panel’s shape has to be ‘overcrowned’ to compensate. To look at this Taraf, you’d never guess that it wasn’t sculpted out of traditional metal. And it’s light; despite its extra length, the Taraf weighs almost exactly the same as a Rapide S.
A very special car, then, and one that has no directly comparable competitor, as Marek Reichman explains with the help of an analogy with the world of aviation. ‘Most luxury saloons are like an Airbus A380: they’re big, and they have a cabin for first-class passengers, but they’re not totally focused on that. A Taraf is like Concorde. It’s very dramatic, very British, and everyone on board is travelling first class.’
Plenty of legroom in the back of the new Lagonda, but there’s no getting away from that bulky transmission tunnel, dictated by the mid/rear-mounted transaxle.