‘It never feels un­wieldy but you are al­ways con­scious of that ex­tra length in the wheel­base’

VANTAGE - - Drive Lagonda Taraf -

Funny how at­ti­tudes change. Twenty years ago, car com­pa­nies didn’t pay much at­ten­tion to their her­itage. A col­league on this very magazine, who back then was edit­ing the cus­tomer mag for a well-known French car maker – a com­pany renowned for its rev­o­lu­tion­ary, iconic de­signs – was for­bid­den from even men­tion­ing its for­mer classics, on the lu­di­crous pre­text that ‘we look to the fu­ture, not the past’.

Thank­fully, that ar­ro­gant at­ti­tude is long gone, and man­u­fac­tur­ers th­ese days are only too ea­ger to trade on their pre­vi­ous glo­ries. But it’s still rare for a mod­ern car com­pany to launch a new car that is a de­lib­er­ate homage to a past model, as op­posed to in­cor­po­rat­ing a few de­sign cues. And when that past model is some­thing as con­tro­ver­sial as the Wil­liam Towns-de­signed ‘wedge’ Lagonda of the 1970s – well, it’s prac­ti­cally un­heard of.

As­ton Martin has done just this with the new Lagonda Taraf, how­ever. The Taraf is the first Lagonda to ap­pear since the afore­men­tioned ‘wedge’, and the lat­est in a very stunted fam­ily tree of four-doors. The first was the Rapide of 1961, the car that re­vived the Lagonda name; then, in 1974, came a stretched DBS – styled, like the ‘ wedge’ that suc­ceeded it, by Wil­liam Towns. Just seven of th­ese were orig­i­nally made.

But the origami-like ‘wedge’ – dubbed, slightly con­fus­ingly, Se­ries 2 at launch in 1976, to dis­tin­guish it from the Dbs-based car – was a much big­ger seller, with 645 built by the end of pro­duc­tion in 1990. Out­ra­geous looks and a hitech dig­i­tal dash­board caught the zeit­geist and the Lagonda was a par­tic­u­lar hit with Mid­dle Eastern buy­ers, who ac­counted for about half of them. And that’s ex­actly the mar­ket at which As­ton Martin is pitch­ing the Taraf.

The clue is in the name: ‘Taraf’ trans­lates ap­prox­i­mately as ‘lux­ury’ in Ara­bic, a moniker that tal­lies ap­pro­pri­ately with the car’s UK price of £696,000 (in­clud­ing VAT). It’s so ex­clu­sive that full de­tails of the car don’t ap­pear even on As­ton Martin’s own web­site; only 200 will be built, al­though that is a dou­bling of the ini­tial pro­jected run of 100, an in­crease made pos­si­ble by mak­ing it Eu-com­pli­ant. That has opened up sales into other global re­gions and the Taraf will be avail­able in left- or right-hand drive, too.

Very few mag­a­zines have been al­lowed to drive the Taraf, so we felt hugely priv­i­leged to spend an evening with it – even if that evening was a wet, win­ter one in the centre of Coven­try. That might not have been As­ton Martin’s first choice for a pho­to­shoot but the Taraf looked stun­ning among the Bru­tal­ist ’60s con­crete ar­chi­tec­ture of the city that was blitzed dur­ing WW2, its re­strained ele­gance con­trast­ing with the harsh ge­om­e­try of its sur­round­ings.

And that is the cru­cial dif­fer­ence be­tween the Wil­liam Towns-de­signed ‘wedge’ and the Taraf: the for­mer broke new ground in the mid-70s; the new car, while un­de­ni­ably strik­ing, is far less ad­ven­tur­ous. More than one ac­quain­tance, on be­ing shown the pic­tures, said that the Taraf’s dis­tinc­tive grille re­minded them of the cur­rent Ford Fi­esta’s…

That’s ac­tu­ally an in­verted com­pli­ment to Ford’s styling stu­dio, for the Taraf re­ally grows on you as a piece of de­sign the more time you spend study­ing it. Aside from the fact that both cars are long, lean and low, the most ob­vi­ous styling sim­i­lar­ity be­tween it and the ‘wedge’ is the shape of the rear D-pil­lar, where the quar­terlight win­dow is abruptly trun­cated and the rear­most line of the pil­lar al­lowed to melt away into the tail, in the same way that the A-pil­lar flows al­most im­per­cep­ti­bly from bon­net to roof line. The idea, says As­ton Martin head­ofde­sign­marekre­ich­man–anunashamed fan of the Towns orig­i­nal, and who can re­mem­ber the ex­act mo­ment he first saw one as a teenager – is to place em­pha­sis on the rear com­part­ment, be­cause the Taraf, un­like any other As­ton prod­uct, is a car that pri­ori­tises the pas­sen­ger rather than the driver.

So what im­pli­ca­tions does that have for the chauf­feur? Well, the Taraf is ba­si­cally a stretched Rapide S, usin­gas­ton Martin’s hugely adapt­able VH plat­form, but one that has been slightly soft­ened to make it better suited to its limou­sine role. Power has been slightly reduced, torque marginally in­creased – 550bhp down to 540bhp, 457lb ft up to 465lb ft – but those dif­fer­ences are so sub­tle as to be un­no­tice­able by any­one other than an As­ton en­gi­neer. Re­mark­ably, thanks to the use of car­bon­fi­bre for the bodyshell’s outer panels (you can read more about this in the ar­ti­cle that fol­lows), the Taraf’s weight has been kept to al­most ex­actly the same as that of a Rapide S, at 2000kg. Per­for­mance, then, is hardly lack­ing, with a stated 0-60mph time of 4.4sec and top speed ‘in ex­cess of’ 195mph. Cu­ri­ously, those fig­ures are both slightly better than As­ton Martin’s of­fi­cial data for the Rapide S. Go fig­ure.

Any­one who has driven an As­ton Martin of the 21st Cen­tury will feel in­stantly at home be­hind the wheel – and that’s not nec­es­sar­ily a good thing. The cabin is beau­ti­fully ap­pointed and im­mac­u­lately fin­ished, natch; trou­ble is, un­less you trim th­ese cars for a liv­ing, it will look pretty much like any other As­ton you’ve ever driven. Here is the biggest sin­gle point of dif­fer­ence be­tween the Taraf and its 1970s ‘wedge’ in­spi­ra­tion. The Towns de­sign did not only walk the walk with its space­ship ex­te­rior, it talked the talk with an equally fan­tas­tic cock­pit, where the driver faced a con­trol desk –

‘dash­board’ is too pro­saic a word – pep­pered with red LED dis­plays and touch-sen­si­tive cir­cles like the icons on a mod­ern smart­phone screen. And this was 40 years ago. Ru­mour has it that get­ting this tech­nol­ogy to be even vaguely re­li­able cost be­tween four and five times the orig­i­nal bud­get for the en­tire car.

The Taraf, in con­trast, is pos­i­tively tra­di­tional in­side. Marek Re­ich­man is far too diplo­matic to say it out­right but in conversation we were left with the im­pres­sion that re­sources could not be di­verted from the forth­com­ing DB11, which is much more im­por­tant to the com­pany’s fu­ture than the dis­trac­tion of the Taraf. A shame, but en­tirely un­der­stand­able.

So the Taraf in­te­rior is gor­geous but un­ex­cep­tional – up front, at least. De­scrib­ing it in any more de­tail may be su­per­flu­ous any­way, be­cause As­ton Martin is con­fi­dent that most buy­ers will have their cars cus­tomised by its ‘Q by As­ton Martin’ di­vi­sion. But is the car any more remarkable to drive?

It’s cer­tainly dif­fer­ent in one re­spect: press home the now-fa­mil­iar crys­tal key­fob and the en­gine fires not with a stri­dent bark but a muted roar. Se­lect ‘Drive’ – the Taraf has the lat­est Touchtronic III eight-speed trans­mis­sion – and waft away on a breath of throt­tle; while the car doesn’t feel in the least bit un­wieldy, you are al­ways con­scious of that ex­tra length in the wheel­base, some­thing that’s par­tic­u­larly no­tice­able when turn­ing out of a junc­tion or ne­go­ti­at­ing a tight round­about. Front and rear wheels are 19.9cm fur­ther apart than in a Rapide S, and the whole car mea­sures 5.4m from tip to tail – 38cm longer than a Rapide S, but just 12cm more than its 1976 ‘wedge’ pre­de­ces­sor.

The trans­mis­sion is mid/rear-mounted, in usual As­ton fash­ion, so weight dis­tri­bu­tion re­mains at a near 50:50 split, with the as­so­ci­ated ben­e­fit for han­dling. Driv­ing this in­cal­cu­la­bly valu­able en­gi­neer­ing pro­to­type around the mid­dle of Coven­try, on rain-slicked roads and while (doubt­less) over­seen by a myr­iad of CCTV cam­eras – not to men­tion the As­ton PR man sit­ting in the pas­sen­ger seat – meant that ex­plor­ing the lim­its of ad­he­sion was never an op­tion, but it’s tempt­ing to spec­u­late on what over­steery fun that ex­tra length in the wheel­base might pro­vide in more per­mis­sive cir­cum­stances.

As­ton Martin hasn’t re­vealed ex­actly what tweaks it’s made to the sus­pen­sion com­pared with that of a Rapide S, other than to say that spring and damper rates have been ad­justed, but the Taraf has a mod­er­ately sup­ple ride, tem­pered by the un­der­ly­ing ten­sion that char­ac­terises mod­ern per­for­mance cars. Here lies an­other sharp di­vi­sion be­tween old and new: the Wil­liam Towns Lagonda rode on

bal­loon 235/70 Avons that pro­vided a good deal of com­fort as well as de­cent feed­back; they com­ple­mented the laid-back power de­liv­ery of its mildly tuned V8. The Taraf’s Bridge­stone Poten­zas – 245s at the front, 295s to the rear – make a fair stab of do­ing the same job, but they have roughly half the side­wall depth of the Avons. The Taraf will be in­fin­itely more se­cure when driven in ex­tremis but – un­less he’s be­ing pur­sued by kid­nap­pers – our rear-seated VIP would ride more com­fort­ably in the 40-year-old clas­sic.

And talk­ing of com­fort… The Taraf has one ma­jor, un­avoid­able flaw: ac­com­mo­da­tion aft of the front seats is se­ri­ously com­pro­mised by a great lump of trans­mis­sion tun­nel, the penalty of that mid/rear-mounted transaxle. The fact that it’s beau­ti­fully trimmed with lash­ings of leather can’t com­pen­sate for the ir­ri­tat­ing way that it obliges you to sit ever so slightly side-sad­dle, your feet canted to one side. The space is not cramped, in fact there is con­sid­er­able leg- and head­room, but it doesn’t per­mit you to sprawl in the man­ner you might ex­pect and, surely, would feel en­ti­tled to.

This mi­nor in­con­ve­nience prob­a­bly won’t de­ter a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of buy­ers; the Taraf is, one sus­pects, a tro­phy car, an ob­ject to col­lect, rather than a work­ing tool. It’s not as if its pre­dom­i­nantly Mid­dle Eastern buy­ers will be pound­ing mo­tor­ways like some Ger­man busi­ness­man in a long-wheel­base BMW or Audi. That’s what Lear Jets are for.

Back in the day, the ‘wedge’ Lagonda sold re­mark­ably well, better than the con­tem­po­rary AM V8, and, de­spite its trou­bled ges­ta­tion, it ended up sav­ing the com­pany at a time as per­ilous as any in its his­tory. The lin­ger­ing affection for this car is what im­pelled As­ton to build the Taraf, and fin­gers crossed it will draw a sim­i­lar re­sponse from buy­ers today. Let’s not be too crit­i­cal, there­fore, about a lack of ambition or any per­ceived com­pro­mise. Let’s just be grate­ful that it ex­ists.

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