‘It never feels unwieldy but you are always conscious of that extra length in the wheelbase’
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 Just seven of these were originally made.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.