The 1977 Vantage was the first British car able to take on the Italian exotics, and this was the prototype. We drive a remarkable survivor
VANTAGE. It’s the name of this magazine, but what is the first image that the word conjures up in your mind? A DB4/5/6 with the go-faster engine option? The current ‘small’ Aston Martin? Or the one in-between, the 1970s up-muscling of the William Towns-designed machine launched as the DBS? For most of us of a certain age, that’s probably the one.
Britain’s first supercar, some called it. That particular definition of ‘supercar’ didn’t include a mid-mounted engine, just a lot of cylinders, a lot of power and a sub-sixsecond time for the standing-start squirt to 60mph. The tag is irrelevant, anyway; what matters is that this Vantage was a muscle-car in every sense of the word.
In typical Aston Martin fashion of the time, the car that the motoring press tested was the prototype. Autocar duly tested it for its 9 April 1977 issue, but the engine’s power wasn’t disclosed because Aston, aping the Rolls-royce approach, deemed disclosure unseemly when there was obviously sufficient. Soautocarspeculated on 430-435bhp, not least because such a figure would thrill the readers.
That prototype, chassis number V8/11470/RCAC, was painted in Tankard Grey, a dark pewtery metallic. It carried the usual press-car registration of AMV 8, spaced to read AM V8. But it didn’t stay grey for long. When it left Newport Pagnell to enter the dealer network, it was re-registered UMJ 71R, and either it had been repainted in Imperial Blue by then or it happened shortly afterwards while at Staffordshire dealer Robin Hamilton, whose proprietor happened to be the mastermind behind the mid-1970s Le Mans campaign with an Aston Martin V8.
The Vantage soon found a buyer in the person of Bryan Thomas, who bought it in December 1978. He paid £16,000 and kept it until 2009, having used it as his daily transport for much of the time in between. Such a life would never be allowed to unfold for a prototype today; they generally end up either in a factory museum or in the crusher, for tediously 21st-century reasons of product and tax liability. But then the prototype Vantage wasn’t a completely prototype car: it started life as a normal production V8, to which were then applied the prototype Vantage bits. There they stayed, right up to the present day. Which is why you’re seeing UMJ 71R before you now.
SO I’M DRIVING the actual Vantage prototype on a very wet day in Scotland, on roads through the mountains near Moffat, with current owner Eric Clark to my left. Eric has two other V8s, an early DBS and a near-the-end EFI, which featured in issue 10 of Vantage. Buying this one was not like the normal process of buying a car. ‘Like me, Mr Thomas was a customer of Aston Engineering in Derby,’ says Eric, ‘and I was made aware that this car was for sale. So I met Mr Thomas, who asked me what I had done to my car, what did I think of this or that Aston feature… he was interviewing me, to see if I would be a suitable custodian.’
It seems that Eric passed the vetting, for he is the happy owner of a car barely changed from its 1977 blue condition apart from the patina of time and the maintenance required during the mileage the Vantage covered in Mr Thomas’s hands: well over 200,000 miles in 31 years. ‘It’s the first,’ Eric enthuses, ‘the Holy Grail. UMJ is where it started.’
So, how did it start? With Aston Martin’s desire to extract more power from the V8 engine, and the possibility of marketing the improvements as a conversion kit. A lefthand-drive V8 in metallic Olive, chassis V8/11429/LCA, found itself used as the guinea pig. Engineering chief
lowered and stiffened by the removal of a coil. The front anti-roll bar was stiffened, the steering’s castor angle was increased, and the front brake discs became vented. Fatter Pirelli CN12S of 60 per cent aspect ratio finished the job.
THAT WAS THEN. And since? ‘I’ve known this car almost since day one,’ says David Jack. ‘It’s a bit of a mish-mash, with the early chrome-edged dials but the underpinnings of a later S-series car. At Robin Hamilton’s we looked after it for Mr Thomas for a while after he bought it, and then he took it to another specialist who sent the engine to Tickford [Aston Martin’s then tuning and development operation].’
The engine had already undergone a top-end overhaul before being sold by Robin Hamilton, but this time the work went deeper. It got forged Cosworth pistons with thin racing rings, and a new set of Tickford camshafts whose characteristics were peakier than those of the original 540 cams. In the mid-1990s, by that time running Aston Engineering, David Jack once again took over responsibility for 11470’s health. ‘It had a lot of extra bits on it by then to make it usable, but that had made it too complicated. So we’ve simplified it, and made it retrospectively more like a conventional Vantage.
‘The engine needed looking at, so we rebuilt it again. Bits had broken off the valve guides where the collets had hit them, and all the valve heights were wrong. And those Cosworth pistons weren’t suitable for a road car. It had this cammy engine, a large anti-roll bar and big Bentleysize tyres so it sat too high. It was not nice. It had broken its differential too.
‘We kept the Tickford camshafts but made it more docile, altering the ports and the carburettor jetting. It now has 580-spec valves and gives about 390bhp. It has the right springs to match the anti-roll bar, and the right-size tyres.’ In other words, after all these years, 11470’s development is finally complete. It has settled on a specification it is comfortable with.
I HAVE TO TELL you that it feels terrific. Patinated, yes, and full of stories, but 11470 is in rude health even if David Jack likens its maintenance to that of the Forth Road Bridge. Which is appropriate, given the Vantage’s current Scottish domicile.
There are a few bubbles of corrosion at the bases of the wings. The black paint is flaking off the demister vents, and the cream leather’s colouring is patchy. The windows mist up and there’s a waft of hydrocarbons. It’s a 40-year-old car and doesn’t try to hide it. ‘Yes, she’s got the odd wrinkle and there’s no Botox,’ says Eric, ‘but she’s still drop-dead gorgeous and happy in her skin. Why restore it? A car is only original once.’
Why, indeed, when a car is so obviously full of vitality. I’m sitting behind the surprisingly small steering wheel as we head down the motorway from Glasgow towards Moffat, marvelling at the numbers on the dial scales. Smiths can’t have made many speedometers calibrated to 200mph, or oil pressure gauges able to report 160 psi.
There are electric mirrors added by Mr Thomas, and an aftermarket Hella wiper delay switch, but otherwise all seems fairly standard. And that V8 is amazingly freerevving, shooting easily to the 6000rpm red line and clearly keen to go further. That’s the camshafts’ peakiness showing itself, as it does in the slight dyspepsia at very low revs. Beyond 1500rpm the Vantage pulls cleanly, but over 4000 is where it really takes off, with a rich vibrato bellow, a zone readily found via the long-throw but welloiled ZF gearchange with its dogleg first gear.
This is a big, wide and heavy car for the snaking, soaking A708 backroad to St Mary’s Loch that we’re now on but, thanks to quick, light steering and Aston Engineering’s interpretation of what a Vantage chassis should be, 11470 is surprisingly fleet-footed. I’m aware of the steering’s hefty assistance as it overcomes the selfcentring of that extra castor, there being some inertia and pushing-back within the system if you move the wheel quickly before the assistance catches up, but I can always feel what is happening under the front wheels.
Under the rear wheels, too, I discover as a squirt of power kicks the tail out on an especially slippery corner, easily countered with that quick steering. It would be fun to explore this a bit more, but today there is neither the space nor the grip for such amusement, even on modern (but correct-size) Kumho Ecsta STX rubber.
No matter. This is a lovely period piece, all the more usable for not being preciously restored. What matters more to Eric is the story it tells. ‘After I saw it in a magazine, it was my teenage dream car,’ he says. ‘Little did I know that, 40 years later, I’d own the very car.’