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 - - Drive V8 Vantage Prototype -

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.’

Left Van­tage pro­to­type was orig­i­nally painted Tankard Grey and wore the usual press car regis­tra­tion for the pub­lic­ity shots (left). This was the im­age that a young Eric Clark saw in a mag­a­zine. In 2009 he was able to buy the very car, but not be­fore bein

This page and left Chassis no V8/11470/RCAC has never been fully re­stored and wears its his­tory with pride, in­clud­ing the pro­to­type parts that were fit­ted back in the mid-70s. En­gine orig­i­nally pro­duced around 370bhp on 48 IDF2 We­bers. To­day, af­ter carefu

V Be­low Im­pe­rial Blue paint light­ing up a dank, wet day in the High­lands, the Van­tage still looks mag­nif­i­cent al­most 40 years on. Lit­tle won­der it caused such a sen­sa­tion in 1977

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