THE SECRET MIDENGINED ASTON
Exclusive pictures and the inside story of the lost mid-engined V8
WHY, YOU MIGHT well be thinking, did Aston Martin not make this car? It’s not as if an Aston absolutely has to be front-engined, is it? Ferrari embraced mid-engined cars back in the 1960s, and no harm has come from that.
At one point, Aston Martin was indeed going to build it. The idea was signed off at the highest level and then Dr Ulrich Bez pulled the plug. Did he do the right thing? Opinions among key personnel involved are still divided.
This story has been under wraps for years, Aston not wanting the complication of having to explain it. We’ve known about it atvantageever since the man who shaped Project AM305, Ian Callum, described it to me when I was delving into the gestation of the Vanquish, but Ian wasn’t keen to let us have pictures without Aston’s approval. While Dr Bez was boss, that wasn’t going to happen.
The mercurial doctor has now left the building. New boss Andy Palmer sees things very differently. Openness and being a petrolhead are central to his style, and there’s also the small matter of future mid-engined Astons. There’s the AM-RB 001, of course – but also a rumoured full-production car, with Porsche’s Boxster in its sights. Rather like an AM305 for today’s world, in fact…
So AM305 is now revealed. The photographs here, including those of the full-size clay model taken at ‘the shed in the bottom of the garden’ at Jaguar’s Whitley design centre, show a crisp, clean machine with an obviously Aston Martin look but mid-engine proportions, its cabin shifted bodily forward. There’s a convertible as well as a coupé, and the cabin (p39) points to the look that would feature in Aston interiors for years to come.
But the mid-engined coupé and convertible weren’t the full extent of Project AM305. There was also another version, AM305F (that’s F for front-engined), which you can see on page 40. If it looks familiar, that’s because it became today’s V8 Vantage family. Same basic design as AM305M (for mid) except the cabin has moved rearwards. Here, then, is their story, told for the first time.
‘IT WAS A SIGNIFICANT point for the company,’ says Dave King, nowadays Aston Martin’s director of special projects. ‘We’d launched the DB7 – a painful birth but it put Aston back on the map. Ford still wasn’t sure whether to knock us on the head or go with it, but Jac Nasser [Ford of Europe president] was a big fan.
‘Then we got the V12 engine from Ford Advanced Powertrain in late 1996, and Aston Martin had a business case. Bob Dover was appointed chairman, and Wolfgang Reitzle had come to Ford from BMW. There was a meeting at Bloxham. “We can make 5000-10,000 units a year. Give me a plan,” Reitzle said. “It should be a smaller car, costing under £70,000, to slot below a Porsche, and it should be mid-engined.”
‘We were still building big V8s at Newport Pagnell,’ King continues, ‘and we had started working with Lotus on the Vanquish. But we had some problems with Lotus, and a painful experience with TWR, so we couldn’t carry on outsourcing development. We had to do it in-house.’
The project started at Bloxham in the old paint shop. With King were the remnants of the DB7 V12 Vantage team, including Chris Porritt and John Caress – ‘we called him Johnny Fondle’ – and some Jaguar people, all under pressure to present a concept to the management.
‘Chris built a one-twelfth-scale model chassis from balsa wood bought from a Banbury model shop, and a model engine to put in it, and we went to Ford’s Berkeley Square office on a Sunday to present it to Reitzle and Nasser. On the strength of that model they said yes, get on with it.’
Suddenly Dave King was de facto engineering director, with 40 or 50 people to recruit and a factory bigger than Bloxham to find. ‘We took over part of the old Dunlop site in Swallow Road, Coventry, where there was a wheel pressing plant. And then the fun really started, because we had devised a radical packaging solution for this car.’
Enter Paul Barritt, whizz of the finite-element analysis and still engineering today’s Aston Martins. ‘We didn’t want the engine on show under a glass cover like a Ferrari’s, and we wanted properly trimmed storage space that wasn’t visible. So we came up with the “coffins” either side of the engine, and a remote front-end ancillary drive.’
The latter idea moved the air-conditioning and powersteering pumps, plus the alternator, away from the front of the engine and relocated them in the AM305’S nose, driven from the engine via a long carbonfibre shaft through the centre tunnel. This layout gave more space around the engine, enclosed in its aluminium box, kept pipe-runs short and moved the weight distribution forward.
Larry Holt at body engineering company Multimatic, which later built the One-77 and other low-volume Aston Martin specials, was initially sceptical but, says Barritt, ‘one day it clicked. “It’s ****ing genius,” he said!’
The bonded aluminium chassis would be made by Hydro, which made the chassis for the Lotus Elise and the structurally similar Vanquish, but there was also the matter of an engine. The team wanted over 400bhp but the V12 was too big. Yamaha, Ford’s engineering partner for the small Zetec engines, had built a 3.4-litre V8 out of two 1.7-litre Puma engines. ‘It was a jewel of an engine,’ King recalls, ‘but not big enough.’
‘THE PROJECT STARTED AT BLOXHAM, IN THE OLD PAINT SHOP, WITH REMNANTS OF THE DB7 V12 VANTAGE TEAM’
Cosworth had produced a 5-litre V10 concept for Volvo, which piqued the team’s interest, but the obvious base was the 4-litre Jaguar V8 from the XK8. ‘That had 280bhp at the time, but we came up with a fairly radical spec for it: better rods and pistons, a dry sump, one throttle butterfly per cylinder. For the transaxle we used a Getrag type 448, the best in the business and it suited the packaging. The distance between the rear face of the engine block and the driveshafts dictated the size of the car.’
MEANWHILE, THERE was the matter of clothing the putative chassis. ‘Ian was great to work with,’ says King. ‘Reitzle was very involved, too; he understood design language well and spent a lot of time in the studio at Whitley. It was important that we considered the two cars, the coupé and the roadster, in parallel, but the big problem with the roadster was the very long, flat rear deck.’
Cut now to Ian Callum, and his take on the tale. ‘I was at TWR when Bob Dover decided the new small Aston should be mid-engined. I agreed, and he asked me to do some ideas. This was just at the time I was moving to Jaguar with Wayne Burgess and Ed Willis, so I took the project with me to the shed at the bottom of the garden [at the Whitley design centre] and carried on with it.
‘Our model went to the south of France for the board to see. I didn’t go with it, but Jac Nasser supported it and it got full approval. Meanwhile Chris Porritt was developing the chassis with a longitudinal Jaguar engine, and the construction was going to be very similar to the Vanquish’s. Then Dr Bez came on board...’
We’ll return to that, and what it meant for the whole Aston story thereafter. Back at Swallow Road, progress was being made on the mechanicals. ‘Mclaren had built an F1 mule using a mid-engined Ultima kit car,’ Barritt recalls, ‘so we did the same and built four of them with our ideas incorporated and an extra 100mm in the wheelbase. I was doing the brakes and the aero, Dave and John Caress were the programme managers. I remember driving back from Brembo in Italy with a Ferrari 360 corner module. They were the same front and rear. Great concept…’
‘A big challenge with mid-engined cars is the footwell,’ adds King. ‘There’s an intrusive wheelarch and the pedal package is critical. We used a Mk1 Focus steering column, a beautiful thing with low friction. We still use it today.’
‘THE OBVIOUS BASE FOR THE ENGINE WAS THE 4-LITRE JAGUAR V8’
The roof, doors, body sides and rear quarter panels were to be in aluminium (like the chassis), with composites for the front wings. The bonnet’s and bootlid’s construction was never finalised. The whole shape had to work aerodynamically, including cooling airflow, and Barritt worked with racing car manufacturer Lola using computational fluid dynamics and a scale model in carbonfibre. ‘It was the first time we’d done a proper aero model,’ he says, ‘and it showed the problem of getting air into and out of the engine bay with those coffins in the way. But we needed them, because with the front end accessory drive there was no front boot.’
At this stage the Ultimas, with the status of ‘AP Zero’ prototypes, were going very nicely, albeit still on Ultima suspension and Porsche gearboxes. ‘It was so quick… that road to Adderbury…’ Barritt’s eyes temporarily mist over. ‘We gave Ultima some of our computer-aided engineering feedback,’ he continues, ‘but we never got to build a representative chassis of our own.’
The computer had helped give specification targets, though: 1300kg split 585kg front, 715kg rear; a 2626mm wheelbase; a Cd of 0.36; 18in wheels with 225/40 front tyres, 275/35 rear. The simulated complete car with its 4.3-litre engine would have sprinted to 60mph in 4.3sec, to 100mph in 9.0 and on to a 184mph maximum.
TROUBLE WAS BREWING. ‘We were on the point of getting rid of the coffin idea,’ says King. ‘Where, really, would we put the luggage?’ Ford was also pressing Aston Martin to look at a common platform with Jaguar, which had shown the mid-engined X600 concept car (another Callum design). But the Jaguar had a transverse engine and there was no real common ground.
And that’s where it stopped, in July 2000. Bob Dover had gone to head Jaguar Land Rover and Dr Bez had arrived from Daewoo, with past Porsche credentials, a week before the AM305M programme was scheduled for final Ford board approval. Dave King recalls the moment
‘IT WOULD HAVE SPRINTED TO 60MPH IN 4.3SEC, AND ON TO A 184MPH MAXIMUM’
it died. ‘Dr Bez – a visionary, and fairly direct – said, “Come on, guys, an Aston Martin is front-engined. We would struggle to explain it to customers, and we’re not ready to make the step. Let’s stick with what we know.” We were back in a muddle.’
That muddle consisted of moving out of Swallow Road to be the first occupants of the new Gaydon factory site (in what is now a JLR building) and deciding, Jaguar chassis collaboration having come to nothing after several months of trying, to develop the VH (vertical/horizontal) modular architecture that would underpin the next generation of Astons and was a logical step from the Vanquish.
And suddenly that new architecture was very pressing, because Aston was in dire need of a new model below the Vanquish. Back to Ian Callum: ‘I had pushed hard for the mid-engined car. It would have had pricing similar to an XK8, and the configuration would distinguish it from the Jaguar range.’ But he lost.
‘So we moved the cabin back about 250mm and remodelled the car into AM305F. And that’s how we left it. There was panic at Aston Martin because the DB7 was running out of legals. We had to get on with the replacement, which we thought would be the DB8 but was called DB9. Wayne and I worked on it for two-and-a-half years [in the Jaguar studio], and we finished it. Then Henrik Fisker came on board and wanted to redesign it, but he only changed the tail-lights.’
The starting point for DB9 was AM305F, made into a larger car. ‘That’s why they are so similar,’ says Callum. He had meant the small car to be different from the larger one, but switching the programmes scuppered that idea. ‘Wayne and I then did a couple of other ideas for what became the V8 Vantage, but we went back to the original.’
HAD AM305M LIVED, Job One – the first production car – would have been on August 1 2002. As it was, the DB9 arrived 15 months after that and the V8 Vantage, lightly reworked by Fisker from AM305F, in 2005.
Seventeen years from the chop, do AM305M’S protagonists feel any pangs over what might have been? Dave King: ‘In hindsight, Dr Bez was absolutely right. We were very naïve at the time.’ Paul Barritt: ‘It was huge, huge fun, but I’ve no idea how we’d have made it work.’ Ian Callum: ‘I think it would have been absolutely perfect for the brand. It would have made a good racing car, too.’
Ever since then, the dark green model of AM305M – the aerodynamic test model – has lived on top of a filing cabinet in the middle of Aston’s engineering department, gathering dust. People walk past it every day. ‘Most of them,’ says Barritt, ‘don’t even know what it is.’
Left Computer rendering shows packaging proposals, including moving ancillaries like air-con to the front of the car
Above and top Clay modelling included this interior, the design themes of which would be carried over to a whole new generation of Astons. AM305 also embraced a Volante version (top)
Right As well as the midengined car, the team also worked on a frontengined version, AM305F, which would become the V8 Vantage (below)