THE SE­CRET MIDENGINED AS­TON

Exclusive pic­tures and the inside story of the lost mid-en­gined V8

VANTAGE - - Contents - WORDS JOHN SIMIS­TER IMAGES AS­TON MARTIN, MAX EAREY, IAN CAL­LUM & OTHERS

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)

V

Right As well as the midengined car, the team also worked on a fron­tengined ver­sion, AM305F, which would be­come the V8 Van­tage (be­low)

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