William Towns, de­signer of the DBS and so much more, was a true one-off. Here his widow, Lizzie Cariss, shares her me­mories and chats to cur­rent As­ton Martin de­sign chief Marek Re­ich­man


The sin­gle-minded de­signer of the DBS re­called in con­ver­sa­tion with his widow

ONE OF THE BEST-KNOWN pho­to­graphs of William Towns shows him look­ing rather like a can­di­date for the role of Dr Who, wear­ing avi­a­tor specs so big they’d have been re­jected as daft by El­ton John in his Yel­low­brick­road phase. Part sci-fi dandy, part in­dus­trial-de­sign vi­sion­ary, Towns was one of the first cel­e­brated English au­to­mo­bile de­sign­ers, with a pretty space-age oeu­vre.

These in­clude a six-wheeled kit car with a stressed ma­rine-ply wooden body and sev­eral at­trac­tive city cars that al­most em­bar­rass­ingly pre­dated the Smart Car. The Minis­sima, for ex­am­ple, so im­pressed Bri­tish Ley­land boss Don­ald Stokes that he bought the pro­to­type and dis­played it on the com­pany’s stand at the Lon­don Mo­tor Show in 1973.

Oh, and there was also the As­ton Martin Lagonda, launched in 1976 and look­ing like some­thing you’d folded out of a nap­kin dur­ing a par­tic­u­larly bor­ing din­ner party. The Lagonda was so, well, strik­ing and bonkers it even ap­peared on To­mor­row’sworld (kids, this was a pop­u­lar TV sci­ence pro­gramme pre­sented by fun­gi­ble glam­orous sci­ence grad­u­ates and starry ex-spit­fire pilot Ray­mond Bax­ter).

Lagonda was ab­so­lutely the most amaz­in­glook­ing car that has ever gone into pro­duc­tion. To be fair, how­ever, pretty much ev­ery­thing Towns penned was amaz­ing, strik­ing and bor­der­line weird, from fold-up por­ta­ble bath­rooms to wa­ter bi­cy­cles to tourist pods for the Jorvik Vik­ing Cen­tre in York and that wooden-bod­ied Hustler, which these days is viewed as a cheap way of buy­ing some­thing penned by As­ton Martin’s for­mer chief de­signer.

In fact one of Towns’s most con­ven­tional cars was an­other As­ton Martin, the DBS, the car that lit­er­ally saved the com­pany, re­main­ing in pro­duc­tion largely un­changed, through DBS to AM V8, from 1967 to 1989.

Towns was born in 1936 and died in 1993 aged 56, far too early for a man who frankly would be a de­sign megas­tar these days.

I met him. It was on the 1990 re-launch of the Reliant SS2, which was repack­aged as the SST, the T de­not­ing Towns. Big glasses. Big lapels. Su­per cool. That’s how my note­book records it. I re­mem­ber ask­ing him how the free­lance mo­tor de­sign trade was far­ing. ‘There’s no money in it,’ he said, slightly plum­mily.

‘He did sound rather plummy,’ says Lizzie Cariss. ‘There’s an Aus­tralian tele­vi­sion in­ter­view with him from the early ’90s, which my son re­cently put on Youtube. It was funny be­cause I hadn’t heard his voice for so long.’

I wasn’t sure what to ex­pect of William Towns’s widow, but Lizzie Cariss (she re­mar­ried nine years af­ter he died) is also cool. Damn good hair­cut, in­ter­est­ing neck­lace, mu­si­cal laugh and smart as pins. She and Towns had two chil­dren and, at 71 years, she still lives in what the Aus­tralian in­ter­view calls ‘Towns’s 180-acre es­tate’. It’s star­tlingly beau­ti­ful, over­look­ing a

lake and where she and her chil­dren host the Al­sobysa­lon fes­ti­val of ideas and music. ‘My pay­ment for me see­ing you,’ she says, ‘is that you have to take a fes­ti­val flier.’

There’s an­other flier for Marek Re­ich­man, As­ton Martin’s chief cre­ative of­fi­cer, who joins us part-way through the in­ter­view.

‘Isn’t there a pi­ano on a plat­form over there?’ he asks, point­ing out to the lake. Turns out he’s walked with friends on the lake’s far shore, where for a few years a pi­ano sat un­der a plas­tic tarp, ready for any­one so moved to tickle the ivories while walk­ing Fido. It had been in­stalled for the fes­ti­val, so that lake bathers could be ser­e­naded by a con­cert pi­anist, though hu­mid­ity and weather meant it never stayed in tune.

Marek hasn’t had far to drive this morn­ing. As­ton Martin’s de­sign stu­dio is less than five miles away and it turns out he’s some­thing of a Towns fan. Born in Sh­effield in 1966, the year that Lizzie and William got mar­ried, Marek loved the Lagonda wedge.

‘William is a huge part of our his­tory,’ he says. ‘If you wan­der down our Her­itage Wall, it ac­tu­ally says “Towns Era’”and shows all his cars, cul­mi­nat­ing in the Lagonda. It’s re­ally im­por­tant, be­cause [while] we’re a com­pany that talks about the beauty of de­sign, the rev­o­lu­tion of de­sign is just as im­por­tant.’

Marek’s stu­dio is a 2700sq m glassy pavil­ion de­signed by The Wee­don Part­ner­ship. The lat­est in airy en­vi­ron­men­tal con­struc­tion, it has five sep­a­rate car-sized Lazy Su­sans, a view­ing gar­den and spiffy trick light­ing. How dif­fer­ent it was back in Towns’s day.

‘Well, it was all so prim­i­tive,’ says Lizzie, laugh­ing as she de­scribes Towns’s of­fice at New­port Pag­nell. ‘It was about the size of this ta­ble. In fact he cre­ated it. He got hold of a wardrobe and made a wall out of it, so he had some­where to work; a lit­tle space to him­self.

‘And I re­ally don’t know how he per­suaded them to let him have a go at the next car…’

That was the DBS. Af­ter start­ing at Rootes in 1954, where he worked chiefly on seats and door han­dles, Towns moved to Rover in 1963. There he worked with David Bache on the Rover-brm gas tur­bine Le Mans car and it was from there that he was hired by As­ton Martin in 1966 as a seat de­signer.

This was a time of huge up­heaval. While the DB6 Volante was launched at the 1966 Lon­don Mo­tor Show, the old DB se­ries, run­ning back to the 1958 DB4, was be­gin­ning to show its age. Tour­ing of Mi­lan had pro­duced its own pro­posed re­place­ment – a two-seat con­cept car called DBS, based on a cut-and-shut DB6 – and dis­played it at the same show. Yet Towns’s

ef­ful­gent tal­ent sim­ply blasted the pres­ti­gious Ital­ian car­rozze­ria out of the pic­ture. He pro­duced a ‘brochure’ of sketches to sell his idea for a DB6 re­place­ment to David Brown, and it was Towns who got the nod. His clay model used the DB6 chas­sis as a base, with the width in­creased by 4½ inches to ac­com­mo­date the promised V8 en­gine. By to­day’s stan­dards a 15ft long, 6ft wide car isn’t that big, but in 1967 it was huge. It could have looked ridicu­lous, but in fact had such del­i­cacy and at­ten­tion to de­tail that it’s still as ‘right’ now as it was then.

‘DBS was such a change point,’ says Marek. ‘It showed cars could be in­flu­enced byamer­i­can mus­cle-cars, but re­main English. The in­dus­try wanted these mas­sive ob­jects, but the As­tons, be­cause of William’s DBS, re­mained re­fined.’

‘He was ter­ri­bly ex­cited,’ re­calls Lizzie. ‘It was so gob­s­mack­ing when he got the DBS job, be­cause then it was as if Bri­tish peo­ple couldn’t be de­sign­ers – they were seen as too prim­i­tive.’

The bosses also ap­proved Towns’s four-door ver­sion of the DBS, badged Lagonda when it went into pro­duc­tion in 1974, though only seven were sold. It was William’s wedge-shaped 1976 ‘Se­ries 2’ model that proved such a di­vi­sive pub­lic­ity mag­net.

‘It was very thrilling,’ says Lizzie. ‘At the mo­tor show where it was launched we had a lit­tle de­sign stand with Mi­crodot on it... It was the sub­lime to the ridicu­lous, with this lit­tle petrol-elec­tric gull-wing city car on our stand and, round the cor­ner, the As­ton Martin stand knee-deep in Arabs around William’s Lagonda.

‘Ev­ery­one is quite sneer­ing about that car now,’ she says, ‘and William wouldn’t have seen it at his best work, but it was amaz­ing – and it did save the day.’

About 645 Lagondas were pro­duced be­tween 1976 and 1990 in four sep­a­rate se­ries and they’re as con­tro­ver­sial to­day as they were back then.

‘Even to­day it is the space­ship that landed from an­other planet,’ says Marek. ‘Imag­ine back in the day; it was just so dif­fer­ent from any­thing else. I think it was the pe­riod just be­fore that when Bri­tish de­sign­ers had started to think, “we can do amaz­ing things”, and Lagonda was a state­ment of that.’

‘If you ask peo­ple to say what are their favourite As­ton these days,’ adds As­ton PR man Kevin Wat­ters, ‘they’ll say the DB5, the Lagonda and maybe the DB9.’

‘I do re­mem­ber that that de­sign was done re­ally quickly,’ says Lizzie. ‘We lived just out­side New­port Pag­nell at the time and As­ton was in a re­ally bad state money-wise. They wanted to get some­thing out very quickly and there was a lot of pres­sure, but William was a calm per­son and didn’t re­ally feel that stress. He worked fast, too. I re­mem­ber he thought about the Hustler kit car for ages and then got go­ing and 11 weeks later he’d pro­duced it.’

‘It was so gob­s­mack­ing when he got the DBS job. It was as if Bri­tish peo­ple couldn’t be de­sign­ers'

Car-de­sign cour­ses, such as those at the Royal Col­lege of Art and at Coven­try Uni­ver­sity didn’t ex­ist when Towns first went look­ing for a job, as Lizzie ex­plains. ‘When he left school, he wanted to work at Rolls-royce, so he went for an in­ter­view,’ she says. ‘But, be­cause there was no de­sign de­part­ment, they asked: “Where do you want to work?” And he didn’t know what to say, so they sent him away and he ended up at Rootes. It was like be­ing an ap­pren­tice; there was no struc­ture to train­ing back then.’

‘Misha Black set up the au­to­mo­tive de­sign course at the Royal Col­lege of Art in 1967,’ says Marek. ‘Be­fore that it was pretty hit-and-miss. When Chrysler in­vested in Rootes, they bought in a lot of Amer­i­can think­ing on ed­u­ca­tion and started a sort-of ap­pren­tice­ship scheme. William was one of the first of those de­sign ap­pren­tices and it’s why we ended up with such a lot of great Bri­tish de­sign­ers of that pe­riod.’ So how did Towns work? ‘He was very dis­ci­plined,’ says Lizzie. ‘He would spend a very long time in the bath dur­ing which he “thought” and then he would get up and work un­til 7 o’clock at night. And he just worked, so we didn’t tend to have week­ends off or long hol­i­days. You know what it’s like when you’re self-em­ployed. William used to say the next job is a mir­a­cle and when you’ve got a lot of work, you just don’t go away.’

Towns’s de­sign of­fice in War­wick was where Lizzie’s liv­ing room is now, with his stu­dio un­der­neath, where the clay mod­els were built. And what clay...

‘We don’t use it any more,’ says Marek, ‘but at the time there was this clay called Cha­vant; it was the orig­i­nal sculpt­ing clay in­vented in 1892 and used by artists. But it in­fuses the smell of sul­phur into your skin and clothes. Once you’d laid up with Cha­vant, you could wash them 500 times and they’d still smell. In the early ’90s at par­ties, I’d walk up be­hind peo­ple, take a sniff and say, “there’s a mod­eller”.’

‘Yes,’ agrees Lizzie. ‘When we lived at Stret­ton, we didn’t have a clay oven so we used to heat the clay in the AGA; the plate-warm­ing oven was a per­fect tem­per­a­ture, but you never got rid of the smell. I of­ten won­dered what the peo­ple who bought the house must have thought we’d done in there.’

Did Towns re­gret the fact that he never quite en­joyed the recog­ni­tion and wealth of some of to­day’s celebrity car de­sign­ers?

‘Apart from the fact that he died sooner than

he should have, the qual­ity of William’s life was fan­tas­tic,’ says Lizzie, ‘be­cause he had it ex­actly as he wanted it. He lived do­ing what he would have done any­way, as a hobby. Af­ter he turned down a job of­fer from Spen King, he went off to see the bank man­ager and ex­plained he had enough to keep us for six months if he didn’t get an­other job. I re­mem­ber him say­ing to this guy: “Af­ter all, it’s only money.” You couldn’t say that to a bank man­ager these days, could you?

‘What did I think? I think, when you’re young, you think what’s the worst that could hap­pen? So I didn’t mind too much. My mother found it very scary, how­ever…’

Although he and Lizzie threw cau­tion to the wind to buy the War­wick es­tate, William’s out­go­ings were fairly mod­est – apart from his cars, that is. ‘He did like to have a nice car,’ says Lizzie. ‘Be­fore we moved here he had a Bent­ley, which had to go be­cause we sold ev­ery­thing to raise the money. When I was ex­pect­ing my son, he had an E-type, with re­ally wide sills that I had to be shoved over. He had all sorts: a Range Rover, a Rolls-royce, the Bent­ley, a ridicu­lous GMC Amer­i­can mo­torhome, which we called Seav­iew. There was a Fiat X1/9, a Land Rover, a Jensen and we had mo­tor­bikes – a BMW and I had a Honda.

‘He also had a Robin­son R22 he­li­copter,’ she says. ‘He learned to fly at 50 in just three weeks and it was a big part of the last years of his life and use­ful for vis­it­ing clients in places like Ply­mouth or Ip­swich. He had a fold­ing Bick­er­ton bike he would use, ped­alling into New­port Pag­nell from where he landed...’

So, apart from some quite won­der­ful, er­adefin­ing cars, what is William Towns’s last­ing legacy at Gaydon? Marek Re­ich­man is per­fectly placed to an­swer that.

‘We’ve been look­ing at this quite a lot re­cently,’ he says. ‘Look­ing back at the pe­riod when William was with As­ton Martin, it was re­ally in­tense, with suc­cess­ful prod­ucts that changed where we could go to in the fu­ture. William’s work was al­ways beau­ti­fully lin­ear and bal­anced to the road. What he has done is al­low me to make Lagonda a prod­uct that no one will ex­pect – it could be a space­ship or not, but it’s bril­liant for me to have that as a foun­da­tion. As we de­velop Lagondas of the fu­ture, William has al­lowed me to dis­rupt and change.’


The Al­sobysa­lon fes­ti­val runs from June 30 to July 2. Full details at www.also-fes­ti­val.com

Be­low and right ‘Part sci-fi dandy, part in­dus­trial-de­sign vi­sion­ary’, the inim­itable William Towns. Right: Towns’s widow Lizzie shows Marek Re­ich­man some of the sketches she’s kept. Towns had many other clients be­sides As­ton Martin

Above and left A sketch for a two-seater As­ton sports car from 1989. Left: two sketches from the ‘brochure’ that con­vinced As­ton bosses to give a young Towns the DBS gig. He al­ways en­vis­aged both two- and four-door ver­sions. He pushed for the ‘droop snoot’ front, but the bosses wanted an up­right grille

Far left and be­low left Towns sketched the in­te­ri­ors too; here a pro­posal for the Lagonda. He also pro­duced sketches for a two-door ver­sion of the fa­mous ‘wedge’ and a con­vert­ible, too

Left and be­low It wasn’t all sports cars – Towns also de­signed mi­cro­cars, wa­ter-bi­cy­cles, and car­riages for wheel­chair users (left). But he also sketched a num­ber of pro­pos­als to up­date the DBS/V8

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