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