SHOOT­ING BRAKES

The ground trem­bles as we sam­ple two Vi­rage-based shoot­ing brakes, the cre­ations of Swiss As­ton spe­cial­ist Roos Engi­neer­ing

VANTAGE - - Contents - WORDS JOHN SIMISTER

We drive two ground-trem­bling Vi­rage-based estates by Roos

The part-for­got­ten, of­ten-unlovedas­ton Martins, bulky ‘bit­sas’ try­ing to tread the line be­tween hand­built lux­ury and cost-cut­ting ex­e­cu­tion – and largely fail­ing. A Vi­rage Volante I drove in the early 1990s was the worst As­ton Martin I have ever driven.

It was at a mo­tor in­dus­try press test day at the Mill­brook test track, and As­ton Martin’s then press supremo, Harry Cal­ton, could see by my ex­pres­sion that I thought the slug­gish, lardy, wob­bly Volante a deep dis­ap­point­ment. ‘Yes, I know,’ he said, an­tic­i­pat­ing my feed­back. But Harry knew that change was afoot, in the shape of the DB7, and we know the rest.

All that said, the Vi­rage had good ingredients and the mad, mus­cled-up Van­tage V550/V600 ver­sion with its two Ea­ton su­per­charg­ers did have a bal­lis­tic charm. Be­sides, for a few years the ‘V-cars’ were the only new As­ton Martins you could buy – few did – so if you wanted a spe­cial-bod­ied cre­ation on an As­ton base, a V-car is where you had to start.

As­ton’s Works Ser­vice cre­ated a num­ber of spe­cials, with mixed results. One, a bul­bous Van­tage-based sa­loon from the bar-of-soap school of styling preva­lent at the time, was par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing. It also cre­ated a Vi­rage shoot­ing brake, us­ing an alu­minium skin over a Ford Es­cort tail­gate. But Works was not alone in these en­deav­ours. Swiss As­ton Martin dealer (since 1975), restora­tion spe­cial­ist and body-cre­ator Roos Engi­neer­ing had its own take on the shoot­ing brake idea. In fact it had two of them. You see them here. THE GREEN ONE came first. It started out as a Van­tage coupé in 1997, but two years later it emerged from Roos’ Frauenkap­pe­len work­shop as pos­si­bly the world’s fastest es­tate car, helped by the up­grade to 600bhp V600 spec­i­fi­ca­tion. As­ton Martin was happy to sup­ply per­for­mance up­grade parts, in­clud­ing the re­vised sus­pen­sion, but stressed to com­pany owner Beat Roos that he was on his own as re­gards any cal­i­bra­tion changes needed to re­flect the change in weight dis­tri­bu­tion and struc­tural stiff­ness.

‘We started the work far be­hind the wind­screen header rail,’ says Beat Roos, now aged 71 and eas­ing back into a less fre­netic life­style. ‘It was de­signed for the cus­tomer’s dog, a boxer. He [the cus­tomer] de­cided he wanted only three seats, so the area be­hind the

driver is flat.’ The sin­gle rear seat be­hind the front pas­sen­ger can fold flat to match it, and in­ci­den­tally has al­most no legroom.

With the orig­i­nal alu­minium roof, the tail sec­tion and the struc­ture be­neath cut away (‘The press­ings are quite crude,’ ob­serves Beat), Roos Engi­neer­ing set about build­ing a new frame­work of steel tubes. This was care­fully cal­cu­lated to re­sist the twist­ing forces that 600lb ft of torque, mul­ti­plied by the gear ra­tios, im­poses on the struc­ture. Pho­to­graphs of the build­ing process show a tech­nique sim­i­lar to the su­per­leg­gera con­struc­tion used in ear­lier As­tons, the skele­tal frame­work cov­ered by pan­el­work cre­ated by hand beat­ing, an Eck­old elec­tric ham­mer and an English wheel, then in­vis­i­bly welded. A new petrol tank had to be

fab­ri­cated, too, the huge, 100-litre hy­dro­car­bon reser­voir ly­ing hor­i­zon­tally un­der the floor.

The end re­sult, around 10,000 man-hours later, was a dark metal­lic green ma­chine with the chunky, bru­tal, heavy-tail look pre­vi­ously agreed with the cus­tomer with the help of draw­ings, sketches and an epoxy model. The slim-pil­lared style of the orig­i­nal Vi­rage had van­ished com­pletely, but the shoot­ing brake’s brood­ing aura suits the Van­tage V600 idea rather well. Paired air vents in the rear pil­lars echo those in the front flanks, and re­lieve the ex­panse of aft-end metal.

Who ac­tu­ally drew the de­sign? ‘That was me,’ says Beat. ‘I’m not a de­signer. Aero­planes are eas­ier.’ He’s de­signed a few of those, too, com­pact Pi­la­tus ‘ex­ec­u­tive’ air­craft des­ig­nated PC12 and PC24.

The V600 shoot­ing brake proved what Roos Engi­neer­ing could achieve. ‘It’s bet­ter than the fac­tory one,’ said As­ton Martin en­gi­neer Chris Baker, who was in­volved with that Es­cort­tail­gated ex­am­ple. This was af­ter Baker had driven the Roos car from Bern to the Geneva show in snow, a stern test of a project’s use­abil­ity.

You would hope it would be use­able, too, given that its cre­ation cost 1.4 mil­lion Swiss francs – that’s £1.09m at to­day’s ex­change rate, although less back then. The be­spoke glass alone cost 40,000 Swiss francs, in­clud­ing the tool­ing. ‘You have to make ten pieces to get a good one,’ says Beat, ‘and we wanted to have three spares of each.’

BUOYED BY SUC­CESS, Roos Engi­neer­ing ac­cepteda­com­mis­sion­fora­n­oth­er­in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the shoot­ing brake idea. This time the un­likely start­ing point was the later, long-wheel­base Vi­rage Volante, de­scribed by Beat as ‘very floppy’. Work be­gan in 2002 on a project much deeper in its re-engi­neer­ing than the green Van­tage, cre­ated for a very tall Rus­sian cus­tomer. ‘I wanted to make this one with four doors,’ Beat re­calls, ‘but the cus­tomer said no. I was wor­ried that he wanted the in­te­rior to be his wife’s lip­stick colour – a ter­ri­ble lip­stick – but three years later, when we came to make the in­te­rior, his wife wasn’t with him any more.’

This time, the shape was de­vised by Scot­tish de­signer An­drew Mcgeachy. He’d been to a de­sign school in Switzer­land and as­pired to work at BMW. The idea of the back­ward-slop­ing

edge to the rear side win­dows was his, as was the ver­ti­cal stack­ing of the orig­i­nal round tail­lights to al­low a deeper tail­gate.

Al­most ev­ery panel ended up be­ing changed rel­a­tive to the car’s Volante ori­gins. Mesh grilles plus extra un­der-bumper lights give the face a new look and a more re­laxed in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the As­ton Martin grille shape, which usu­ally looks as though it has been forcibly shrunken and dragged into po­si­tion against its will on a Vi­rage. The sculpt­ing of the tail takes on an al­most-db6 flavour, and the tail­gate rises on clev­erly con­cealed Volvo hinges with no vis­i­ble sup­port struts. Ex­te­rior door han­dles from a Rolls-royce give a plusher look than the stan­dard plas­tic flip-up items, too, and trans­verse bon­net vents help with cool­ing.

In­side it’s or­ange, a shade barely less stri­dent than that of the aban­doned lippy.an up­hol­sterer would call it tan, and it’s the same leather, from the same Mu­nich sup­plier, as was used in Bu­gatti’s Vey­ron show car. It’s on the seat edges, most of the in­te­rior pan­els, even the lit­tle tri­an­gles on the other side of which sit the Citroën CX door mir­rors. Ac­tu­ally it’s not all or­ange; the car­pets and the top and bot­tom sec­tors of the steer­ing wheel are red, as are the hand­brake and the trans­mis­sion se­lec­tor.

It’s all change from the rel­a­tively stan­dard cabin of the green car. There are Rolls-royce air­con vents and ‘or­gan stop’ valves to con­trol them, socket-head screws in­stead of cross-head for the many – too many, as in the stan­dard in­te­rior – ex­posed dash­board-panel fix­ings, re­bated in­stru­ment sur­rounds, chrome-ringed warn­ing lights and a com­pletely new shape to the dash pan­els them­selves. There is ter­ra­cotta Al­can­tara on the seats, on the steer­ing wheel’s bul­bous rec­tan­gu­lar cen­tre, on the head­lin­ing. And wood. More cit­rus: it’s In­dian lemon wood, very stripey.

As with the green shoot­ing brake, this one has a steel tube struc­ture un­der its new, flaw­lessly formed, Royal Blue-painted alu­minium skin, and you can see the shapes of the roof’s crosstubes en­cased in their faux-suede cov­er­ing. As for ac­com­mo­da­tion, this blue car has four seats and fair rear legroom, plus a sub­stan­tial stor­age box be­tween the rear chairs. Their back­rests fold flat if needed, once that di­vid­ing box is flipped up out of the way. A tool­box, gen­er­ously stocked, is built into the boot floor along­side a gi­ant fuse­box and a tyre in­fla­tion kit, there be­ing no chance of ac­com­mo­dat­ing a spare ex­am­ple of the vast 20in Mille Miglia wheels.

Build­ing this one cost an even more ex­tra­or­di­nary 2.5 mil­lion Swiss francs (£1.95m) and took four years, in­clud­ing a late de­ci­sion to re­design the in­te­rior. These cars rep­re­sent mon­strous in­vest­ments. So, which looks bet­ter?

The blue one has the lighter vis­ual touch as be­fits its more re­laxed, fam­ily-car role, and the shape of the rear side win­dows is more As­tonesque. The green car seems heav­ier-handed, but seen from a dis­tance it comes across as more like some­thing the fac­tory could have de­signed had it not done one al­ready. (Ac­tu­ally, de­spite Chris Baker’s com­ment, the fac­tory’s ef­fort main­tained the Vi­rage vis­ual vibe the best of all.)

A DRIVE. THAT’S what we must do, to sense the strength of the re-made struc­tures, the ro­bust­ness of the new fit­tings. This is where reengi­neered cars, un­likely to ben­e­fit from the in­ten­sive dura­bil­ity test­ing and prov­ing be­hind reg­u­lar pro­duc­tion ve­hi­cles (although pos­si­bly

not the early Vi­rages, at the mem­ory of whose war­ranty costs Beat winces) might fall down.

Van­tage V600 first, be­cause the prospect of two Ea­ton M90 su­per­charg­ers, 600bhp and 600lb ft is too tempt­ing to post­pone a mo­ment longer. Switzer­land’s speed lim­its are strict but there’s lit­tle ev­i­dence of of­fi­cial watch­ful­ness on the quiet roads near Beat’s cur­rent low-key work­shop, where some of his own au­to­mo­tive trea­sures are stored. So a few bursts of torque de­ploy­ment shouldn’t cause too much dis­quiet.

From the driv­ing seat, this looks like any V600 Van­tage un­less you glance at a mir­ror. Move off, ap­ply am­ple torque, hold on tight, and there’s noth­ing to sug­gest that re-cast­ing the Vi­rage as a shoot­ing brake has dam­aged its dy­nam­ics in any way what­so­ever. It feels tight as a drum. It could not be fur­ther re­moved in feel from that flac­cid Volante of a quar­ter-cen­tury ago.

This is the ul­ti­mate road­go­ing de­vel­op­ment of the Tadek Marek V8, in so­phis­ti­ca­tion and power den­sity if not in ca­pac­ity (it’s still 5340cc, as was the 1969 ver­sion). The cylin­der heads had al­ready been re­designed by US tuner Call­away for the Vi­rage, gain­ing hy­draulic tap­pets and 16 extra valves in the process, but for the V600 the solid tap­pets reap­peared, al­beit this time with sen­si­ble shim ad­just­ment.

That prob­a­bly helps the en­gine’s head­long rush to 6000rpm or more, achieved in a great whoosh of in­gested and ex­pelled air, and you won­der how close to that crank­shaft speed the As­ton would get in sixth gear when just 2000rpm gives 75mph. Even in that gear there’s an ac­cel­er­a­tive bite sug­ges­tive of a car weigh­ing lit­tle more than half the ac­tual two tonnes.

But it’s an un­re­solved mix of com­po­nents, in­flu­ences, feels and philoso­phies, as Vi­rages are. The steer­ing is sur­re­ally light and makes squelch­ing noises as you move off-cen­tre. The gearchange is stiff and clunky and the driv­e­line shunts. The trad-sport fly-off hand­brake is at odds with the Ford Scor­pio switchgear and the Jaguar XJ40 ash­tray. There’s far too much wal­nut ve­neer, in­dis­crim­i­nately ap­plied wher­ever there’s a gap. It some­how lacks the sense of iden­tity and pur­pose that the pre­vi­ous V8 gen­er­a­tion kept up dur­ing its long life.

As you would ex­pect, the blue shoot­ing brake is a gen­tler ex­pe­ri­ence dy­nam­i­cally, if a louder one vis­ually. It has a sep­a­rate starter but­ton, in glass, and a five-speed ZF auto trans­mis­sion in place of the orig­i­nal Chrysler Torque­flite four­speeder. Beat ad­mits there’s some­thing up with the con­trol unit’s con­ver­sa­tions with the en­gine, be­cause it won’t shift be­yond sec­ond gear un­less I over­ride it man­u­ally.

If I do that, it feels a good deal more will­ing than I re­mem­ber that vil­i­fied early Volante ever do­ing, the shoot­ing brake hum­ming lan­guidly but as­sertively with no trace of a V8 beat as we waft along. The con­trol in­ter­faces feel too re­mote to make this a con­vinc­ingly sport­ing car, but it’s a great GT with a smooth, stress­less ride. And again, it feels rigid and rat­tle-free de­spite the extra stresses im­parted by the up­rated sus­pen­sion and brakes of the Works Pre­pared Driv­ing Dy­nam­ics pack.

There’s no win­ner here; it’s not that sort of test. Rather, it’s an ex­am­i­na­tion of what a clever engi­neer­ing com­pany can do to al­ter the char­ac­ter of a pres­ti­gious, if flawed, grand tourer while para­dox­i­cally keep­ing the char­ac­ter in­tact. One thing is for cer­tain, though. These two are one-offs. You won’t see an­other.

V

PHO­TOG­RA­PHY MATTHEW HOWELL

Above and right Roos Engi­neer­ing’s two vari­a­tions on a Vi­rage wagon. Green car is based on the supercharged Van­tage, rear cabin (above right) con­fig­ured for owner’s boxer dog

This page, and op­po­site Green car is the beast, with V600 en­gine (be­low). Blue ’brake (right) was based on long-wheel­base Volante, so not such an an­i­mal, but the re-engi­neer­ing went deeper

Left and above Roos Engi­neer­ing re­ally went to town with its sec­ond V-car-based ’brake. Styling was sharper and more con­tem­po­rary, and the cabin was given a com­plete re­vamp, with tan leather and In­dian lemon wood ve­neers

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