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