Richard Meaden makes an emotional journey in the very first mk1 Vanquish
Can it be a decade since the first-generation Vanquish ceased production? Seems hard to believe, if you ask me. Still, if it is true, that makes it 16 years since a small band of motoring writers (myself included) were invited to Newport Pagnell for a deliciously low-key introduction to Aston Martin’s all-new flagship.
Vanquish was significant for all kinds of reasons. Though we didn’t know it back in the summer of 2001, it would be the last new model produced at the Tickford Street factory. It would also be something of an engineering cul-de-sac, thanks to the clever and more costeffective modular VH platform that would soon shape Aston’s future at Gaydon.
However, in that moment, all I knew was this: standing in the quaint confines of Aston’s pre-facelift Works showroom, waiting to be handed the keys to one of the first handful of Vanquish production cars built, this handsome, chiselled machine seemed very much like the future. And an exciting one at that.
We – that’s to say Vantage’s sister magazine, evo – had a plan to take the Vanquish on a drive befitting its stature. One that would truly test its GT credentials and squeeze our strict three-day loan until the pips squeaked. We would head for the Scottish Highlands, putting big miles on it before enjoying some of the finest roads and scenery anywhere in the world. Naturally, being Scotland, it rained (hard) but the trip was epic. And the Vanquish? Well, let’s just say it rose to the challenge.
Sixteen years later and I’m once again heading to Scotland. Only this time in the deckchair-like seat of a well-known budget airline. My mission? To revisit the Highlands in Vanquish no.1. As in chassis 00001 – the first production car built – and one of the original press launch fleet, though sadly not the one I drove. Appropriately, no.1 has been supplied by Aston Martin Works, though this time it has been transported from Newport Pagnell to Glasgow to spare it wasted motorway miles.
I’ve driven early Vanquish and Vanquish S many times since that first foray north of the border, but this trip already feels like it’s going to be something special. That much is confirmed when photographer Matt Howell and I emerge from airport arrivals, meet Hugh Hadland (Works‘ trusted delivery man) and head for a nearby car park to unload the Vanquish from its discreet covered trailer.
You’d think the novelty of seeing and
hearing a Vanquish would have worn off by now, but when Hugh opens the trailer, lowers the ramps, fires up no.1 and lets it slowly nudge out into the sunshine, it’s a proper goosebumps moment. The unadorned simplicity of the shape is fabulous, the exhaust burble at idle full of promise. Its star quality remains undimmed.
After agreeing to meet back in the same place in a little under 30 hours, we pack overnight bags and Matt’s camera equipment into the car. It’s the first test of the Vanquish’s GT credentials, and one it passes with flying colours. Largely because no.1 was built to 2+0 spec, which means the all-but-useless rear seats are swapped for a much handier deck on which to stow additional bags. I suspect 2+2 was the popular choice – and one advised by dealers at the time – but I like the purity and functionality of the two-seat configuration, and the fact that Aston offered the choice.
We brim the tank with 98 octane at the nearest filling station, enjoying the look and feel of the big, bright petrol cap as it clicks back into place. So, all set then. Except I’d forgotten that the Vanquish is a car from the tale-end of the Flatnav era, so we return to buy a ‘map’, whatever that is.
It’s an unexpected reminder that although the Vanquish is a 21st century car, it’s still from a bygone age. One in which Aston had only just stopped making cars entirely by hand, the 5.9-litre V12 was still a novelty, and paddleshift gearboxes were rather avant- garde. Ah yes, the gearbox. It’s the one area of the Vanquish I always worry will sour the driving experience, but if age has done anything it is to increase my tolerance level. Yes it was below par from the get-go, but so long as you make allowances and drive with mechanical sympathy, it’s not that big a deal.
We burble away from Glasgow, crossing the Erskine Bridge, heading for Loch Lomond. The traffic is busy but finding a reasonable flow, the Vanquish swimming among the shoals of ordinary metal like a shimmering tuna or marlin, all muscle and menace. It actually feels pretty compact and nicely supple, the lumps and bumps that would transmit sharp jolts through a more aggressively suspended car nicely absorbed.
The V12 is equally relaxed, murmuring away in the background and offering the slightest rumble when asked to push us into a gap in the traffic. It has an effortless, elastic feel that encourages you to flex a tall gear rather than bat up and down the ’box.
As the road opens out, the Vanquish feels even more at home. Still loping along, but enjoying the space and scale of the everexpanding scenery. If some people have the charisma to fill a room just by walking into it, so the Vanquish naturally takes ownership of the road around it. It’s one of those cars.
As we skirt around its shore, the loch looks magnificent, the glassy surface shimmering as though studded with a million jewels. It’s now I’m reminded how wonderful it is just to
‘AS THE ROAD OPENS OUT, THE VANQUISH FEELS EVEN MORE AT HOME, ENJOYING THE SPACE AND SCALE OF THE SCENERY’
be in the Vanquish. Calm and comfortable, it’s a masterful mile-eater, rolling along with minimal effort yet engaging enough to make you feel part of the journey. The interior is a strange mix of time-honoured traditionalism and awkward-looking modernism. The seats are really comfy and the diamond-quilted Alcantara looks fab, but the slabby dash is still, er, challenging. Especially the round black plastic switches. The cream-faced dials seem at odds with the efforts at contemporary design, as though Aston’s design team was afraid to let go of the past completely. Or maybe they just didn’t have the budget for snazzier dials.
After we leave Loch Lomond behind, the A82 goes up another gear. The grandeur of the Trossachs National Park fills the view ahead, the huge, rolling peaks verdant green against the bright blue sky. Even the Vanquish begins to feel dwarfed by our surroundings, never more so than when we cross the exposed plateau of Rannoch Moor. This and the approaching run through Glen Coe are among my most favourite stretches of road – a reminder that driving can sometimes feel like an adventure.
Heading up here in holiday season isn’t ideal, but we find some space to let the Vanquish loose. Not recklessly so – it’s not the time or the place for that – but enough to feel the 460bhp V12 get on top of its intermediate gears and let its battle-cry echo out across the wilderness.
By today’s GT standards, the Vanquish isn’t especially potent, at least on paper. The DB11 boasts 600bhp, Ferrari’s 812 Superfast a scarcely believable 789bhp. And yet, when you squeeze its throttle to the carpet, it still feels quick. Not explosively so, but plenty quick enough to make your heart beat faster. Quick enough to surge past a string of caravans and motorhomes. Quick enough to crease your face with a broad, slightly giddy grin. Same as it ever was.
I’ve always thought Astons feel at home up here. Maybe that’s why I always feel drawn to the place when I’ve got the key to one in my pocket. It’s an urge felt long before the James Bond film Skyfall made this area a destination for 007 fans. Fortuitously, Howell shot the Skyfall DB5 up here when the film was released, on the very roads Bond and M traversed in the movie. It would seem daft not to swing by, so we turn left off the A82 and head towards Glen Etive. It’s a dead-end, but well worth a look.
In my original drive we headed for Fort William. We re-trace that route now, but then head back towards Ballaculish, where we’re to stay the night. The weather is just spectacular, the temperature still in the 20s as the sun begins to set. We line the Vanquish up with Loch Leven behind and stand mesmerised as the scenery – and the Aston – look better and better with every passing minute. Money shot bagged, we wander back to our hotel for a beer.
‘QUICK ENOUGH TO CREASE YOUR FACE WITH A BROAD, SLIGHTLY GIDDY GRIN…’
Next day, with quieter roads all around us, we decide to go where the wind blows us, following the coast road for mile after fabulous mile. Miles made all the better by the Vanquish, which just seems uncannily suited to these roads. It strikes me that this is because it makes no pretence at being anything other than the consummate GT. No misplaced athleticism to make it shine on a racetrack, no complex electronics to filter you out of the process. Just an ample spread of performance, readily accessed, generously delivered and a pleasure to exploit.
Yes, you can sense the brakes aren’t overly endowed with stopping power – something the S addressed, together with a sharper but still supple chassis set-up and some added grunt to make progress even more imperious – but it doesn’t matter so much because the focus isn’t on all-out point-to-point pace.
You can’t explore the Highlands without skipping onto a few of the islands that pepper the coastline. Some are joined by bridges, others require a ferry crossing. More by accident than design, we drive across ‘The Bridge Over the Atlantic’ to the Isle of Seil and then find the ferry that takes you the 200m or so to the adjacent Isle of Luing. The water is gunmetal grey and swirling with treacherous currents, but the ferry butts its way confidently across the Cuan Sound. I’m not sure how many, if any, Aston Martins have driven onto the MV Belnahua’s tiny deck, but the Vanquish negotiates the ramp without grazing its belly and raises an appreciative smile from the friendly crew. Everyone loves an Aston.
Once on Luing, we wind our way along the narrow roads, pausing to take in the view across the rest of the Slate Islands, and beyond to Scarba and Kerrera, before stumbling upon the abandoned ticket office and pier at Blackmill Bay. Parked out on the crumbling remnants of the jetty, the Vanquish looks magnificent, its fulsome bodywork shining bright against the steel-grey sky. By rights it should have dated long ago, but there’s something defiant about it. It’s almost concept-car-like in its confidence and purity, as striking now as it was all those years ago.
The driving experience has staying power, too, but not for the reasons you might expect. Where once it felt like a fierce creature – the quickest and most exploitable car Aston had ever built – the Vanquish has mellowed into a role that arguably suits it better. I can think of few cars I would rather drive on these roads, or that would strike a better balance between pace, poise and presence. Funnily enough, a DB11 probably comes closest, but even that lacks the kudos that comes of being a flagship model.
As we head back south towards Glasgow, I’m on a bit of a high. Drunk on scenery and completely dialled in to the Vanquish, it’s been the perfect trip. One that has underlined my love for an increasingly fabulous Aston and reminded me that, when done well, there’s no finer road car than a great GT.
Opposite, top Aston Martin’s 5.9-litre V12 is coming to the end of its life now, but 16 years ago it was still something of a novelty. Having made its debut in the DB7 Vantage two years earlier, it was extensively reworked for the Vanquish, lifting...
Below and right Plaque confirms this was the first production Vanquish, hand-built at Newport Pagnell, where the car is currently for sale in the Works showroom. Editor Meaden borrowed it for a couple of days to relive the epic drive he did for evo...