Van­tage. Soon it will all be over.

VANTAGE - - Drive Story -

Don’t worry, I don’t mean this mag­a­zine; print isn’t dead yet. I mean the sub-db9, sub-db11 two-seater coupé (or con­vert­ible) that ar­rived in 2005 and will soon be re­placed by a new car based on short­ened DB11 un­der­pin­nings. It, too, will be called Van­tage – you can read all about it, if you haven’t al­ready, on page 30 of this is­sue. For now, though, there’s but a short time to en­joy the cur­rent one in fac­tory-fresh guise.

Not that V12 VTE was ex­actly fac­tory-fresh by the time we had con­verted 125.7 gal­lons of petrol into wa­ter vapour and car­bon diox­ide on the way to, from and around the mid­dle of Europe. I like to think we con­trib­uted, in a small way, to the pro­duc­tion of some of the snowflakes we en­coun­tered and that we helped the pho­to­syn­the­sis of plant cel­lu­lose in the forests. It was to be our fi­nal Van­tage (the car) drive, and we needed to make it a good one.

That the Van­tage in question would be a V12 S with a man­ual gear­box would make the task all the more plea­sur­able, although I haven’t al­ways been of that mind. Back in 2009, I drove the first of the V12-en­gined Van­tages with a sixspeed man­ual trans­mis­sion and, although the idea seemed ir­re­sistible, the real­ity for me was spoilt by a throt­tle re­sponse in­fu­ri­at­ingly dif­fi­cult to gauge ac­cu­rately. Four-and-a-half years later, I drove the V12 Van­tage S on the launch in Cal­i­for­nia and dis­cov­ered a car ut­terly trans­formed. ‘You want to drive it for­ever,’ I wrote in The In­de­pen­dent. ‘The best As­ton Martin there has ever been? I do be­lieve it is.’

The ex­tra 53bhp, mak­ing 563, might have been one rea­son. A par­tic­u­larly co-op­er­a­tive pad­dle-shift gear­box, in man­ual mode at least, was an­other, a fab­u­lous chas­sis and the bril­liant throt­tle re­sponse that came with a new, clev­erer en­gine-man­age­ment sys­tem were a third and a fourth. I, by de­fault a favourer of man­u­als, was com­pletely smit­ten.

But our fi­nal-drive V12S is a man­ual, yes? It is, with a seven-speed gear­box just as re­cent Porsche 911s have had – and the prom­ise of sim­i­lar com­pli­ca­tions of ac­cu­rate lever aim, al­beit with a dif­fer­ent gate pat­tern. Other­wise it’s like that Cal­i­for­nia-launch car, apart from be­ing right-hand drive and men­ac­ingly metal­lic black ex­cept for the dis­creet grey lip­stick around its mesh-filled mouth.

A ma­jorly long drive into main­land Europe is al­ways best when there’s a pur­pose be­yond the driv­ing it­self, and in this case it’s to sam­ple the cars of As­ton spe­cial­ists Beat Roos, based in Switzer­land (we’ve al­ready re­ported on some of them) and then to head into the Bavar­ian Alps to meet Peter Hornik’s su­per­charged, Gulf­coloured Cygnet (also fea­tured in this is­sue). And if we can take in some race­track land­marks as we go, then so much the bet­ter.

So we leave my house in Hert­ford­shire, snap­per How­ell and I, when the sky is as black as the As­ton. We think we’ll get to our ho­tel in Rothrist, in the Roos heart­land be­tween Basel and Zürich, by early evening. A speedy cross­ing under, rather than on, the sea will help, and the old Reims cir­cuit is right on the route.

Straight away the As­ton demon­strates how well suited it is to such a jour­ney in some ways, how less well in oth­ers. Of course there’s the frustration of know­ing how lit­tle of its abil­ity we’re us­ing at the speed limit, a frustration that – as with any modern, very rapid car – could eas­ily over­whelm the plea­sure we’re sup­posed to feel. But the As­ton fares bet­ter here than some su­per­cars, es­pe­cially those of the mid-en­gined, ex­tra-wide and claus­tro­pho­bic variety. That’s be­cause there’s a com­fort­ing feel­ing of what I can best de­scribe as nor­mal­ity in the Van­tage, a re­sult of its front en­gine, its rear­ward-set cabin, a sense of use­ful com­pact­ness and the way it sits firmly, squarely, com­mand­ingly on the road.

You feel you can re­lax with the As­ton, that you’re not con­stantly on show. How­ever, a grand tourer on a grand tour such as this re­ally ought to have a bit more in the way of chat­tels ac­com­mo­da­tion. Some stuff is stuffed be­hind the seats; our cross-chan­nel cof­fee cups sit in the flat space in front of the sat-nav screen. The shal­low, thin but wide glove­box is filled en­tirely by the shal­low, thin but wide hand­book. A paean to packing­ing it is not.

In France, we nat­u­rally head straight onto the A26 to­wards Reims. There’s not much fu­ture in cruis­ing be­yond 80-85mph be­cause the po­lice will have you, and in sev­enth gear that rep­re­sents barely 3000rpm. Fur­ther­ing the re­laxed na­ture of what, in a dif­fer­ent mood, is a crack­ling, snarling, sear­ing su­per­car, is the

‘YOU FEEL YOU CAN RE­LAX WITH THE AS­TON, THAT YOU’RE NOT CON­STANTLY ON SHOW’

5.9-litre V12 en­gine’s stu­pen­dous torque. It’s en­tirely fea­si­ble to miss out ev­ery other up­shift, treat­ing the gear­box as a wide-ra­tio four-speeder with ev­ery ra­tio se­lected with a rear­ward pull from the neu­tral po­si­tion, and still ac­cel­er­ate with more vigour than nearly any­thing else on the road.

This gear­box, with its old-school, Zf-like dog­leg first to the left and back, is ac­tu­ally the same Graziano unit as is used by the two-pedal, se­quen­tial-shift Van­tage S. Its se­lec­tor rails and forks must be ob­jects of some in­tri­cacy in the way they now con­nect to a sin­gle gear­lever rather than a bat­tery of hy­draulic ac­tu­a­tors. Spring bi­as­ing keeps the lever nat­u­rally in the 4/5 plane, and it’s clear that there’s go­ing to be quite a lot of re­progam­ming in my head be­fore I nat­u­rally sense where I am in the gearchange gate. Still, there’ll be plenty of time for that.

REIMS, ITS PITS and ad­ja­cent build­ings are now smartened as be­fits their mon­u­ment sta­tus. Yes, it’s a cliché to do the Reims pil­grim­age, but it’s the first time I’ve been back since the sym­pa­thetic re­paint. You can’t string the whole pub­lic-roads cir­cuit to­gether in one con­tin­u­ous lap, give-ways with ev­ery in­ter­sect­ing road de­lib­er­ately thwart­ing the chance to get car­ried away on a 12 Hours rev­erie, but it’s still a thrill to hear our ex­haust note re­flected from the pit wall as we travel the long main straight, also known as the D27. The race was never won by an As­ton Martin, in­ci­den­tally.

Now, seek­ing respite from the au­toroute, we aim along a slower but more di­rect N-road to­wards, ul­ti­mately, the Vos­ges moun­tains and Al­sace-lor­raine. Too soon, road­works are clos­ing the main road’s tun­nel and we’re di­verted into the town that the tun­nel is meant to by­pass. After nearly an hour of baf­fling Dévi­a­tion signs, re­peated laps of the town and sat-nav in­struc­tions that make no sense, we even­tu­ally see the main road on the town’s far side run­ning tan­ta­lis­ingly close to the farm ac­cess road onto which we have blun­dered.

Just a shal­low grass bank lies be­tween, and no fences. Fresh tyre tracks show we have not been alone in our limbo. Shall we? With a roar, a slither and no scrape, the As­ton is di­ag­o­nally over the bank and on the road. Free at last… but how many oth­ers are doomed to eter­nal nav­i­ga­tion to nowhere?

By early evening we’ve passed Mul­house in this Ger­manic part of France, where my old Peu­geot 205 GTI was made and where France’s Musée Na­tionale des Au­to­mo­biles has grown out of the for­mer Sch­lumpf Bu­gatti col­lec­tion. Now we’re at the bor­der cross­ing be­tween Mul­house and Basel, which forces a stop to buy the vi­tal Swiss mo­tor­way vi­gnette. You can’t buy it for just a week, as we would like, nor even

a month. It’s a whole cal­en­dar year’s worth for CHF40 (about £32), but at least there are no more tolls to pay.

The Swiss are su­per-strict on speed lim­its so our As­ton feels more over-spec­i­fied than ever. We’re ex­tra-vig­i­lant as we head east on the A3 au­to­bahn – this is Ger­man-speak­ing Switzer­land – pass­ing signs to Lör­rach just over an­other bor­der in Ger­many, where once a pho­tog­ra­pher and I based our­selves when at­tempt­ing to drive through six coun­tries in one day in a Citroën 2CV. Why? To send up an Audi TV ad of the time, in which the Fis­cher fam­ily cruised around five coun­tries in one day in their Audi Coupé. They weren’t half as wrecked as we were by the end. It would be easy in the As­ton, though, speed cam­eras per­mit­ting.

Rothrist is our base for the next two days, while we try Beat Roos’s two Vi­rage-based shoot­ing brakes (is­sue 18), his As­ton-en­gined Volvo P1800 (is­sue 19) and an­other ma­chine that you’ll read about soon. In pur­su­ing these sto­ries, the V12 Van­tage S does things it was never de­signed to do, act­ing as a cam­era car (its sus­pen­sion is sur­pris­ingly sup­ple for a semisu­per­car), slith­er­ing in the snow, get­ting thrillingly dirty. Then, our Swiss as­sign­ment at an end, we’re head­ing around Lake Con­stance and into Aus­tria, where we can buy a onemonth vi­gnette for our half-hour on the au­to­bahn…

We’re due to meet the souped-up Cygnet mid-morn­ing near the Dis­ney-pro­to­type Neuschwanstein Cas­tle at the base of an Alp, but this is look­ing in­creas­ingly un­likely even as we cross into Ger­many and, for the first time, prop­erly open up the Van­tage’s pair of plenum chambers. This is where, space and brav­ery per­mit­ting, I could con­firm that it will ac­cel­er­ate all the way from 28mph to 205mph in sev­enth gear, en­gine note hard­en­ing de­li­ciously at 3500rpm, a whoosh­ing bel­low our sound­track there­after, but traf­fic keeps get­ting in the way. I have to con­fess that I will get no fur­ther than 142mph on this trip. Sorry.

STUTTGART IS OUR night stop, in an­other splen­did Ibis. There’s a rel­e­vance here; the DB11 al­ready has an en­gine based on one from this city, and the Van­tage’s re­place­ment will also have Mercedes-de­rived power.

The next morn­ing, a rea­son­ably di­rect route home can take us past the Nür­bur­gring. It also means, with the pres­sure of time now eased a lit­tle, that hav­ing for­tu­itously by­passed Hock­en­heim on the au­to­bahn we can take some quiet Ger­man back­roads and dis­cover, fi­nally, how the V12S takes to the fre­quent ap­pli­ca­tion of lat­eral g.

I have come close to mas­ter­ing the sev­en­speeder, trust­ing it not to find first when I want third (just the right amount of pres­sure against the bi­as­ing-spring re­quired), and some­times

‘I HAVE TO CON­FESS THAT I WILL GET NO FUR­THER THAN 142MPH ON THIS TRIP. SORRY’

get­ting a per­fect heel-and-toe down­shift with­out over-dab­bing the mas­sively pow­er­ful, but some­times snatchy, car­bon-ce­ramic brakes. There’s the ‘AM Shift’ set­ting to auto-blip the throt­tle – it also al­lows full-throt­tle up­shifts – but I con­sider this to be cheat­ing so it re­mains un­used. I’m meant to be the driver here.

On real roads with real bends and real to­pog­ra­phy, the V12S re­ally is rather won­der­ful and it’s easy to get car­ried away. Its sinews are taut, its nose nailed to the road, its head­ing pre­cisely and minutely ad­justable. The breadth and abun­dance of torque make over­tak­ing lu­di­crously ef­fort­less, yet its rear sus­pen­sion and tyres mar­shal the forces to make this an easy, be­nign ma­chine, pro­gres­sive and talk­a­tive in its ac­tions. You al­ways know what the As­ton is up to; you in­ter­act with it, share the plea­sure and come to a joint de­ci­sion, nei­ther party forc­ing an out­come.

That’s what makes it such a great longdis­tance com­pan­ion, es­pe­cially on roads where you’re en­grossed in the dy­nam­ics and can for­get about the Van­tage’s sin­gle big­gest mo­tion fail­ing: its tremen­dous road roar on a coarse sur­face. It’s more of a prob­lem in the UK than across the Chan­nel, it must be said.

This dy­namic bond­ing is such that I don’t feel cheated at not do­ing a Nür­bur­gring lap, time hav­ing caught up with us again. We watch a road car or two squeal­ing its tyres on the cir­cuit as the first week­end camps are set up for a forth­com­ing race meet­ing, then we head on­wards, the Eifel moun­tains be­com­ing the Ar­dennes, to Spa-fran­cor­champs where lunch is taken in a café full of rac­ing car pieces as a group of teenagers take self­ies with the As­ton out­side. Then we find a piece of cor­ner-cut­ting pub­lic back­road at Stavelot whose banked bend re­veals it as a part of the orig­i­nal cir­cuit, and there’s the fear­some Masta Kink to drive through, sadly not at rac­ing speeds. What it must have been to race there, in those days…

THE DRIVE HOMEWARDS across north­ern France is not thrilling. Busy au­toroutes, cam­eras… all the great lev­ellers that cause those who don’t un­der­stand great cars to tell us they don’t see the point. But ar­riv­ing back home in the dark in the travel-stained As­ton after 2715 miles, the streaks look­ing like an ex­per­i­ment in wind-tun­nel aero­dy­nam­ics, I get the As­ton Martin V12 Van­tage S com­pletely. Re­ally, re­ally quick cars come no friend­lier or more fa­mil­iar than this. It will scorch to 60mph in 3.7sec yet it has just av­er­aged 21.6mpg. And right through our trip it has at­tracted not a hint of ag­gres­sion. Ev­ery­one loves it.

Two things I might miss in the new one, when it ar­rives: the com­pact­ness (I bet it will be wider, to the point of coun­try-road in­hi­bi­tion, as is the case with the DB11) and the un­be­liev­able, nat­u­rally as­pi­rated throt­tle re­sponse (it will be merely ex­cel­lent). I hope I’m wrong. Mean­while, hand­some As­ton Martin Van­tage in all your forms, from orig­i­nal 4.3-litre V8 to this, thank you. It’s been a blast.

V

‘IT’S AN EASY, BE­NIGN MA­CHINE, PRO­GRES­SIVE AND TALK­A­TIVE IN ITS AC­TIONS’

Clockwise from left Ex­tra bon­net vents have al­ways dis­tin­guished V12-en­gined Van­tages; Simister con­tem­plates chances of Kim Jong-un be­ing an As­ton man; im­pro­vised cup-holder, and that seven-speed shift pat­tern in full

Right Head­ing into Switzer­land, As­ton elicited a pos­i­tive re­ac­tion from ev­ery­one whose path it crossed, but strict speed lim­its were a frustration; cross­ing into Ger­many fi­nally pro­vided the op­por­tu­nity to stretch its (very long) legs, though heavy traf­fic on the au­to­bahns meant the 205mph max­i­mum would re­main the­o­ret­i­cal

Clockwise from left Into Bavaria, and Neuschwanstein Cas­tle pro­vides a suit­ably dra­matic back­drop; even after long hours on the road, the Van­tage’s long-legged gearing and de­cent ride make it an ami­able com­pan­ion; Simister’s even get­ting the hang of the gearshift; ar­riv­ing in Stuttgart for the fi­nal overnight stop

Above and right A quick de­tour to the Nür­bur­gring Nord­schleife, where much of the Van­tage’s devel­op­ment pro­gramme was car­ried out – and where lightly mod­i­fied ex­am­ples have en­joyed con­sid­er­able suc­cess in the no­to­ri­ously gru­elling 24-hour race over the years. As­ton av­er­aged well over 20mpg for the whole trip, in­clud­ing quite a bit of high-speed run­ning

Above and below Re­turn route passes close to Spa-fran­cor­champs in Bel­gium and takes in parts of the old road cir­cuit. At jour­ney’s end, the V12 S has rat­tled off 2715 miles in four days with­out a hic­cup. Next stop, the jet wash…

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