SU­PER-CYGNET!

As­ton Martin’s con­tro­ver­sial city car gains a su­per­charger. Hold on tight

VANTAGE - - Contents - WORDS JOHN SIMISTER PHO­TOG­RA­PHY MATTHEW HOW­ELL

That the Cygnet is al­lowed to oc­cupy the an­nals of As­ton Martin history is surely now wellestab­lished. We’ve cov­ered the tiny toy cars in Van­tage, so it must be OK. That many en­thu­si­asts with col­lec­tions of full-size As­tons also squeeze a Cygnet into their lives proves their open-mind­ed­ness. Those who fol­low price trends have no­ticed how ex­pen­sive a good Cygnet has now be­come, too.

But shouldn’t a car with an As­ton Martin badge of­fer a bit more pace than 98bhp can pro­vide? Couldn’t the fac­tory have of­fered a tweaked-up Cygnet, us­ing the tun­ing parts avail­able in Ja­pan for the Toy­ota iq on which the Cygnet is based? It does seem an op­por­tu­nity missed, es­pe­cially when Ga­zoo Rac­ing, a Toy­ota-af­fil­i­ated tuner, re­vealed the first of a run of 100 su­per­charged iqs at the 2012 Tokyo mo­tor show.

Peter Hornik thought so, too. He is deeply in love with As­ton Martins, with a 1959 DB2/4 MKIII, a 1985 V8 Volante and a 2005 Vanquish S oc­cu­py­ing his am­ple garage, and there’s also space for a Cygnet. It is, how­ever, no or­di­nary Cygnet. Its num­ber­plate sug­gests its speed ca­pa­bil­ity in mph, achieved with the 160bhp that a tiny Rotrex su­per­charger helps the 1.3-litre en­gine to gen­er­ate.

‘We took it to the 100th-an­niver­sary As­ton Martin cel­e­bra­tion at the Nür­bur­gring in 2013,’ Peter re­calls with a smile. ‘There was a pa­rade of 100 As­tons, but this was the only Cygnet. Be­hind me was a V8 Van­tage and I could see the driver’s dis­ap­point­ment. Af­ter­wards it was a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent, and in the turns we were a bit quicker than him…’

So, how did this in­ter­pre­ta­tion of a su­per­charged Cygnet come about? ‘ Toy­ota’s su­per­charged iq is com­pletely dif­fer­ent,’ ex­plains Peter, ‘and we didn’t even know about it when we started work on this one in 2011. Ours is the work of SAW Tun­ing in Eise­nach. They had a con­tract to make around 20 su­per­charged iqs but it was can­celled, so they had sys­tems left over. The demon­stra­tor was the devel­op­ment car, so we bought that one and it’s now stan­dard again. It’s our daily driver and has cov­ered 135,000km.

‘We used the tun­ing bits on a Cygnet with CVT trans­mis­sion, which is now in Ham­burg. It has a qui­eter ex­haust than this one and doesn’t work as well.’

How­ever, that car and its demon­stra­tor pre­de­ces­sor worked well enough to con­vince Peter to cre­ate a sec­ond su­per­charged Cygnet, man­ual this time, us­ing more of SAW’S parts. Peter and his ex­perts would like to make a few more, but while the Rotrex su­per­charger, the in­ter­cooler and the stain­less steel ex­haust are easy to source, the vi­tal elec­tronic parts are no longer avail­able so sub­sti­tutes must be found.

That first su­per­charged Cygnet, the CVT car, is dark blue with sil­ver wheels, very under stated. Not so Peter’s car. ‘It was the first Cygnet to be sold by As­ton Martin Mu­nich. There was one in this Gulf colour scheme as a teaser on the in­ter­net, so I or­dered mine in those colours but they said it couldn’t be done. So this car is ac­tu­ally grey with a wrap. The num­ber 59 is to mark the Le Mans vic­tory with the DBR1 and the year of my birth.’

WE MET UP EAR­LIER at the Café Sauer­wein in Ho­hen­schwan­gau, in the Bavar­ian Alps be­neath not one, but two, cas­tles straight out of fairy tales. One, in­deed, was the in­spi­ra­tion for the Dis­ney car­toon cas­tle in Sleep­ing­beauty. It’s a per­fect set­ting for an al­most car­toon-like car, and there are some good roads here­abouts. Now that we’ve set the stage over a cup of cof­fee, it’s time to sam­ple the tiny ter­ror for my­self.

Mus­cu­lar, arch-fill­ing 17in Al­leg­gerita wheels add to the Hot Wheels aura. They wear 205/40 Hankook Ven­tus S1 EVO tyres, with just enough side­wall to look like they do more than sim­ply stop­ping the rims from scrap­ing the road. The whee­larches had to be rolled a lit­tle to ac­com­mo­date them. Be­hind the front wheels are big K-sport brakes with six-pis­ton calipers; be­hind all the wheels are height-ad­justable Tein dampers and stiffer springs. The sus­pen­sion is set as low as it can go while re­tain­ing a rea­son­able ride and use­able ground clear­ance.

There are no in­ter­nal en­gine mod­i­fi­ca­tions at all. This is purely a bolt-on con­ver­sion, which even re­tains the stan­dard in­duc­tion air­box but

with re­vised in­let and out­let tubes lam­i­nated in com­pos­ite and feed­ing a larger throt­tle body. There’s an in­ter­cooler and a KAT stain­less steel ex­haust sys­tem with twin tailpipes and a 2.5in pipe bore. And the elec­tron­ics, a Zeitronix Zt-2 sys­tem now in­con­ve­niently ob­so­lete.

They make their pres­ence known as soon as I start the en­gine. A dim dis­play above the fa­cia vents in­forms me of the warm­ing-up of the wide­band lambda sen­sor, the mix­ture-in­form­ing de­vice com­mon to all cars with cat­alytic con­vert­ers and elec­tronic man­age­ment, but able here to re­port a wider range of air/fuel ra­tio vari­a­tion than a stan­dard pro­duc­tion car should ever need. The dis­play also re­ports boost pres­sure, so it’s a shame I can barely read it…

‘You mustn’t use the stop-start sys­tem,’ Peter ad­vises me, ‘be­cause the elec­tronic control sys­tem for the su­per­charger shuts down and it con­fuses the other elec­tron­ics. Other­wise, just go for a drive, take it for as long as you want.’

So I do just that.

I GO GEN­TLY AT FIRST. The steer­ing feels a touch stiff around the cen­tre, per­haps ex­ag­ger­ated by the wide tyres. The en­gine sounds keenly rorty, the torque curve feels quite flat with the graph drawn use­fully higher up the y-axis than in the stan­dard 98bhp unit. There’s a per­cep­ti­ble de­lay be­tween press­ing the ac­cel­er­a­tor and feel­ing that ex­tra torque ar­rive, thanks to the length of the in­take tract as it ducks and weaves via the in­ter­cooler, so neatly squeezed into that snub nose. And, of course, ma­noeu­vring out of the park­ing space re­minded me that the turn­ing circle is ridicu­lously tight.

So far, the su­per-cygnet seems to be do­ing just what Peter in­tended it to do. ‘I was dis­ap­pointed with the stan­dard 98bhp, given that it has less than 1000kg to pull,’ he was telling me ear­lier. ‘I thought it would be bet­ter. I was al­ways hav­ing to rev it over 4000rpm. The Gulf colour scheme was promis­ing much more than the Cygnet could de­liver.’ Given how much his dis­ap­point­ment has given way to very ob­vi­ous joy at the re­sult, it’s only right that I should now dig a lit­tle more deeply into the throt­tle travel and grip po­ten­tial.

‘It pulls with an ea­ger blare, crack­ling with each high-revs gearchange, fluff­ing and pop­ping on the over­run’

I drop down a gear – such a sweet, snick­ety shift – and a mist as red as the seats, door­trims and con­sole hangs en­tic­ingly above, goad­ing me on as very un-cygnet-like forces stir. At 4500rpm the en­gine re­ally lights up, just as it does in the stan­dard car but here with much more con­se­quence. There’s a gen­tle tug of torque steer, which is best left to its own de­vices given the steer­ing’s gen­tle re­sponse ei­ther side of straight-ahead. That gen­tle­ness is de­cep­tive, be­cause once I’m past that cen­tral zone things hap­pen very quickly.

Not many cars turn into a cor­ner with the in­er­tia-free determination of this one. That’s the short wheel­base and wide track, the seem­ingly square foot­print that means even a slight wag of the tail would equal a big drift an­gle. Yet de­spite this al­most lu­di­crous flick­a­bil­ity, the Cygnet doesn’t threaten to go into a spin. It just grips and grips, all four wheels shar­ing the lat­eral loads equably. This car would be bril­liant at the elk-test slalom that, two decades ago, was the un­do­ing of the Mercedes-benz A-class as it fa­mously tripped over it­self.

Even on a straight and smooth road, though, this Cygnet is di­rec­tion­ally fid­gety, sniff­ing this way and that as I squeeze on more power. I was ex­pect­ing the ver­ti­cal fid­get of a too-firm ride, too, but ac­tu­ally the baby As­ton stays sur­pris­ingly calm and level in that par­tic­u­lar plane for some­thing so short.

All of which means the en­gine can take cen­tre

stage, pulling with an ea­ger blare, crack­ling with each high-revs gearchange, fluff­ing and pop­ping on the over­run. There’s a warn­ing buzzer at 6000rpm just be­fore the revs hit the lim­iter, so there’s a band of just 1500rpm in which the real high en­ergy hap­pens. But there are also six gears, so you can keep the thrust flow­ing from one gear to the next with­out fall­ing out of the power band.

It takes a lit­tle prac­tice to drive the Cygnet com­pletely smoothly and get a flow go­ing, but once you’ve cracked it the whole car comes to­gether. The trick is to lift off the ac­cel­er­a­tor frac­tion­ally sooner than you nor­mally would, to stop the over-rush of the con­sid­er­able quan­tity of air in the lengthy in­take tract, and ac­cel­er­ate slightly ear­lier too, so that the boost ar­rives ex­actly when you want it. It soon be­comes sec­ond na­ture to keep in mind the in­er­tia of the mass of air poised to en­ter the cylin­ders.

THERE’S A PAR­TIC­U­LAR se­quence of bends just after a vil­lage, which I tra­verse sev­eral times for the sheer thrill of it. That means I have to turn round in the vil­lage each time for the re­turn run, near a bus stop by which are wait­ing sev­eral peo­ple of teenage years. After the third or fourth time they are in­trigued by the stubby Cygnet with its race­track-fugi­tive colour scheme and rude vo­cals. Per­haps they think it ridicu­lous, per­haps they think it ex­tremely cool. They smile and wave, which is pos­i­tive enough for me.

I think Peter’s su­per­charged Cygnet is a ter­rific toy, ca­pa­ble of end­less entertainment, and it says a lot for the strength of Toy­ota’s base me­chan­i­cals that they can with­stand a 60 per cent power in­crease so non­cha­lantly. Peter has cov­ered 14,000km in it now; he man­aged to run it on dealer plates un­til it was con­verted in 2012, so that its reg­is­tra­tion doc­u­ment could show its present spec as its of­fi­cial iden­tity.

If you want one for yourself, though, you’ll find it an ex­pen­sive ex­er­cise. Peter reck­ons the com­plete con­ver­sion has cost around €30,00035,000, which nowa­days means al­most as many pounds. That’s a dou­bling of the price you’ll cur­rently pay for a good stan­dard Cygnet.

And, mean­while, there’s that prob­lem with the no-longer-avail­able electrics. Peter is work­ing on that and will find a so­lu­tion, and then more Cygnet-fanciers can join in the fun. After all, as As­ton Martin de­sign di­rec­tor Marek Re­ich­mann said to Peter when he saw the steroidal Cygnet, ‘This is how it should be.’

‘There are six gears, so you can keep the thrust flow­ing from one gear to the next with­out fall­ing out of the power band’

Below and op­po­site Our man Simister finds the blown Cygnet very much to his lik­ing. Four-cylin­der Toy­ota en­gine has gained Rotrex su­per­charger, in­ter­cooler and lots of other go-faster mods. Peak power is up from 98bhp to a much more in­ter­est­ing 160bhp

Above left Big­ger 17in wheels (stan­dard car was on 16s) are shod with wider 205/40 R17 tyres, ne­ces­si­tat­ing slightly flared whee­larches. Be­hind the front wheels are large, grooved, K-sport discs with six-pis­ton calipers, and there’s Tein ad­justable sus­pen­sion all round

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