RACING THE ZA­GATO

Rowan Atkin­son owned – and raced – this car in the early noughties. Here he re­calls the highs and lows

VANTAGE - - Drive - IN­TER­VIEW PETER TOMA­LIN

‘It was the sec­ond Za­gato I’d owned. It was a sort of brave and quite ex­trav­a­gant project re­ally, as con­firmed by the very large in­voices that I be­lieve still ac­com­pany the car.

‘It was done in ca­hoots with As­ton Martin Works Ser­vice and Kingsley Rid­ing-felce, who was in charge there at the time. We fan­cied the idea of build­ing an As­ton racer to go club racing. The class was for mildly mod­i­fied cars – we were up against light­ened V8 As­tons mostly – and there was a min­i­mum weight, so that be­came the tar­get. We man­aged to get it down by about 200 ki­los, as I re­call.

‘The stan­dard Za­gato is al­ready quite a bit lighter than the stan­dard V8 Van­tage, be­cause it’s a shorter car and has quite a lot more alu­minium – and no rear seats, of course. The prob­lem that all V8 Za­gatos suf­fered – and which iron­i­cally was the same thing the DB4 GT Za­gato suf­fered – was that all the weight came off the back, which meant that find­ing trac­tion was quite tricky. So there was a cer­tain skit­tish­ness. You had to be care­ful. I re­mem­ber a track­day at Don­ing­ton with my orig­i­nal blue Za­gato, the road car, and my good­ness me, the rear end was re­luc­tant to get power down.

‘I’m not sure we ad­dressed that par­tic­u­larly with our racing ver­sion, al­though it was in­ter­est­ing dis­cov­er­ing where you could lose weight. The bon­net, for ex­am­ple, we re­placed with a com­pos­ite item and saved some­thing like 25kg. And the ra­di­a­tor – us­ing an alu­minium one in­stead of the stan­dard steel item, it was some­thing lu­di­crous like about 12kg lighter. So we found there were huge sav­ings to be made, and of­ten in rather un­ex­pected ar­eas.

‘We were un­doubt­edly spend­ing more on the car than any­one else was. Of course, the cheap way of re­duc­ing the weight of your car is not to keep to the reg­u­la­tions, but clearly that wasn’t an op­tion with Works Ser­vice be­ing in­volved. So we even­tu­ally stopped when we got it down to the min­i­mum weight.

‘Be­fore the Za­gato, I had a DB2 Le Mans fac­tory team car, XMC 76 [which Rowan bought in 1997 and started racing the fol­low­ing year, in­clud­ing at the Good­wood Re­vival meet­ing. It was fea­tured in Van­tage is­sue 18]. It was a lovely car, which I very much en­joyed racing, and I prob­a­bly mis­tak­enly thought I would get some­thing more out of the Za­gato, some­thing more en­joy­able, whereas in fact it was just some­thing vastly more ex­pen­sive.

‘We had some good fun with it. I re­call we had a very good race at Thrux­ton and got a first in class. I re­mem­ber round the back of Thrux­ton th­ese end­less, sweep­ing cor­ners, and the car was great round there, very poised and re­ally good fun.

‘I think the great­est thing about the car is the en­gine. It re­ally is the jewel in the crown, as it should be with a racing car, of course. It’s ac­tu­ally got an of­fi­cial As­ton Martin race num­ber, which made it the first of­fi­cial As­ton Martin Works race en­gine since, I be­lieve, the Lola-as­ton [the ill-fated mid-60s Le Mans car]. It was a very spe­cial bit of kit, way be­yond an X-pack.

‘I look back on it fondly, but with slight frus­tra­tion at un­ful­filled ambition. I should have raced it more, but there were dis­trac­tions – or some­times sheer lazi­ness when you don’t want to get up at half five in the morn­ing to drive to Don­ing­ton Park for an early prac­tice ses­sion. The car de­served a longer and bet­ter racing ca­reer than it got.

‘Af­ter I stopped racing it, I did use it once or twice on the road, but it was a pretty cramped, un­com­fort­able car for road use: the sus­pen­sion was far too hard, and the clutch I seem to re­mem­ber for some rea­son was al­most un­press­able. So I de­cided to sell it [at the Bon­hams Works sale in 2008]. I un­der­stand it’s since had the ride height raised, the sus­pen­sion soft­ened and they’ve taken out some of the roll-cage, so it’s more use­able now than it was.

‘It’s quite a spe­cial car, and an in­ter­est­ing lit­tle piece of As­ton Martin his­tory. A very quick car, too, and cer­tainly the light­est Za­gato. I hope it finds a good home.’

tele­vi­sion and in movies, as well as many other film and theatre parts, he could well af­ford to in­dulge his passion for mo­tor­sport (though there are a cou­ple of let­ters in the car’s file show­ing that even Atkin­son baulked at some of Works Ser­vice’s more out­landish bills).

It’s hardly a se­cret that the ac­tor and co­me­dian has had a mixed time with his au­to­mo­biles over the years, be­com­ing the go-to head­line-maker for the red-tops when he suf­fered mishaps big and small with his car col­lec­tion. And this mighty Za­gato cer­tainly wasn’t for the faint­hearted, Atkin­son’s first sea­son in 1999 be­ing a litany of spins and crashes and body re­pairs, with, to his credit, a cou­ple of class wins. The fol­low­ing two sea­sons fol­lowed a sim­i­lar pat­tern un­til he binned it into the bar­ri­ers at Croft in 2001 and, per­haps un­der­stand­ably, lost a bit of in­ter­est in racing this ex­otic, bright-red ma­chine.

In 2007 it was taken back to Works Ser­vice and ‘calmed-down’ for road use. The brakes were re­built with­out the float­ing disc set-up, the ride height raised by 10mm, the de­tach­able side-bars from the roll-cage re­moved and a heater in­stalled. The fol­low­ing year it was con­signed to a Bon­hams auc­tion, where it sold for £122,500.

‘I had a client from Switzer­land who came over to “get” that car,’ says Mee. ‘But some­one else wanted it more and my client went home empty-handed.’ But Mee’s Swiss client got a sec­ond bite and, in 2016, he pur­chased Atkin­son’s old charger and Mee’s work­shops be­gan a sec­ond pro­gramme of gen­tle tam­ing mea­sures.

‘You'd bake in there if the sun was shin­ing,’ says Nick. And so a re­frig­er­ated air-con­di­tion­ing sys­tem was fit­ted, along with a re-cov­ered dash­board, a minute glove­box and re­trimmed seats, while the com­pe­ti­tion all-or-noth­ing clutch was re­placed with a less ex­treme but up­rated item. Mee’s me­chan­ics and trim­mers boxed-in the rear of the cock­pit with big lock­ers and re­turned some of the dash­board to some­thing more recog­nis­able as that sup­plied when the car was new.

The idea was to make a high-days gen­tle­man’s racer, though once you’ve clouted the roll-cage on the way in, sunk into the tight em­brace of the race seat and scanned the Stack rev-counter with its end­less pro­gram but­tons, it all seems more racer than gen­tle­man...

‘Don't touch the throt­tle,’ ad­vises Mee, and the en­gine churns slowly be­fore catch­ing and build­ing it­self up to a rea­son­ably steady idle. It’s noisy and boom­ing in the cabin, but the air-con keeps things cool as you watch the dig­i­tal read­outs climb. It feels very much a 21st-cen­tury racer, but the raw vi­bra­tion of the en­gine speaks of a dif­fer­ent era. Blip the throt­tle and the tiny rev-counter zangs around the dial. The gear­lever, with its dog-leg first, is slow and pon­der­ous and the dis­tinc­tive, two-spoke

‘this mighty v8 za­gato cer­tainly wasn’t for the faint-hearted’

steer­ing wheel sits in your lap with only a tilt ad­just­ment – though the driv­ing po­si­tion isn’t bad. Ac­tu­ally there's loads of room in here, which makes that dou­ble-bub­ble roof some­thing of an af­fec­ta­tion. You have to ad­mire Mee’s en­gi­neers for their ef­forts in mak­ing this a more com­fort­able cabin, but the Alcantara and new car­pets are never go­ing to fool any­one that this is any­thing other than an ex-racer.

The clutch is heavy but not im­pos­si­ble. It has a long travel, but the gear lever moves eas­ily with your foot just half-way down; slot first, the revs dip and climb, and you’re mov­ing. The steer­ing feels light but pos­i­tive and, on 255mm-wide Miche­lin Pilot Sports, it’s com­mend­ably uni­form in weight, even when you speed up.

Not too hard to do that, ei­ther, though the en­gine’s tun­ing means you can’t just jam the throt­tle to the floor at any speed as you can with the 7-litre con­ver­sions. With 2000rpm on the clock, the war­bling ex­haust note hard­ens and you’re soon mak­ing prop­erly quick progress. Thank­fully, al­though the pedal doesn’t have a lot of travel, the brakes are strong and pro­gres­sive, though with­out anti-lock you need to mod­er­ate their use all on your own.

Even a po­lite too­tle around a test track shows you that this car is quick and seems well-bal­anced. Not some­thing you should take lib­er­ties with, though. On a track it must have been for­mi­da­ble and not a lit­tle fright­en­ing, partly be­cause of its sheer power and size, and partly be­cause, al­though it was dy­nam­i­cally sound, even the stan­dard V8 could be some­thing of a hand­ful, which is some­thing a shorter body, less weight and harder sus­pen­sion can counter – but only up to a point.

It’s un­likely to race again and, as Nick Mee says: ‘For ev­ery ten Za­gato buy­ers, nine aren’t go­ing to want this, but one will.’ Al­most in spite of its mod­est race ca­reer and one A-list owner, there’s some­thing rather lovely about this Za­gato; even its mis-matched pan­els and bitsa dash­board seem strangely ap­pro­pri­ate. In th­ese days of heavy traf­fic and busy lives, a car such as this won’t get used much, but it will get used.

Mee likens it to a chess piece, al­low­ing its owner to drive onto the che­quer­board of ex­clu­sive games. It’s cer­tainly easy to imag­ine a beastie like this sit­ting at the back of the heated garage wait­ing for an early-morn­ing blast, a track­day or the odd AMOC sprint. Tempt­ing, isn’t it?

V

above A team of vol­un­teers from Works prepped the car be­fore races; note an­other car from the Atkin­son sta­ble tucked in be­hind

Above In­te­rior is now more fully trimmed than it was, but Stack rev-counter, brake ad­juster and elec­tri­cal cut-outs mean it re­tains its gen­tle­man-racer am­bi­ence

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