RACING THE ZAGATO
Rowan Atkinson owned – and raced – this car in the early noughties. Here he recalls the highs and lows
‘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?
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