project van­tage

VANTAGE - - Contents - words JOHN SIMIS­TER PHO­TOG­RA­PHY MATTHEW HOW­ELL

We recre­ate a mo­men­tous drive in the con­cept that be­came the V12 Van­quish

A lit­tle over 20 years ago, at the Mill­brook Prov­ing Ground, As­ton bosses glimpsed the fu­ture – in the shape of Project Van­tage. We recre­ate that day

Detroit Auto Show, Jan­uary 1998. The first in­dus­try show­case of the year, ped­dling au­to­mo­tive op­ti­mism even while at­ten­dees’ bod­ies are still pro­cess­ing their New Year hang­overs. Ford’s gi­ant pre­sen­ta­tion, in the the­atri­cal Cobo Arena, in­cludes a slot for its pres­ti­gious Pre­mium Au­to­mo­tive Group brands: Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo, As­ton Martin and, er, Lin­coln.

It’s As­ton Martin’s turn, and Ford pres­i­dent Jac Nasser proudly re­veals ex­actly what As­ton-watch­ers have been fer­vently hop­ing he would re­veal: the car that might move As­ton Martin on from the V-car di­nosaurs and the slightly cross­bred DB7 to a pure-as­ton fu­ture of in­sanely de­sir­able ma­chines of ex­tra­or­di­nary beauty. Please meet, he of­fers, Project Van­tage…

And there it is, in a rich metal­lic green, the fu­ture made real if only the com­pany can build a real one and not just this rather fab­u­lous con­cept car. As­ton Martin CEO Bob Dover says a few words. De­signer Ian Cal­lum, blend­ing in with the au­di­ence, has the spot­light shone upon him, waves and is re­lieved not to have to speak. The fu­ture starts here.

MILL­BROOK TEST TRACK, Bed­ford­shire, Novem­ber 1997. It’s a freez­ing morn­ing, but a vi­tally im­por­tant one for the core of peo­ple whose mis­sion it is to give As­ton Martin a fu­ture. Project Van­tage, newly com­pleted at Tom Walkin­shaw’s stu­dio at Leafield, Ox­ford­shire, is be­ing pre­sented to Jac Nasser. He, Dover and Cal­lum are pho­tographed with it at the base of the test com­plex’s hill route, not far from where a later As­ton will per­form mul­ti­ple rolls for a James Bond film, pre­tend­ing to be in Mon­tene­gro. It is bit­terly cold.

Nasser takes Project Van­tage for some fast laps, faster than the con­cept car’s cre­ators en­vis­aged, around the hill route, Dover ner­vously pas­sen­ger­ing and hop­ing it will all hold to­gether. The unique, ma­chined-from-solid mag­ne­sium wheels sink up into the arches un­der stresses the sus­pen­sion’s alu­minium pushrods are un­able to with­stand. And the car has to be packed up to be shipped to Detroit the next day. Panic.

MILL­BROOK TEST TRACK, Bed­ford­shire, Jan­uary 2018. Project Van­tage stands in its own wheel­prints at the base of the hill route. Dover and Cal­lum stand by it again, just as they did 20 years and two months ear­lier. Be­tween them is not Jac Nasser but Ge­orge Ge­or­giou, th­eas­ton en­thu­si­ast who now owns Project Van­tage. The two in­ter­ven­ing decades have treated the car’s main pro­tag­o­nists well, the car it­self even bet­ter. The weather is not so cold this time, just ex­tremely wet.

So, how did the project get from then to now? What hap­pened in be­tween, and what hap­pened be­fore? Bob and Ian are about to tell us the in­side story.

First, though, we must tell Ge­orge’s tale of how he came to be the cus­to­dian of such a vi­tal piece of As­ton his­tory. ‘It was in the Bon­hams auc­tion at Works in May 2016,’ he says. ‘It looked a mess. Half the in­te­rior was in the boot, the glass was wrong, there was de­bate as to whether it would start. No-one wanted it. I put in a cheeky bid, which

was the first and only bid.’ Project Van­tage was his.

‘As­ton de­liv­ered it with spi­ders in the head­lights and stick­ers all over it warn­ing not to at­tach a bat­tery, not to at­tempt to start it. That was not what they sold it as, so it went back to Works to be sorted out. They got the brakes to work but they didn’t want to do too much else to it. They seemed to be try­ing to treat it like a pro­duc­tion Van­quish.’

Ge­orge knew that the con­cept car was far from road-le­gal, but he just wanted to get it moveable – and look­ing right. He had new glass made to re­place the black Per­spex that had been in­serted in the side win­dows, and grad­u­ally Project Van­tage came back to life.

‘We bled the fluid through the gear­box con­trol sys­tem,’ Ge­orge tells us, ‘but it still doesn’t like go­ing into re­verse and it some­times stalls. But the en­gine is fine, and it’s never been apart.’ This, it should be pointed out, was the first ex­am­ple of As­ton Martin’s V12 fam­ily of en­gines to be in­stalled in an As­ton Martin. Gosh.

A friend of Ge­orge’s, Steven Behrens, has ar­rived in his early pro­duc­tion Van­quish, car num­ber 205, so that we can com­pare con­cept with re­al­ity (see pages 94-95 to com­pare them for your­self). At first glance, con­cept and pro­duc­tion car are amaz­ingly sim­i­lar, even down to most of the shut-lines and panel joins. And that’s de­spite mas­sive dif­fer­ences in their con­struc­tion. Project Van­tage has a glass­fi­bre body, sit­ting on a box-sec­tion alu­minium chas­sis fea­tur­ing race-type pushrod front sus­pen­sion with semi-lon­gi­tu­di­nal coilover units feed­ing their loads into the bulk­head. Con­trast that with the su­per-formed alu­minium pan­els, Lo­tus Elise-like struc­tural ex­tru­sions and con­ven­tional sus­pen­sion of the pro­duc­tion car.

Then you no­tice that Project Van­tage’s bon­net is slightly lower, as is the en­gine it­self, and that its ‘cut­away’ sills are deeper and tuck fur­ther un­der. Look again at the Van­quish and you see that the pro­duc­tion car’s whee­larches have been pulled out a bit. So have the flanks be­tween the arches, where that char­ac­ter­is­tic haunch be­gins, to al­low the win­dow glass to re­tract past the door locks. Project Van­tage can’t be locked.

Plenty of other ex­te­rior de­tails changed from Project Van­tage to Van­quish, in­clud­ing larger light units flank­ing the front grille, be­spoke head­light units in­stead of DB7 items and a broader bright strip around the win­dow open­ings, but the big­gest changes were to the in­te­rior. The look of ev­ery As­ton Martin dash­board from the DB9 on­wards, right up un­til DB11 set an­other new tem­plate, started here in Project Van­tage’s more skele­tal, naked alu­minium ver­sion. But the Van­quish missed out…

‘We wanted to keep the pro­duc­tion car as close as pos­si­ble to the show car,’ says Bob, ‘but we had to change the con­sole. This in­te­rior is much bet­ter than the Van­quish pro­duc­tion car’s but it was too ex­pen­sive to do. That quilted trim, on the seats and the head­lin­ing… no-one had done that be­fore.’

Bob re­calls the think­ing be­hind the con­cept. ‘This car needed to be more ag­gres­sive than the DB7 but not as much as the V-car; more fe­male-friendly, if you like,’ he

‘IT’S THE FIRST TIME CAL­LUM HAS SEEN PROJECT VAN­TAGE IN AL­MOST 20 YEARS’

says. ‘ And we wanted to demon­strate our tech­ni­cal cre­den­tials with the car­bon­fi­bre crash struc­ture, the trans­mis­sion and the V12 en­gine. We recorded V12 sounds from a Ferrari and a Lam­borgh­ini on a cas­sette ma­chine, and made it sound like that.

‘Ev­ery­thing was too strong in the Van­quish and we didn’t have time to re­duce the weight. We ac­tu­ally used the same car for the front, side and rear im­pact tests. The car­bon­fi­bre wind­screen frame was there to pass the con­vert­ible roll-over test. We didn’t build one in the end, though Za­gato did.

‘We wanted As­tons to look good in 20 years,’ he says, ‘and here’s the proof. It looks so well pro­por­tioned, whereas the DB11 looks squashed flat.’ He’s clearly de­lighted to be re­united with this im­por­tant con­cept car. ‘It’s look­ing re­ally good,’ he says. ‘The paint is amaz­ing. Clearly it’s in good hands.’

For Ian Cal­lum, this is the first time he’s seen Project Van­tage in nearly 20 years. He picks up Bob’s point about the need to change the con­sole for the pro­duc­tion car. ‘The heat­ing and ven­ti­la­tion sys­tem was out of the XK8, and it wouldn’t fit,’ he ex­plains. ‘The switchgear was also XK8.’

It’s al­ways fun spot­ting where com­po­nents came from. Project Van­tage used door mir­rors from an E36-era BMW M3, while the tail lights came from a Fiat Coupé: the orig­i­nal idea was to use some­thing sim­i­lar on the Van­quish. ‘The tail lamps were go­ing to be round ones from a Ford Cougar with cov­ers over them,’ Ian con­tin­ues, ‘but Ian Mi­nards [the de­vel­op­ment en­gi­neer] showed a cus­tomer one of the pro­to­types, who laughed at them.and Wolf­gang Reit­zle [head of PAG] said we couldn’t use them. I said it would cost £250,000 to do new ones, but Reit­zle said to do it. Ox­ford Light­ing made them.

‘I was dis­ap­pointed that the body side had to be pulled out. The track ended up nar­rower, too, be­cause Mi­nards said too much tyre would be ex­posed oth­er­wise. The roof didn’t change, though, nor did the planes of the glass.

‘Then Dr Bez got in­volved. Ev­ery­thing he asked for, I ig­nored. And yes, you can say that.’

CAL­LUM STARTED THE DE­SIGN in June 1997, at Leafield. Soon, there was a clay model. ‘I wanted Jac nasser to see it,’ Bob re­calls. ‘nasser said, “I’d re­ally like to do that, but I have no time. Wait a minute… I’m fly­ing to Turkey, I could stop by…”

‘Jac was an hour early, but it was OK be­cause we were an hour and five min­utes early. So we put the ket­tle on in Tom Walkin­shaw’s stu­dio and gave him a ba­con sand­wich. He liked the clay and made a cou­ple of sug­ges­tions, so it wasn’t an end to my ca­reer af­ter all. He wanted a bit more dec­o­ra­tion at the back, a metal blade. That’s the only de­sign change we made.’

The next stage was to make an ac­tual pro­to­type car, com­plete with func­tion­ing V12 en­gine and au­to­mated man­ual trans­mis­sion, and still within the £1m bud­get that PAG man­age­ment thought would do no more than fund a con­cept model. Ian takes up the tale. ‘It had to be at Detroit for Jan­uary 2, and it would take three weeks to ship. So here we were at Mill­brook in novem­ber 1997, with Dan Parry-wil­liams who’d de­signed the chas­sis. We got it off the trailer and it was sink­ing; the alu­minium pushrods were bend­ing.’

The fa­mous pho­to­graph (re­pro­duced on page 96) was

taken, with the three key men in bor­rowed As­ton Martin jack­ets. ‘We had to give the As­ton anoraks back af­ter the shoot,’ re­mem­bers Bob.

‘Then,’ says Ian, ‘Bob got into the car with Jac and vroooom! It came back and the wheels were right up in the arches. We rema­chined the parts in steel back at Leafield, start­ing at 6pm. Some­thing caught Dan’s hand, blood ev­ery­where. So I took him to my house ten min­utes away where my then-wife, a nurse, ban­daged it. Then we were straight back to the stu­dio, and I fin­ished the job with Dan di­rect­ing. At 1am, I drove it on the road to the pub at Leafield and back, to test it. It was then packed in a metal box to ship to Detroit…’

Af­ter the Detroit un­veil­ing, Project Van­tage was moved to a cor­ner of the Jaguar stand be­cause, says Bob, As­ton Martin was too poor to have its own stand. The Mill­brook pho­to­graphs formed the dis­play’s back­drop. Next came an ap­pear­ance at the Amelia Is­land con­cours. ‘Ian and I went,’ Bob re­calls. ‘Some US jour­nal­ists drove it, to help re­launch the com­pany and the brand to the US, where the big V-car wasn’t le­gal.’

‘I drove it at Amelia Is­land the day I was of­fered a job at Jaguar by [Ford’s head of de­sign] J Mays,’ adds Ian, who was then with TWR De­sign. ‘I turned it down. But a year later I went to Jaguar Ad­vanced De­sign.’ Where, along­side Jaguars, he con­tin­ued to shape the next wave of As­tons.

IT’S STILL RAIN­ING, but a drive in Project Van­tage around Mill­brook’s hill route is a treat we can post­pone no longer. Its soft tan leather is get­ting in­creas­ingly be­smirched by dark, wet patches, while the boot has gained a pud­dle. ‘It has never been out in the rain be­fore,’ says Ge­orge, but he’s put­ting on a brave face.

Re­mem­ber, it’s a con­cept car. That’s why the wipers and most of the in­stru­ments don’t work, and why I’ve just man­aged to push the starter but­ton right through into the depths of the cen­tre con­sole. It did its job, though; the en­gine has erupted into the open-mouthed roar that comes with straight-through si­lencers and no cat­a­lysts.

First gear is se­lected with the pad­dle, and it’s im­por­tant now to ac­cel­er­ate away briskly to re­duce clutch-slip and stop the ’box – a Tre­mec T56, says Bob Dover, with Mag­neti Marelli elec­tro-hy­draulic con­trols – from jump­ing back into neu­tral. Once we’re mov­ing, the gear­box pad­dle-shift­ing works quite well, and the en­gine is mag­nif­i­cently feral in its boom­ing, blar­ing, high-hy­dro­car­bon fe­roc­ity.

‘A DRIVE ON MILL­BROOK’S HILL ROUTE IS A TREAT WE CAN POST­PONE NO LONGER’

The Bon­hams sale cat­a­logue pointed out that ‘this ve­hi­cle is a con­cept car de­signed to mo­ti­vate it­self at low speeds’, but that would be a waste. Ge­orge tells me he drove it at 100mph dur­ing a Good­wood demon­stra­tion, prob­a­bly the fastest it’s ever been. I won’t try to em­u­late ei­ther that or Jac Nasser’s sus­pen­sion-bend­ing Mill­brook run to­day, though, not least be­cause 20-year-old tyres and a wet track go badly to­gether. It’s enough to feel the tar­mac through the steer­ing and struc­ture, to sense the en­gine’s ur­gency, to revel in the sense of this car’s sig­nif­i­cance as I main­tain just enough speed to blow the rain­drops across the wind­screen.

‘Can I drive it?’ asks Bob Dover. He does, and re­turns with a big smile, but the smile is tinged with puz­zle­ment and a slight sad­ness. ‘I can’t be­lieve they sold it,’ he muses.

Ian, too, has en­joyed his reac­quain­tance with Project Van­tage. ‘It brings back fan­tas­tic mem­o­ries of great times,’ he en­thuses. ‘It was one of the nicest projects I’ve ever worked on, not least be­cause it was just me and Bob. And this was the start of the mod­ern era.’

It was in­deed. ‘Is that a new As­ton?’ sev­eral peo­ple asked Ge­orge, when he dis­played Project Van­tage at last year’s Hamp­ton Court con­cours. De­signs, it seems, come no more age­less than this.

Above and right Project Van­tage con­cept in­te­rior would be much changed for pro­duc­tion Van­quish, but its ba­sic ar­chi­tec­ture would be car­ried through to a whole gen­er­a­tion of As­tons. Project Van­tage also first As­ton to ap­pear with then-new V12 en­gine (DB7 Van­tage fol­low­ing in 1999)

This page and op­po­site From ini­tial sketch to art­work to clay model, how Project Van­tage emerged. Op­po­site, top: de­signer Ian Cal­lum chats to Bob Dover, As­ton CEO at the time the project was in­sti­gated. Be­low, with owner Ge­orge Ge­or­giou (sec­ond left)

above and top The his­toric mo­ment (above) when Ford boss Jac Nasser, flanked by Bob Dover and Ian Cal­lum, met Project Van­tage at Mill­brook. Top: 20 years later, Dover and Cal­lum recre­ate the same shot with owner Ge­orge

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