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