Cygnet V8

Is there any­thing that can’t be im­proved with a V8? As­ton’s steroidal Cygnet goes on a lap of Lon­don’s Con­ges­tion Charge Zone to see

Top Gear (Malaysia) - - Contents - WORDS: ROWAN HORN­CAS­TLE /

We take As­ton Mar­tin’s pumped-up city car for a lap of Lon­don’s Con­ges­tion Charge Zone

Re­mem­ber the As­ton Mar­tin Cygnet? It’s the city car As­ton’s for­mer CEO used as a left­field loop­hole to lower the firm’s emis­sions back in 2011. Some­what hi­lar­i­ously, the wishy-washy mar­ket­ing de­scribed it as a “ten­der” – a sort of short-range ur­ban dinghy to your DBS yacht. In re­al­ity, it was an ut­terly ex­tor­tion­ate, £31k, re­badged Toy­ota iQ with a leath­ery in­te­rior that only lasted two years be­fore be­ing swept un­der the car­pet. Quite right, too. It was one of the big­gest jokes in mo­tor­ing his­tory. An April fool PR stunt made real. But it’s funny how per­spec­tive can change with time and the ap­pli­ca­tion of a 4.7-litre V8 en­gine.

Look­ing re­splen­dent out­side Park Lane’s posh Dorch­ester Ho­tel, a glo­ri­ous Bri­tish Rac­ing Green Cygnet is caus­ing su­per­car spot­ters’ What­sapp groups to melt. That’s be­cause it’s not any Cygnet. It’s what can only be de­scribed as an en­gi­neer­ing in­evitabil­ity: a V8 Cygnet. No chop-shop spe­cial, ei­ther. An ac­tual As­ton Mar­tin from Gay­don’s Q di­vi­sion. See, if you leave a set of As­ton Mar­tin en­gi­neers in a room with an old Van­tage S and a small Ja­panese city car for long enough, even­tu­ally some­one will go all Spice Girls and make two be­come one. It was an idea As­ton first ex­plored in 2012, one that ul­ti­mately got moth­balled. How­ever, when a loyal cus­tomer was will­ing to res­ur­rect and bankroll the spenny skunkworks pro­ject last year, the Q de­part­ment obliged. There was a stip­u­la­tion, though: it had to be a one-off. See, when you’re fly­ing at an alti­tude in so­ci­ety that this owner ob­vi­ously does, the strong­est cur­rency you can deal in is be­spoke. Hav­ing some­thing no one else does equals weapon­s­grade brag­ging rights. Yet, some­how, I’ve been al­lowed to shake his new baby down be­fore he takes de­liv­ery.

Nor­mally this kind of ve­hi­cle op­ti­mi­sa­tion would hap­pen at As­ton’s Nür­bur­gring test cen­tre, but this is a su­per city

car, so I’m go­ing to sub­ject it to our own de­vel­op­ment track: the perime­ter of Lon­don’s Con­ges­tion Charge Zone.

For you non-Lon­don­ers, the CCZ is a 21-km loop las­soed around the ex­trav­a­gant and opu­lent nu­cleus of cen­tral Lon­don. Ef­fec­tively a toll road, it has sur­pris­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties to the Nord­schleife; it’s pretty much the same length, has a weirdly sim­i­lar lay­out (when you flip-re­verse it) and – most im­por­tantly – ev­ery­body on it thinks they’re the best driver on the planet. Most of the time it’s a clogged artery of con­ges­tion for peo­ple who don’t want to stump up £11.50 to en­ter cen­tral Lon­don. How­ever, TG reck­ons it’s also got huge po­ten­tial for an epic street cir­cuit. So con­sider to­day an of­fi­cial recce.

With Park Lane be­ing the start/fin­ish straight for the TG CCZ GP (al­right, the name needs work), the Dorch­ester’s car park dou­bles up as pit lane. Im­me­di­ately, peo­ple swarm to the Cygnet, ut­terly baf­fled by its pre­pos­ter­ous pro­por­tions. Chil­dren stare at it through cam­era phones. Peo­ple want to have their pic­ture taken next to it. Cab­bies throw thumbs up, smil­ing ear to ear. It might just be the an­ti­dote to the de­pres­sion of foot­ball not com­ing home.

Try­ing not to make a scene, I clam­ber over the roll cage and squash my­self into its tight, wing-backed bucket seats. Em­bar­rass­ingly, hav­ing pinned my­self too tightly into the five-point har­ness, I can’t reach the car­bon door. Luck­ily, one of those chaps with the funny hats is on hand. Stripped out and reek­ing of mo­tor­sport, the cabin is full of old Van­tage hard­ware. Slot­ting the hefty crys­tal key into the dash, the op­pos­ing di­als race around the clock as the en­gine barks into life. The V8 then set­tles into a weirdly hyp­notic deep gur­gle as I prod the D in the dash, re­lease the fly-off hand­brake and start a fly­ing lap.

Turn­ing left onto Park Lane down to Welling­ton Arch (a fast, tight­en­ing left-right, come race day), it be­comes im­me­di­ately clear that this isn’t go­ing to be a dod­dle. From

be­hind the wheel, it’s im­pos­si­ble to fathom the size of the thing. See, to make the pack­age work, the front and rear sub­frames from the Van­tage S, plus all its key com­po­nents (sus­pen­sion, en­gine, gear­box, wheels, brakes, track widths) were bolted to an iQ’s chas­sis. Then, an elab­o­rate cage was added to act as a cen­tral space­frame so it wouldn’t wal­low like a warm blanc­mange. You’re tricked into think­ing that you’re in a diddy city car, when, in re­al­ity, you’ve ac­tu­ally got mon­ster wheels sprout­ing out of arches and a su­per­car’s foot­print.

My con­fi­dence builds hav­ing nav­i­gated Vic­to­ria’s lunchtime rush (and the kamikaze Uber Eats driv­ers that go along with it) and head to­wards Vaux­hall Bridge. With a gap in the traf­fic, I clog it past MI6. Jessss­susssss Christ! Yep, 430bhp in some­thing with the pro­por­tions of a Vic­to­rian pram is quite po­tent. Ad­mit­tedly, the seven-speed au­to­mated man­ual was never the Van­tage’s strong point, but as the V8 Cygnet isn’t yet fully de­vel­oped, this ’box is su­per-slug­gish; slip­ping gears and tak­ing an age to en­gage a cog. But when it does, you’re snapped back and given all the power. With sur­pris­ingly good trac­tion from the back wheels and be­ing softly sprung, ev­ery prod of the throt­tle sees you point sky­ward, think­ing you’re go­ing to wheelie back onto the Van­tage’s gi­ant rear anti-roll bar.

Next chal­lenge, the re­designed Ele­phant and Cas­tle round­about. Some good karma from the traf­fic light gods al­lows for some fastish cor­ner­ing around the bonkers sev­en­lane, two-way in­ter­change. The dry-sumped en­gine sits a lot lower and fur­ther back than you’d think, al­low­ing the car to corner with a low cen­tre of grav­ity.

Cross­ing the Thames via Tower Bridge, my pace slows. As the V8 blub-blub-blubs across the ma­jes­tic 19th-cen­tury bas­cule and sus­pen­sion bridge, selfie stick-wield­ing tourists have a proper a sen­sory work­out. Never has a car be­fud­dled the pub­lic’s brain quite like this. The four-wheeled Goomba sim­ply doesn’t look or sound like it should. Akin to a hor­ren­dously dubbed for­eign movie, the im­ages your eyes see fail to match the sound­track your ears hear. So peo­ple just stand and stare, wait­ing for their cere­bral cor­tex to buf­fer the sit­u­a­tion.

Traf­fic is bad, though. Not be­cause it’s slow­ing down my sec­tor two (Spi­tal­fields to St Pan­cras) time (which it is), but be­cause I start sweat­ing hap­lessly. Plac­ing a mo­tor with twice the cylin­ders and five times the ca­pac­ity of what nor­mally re­sides there cre­ates quite a lot of heat through the bulk­head. There is air­con, but on a 30ºC day in traf­fic, it’s pretty much point­less. So I dip off into the side streets of Shored­itch. It’s at this point I leave Lon­don and en­ter “Laan­dan”. I’m not sure ex­actly where the bor­der is, but it must be around Arnold Cir­cus, as that’s where the trousers start rid­ing up the shin bone and non-ironic beards reach fever pitch.

In this hip­ster part of town, it’s pre­ferred if ev­ery­thing is pow­ered by noth­ing more than sanc­ti­mo­nious fair-trade farts. But the noisy, thirsty and deca­dent in­ter­nal com­bus­tion is a hit. Tick­ing cool un­der a two-storey wall of graf­fiti, a camotrousered lady with a face full of metal walks over. “Nice car, mate!” she screams. “What is it? What’s it cost? How fast is it?” Luck­ily, I have these an­swers on quick-fire as it’s the same line of ques­tion­ing you get ev­ery­where. “Some­where be­tween

£250k–500k, 0–100 in 4.2secs and a 273kph top end.” She bursts into a belly laugh. Not know­ing how to re­act, I con­tinue my lap.

Kings Cross to Eus­ton Road has po­ten­tial to be the fastest part of the TG CCZ GP. It also has Eus­ton’s un­der­pass – our an­swer to Monaco’s tun­nel. In­evitably, I drop a few cogs be­fore­hand and pin the throt­tle wide open. My ears smile as the revs hit the red line and a metal­lic whap of eight cylin­ders howls against the walls. It’s a case of hold­ing on and pray­ing it doesn’t back­flip. Or get­ting nicked by the cops. But the fuel gauge plum­mets.

Stupidly, I dip down a mews think­ing I can beat the traf­fic to a petrol sta­tion. Big mis­take. I’ve in­ad­ver­tently en­gaged in the tens­est game of Op­er­a­tion ever. One false move and I scuff some­one else’s very ex­pen­sive di­a­mond-cut 19-inch wheels.

“My ears smile as the revs hit the red line and a metal­lic

whap of eight cylin­ders howls against the walls”

Luck­ily, I get away with it and top up the small fuel tank (scrawled over in Tippex sig­na­tures by the As­ton team) in the boot be­fore swing­ing right at Mar­ble Arch to grin my way to the fin­ish line in five-and-a-bit hours. A new course record. The only course record.

But I have learned some­thing: Lon­don loves the mad lit­tle As­ton. It’s harm­less and hi­lar­i­ous. Ex­u­ber­ant and en­ter­tain­ing. It’s… prop­erly Bri­tish. Haters might dis­miss it as a jo­cose one-off, but projects like this show that both As­ton and its cus­tomers have a sense of hu­mour. A qual­ity that trans­lates in ev­ery part of the city, and ev­ery part of the world. The V8 is a shot of sero­tonin for so­ci­ety. In Lon­don, it lifts peo­ple’s spir­its, acts as relief in what can be a so­cially awk­ward city. See, un­like the orig­i­nal, this Cygnet is no joke. But it is hi­lar­i­ous.

112

PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: MARK RIC­CIONI

Only one V8 Cygnet shall ever be made. Some might ar­gue this is one too many

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