behind the stable door
that never was? The Towns Vantage
Astute AMOC members who peruse the club register will find a section detailing the prototypes and development cars Aston Martin built or proposed. Some have such obscure names as the Buzzbox, Atom, Wall’s Ice Cream Van and the Blue Monster. Mention is made of the “DBIIIC” (4.5 litres, 2 seats, 99" wheel base), “DBIV” (4.5 or 2.6/3 litres, 4 seats, 104"), both contemplated in 1952. The 1960’s seem to have been the heyday for prototypes with V8 engined DB4 and DB5 mules running around. However no mention is made of one particular car. We know it exists, as the following photos document, but its history remains elusive, forgotten over the passage of time. Careful research and discussions with now retired factory engineers revealed some of the mystery.
The car owes its origin to the V8 Vantage that went on sale in February 1977. The Vantage was initially conceived after AM reformed in 1975 under the auspices of George Minden and Peter Sprague, with Alan Curtis and Denis Flather soon joining the partnership. Mike Loasby, who had been with company in the late 70's and worked on the prototype DBSV8 Vantage, came back to head up engineering. The V8 Vantage as such did not begin life as a production car. It was initially envisioned as a conversion kit to be installed by the Aston Martin Service department at Newport Pagnell; much in the fashion they now offer 6.3-litre conversions for the V8 and Virage cars. Mike realised the standard V8 lacked power and performance, especially in the face of ever more stringent emission and safety legislation. He developed a package for existing V8s, as Aston Martin did not have the resources to develop a new model at that time. The car released to the press in February of 1977 was a standard V8, in fact the factory demonstrator, converted to Vantage specification by the experimental department.
Initial design proposals incorporated into 1977 V8 Vantage, blanked off grille, bonnet plug and bolt on rear spoiler all appeared in production. Blacked out trim and side skirts would appear during subsequent years. Only integrated bumpers were never used.
Early mock ups integrated Federal 5 mph bumpers into the design, the effect was somewhat clumsy.
Once the Lagonda had been released Loasby and his team turned their attention back to the V8. The shape had been around ten years and other than a facelift in 1973 it was felt to be somewhat dated. Williams Towns was called back to sketch some designs and develop a proposal for a new Vantage to replace the cobbled together car then entering production. The car would need to meet safety standards for the UK, Europe and the USA so adoption of the Federal 5 mph bumpers was included from the outset. An updated interior treatment to refresh the somewhat dour décor used since the 1960’s and a vibrant exterior treatment were suggested. Towns’ proposal, while not as extreme as the Lagonda, was certainly a revelation to the conservative Aston staff.
Hints of Towns Lagonda can be seen in the side profile. Matt black frames and brightwork to appear on USA cars in 1982.
A chance meeting with Mike Loasby at the factory when he was working on the Brunei cars unearthed Towns’ original typed records and design sketches on his ideas for the Vantage. Titled “Production Vantage” they are reproduced here for the first time.
It is suggested that Vantage modifications should be coordinated to produce a cohesive visual change, thus:
Interior treatment adopted on “Oscar India” V8 revision but incorporating wood
It’s clear from the prototype “Oscar India” V8 Vantage that appeared at the AMOC's St. John Horsfall race meeting in July 1978 that AM management hadn’t approved Towns’ radical design. However mock ups of the proposed car were built in the experimental department.
Pictures dated Feb 1978, mock up on V8/11870/RCAV, prototype “OI” V8 Vantage. Clay has been sprayed to resemble finished car.
The tail treatment was revised from the initial sketches and evolved into the “OI” tea tray spoiler treatment standard on all V8s from October 1978.
Clay rendering of Vantage tail treatments in Towns studio. “OI” tea tray spoiler on the left, “Fliptail” on the right
Early photos of the ”OI” prototype VNK349S show a shallower bonnet bulge, blacked out trim, coachline and cow catcher spoiler. Final production reverted to the shape we have all become familiar with known as “Oscar India”.
Almost there, prototype with hints of Towns proposal but closer to production reality.
No mention of the “Towns Vantage” has ever been made in books on the marque or in the AMOC register. From the photos we know the car certainly existed as a mock up, but never saw production. As many of the ideas were incorporated with the V8’s evolution the car was an important stepping stone in AM’s history. With this the first article to appear on the car, opinions may vary on its appearance and many will probably be thankful it never saw the light of day. However the Towns Vantage position in the AM story is no less important than that of the other prototypes built by Aston’s experimental department.
The Roo will return in November
September 12.04 The Zagato Mule
You see them in car magazines regularly, spy shots of development cars and prototypes. Hideous disguises seem the order of the day, ludicrous bodywork additions to mask the final shape or a pastiche of contrasting vinyl stickers to frustrate lurking photographers intent on bagging an exclusive. It wasn’t always this way, Aston Martin may have used 150 cars to develop the DB9, many with the aforementioned enhancements, but before Ford purchased the company it was normal to have only one or two prototypes for a new model. For liability and legal reasons Ford have never allowed any Aston prototype or development cars to be sold into private hands, those that are aren’t allowed to be used on the road and invariably end up in private museums. Pre-Ford the cars were sold to provide sorely needed capital to fund development programs and keep the company afloat. It wasn’t unusual for an unsuspecting customer to buy one of these cars and not be aware of its previous life.
Finding one of these Astons on the road in the USA is highly unlikely, well it was until early 2003 when one slipped into the country. The car in question was probably Aston’s longest serving engineering vehicle and the last one sold privately before the Ford acquisition. Over a period of eight years it saw duty as a demonstrator, engineering development car and finally a test mule before being put out to pasture. In that time it covered over 150,000 hard miles, went through three engines, numerous clutches, untold sets of brakes and ended up the fastest and lightest V8 ever built by the factory.
Its story begins after being delivered through Aston Martin Sales in London on June 7 1978, registered as VNK360S, the 39th V8 Vantage built. Not long after the car returned to AML works service with overheating problems, unfortunately they couldn’t be cured to the owner’s satisfaction and AM bought the car back. It then took on the role as the factory demonstrator and press car; numerous pictures of it appear in contemporary publications on the marque. After a fatal accident involving VII, the prototype Oscar India V8 Vantage, VNK was put into service as an engineering development car and over the next six years tested and developed every significant enhancement introduced in the V8 range. Its log book makes fascinating reading detailing the cars grueling test regime. A cryptic entry appears on June 11th 1982, “front spoiler broken (large rabbit)”; the rabbit’s health was not recorded! Another entry details an extended period at Piper for fuel injection development work from August 1983 to February 1984 (it wasn’t until 1985 that FI re-appeared on the V8, this time an electrical rather than a mechanical system last used from 1969-73). Trials of an electric vacuum pump to help with braking are detailed, after one tester complained of poor brake performance another questioned whether he remembered to turn on the pump.
Come 1985 and VNK360S was to undergo its most radical change. The Vantage Zagato had been announced at the Geneva Salon and a development mule was needed to prove the concept. VNK entered the engineering department and emerged faster and lighter following surgery with an angle grinder. Weight was pared out of the car to meet the Zagato’s target of 1600kg. The interior was removed, all A/C and heating systems dispensed with, side and rear glass replaced with Perspex, boot floor and spare wheel well cut out, a 5 gallon fuel tank fitted and the brake boosters moved to the space once occupied by the rear seats. Mechanically a low ratio differential substituted to enable 60mph to be reached without changing gears, a high output development engine built up (437 bhp at 6,250 RPM) and 16” wheels and tyres mounted on a revised suspension featuring variable rate springs matched to revalved shock absorbers. The result was devastating; the car met all the performance targets for the Zagato and proved faster than the production car. Ultimately Astons had built the only lightweight V8 Vantage and the most powerful normally aspirated V8. Lessons learned were transferred to the Zagato and eventually the “X” pack Vantage of 1988.
Meanwhile VNK was proving a distraction to the development engineers who wanted to take it racing so it was quietly sold off before customers started demanding replicas. The car found its way into the collection of a loyal Aston customer who always had the first production example of each V8 Vantage model. After languishing in his museum for a number of years it was purchased in the early 1990s by UK AMOC stalwart Bill Goodall who set about cleaning up the car and entering it in competition. To this day he still regrets selling it on. Soon after he parted with VNK it was involved in an accident while the new owner was showing off to his girlfriend. More damage occurred during recovery of the vehicle than in the accident. After repair it passed onto another AMOC member who raced it club hill climbs and sprints, taking 1st at Goodwood, Cornbury Park and Wiscombe in 1998. The car was acquired by the Kangaroo Stable in 1999 and came in 1st on handicap at its first outing at Donnington. This was followed up by 2 more 1st place finishes at Snetterton and Oulton Park. VNK then saw a 2 year sabbatical in Australia before making it to the USA in early 2003. Campaigned by the Kangaroo Stable it can be seen in SCCA Vintage racing on the west coast and regularly driven throughout the Northwest as it’s registered for road use.
To this date it remains the last Aston development car in private hands, regularly used on the road and actively raced. It shares space in the Kangaroo Stable with 4 other V8 Vantages and 2 V8 Volantes (one to PoW Vantage specification).
The Roo will return in October with "The Aston that never was? The Towns Vantage"
information within this website is provided for educational purposes to
parties interested in learning about the Aston Martin Automobile. It is
true and complete to the best of my knowledge. This is not an
official web site and has no connection with Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd nor
the Aston Martin Owners Club and is not authorised by them. Some
words, model names, logos and designations appear on this website in
pictures and text where they are used for identification purposes only.
They are the property of Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd., Aston Martin
Owners Club and registered copyright owners.
Works preparation completed at The Kangaroo Stable
Copyright October 12, 2004