Ok, I will admit that when ever I hear the name Aston Martin I immediately think of James Bond’s DB5 (yes, I am old enough to remember that car). Let me tell you that Aston Martin has come along way since the days of the DB5, a long way indeed. So, since this particular blog series is about supercars from the ’90’s let me start of with some history as to how this particular English Racer came to be.
In 1987, Ford bought a 75-percent stake in Aston Martin and in 1994 Ford bought it outright. Then in 1999 Ford rolled it into the Premier Automotive Group which showcased Lincoln, Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin. Long story short, Ford eventually wound up selling off this grouping of cars, minus Lincoln, but before Ford sold off ownership of Aston Martin they injected a huge amount of cash and development into it through the late ‘80s and into the early ‘00s. By the time the V12 Vanquish rolled out in 2001, the international automotive press raved about how Aston was finally entering the 21st century, designing V12s, advancing to glued-aluminum chassis construction, and ditching its boorish old brutality for some real handling finesse.
Well, that is great and I am glad that Ford dumped money into the company in order to turn it around but what about the cars that were around during the ’90’s? That, my friend, is where the Aston Martin V8 Vantage Le Mans comes into play.
The Vantage series was built from 1993 to 2000, but its story starts in 1989 because that is when Aston Martin started selling the Virage. Pictured below is one of those cars.
The Virage was, as Aston so proudly exclaimed at the car’s unveiling, the company’s first all-new sports car in 20 years. They had been refreshing and updating the old V8 since the ‘70s, and they just couldn’t do any more to the old thing. Even though Ford funded some of the Virage’s development, it was a free and complete Aston Martin design. It was Aston’s first big stab at lightweight construction, high technology, and modernity. The chassis was steel, but the body was aluminum. The 323 cubic inch (5.3 liter) V8 engine used the same block as Aston had been using for the past few decades, but it got new 32-valve heads designed by Callaway. That is right, Callaway. You know, the guys that build wicked turbo Corvettes. Aston picked Callaway because they asked Cosworth first and supposedly one executive was to have stated that the price tag would be pretty horrendous.
Yes, all of the creature comforts you could expect on a nice family sedan could also be yours on a six-figure GT car. Well, except ABS as Aston Martin hadn’t figured that one out yet. They did manage to give up on their inboard rear discs because they never figured out how to keep those cool.
So, that is a brief overview of the Virage but what matters is how that car ultimately lead to the Vantage series. To start things off, here is an interesting fact, while the Virage had 330 horsepower, the Vantage had 550 ponies under the hood. That was as much power as you would get in a 200+ mph midengine supercar that had been stuffed into the front of a large, four-seat coupe. So, how did Aston get that increase? They simply twin-supercharged it with one perched on each set of valve covers. The thing was, while the Vantage got a huge amount of power, it didn’t quite have the ability to handle it very well. Aston did everything they could to address this matter as they hardened up the suspension, widened the tires, added a new transmission with a sixth gear, and added spoilers front and rear to keep the car stable. The thing was that Aston didn’t really go far enough. It was a hard time for Aston, right in the middle of the transition to total Ford ownership. Aston actually had no engineering director when developing the Vantage, and had to go to outside of the company in order to find someone to oversee the project. The Vantage’s suspension might have been stiffer than the Virage’s, but it was still softer than what was expected in a car like this. The transmission was a six-speed, but they had to go to GM to get it and what they got was the same gearbox that was in the Corvette ZR1 at that time.
The Vantage was somewhat nostalgic, loud, and a bit of a blowhard and if Aston Martin was concerned with production volume, they would have focused on fixing the troublesome quirks of the Vantage (and there were many). Aston, however, was probably just busy with developing the DB7 and working up to their all-aluminum renaissance starting with the 2001 V12 Vanquish. So, when you are working to create a car and your company gets purchased by another manufacturer along with the fact that you lost all of your design engineers what do you do? Well, rather than working to fix the problems with the Vantage, they just gave the it more power which sounds like something I would do.
The powers that be realized the cooling for the big supercharged V8 wasn’t as efficient as it could have been and once they fixed that with an additional intercooler they could up the boost on the twin blowers. That along with a new exhaust, gave 50 extra horsepower to the car. In 1998, Aston offered a V600 package boosting power up to, you guessed it, 600 horsepower. There were 56 people that bought the package, and Aston built 25 more for reasons I do not understand.
The following year brought the upcoming safety and emissions regulations that were about to make the car unsaleable but Aston figured they would give the Vantage a final run of top spec cars to run the model out in style. It was the last hand-built Aston Martin, and they called it the Le Mans. They built 40 copies, 40 years after the company’s 24 Hours of Le Mans win in 1959. What was the price you ask? Well, it was just over half a million dollars in today’s money.
As mentioned, the car offered 600 horsepower, as well as, 600 lb-ft of torque. Koni shocks, Eibach springs, AP Racing 6-piston calipers on ventilated discs, stiffer anti-roll bars and new vents on the bodywork. It also offered a blocked-off grill, and magnesium wheels and a bigger rev counter. All this worked together to make it the fastest car Aston had ever made, and the most powerful car in the world. McLaren wasn’t selling the F1 anymore, and there was no Ferrari, Lamborghini, or anything else to match its double-six figure. Top speed was a claimed 200 mph and 0-60 MPH was done in 3.95 seconds. The unfortunate thing is that Aston didn’t have a great history of making verifiable performance claims and the car never really was that fast. This car never did better than 4.6 seconds from 0 to 60 MPH, even after no fewer than 20 runs. Of course the 200+ MPH ratings were also subject to the credibility of those making the top speed claims.
So, with all of that said, here is how I look upon this supposed supercar from the ’90s. It’s not a beautiful car and it surely is not nimble. It is also not particularly good at putting down numbers (I am being polite). What this car represents to me is how a bunch of guys in rainy England managed to build the most powerful car in the world, and they didn’t do it in a cutting edge midengine supercar. They just took a huge V8 and stuffed it into a posh smoking parlor on wheels. Now, where I come from in Western Pennsylvania, that is considered to be ridge runner technology (minus the posh smoking parlor on wheels) and you won’t get it unless you have lived it. This wasn’t a good car by any real measure, nor was it a car that many people wanted to purchase but a grand total of 280 Vantages in any way shape or form were ever built and, because of that, used prices remain in the six digits thanks to it’s rarity.
Try as Aston did, the Vantage was still a vintage car even when it was new. Hopelessly flawed but almost painfully endearing, it maybe one of the last ‘vintage’ cars ever made.
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