While everyone waits for the new 'small' Aston Martin due sometime in 2005, traditionalists are getting more and more uneasy. Not because of the car itself – it promises to be a cracker – but because of the name.
The concept car, unveiled in January 2003, was known as AMV8 Vantage and Aston Martin said that the production version to follow would also use the name Vantage as ‘a specific model name rather than denoting a high performance version’. But this won’t be the first time the Vantage moniker has been applied to one of Aston’s slower cars.
The name first appeared in 1950, when a high-performance engine option was made available for the DB2, costing an extra £128 on top of the £1,915 list price. It had always been Aston practice to prove prototypes in racing, and the new engine spec was directly derived from racing DB2s. The LB6 engine, designed at Lagonda under the direction of W.O. Bentley, was given a higher compression ratio and larger SU carburettors, and developed 125bhp.
The DB2/4 which followed in 1953 was slightly heavier and its taller roofline resulted in greater frontal area, so the Vantage-spec engine was fitted as standard to avoid any loss of performance. When the DB Mark III arrived in 1957 it had a heavily-redesigned engine, which was available in several different specifications – but the higher-spec engines, with up to 214bhp were known as ‘Special Series’ engines rather ‘Vantages’.
The Vantage name did not reappear until 1962, by which time production of the DB4 was well established and the quicker, shorter-wheelbase DB4GT had already hit the race tracks. The DB4 Vantage combined a ‘Special Series’ version of the DB4’s 3670cc engine with the cowled-in headlamps of the DB4GT, but because Astons were built to order you could also choose to have a Special Series engine in the standard DB4 body (with upright headlamps). A select few customers even had a DB4 Vantage with a DB4GT twin-ignition engine, known as a DB4 Vantage GT.
There was little visual difference between a late DB4 Vantage and the DB5 of 1963 – so little, in fact, that one of the two DB5s used in the James Bond film Goldfinger had actually started life as a DB4 Vantage. The biggest difference was under the skin, where the DB5 hid a big-bore 3995cc engine. Power was quoted at 282bhp, and by the end of 1964 there was a triple-Webered Vantage engine with a claimed 314bhp. Essentially the same engines went into the DB6 in 1965, the ultimate ‘C-stage’ tune supposedly delivering 324bhp – closer to 275bhp in reality.
The new Aston V8 engine was supposed to power the next Aston Martin, the DBS, but when the V8 was delayed the old ‘six’ was installed instead, with the Vantage spec as a no-cost option. Even when the DBS V8 came on stream in 1970 the six-cylinder car remained in production. When David Brown sold Aston Martin in 1972 the new owners, Midlands property developers Company Developments, stripped the DBS Vantage and DBS V8 of their ‘DBS’ badges – simply calling them the Aston Martin V8 and Aston Martin Vantage. Just 70 of those six-cylinder Vantages were built.
Sales of all Astons were slow, and the oil crisis of 1974 didn’t help. Aston Martin went into receivership, and very nearly disappeared entirely. But a consortium of businessmen saved it and by the late 1970s they had launched a high-tech Lagonda, a V8 Volante convertible – and a new V8 Vantage.
Development versions of the V8 engine had delivered a proven 460bhp back in the 1960s, but it was the Lagonda project which was responsible for a higher-performance V8 being offered in 1977. A power-sapping low-profile airbox had to be fitted to get the V8 under the Lagonda’s low nose, and big valve heads were developed to restore the lost output. Those big-valve heads, together with hotter cams and bigger carbs, went into the V8 Vantage spec, together producing something in the region of 380bhp. The Vantage was also given a deep front air dam and a tail spoiler, which were developed alongside the aerodynamic package for Robin Hamilton’s V8 Le Mans car of 1977.
All that made the V8 Vantage just about the fastest production car on the planet. 0-60mph acceleration times of 5.2 seconds were recorded, quicker than a Porsche 911 Turbo or a Lamborghini Countach, and the Aston would nudge 170mph if you could find a road long enough.
Even quicker Vantages followed. In 1984 Aston Martin and Zagato resumed a partnership which had created the iconic DB4GT Zagato in 1960, and the result was the 432bhp Vantage Zagato (fiurth from bottom). It was capable of almost 186mph, and with 0-60mph acceleration times under 5.0 seconds. Volante versions of both the Vantage and the Vantage Zagato then appeared, the former fitted with dubious-looking wheel arch extensions. Prince Charles ordered his with the Vantage engine but the standard body, and soon replicas were being built to ‘Prince of Wales spec’.
By then Aston Martin had entered a new era, as part of Ford’s growing global empire. A new four-valve V8 went into the Virage of 1988, and in 1992 it was followed up by a twin-supercharged Vantage (second from bottom) developing upwards of 550bhp and providing Zagato-style pace. Shy and retiring motoring scribe Jeremy Clarkson called it ‘the most wonderful car in the world.’ Even more wonderful was the Le Mans Vantage of 1999, released to commemorate Aston’s Le Mans win 40 years earlier, and available with either the standard 550bhp engine or a 600bhp upgrade prepared by Aston’s Works Service department.
But it was almost the end of the V8 Aston. Project Vantage (bottom), unveiled in January 1998, and would go on to became the V12 Vanquish. DB7 production was in full swing and a Vantage version would arrive in 1999 – the first car to use Aston’s V12 engine, then developing 420bhp. Since then, high-performance Astons have avoided the Vantage name: the 435bhp DB7 was a GT, the 520bhp Vanquish is an S, and presumably at some point there will be a 480-ish bhp DB9 GT.
But a new Vantage (top picture) is coming, and it promises to be worth the wait.