Aston Martin V12 Vanquish S manual: PH Heroes

Ideas are contagious in the motor industry, the bad as well as the good. That's why we suffered through a spate of ungainly, obese retractable hard-top cabrios a few years ago, and why the market is now filled with 'me too' compact crossovers. But it's also the group think that gave us the automated single clutch gearbox, one of the worst things to happen to performance cars in the last two decades.

Fortunately the era of the single-clutch 'auto' 'box is almost at an end. Maserati has killed it in the GranTurismo, leaving the soon-to-die Aston V8 Vantage as its last significant performance car application. (Peugeot and Citroen buyers still have to suffer PSA's lurchy ETC robo-box on its cheaper clutchless models.)

And that Vanquish concept came out in 1998!
And that Vanquish concept came out in 1998!
But it's the other end of Aston's association with single clutchers that brings us here, to the original Vanquish. A car that was almost ruined by a gearbox that could charitably be described as 'under developed'. Fortunately, there is an alternative.

Where it began
The Vanquish was, arguably, the first modern Aston, building on the success of the company-saving DB7 and becoming the archetype for pretty much everything that has followed.

Launched in 2001, it debuted both the bonded aluminium construction that would become the company's ultra-flexible 'VH' architecture, but also the 'muscles under a tuxedo' look that still defines the brand's styling 16 years later. Even now it's a desperately handsome car, one of the conspicuous highlights on the hit-filled CV of Ian Callum, Aston's then design director. It even got to be a Bond car, a suitably be-weaponed version being the conspicuous highlight of the mostly dreadful Die Another Day.

What it didn't get was a clutch pedal, Aston having decided that early 21st century sports car buyers wanted paddles. An automated Tremec gearbox with electro-mechanical actuators was the only transmission choice.

Glorious V12 is left untouched...
Glorious V12 is left untouched...
Stirred and shaken
As personal anti-climaxes go, my first experience of the Vanquish was right up there with the ending of Lost. As a young journo I'd been charged with taking one of the early press demonstrators from the central London office of the magazine I worked for to a photoshoot in Wales. The muscular design looked gorgeous, even the surprisingly low-rent interior wasn't too much of a let-down, and the V12 engine fired into life with exactly the sort of creamy lion-in-a-dairy snarl I'd been expecting.

But the gearbox was, for want of a better word, terrible. I remember bunny-hopping down the Marylebone Road as the automated clutch struggled to deal with low-speed progress and the system put a yawning chasm into every upshift. Things were no better on location; the clutch pack overheated under the gentle stress of manoeuvring for pictures and an enthusiastic launch filled the cabin with smoke. I got off lightly, though - a colleague ended up beaching a Vanquish on an Armco barrier after a particularly violent upshift broke traction on a wet road.

Changing gears
It improved over time. Software tweaks calmed the gearbox down, and most of the Vanquish's well-heeled buyers got used to the transmission's foibles, and the occasional expense of new clutches. But others demanded an alternative and, Aston being Aston, they eventually got one - albeit delivered through the company's Works subsidiary - in the form of a proper manual conversion. This was a non-trivial bit of re-engineering, involving removing the actuation gubbins from the gearbox, installing a mechanism to manually operate the selector forks and a conventional clutch. Then finding space in the cabin for both a gearshifter (donated by the Vantage) and a third pedal. The dashboard also needed a hefty redesign to lose the PRND buttons that commanded the old gearbox, and the steering wheel got a paddlectomy.

... here's where the change is
... here's where the change is
While we've tested the company's demonstrator before, but this is the first time I've got to experience it; does it tip the balance into justifying hero status?

Still gorgeous
Time has been exceptionally kind to the Vanquish's design; it's hard to think of anything else from the era that still looks so fresh, its tightly-wrapped contours radiating well-bred purpose. Details have grown old - round halogen lights inside the headlamps where you'd expect to see intricate projector units and door mirrors clearly donated by something more humble. But overall, it's still a stunner.

The cabin impresses less; the later Vanquish S had a far higher-rent interior than the early cars, but although it's entirely hand-built the standard of fit and finish is nothing like you'd find in a DB11. The Works demonstrator is an early prototype that's been turned into a Trigger's Broom by successive upgrades, one of which was a fairly major entertainment system overhaul about a decade ago. Ironically the fold-out screen from the once state-of-the-art head unit now feels more dated than anything else in the car.

A lovely static object...
A lovely static object...
Manual labour
The gearbox is good enough to feel like original equipment. The selector is exactly where it should be - a cup holder had to be sacrificed to give it a home - and although there's little space for the unintended clutch pedal there's still more room in the footwell than you'd find in a Caterham or Morgan. The clutch has a hefty weight and is nicely progressive, and letting it up proves the Vanquish is happy to burble along on nothing more than idle torque.

The selector itself isn't the slickest, with a long fore-and-aft travel but tight tolerances between its planes. Getting the right gear means being steady and unrushed, although the engine's willingness to pull from the basement to the penthouse means you don't actually need to change gear that often. A fumbled shift proves it will start off in third without complaining, too. The throttle and brake pedals are too far apart for confident heel-and-toeing, but the big engine still responds well to a manual blip to smooth downchanges.

The new gearbox also removes distraction from the glory that is the V12. Not wanting to get too misty-eyed here, but this is one of the earliest incarnations of an engine that - in substantially developed form - is still with us in the V12 Vantage and current Vanquish. And which will almost certainly be remembered as one of the finest-sounding powerplants of all time. This Vanquish hasn't got quite the same hard-edged top end as some of the harder-cored variants, but revving it out still produces the sort of angry, tuneful noises you'd normally have to taser a tenor to experience.

... and even lovlier on the move. A true manual Hero!
... and even lovlier on the move. A true manual Hero!
Would you?
The new gearbox also suits the character of the car almost perfectly. The automated transmission always felt like a digital addition to an analogue driving experience, and the tactile challenge of slotting gears and matching revs is perfectly suited to the other ways the Vanquish keeps you busy. The steering is precise and, by modern standards, bristling with feedback, but the car moves around on rougher roads and faster progress requires beady-eyed attention. The ride is firm and bumps caught at speed can catch the Vanquish out, creating both chassis heave and some fairly substantial creaks from the interior trim. But it's still a hell of a thing.

There aren't many Vanquish manuals out there, certainly not as many as there probably should be. This is a bit of the market where originality is still prized and the combination of rising values, the limited miles covered by an average Vanquish and the full acknowledged fact that owners may well have grown to accept or even like the automated gearbox means few want to put their pride and joy through intrusive surgery.

But for a relatively small percentage of the value of even the cheapest Vanquish - around £15,000 depending on the exact spec of the car - it's a change that transforms the car. In the unlikely event I ever buy a Vanquish it will definitely have a gearstick.

: 5,935cc V12
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 520@7,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 425@5,800rpm
0-62mph: 4.8 seconds (est.)
Top speed: 200mph+
Weight: 1,875kg (est)
MPG: 16.9 (est.)
CO2: 396g/km (est)
Price new: £174,000 + c.£15,000 for manual conversion









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Comments (44) Join the discussion on the forum

  • ammark 10 Aug 2017

    You're right the plastics look pretty crappy inside. Still a good looking machine though.

    Little typo I think here, "a non-trivial but of re-engineering"

  • Krikkit 10 Aug 2017

    Fabulous machine, definitely worthy of hero status (perhaps that should be extended to the current V12V-S manual as well?).

    That said, you guys didn't criticise the single-clutch in the current V12 that harshly in your review:

  • Syndrome280 10 Aug 2017

    I know the SMG box in the E46 M3 was always regarded as being a bit sh*t as were the early autos in the V8 Vantage, but the 7 speed graziano automated manual gearbox that was installed from 2011-ish onward was quite good from what I've heard, probably the same one mentioned in the V12 review.

  • TNH 10 Aug 2017

    Still a stunning looking thing. I remember lusting after one of these as a teenager.

  • The Surveyor 10 Aug 2017

    Regardless of the gearbox, that is absolutely stunning.

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