"We were away for a month, drove across America in an Enzo and Carrera GT, stopping at all the attractions, testing our M600 test car against those other benchmark cars. Went down to Arizona; F50s, Ford GTs, all laid on for us ... I think I've been quite lucky in my career to have driven, up until recently, most of the cool stuff that's been around really."
It's safe to say that Adam Donfrancesco is a PHer's engineer. From the 911 that he calls his own, to the projects he's left his stamp on - Aston Martin's GT8 and GT12, Jaguar's F-Type GT4 and, of course, Noble's M600 amongst them - his priorities are clear for all to see. His involvement in the Vanquish 25 project has been somewhat overshadowed by the presence of the car's celebrated designer, Ian Callum, but Donfrancesco's contribution is just as significant.
Launched last year to a great deal of fanfare, the Vanquish 25 seeks to revisit a project with which Callum still felt he had unfinished business. "The car was only produced for six years - quite a short life. I started to think about the facelift that it never had, doing the things to it that I always wanted to do" he told PH at the time. While certainly attention-grabbing, the debutant's orange highlights, patterned flourishes and bold tyre writing perhaps belied the engineering effort which was poured into the car beneath them. "Yeah they are a little bit marmite those, aren't they?" says Adam, "I wasn't sure about them to be honest, but we went for them anyway." To set the record straight, then, PH spoke with the project's engineering director about exactly what work went in beneath the surface, and why.
"The whole point of the Callum business was that we wanted to create design projects with integrity, with engineering backgrounds. I'm a kind of nuts and bolts, back to basics engineering type, I like my greasy oily bits, and Ian's got a fantastic appreciation for it, in fact he's one of the most pragmatic designers I've worked with, which is really great. It's why we wanted to do it in the first place, really.
"I tried to approach this from an engineering perspective like I've approached previous projects like GT12, where you do a baseline assessment and you start to think, 'right, what is this car? What's it about? Why do we like it?' I mean the Vanquish is a fantastic car, it's 20 years old now but it's still a great GT car, it's got a fantastic V12 and comfort and all the things that a GT car should have ... we wanted to keep it honest to that.
"So the first step really was to decide what is the car, and what do we want to make it? What elements of it do we like, and what do we want to turn up to 10 or 11? What elements are lacking? I was very keen to ensure we didn't turn it into some obscure, track-focussed contradiction when it is fundamentally a GT car. So in that vein, everything we've done is about keeping it honest as a GT car."
The first changes anyone lucky enough to drive the Vanquish 25 will notice won't be ones made to the oily bits, but to the cabin. Here you'll find swathes of quilted leather, carbon fibre, and a modern infotainment system, but those aren't the kind of alterations which Donfrancesco is interested in.
"You get in the car and the first thing that strikes you is you want to be held a little bit better in the seat, you seem to ride on top of the car. And the steering position; how the wheel is offered up to you and how far away it is from you, gives you this disconnection I think. We wanted to try and make you a little more in contact with the car and in communication with it, so we dropped the H-point a little bit, brought the bolsters up a little bit, essentially redesigned the whole seat using the original frame. We've done that for that connection - and comfort as well, because they weren't actually that comfortable - but fundamentally to give you that more bucketed approach without turning it into some hugely high-sided, difficult to use racecar seat."
A similar treatment has been applied to the steering wheel. While the original couldn't be altered too drastically thanks to its airbag module, the team were able to machine its rim to improve its feel. "There's that trend of making steering wheels inordinately chunky to the point that you're kind of grappling around them, this has got a bit more delicacy to it," says Adam. The paddles behind have been adjusted, too, Adam explaining that: "the paddle position on the original Vanquish is very high and it's very strange, it's alien to what we're used to now. It was early in that technology as we all know."
Such subtle, driver-focussed changes won't mean much if the underpinnings they're connected to aren't improved proportionately, though. A full spring and damper revision with new anti-roll bars, all tuned in-house, was the logical place to start: "The car was a little bit wooden, a little bit crashy. We wanted to free the damping up, make it a little more progressive. It's the kind of car you want to go and batter down B-roads and not be getting adverse inputs from bumps and those sort of things, you want to go very, very quickly and have a sort of magic carpet ride."
That's not to say it should feel detached, far from it, with improved handling next on the list: "We pulled the track out a little bit for a bit more stability, that's a visually-driven change, but it also gives us a lot of performance gains, so I think it's about 25mm each side at the rear, about 15mm at the front. Bearings are not the sexiest thing to talk about, but obviously you've got to do something to validate the durability in terms of making a bigger offset and pulling the wheel out as much as we have done. One of the things we did to do that was to use a bigger, more supportive bearing pack and we've gone for the biggest one that's ever been available on the Aston range, essentially, which the GT3 car used to run behind its centre-lock adapter.
"A couple of the chassis features that I really wanted to get a lot better were the steering response - to try and get a little bit more tactility back into the steering and a little bit more weight - and the stability of the rear of the car - it sort of feels as if it rolls off a cliff in terms of roll stiffness - so we've given it a lot more. The wider track helps quite a lot, and that just helps to support the car, so it feels much better into turns."
A new set of 20-inch spun-forged aluminium wheels, with specifically selected Michelin rubber, should help in that regard, too. Donfrancesco's team worked closely with the French tyre giant's technicians during development, trips to the firm's Ladoux test facility to use their dry- and wet-handling test facilities, while also carrying out high-speed aero assessments, seemingly having paid dividends. The final piece of the puzzle? CCM brakes, sourced from Aston and offering "fantastic stopping power" in combination with the new dedicated brake ducts now found in place of the front fog lights.
The combined results look good in pictures, but sitting on the Hampton Court lawn at last September's concours event, they were truly stunning. The cleaner lines, 10mm ride height reduction and hunkered-down stance of the already-muscular Vanquish bestowing the classically-styled GT with a modern twist. That such improvements to the car's form follow corresponding enhancements in its function only make them all the more appealing.
The engine, too, has received its fair share of attention, though Adam explains that the team were careful not to get too carried away. "Powertrain-wise we toyed with the idea of going 'right, can we stroke the engine and get crazy and make it 750hp?' Well it doesn't really need that kind of performance increase, so we kind of came to the conclusion that we'd make this thing holistic rather than just tweak one aspect massively and make it some lairy beast - it's fairly lairy as it is.
"We went for some performance increases with bespoke calibration, engine internals in the top end, back pressure adjustment with equal length primary exhausts - the manifolds make a big difference in the car, especially with the V12 you get a lot of pulse tuning with equal length primaries. They are just an absolute work of art when you produce them, but unfortunately you stick them in the engine bay and surround them with heat shielding and nobody ever gets to see them, which is a bit of a shame."
Available with a choice of manual or GM-sourced torque converter auto, the uprated engine produces an additional 60-70hp in this guise, with "a bit more top end, quicker pick-up and a bit more punch." Should a customer be intrigued by the sound of that crazy, stroked unit, however, that isn't off the table either.
"The whole thing is we're small and flexible and can do what you'd like to do. The base offering, if you can call it that, comes with the majority of the fluffier elements of customisation, so you can have your paint and your leather and all that kind of stuff. If you wanted to have your fire-breathing, 900hp engine, then for sure we could do it for you at an extra cost. But that's kind of part of the fun of it, actually, is that we can offer that because we are that small and you can't offer that in the bigger businesses where it's very difficult to stray too far ... We've been talking to a load of customers about a load of different weird and wonderful things they'd like to do with the greasy, oily bits, and also the more design-orientated elements as well."
Regardless, owners will find themselves with a Vanquish which sounds as good as it looks: "We've gone for a much more V12 sound. That's partially driven by the performance increase, so the pitch of the sound is higher, but we've actually had an acoustic specialist helping with the internals of the muffler just to get it to the right note, so that's taken quite a bit of development actually to try and get that to the sweet spot that we think we've found."
With so many nips and tucks, changes and tweaks to be made, how does Adam know when that sweet spot has arrived? "I'm usually just told to stop f*cking around with it" he laughs. "You do want to mess around forever with various things, 'just one more damper iteration, please!' ... Jokes aside there's an element where you look back at it and you go 'I wish we'd done this or I wish we'd done that' and I could say that about all of the projects that I've been involved in.
"Designers are the epitome of that, sometimes I understand how difficult it is for them, because it's wearing your heart on your sleeve a little bit, everybody can be a critic. Not everybody can be a critic about ride and handling, but everybody can be a critic about what something looks like, so those guys have got it quite hard. But they have to be told to put their pens down, and I think there's an element of it where you've got to work to a budget, you've got to work to a timeframe, but we've got a strong team and we've got different characters in the team and we work together to make sure we can do what we want to do but we don't go on together and fiddle forever.
"It's also quite challenging to manage budgets. You know, the car is a reasonable cost but there are a lot of expensive components on that car. You want to mitigate risk and not go down blind alleys, but you also want to work to your budget, to pull the biggest levers and make the biggest impact. What I was telling you about the engine, for example, we could've spent 100 grand on each engine and made it into some ridiculous, wild monster. But is it actually the reason someone's going to come and buy the car? So you spend not quite as much money on x,y and z and you play that balancing act on all of the attributes to say 'right, we're really proud of this bit, we've got to have these things, but we're going to have to do away with those things.' And that's the same with any project, even the hypercars, you've got to control your costs in the right way, and if you get it right then you get the product right."
1 / 10