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Vantage has been a magic word at Aston Martin since 1950 and, in all but one instance in the ‘classic’ era, it meant more power for an already above averagely pokey twin-cam straight-six engine.
Initially it was the name attributed to larger-carburetted, higher-compression specifications for the WO Bentley-designed LB6 twin-cam in the DB2, adding 20bhp (and usefully more torque at lower revs) in anticipation of the availability of high-octane post-war fuels.
It became standard on the heavier – but still Feltham-built – 1953 DB2/4, so a new performance spec was devised in which additional power was extracted by way of bigger valves and more aggressive camshafts.
In the Newport Pagnell era of the Tadek Marek-designed 3.7-litre straight-sixes, the name didn’t emerge again until the 1961 introduction of the Series IV DB4.
In this guise, thanks to HD8 carburettors in unison with lumpier cams and the inevitable bigger valves, it made a lusty 266bhp, a fair exchange for the £180 price premium.
And, for the first time, Vantage tune was advertised with the visual distinction of faired-in headlights.
On the longer, heavier Series V DB4 the Vantage engine (and the faired-in lights) became a virtual default specification, then for the 4-litre DB5 it meant a set of Webers to replace the three 2in SUs, taking the power from 282 to 314bhp – or as much as the by then defunct DB4GT Zagato.
From there on the technicalities were pretty much settled, although the 1965 Mk1 DB6 gained another 11bhp by means of a higher compression ratio; in this form it became the fastest-accelerating car to 100mph that Motor magazine had ever tested.
But with a new V8 engine in the pipeline, the significance of the Vantage nomenclature began to fade as far as the ‘sixes’ were concerned.
Weber-fed Vantage tune even became a no-cost option on the DBS before bowing out as an actual model name for a ‘special-order only’ 1972-’73 version of the facelifted William Towns-designed coupé that was the swansong of the straight-six generation.
Model names and their importance had become a side issue by that stage at Newport Pagnell, when the firm’s very survival was at stake.
With its always marginal financial stability already threatened by the departure of David Brown, Aston Martin almost perished during the 1973-’74 fuel crisis and the unhappy period of William Wilson’s stewardship in the form of Company Developments Ltd.
When it was re-formed in 1975 (by a consortium of American and English businessmen who were also, happily, Aston enthusiasts), one of the first things the new owners identified was a need for a fresh model line-up.
First came the headline-grabbing Lagonda saloon in 1976, and then in February 1977 the return of Vantage as a model name on a very significantly uprated version of the V8; AMOC members had already witnessed chief engineer Mike Loasby demonstrating the prototype at the ’76 St John Horsfall meeting.
Perhaps for the first time in its history, Aston Martin had built a ‘supercar’ that quickly assumed pin-up status.
This homegrown answer to the Ferrari Boxer, Lamborghini Countach and Porsche 911 turbo was widely accepted as among the fastest production vehicles in the world, and certainly the only 170mph near-two-tonner that even pretended to be a four-seater with a respectably sized boot.
Only three other contemporary production cars could accelerate as strongly (0-60mph in 5.3secs, 0-100 in 12.7) and that list didn’t include the Ferrari 400.
The mid-engined 365GT4 BB, a strict two-seater that was 600lb heavier and 50bhp weaker, was not really the same sort of car.
The Daytona? That had been killed off years earlier and in many ways the Vantage, officially only available in five-speed ZF manual form, assumed its role as the ultimate front-engined GT car.
For the first time since the days of the injected DBS, Aston was back in the game with positive headlines and a product that could take on the world.
Deliveries began in April 1978 and each Vantage, like every V8, was the product of three months or 1200 man-hours, with the build of each fully balanced unit assigned to one engineer.
With more overlap on the inlet camshafts, bigger (2.1in) intake valves and a quartet of high-flow 48IDF Webers on a special manifold, Tadek Marek’s all-alloyV8, with a rather chequered history going back to 1963 and the works Lolas, could shine as never before.
Aston Martin had refrained from quoting power outputs since the launch of the injected DBS in the late ’60s (probably because the truth was not spectacularly greater than the published figures for the old straight-six), but now it was happy to state that the engine in the V8 Vantage, with its freer-flowing exhaust, had 40% more grunt than that fitted to the standard ‘saloon’.
Well-informed estimates ranged as high as 485bhp (and went undenied), but the true figure was revealed as 390bhp at 5800rpm in the early ’80s.
If Aston wanted to sell cars in Germany, local rules did not allow for coyness on this.
Visually, with its chin and boot spoilers, the Vantage was now much more than just a badge.
The front end looked more brutal with its blanked-off grille, bonnet bulge and additional Cibié driving lights, but the changes also helped direct airflow under the bumper and upped the idling temperature to a more optimal 95ºC.
The Perspex headlamp covers harked back to the days of the DB4, 5 and 6, and helped the aerodynamics, too.
Aston Martin was vague on this subject, but hinted that the tweaks put the drag coefficient in the low 0.3s,so the ‘two-ton brick’ (they even called it that at the factory) was more slippery than it perhaps appeared.
As long as a MkII Ford Granada but 2in wider and 1000lb heavier, the basis of the V8 Vantage was still a 16-gauge sheet-steel platform chassis and integral box-section steel superstructure, to which hand-wheeled aluminium panels were attached.
Each of its 20 coats of paint were hand-flatted and every Vantage interior, as on the standard V8, was the recipient of eight hand-stitched hides.
Underneath, its de Dion rear suspension had stiffer coil springs, there were Koni dampers all round and, while the unequal-length wishbones at the front were still basically DB4/5/6 in origin, they were mounted slightly further back and suitably beefed up with a thicker anti-roll bar and progressive bump-stops.
The Vantage sat on standard V8 7in alloys (initially GKNs, later BBS cross-spokes) shod with the latest 255/60 Pirelli CN12s.
It had bigger brakes, a bigger fuel tank and, naturally, a bigger £20,000 price-tag than the not notably inexpensive standard car at £16,000.
Rampant inflation doubled that figure to £40,000 within four years, by which time trinkets such as motor yachts and helicopters were as much of a threat to V8 Vantage sales as other cars.
And sales were strong.
The Vantage comes from an era when exotic cars were not things you saw every day – or even every week.
The first V8 Vantages with their separate boot spoilers ran to 38 examples; the 1978-’86 cars with their integrated rear spoilers accounted for a further 304, a figure that includes the 131 ‘X-Pack’ cars fitted with 50mm Weber carbs, big-bore exhaust manifolds and boasting the same 432bhp as the Vantage Zagatos.
Throw in, if you must, the 192 Vantage-engined Volante drop-tops (never a pretty sight to my eyes) and you get a total of 534 examples – a more than respectable number for one of the most expensive road cars you could buy at the time.
The more the world changed around the V8 Vantage over its 13-year production run, the more appealing its aura of handbuilt machismo became.
But then what can you really compare it to?
I could happily live without the spoilers and the aggressive addenda (if ever a car had nothing to prove, this is it), but the swaggering presence of the thing is undeniable.
The engine fills its bay imposingly under a shapely expanse of bonnet made up of four separate pieces brazed together.
Ingress and exit require no particular tactics, and once ensconced you don’t have to spend long with the Vantage to realise it is much better sorted in its detail workings than most other specialist exotica – probably because Aston just kept on refining it over such a long period.
Not that it is all that refined as such. The low-speed ride is knobbly, there is quite a lot of tyre thump and road, exhaust and engine sounds are ever-present, although mostly welcome.
The driving position, on chairs that are a little too flat and wide to embrace as they should, is quite upright.
The floor-hinged brake and clutch are well organised (and adjustable), but require firm pedal pressures that give the first hint of a certain physicality that is required to drive the Vantage smoothly and well.
Even the power steering is ‘heavy’– that is to say it only assists at low speeds and seemingly fades away thereafter, which is really as it should be.
Accelerating away in the dogleg bottom gear, the suave gurgle of combustion gives way to a bellow; the change across to second is ponderous and, yes, that clutch is heavy, but you forgive it for its progression.
It doesn’t pull enthusiastically in top until you’re doing around 50mph, but well-stacked gears mean you don’t notice this much and are instead mindful of how evenly matched in weight all the controls are, a well-judged heft that means you never press the brakes too hard (they are superb once warm) to the point of low-speed lock-up, or fail to balance throttle against clutch accurately for anything less than a smooth getaway.
Which is not the same as saying the V8 Vantage would make a good driving-school learner’s car, particularly with its grim 38ft turning circle.
There is much more throttle travel than you first realise, and real bite doesn’t come until you are pulling 2000rpm.
From here the revs shoot round and 60mph comes up in a flash once the engine climbs on the cams again.
The shift from second to third at 80mph is much slicker but you need be decisive if you are to avoid wrong-slotting.
Squeeze the throttle hard and the immense torque lifts the nose, shoves you back into your leather seat and lunges the Aston forward with a superb growl that cannot fail to stir the blood and tingle the spine.
Third feels as if it would be good for 115mph – maybe 120 – and it is sobering to think that if you used the full 6250rpm there would still be one more gear to come as you hit 140mph.
I suspect the Vantage would be very stable at that sort of speed (virtually a cruise with another 30mph to come in a plod-free fantasy world where someone else is paying to fill the 23-gallon tank), but at half that it is steady as a rock.
Such stability does not come at the cost of agility, however, because the Vantage is superbly controllable, progressive and forgiving.
The good news starts with the steering, which is precise without being twitchy, ideally weighted and geared while telegraphing its messages beautifully through a 15in wheel that looks relatively small but is a delight to the touch.
You do not toss the Vantage around casually like an Alfa (something about its size, never mind its value, tends to demand respect), but the sense of control, its resistance to understeer and roll, plus the grip it can generate, quickly build a graphic picture of what it would be capable of in more skilled hands than mine.
The Vantage was a heroic sort of car, and the final act for a design that had long since outlived most of its ‘traditional’ rivals of the ’60s and ’70s.
For those with deep enough pockets who rejected the impracticality of Countachs and Boxers, and thought an XJ-S too cheap, too common and too slow, there wasn’t much else to choose from in the realm of handbuilt, uncompromisingly fast front-engined GTs in the 1980s.
Even those who tried to dismiss the Vantage as an anachronistic dinosaur usually ended up falling in love with it.
Part muscle machine, part vintage thoroughbred, it was both a brute and a gentleman but also a car in which, putting aside the strength of its personality, it was difficult to fault in the important things.
This was a car out of its time that found success late in life.
For me it comes from an era that has no fantasy element or ‘cool’ associations, but judged in isolation the V8 Vantage probably represents the pinnacle of Aston’s achievements as an independent manufacturer.
Images: Max Earey
A word from the owner
When senior auto executives pose next to their company’s classic products, you often get the strong impression that their heart isn’t really in it. But when former Aston Martin CEO Andy Palmer stands beside this gleaming 1980 V8 Vantage, he wears a grin that comes from the pride of ownership. The Vantage hasn’t been borrowed for our shoot; it’s Palmer’s own car, bought in 2015 for a sizeable amount of his own money.
“I couldn’t afford a DB5 or a DB6, even if I wanted one,”he says. “When I came back to the UK [from Nissan], my plan was always to get something nice. The Vantage was on that list – very close to the top, in fact. This is the car I lusted after when I was a teenager. I was really looking for a 1979 car; that was the year I started work. But 1980 is close enough. That was the year I got my licence.”
A ‘standard’ Vantage is still more than up to keeping pace with modern traffic, but Palmer’s car has been upgraded to the brawnier ‘X-Pack’ specification, meaning 432bhp. “I was lucky to avoid getting done by a speed camera the first time I drove it,” he admits. “It was one of the mobile ones and fortunately he was still setting up; it would have been very embarrassing.”
The Vantage has also changed colour to green from its original brown, but in every other regard it’s as it was when it left Newport Pagnell for the first time – right down to the period radio/cassette player. “I’ve still got my cassettes,” says Palmer, “I listen to The Stranglers on it!”
Aston Martin V8 Vantage
- Sold/number built 1977-’89/534
- Construction square-tube steel chassis, aluminium panels over steel body frame
- Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 5340cc 90º V8, four twin-choke Weber 48IDF2 carburettors
- Max power 390bhp @ 5800rpm (X-Pack 432bhp)
- Max torque 380lb ft @ 4500rpm (X-Pack 395lb ft)
- Transmission ZF five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by double wishbones, anti-roll bar rear de Dion axle, trailing arms; coil springs, Koni adjustable dampers f/r
- Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes ventilated discs, twin servos
- Length 15ft 1in (4585mm)
- Width 6ft (1829mm)
- Height 4ft 5in (1346mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 7in (2609mm)
- Weight 4001lb (1816kg)
- 0-60mph 5.4 secs
- Top speed 170mph
- Mpg 13.4
- Price new £25,999
- Price now from £250,000*
*Price correct at date of original publication