About a year ago or so some reporters at the Swedish version of Auto, Motor & Sport revealed the cars they admired in secret, the cars they were ashamed of adoring. That got me thinking about my own dream car, a model I’ve been hiding from the world for a long time, and the reason becomes clear when I reveal it: Aston Martin Virage! And not the new, DB9-based version, but the old, hand built one from the late 1980’s. I blush, especially since anyone now can see what a terrible car I desire.
It all started when I as a child read a car catalogue from 1987 and let my eyes caress the nearly Ford Capri-looking lines of Aston Martin’s old V8 Saloon. The heavy aluminium-bodied GT mixed brutality with British elegance like no other car I’d seen. Then as I visited the school library on a grey afternoon a couple of years later and started to browse through a worn Automobil magazine, a giant coverage of Aston Martin’s latest creation, the Virage, caught my eye.
I was amazed at the sight of the dark green beauty, and since then I’ve always yearned for this last dinosaur of the car industry, Bristol Blenheim exempted. An anachronism of two tons of handcrafted aluminium and almost as antique as its forerunner, but now blessed with an elegant, lean shell that deceived every spectator who had hoped for a modern sports car.
Undeniably, the big Virage tempted with its technical specifications containing all-aluminium bodywork, de Dion rear axle, ZF gearbox and a completely handmade 5.3-litre V8 housing double overhead camshafts and 32 valves, actually not bad in 1988. The mighty Virage engine is pictured to the right. Click for larger.
The aluminium engine was a true Aston construction that had been around ever since 1969 when it debuted in the DBS V8, Roger Moore’s choice of transportation in the cult series The Persuaders. In the Virage, the engine was modified by American engineering company Callaway Cars which resulted in a new top with four valves per cylinder and 330 hp, 30 more than the new BMW 850i. According to the press, it was a wonderful, charismatic drivetrain with a racy character and a goose bump-generating soundtrack. The interior was an orgy of thick, soft Connolly hides, solid Wilton carpets and walnut panels with a shine that wasn’t second to a Rolls Royce. A truly royal place to be.
The Virage was the archetype of a real gran turismo, i.e. a large front engined coupé who’s main task is to take two well-heeled travellers through continents in the quickest and most elegant manner. By the end of the eighties however, this type of car was a dying breed. Production of Ferrari’s peculiar relic, the 412, was on the verge of closure, Lamborghini’s and Maserati’s contributions were long gone and Jaguar’s odd, eccentric XJ-S was another artefact with an ancient drivetrain. The Porsche 928 was surely a fast and effective GT but had been around for more than a decade and didn’t really contain the flamboyant flair of the British and Italian contributions from the glamorous fifties, sixties and seventies. Remain did the the coolish, philistine BMW 850.
But then came the Virage and brought back the flamboyance that had been lost in the digital age of the eighties. Long, low and wide, and with a roofline to die for. The elegant, very British and restrained bodywork was a design of Royal College of Art in London. And they had come up with a more unobtrusive form than the previous V8 that in Vantage-specification appeared immensely brutal in comparison. Simultaneously, they had succeeded in giving the shape the masculinity of a true Aston.
However, this dreamy glow was to be dispelled when a more consumer-oriented car magazine, Swedish Teknikens Värld, accounted for its test drive of the Virage in early 1991. The car had suddenly turned into a tired, wobbling colossus that, according to the correspondent, lurched like an Atlantic steamer and sounded a lot more than it went, especially due to the test car’s antique three-speed automatic ‘box from Chrysler. On the inside, switchgear from the ghastly Ford Scorpio was painfully mixed with the wood and leather. A catalytic converter had strangled the full-bred V8 which, in combination with the ancient gearbox, made the wrenched Virage feel slow, a capital sin for an Aston Martin. I was in a state of shock.
Some redress was made when Automobil returned to the Aston factory in Newport Pagnell for a test drive of an updated Virage Volante in 1993. The model had now been equipped with a modernized automatic with four speeds, stronger brakes and better-looking instruments. The blatantly anglophile reporter was the same as the first visit a couple of years eralier. Naturally he was friends with the Santa Claus-looking and seemingly one hundred-year old craftsman that was interviewed in the coverage. This obviously had an impact on the verdict of the car as well as my enthusiasm to an equal degree.
The Virage was made in a total of 598 units (364 coupés and 234 Volantes) during its relatively short lifespan between 1989 and 1995. It was born in an age when Aston Martin found itself in deep economic trouble with an annual production of 200-300 cars. In the beginning of the 1990’s a new Virage cost the equivalence of a Rolls Royce, which might explain the poor production figures. Ford had recently acquired the distinguished company and a large-scale modernization program would at last kill off the handcrafted car production which had become a main feature of the brand.
Derivatives on the Virage theme would keep the traditional manufacturing process going until August 2000 when the last one was put together. The very last cars included a tiny series of six V8 Vantage Volantes, each one packing a whopping 600 supercharged ponies. With them having been assembled, a fantastic British cultural heritage had come to a definite end.
I have never driven a Virage, have never even sat in one. But I don’t care; give me an early Virage Coupé in unspoiled original condition and with a manual transmission, and I’ll be a happy person. It just can’t get more imposing or gentlemanly than that! See all the Virage derivatives pictured below.
Several versions of the Virage were developed during the first half of the 1990’s. Above from the left the open-top Virage Volante, the curious station wagon Shooting Brake and finally the four-door versions, the Lagonda and the Lagonda Shooting Brake.
Above the derivatives on the Virage theme. From left the supercar V8 Vantage that arrived in 1992, here in its last Lemans form with a whopping 600 hp. The interior was refined over the years with more wood and prettier instruments. The pictured cabin belongs to a V8 Vantage. To the right Virage’s successor, a V8 Coupé, which was principally a Vantage but without the superchargers and thus “only” 350 hp. Both the Vantage and V8 Coupé were offered in convertible form (Volante) and station wagon (Shooting Brake).