​Aston Martin V8 Vantage Zagato The Whole Story​

Aston Martin V8 Vantage Zagato

“YOU DON’T HAVE TO SWING HARD TO hit a home run,” said baseball star Yogi Berra. “If you got the timing, it’ll go.” Everything concerning the Aston Martin V8 Vantage project had plenty of ‘go’ about it. From initial idea to the model’s announcement at the 1985 Geneva Motor Show took just a year. The car itself had plenty of go, too. Powered by the gruntiest Tadek Marek V8 the marque had, yet weighing 400kg less than the standard Vantage, its angular nose could pierce the horizon at 186mph all-out, having kissed goodbye to 60mph after five seconds. The genesis of the project came from a rather more sedate place – the calm before the 1984 Geneva Motor Show storm.

Aston Martin found its stand near to that of Zagato, and given the famed previous association between the companies in the form of the DB4 Zagato back in the 1960s, conversation about another collaboration started in earnest between Aston’s Peter Livanos and Victor Gauntlett, and brothers Elio and Gianni Zagato. The idea for a super-limited, highperformance creation was accelerated by developments at the same show – Livanos saw first-hand how the Porsche 959 and Ferrari 288GTO had no problem in finding deposits. “Peter is a car man through and through, and it didn’t take him and Victor long to put an idea together,” chuckles Kingsley Riding-Felce, then Aston Martin’s UK sales manager and latterly board member.

“The template was there from other manufacturers, yet Aston made it happen with a limited budget – it was remarkable. But there’s an old saying: when you get into bed with someone, you have to find out who’s going to be on top. Shortly after the [deal was signed], they realised what a financial mess Zagato was in.” Gauntlett and Livanos were no strangers to Zagato.

In 1983, the Milan-based carrozzeria showed its Alfa Romeo Zeta 6 concept, designed by Giuseppe Mittino. Gauntlett was so impressed, he bought one of the three examples made. However, Zagato’s fortunes were changing due to forces both inside and outside of Italy, and by the mid-1980s the feeling within the factory was becoming grim – as Andrea Zagato explains: “In the 1980s, the Japanese introduced flexible production lines, which allowed them to build special models on the same lines as the normal car.” This meant the construction of special vehicles, which would have once been farmed out to the likes of Zagato or Pininfarina, could now be produced in-house.

Zagato also had a contract to design and build the drop-top version of the Maserati Biturbo, and had invested in the factory accordingly – but then industrial politics played a hand.

“The unions at Innocenti [part of the De Tomaso empire, which owned Maserati at the time] were claiming that they didn’t have a job, and that they had to stay at home. But Zagato was full of jobs, because we were doing 7000 Biturbo Spyders for America,” Andrea says. “They compelled De Tomaso to bring Spyder production to the Innocenti factory; we didn’t have anything to produce anymore.” This left Zagato out in the cold financially.

Aston Martin V8 Vantage Zagato
Aston Martin V8 Vantage Zagato

By contrast, the feeling towards a Zagato/Aston Martin tie-up was warm within the British marque. “We were very positive as a company – Victor wasn’t a manager, he was a leader; there’s a big difference,” says Kingsley. He recalls when he was called into Gauntlett’s office to see the design for the first time.

“There was a pill to swallow with the design – there’s no doubt about it – but everybody appreciated we had to work with the fixed points we had got. You can’t just move things about without spending considerable money on crash testing.” The introduction to the engineering team wasn’t as simple, as David Eales – then head of Works Service – reveals.

“A marketing department Vantage had hit a tree; the insurance company wanted to write it off. I wanted the work for Works Service, so we bought the car and stripped it out. “Then everything changed, which upset me a little because I realised we’d basically stripped the car down to send it to Zagato for a pre-production prototype. We rebuilt it as a driveable chassis, and off it went to Zagato – we didn’t see it for a year.”

In that time, Mittino crafted a shape unlike any Aston Martin before it. If the Towns Lagonda shocked, then the Zagato was outrageous, but its angular design is based on the same fundamentals as those of the DB4Z – lightness and aerodynamic efficiency. It needed to be – at the time, Aston’s engineers felt that there wasn’t much more they could get out of Marek’s two-valve 5.3-litre V8.

A heady 437bhp had been achieved in a stripped-out standard Vantage, but simply upping the power wasn’t going to be enough to hit the performance targets – five seconds to 60mph and around 186mph all-out – the magic 300km/h. The first step was to shorten the car to 4390mm from 4670mm, although the standard car’s 2610mm wheelbase was retained.

Final production engines were rated at 410bhp, fed by four 50mm Weber 48 IDF/3 carburettors – much to Zagato’s chagrin. The original plan was to use fuel injection, but this wouldn’t provide the outright punch necessary. “Mittino designed a perfect line for the body, the car was super-flat – we were trying to do something futuristic, like the Lagonda was,” says Andrea.

“At the last minute they asked for the bubble [for the carbs]; we said we’d do it, but we didn’t like it at all.” As for the engine itself, this was built to 580X specification – the codename for Aston Works Service in-house performance package. Aside from the carburettors, it featured higher-lift camshafts, larger porting to the cylinder heads and a 10.2:1 compression ratio. The rest of the body was largely as Mittino intended.

Although Zagato had aimed for a drag co-efficient of 0.29, the result was a stillcommendable 0.32, thanks to work with the University of Southampton’s wind tunnel. This wind-cheating was achieved via the use of flush-fitting glass and headlamps, plus the smallest of window openings. The performance lived up to the billing.

French magazine Sport-Auto infamously took a tweaked, lighter press car to 185.32mph on an autoroute while the gendarmerie were off having a baguette. If the car’s outright oomph was impressive, then the whole project – remember, it went from idea to announcement within a year, and realisation in another 12 months – was done at light speed, and all in a time before the internet. It was all very exciting for the Brits...

Aston Martin V8 Vantage Zagato
Aston Martin V8 Vantage Zagato

“Going to Zagato for the first time was fantastic,” says Kingsley. “At the time, there was no corporate work-wear or anything like that, but suddenly Victor appeared that morning insisting senior managers all wore embroidered Aston Martin jackets. That trip out, my God! If that plane went down… Ford would never put more than three executives on one plane.

Well, we had everybody – dealers, factory people and even some customers.” Seeing the Zagato factory was also revelatory. “It was all completely different to Newport Pagnell,” recalls Kingsley. “There was a lot of investment and automation.

They had clamps that moved the bodies all the way around on a production rail – it was very impressive.” Aston Martin’s PR effort at the 1986 Geneva Motor Show’s final model reveal had a similar impact, and is recalled fondly by Andrea. “The best memory I have was the presentation of one of the three prototypes on the entrance roof of the Hotel Beau Rivage,” he smiles. “We were trying to make a statement,” says Kingsley.

“When you think of the size of Jaguar and Ford, and there was little old Aston Martin that managed to draw so much press by putting the car on the roof – everyone at the motor show had to drive past it every day. They must have thought, ‘God almighty, Aston has done it to us again’. It certainly got us talked about.” All 50 production cars had found homes within a few months of that initial 1985 announcement, secured with a £15,000 deposit, based on little more than a sketch and a specification sheet.

“The [sketch] was made by a painter who was designing the Milano church,” remembers Andrea. Clearly the work was seen as divine, because the final price grew from £87,000 to £95,000 – customers were undeterred. “In those days I used to think selling must be easy, but I’ve learned the hard way that it isn’t,” chuckles David.

“They probably struggled to find homes for all of them, but there was a backbone of customers from the Middle East, Europe and the UK – guys who would have one of everything we produced.” The chassis and drivetrain were built at Newport Pagnell, and then sent to Zagato for bodywork and trimming – but not before each car was given a quick blast around the yard.

“Our test driver, Peter Childs, used to disappear up the road looking like a Spitfire pilot with his goggles, driving around in these things on a wooden seat,” chuckles Kingsley. Most of the body was hand-beaten in aluminium, although the nose and rear sections were made from glassfibre composite.

It all contributed to that 400kg diet over a standard Vantage. However, the quality of the cars coming back from Italy was providing plenty of food for thought, and tasks for Works Service. “There were plenty of issues.

With every Zagato that came back to us, we’d find two or three pages of snags,” says David. “We set up a little department within a department, de-snagging them as the cars went out.” The main problems were to do with panel fit and paint quality. “The paint was a bit ‘jammy’ – it was Ferrari level, as opposed to Aston level,” says Eales. “The leather they used was different to ours, too. There was a mark on one of the seats, and so I wiped it with a bit of water. It scared me to death – the water soaked in and the leather went dark; I thought, ‘My God, what have I done?’ Their leather was porous; ours was surface-finished and sealed.

Aston Martin V8 Vantage Zagato
Aston Martin V8 Vantage Zagato

Quality control would become a major bone of contention between Aston Martin and Zagato: “Victor put a lot of drive into the business; people found themselves motivated, driven – there was a clear target, there were achievements,” says Kingsley. “The Italians were always a little different, so we had to put Michael Bowler [Aston Martin engineering director] and Neil Hewlett over there, because things weren’t going the way we wanted them to.

” Kingsley says that while initially the issues were relatively minor, expectations were higher because customers were paying so much more over a normal Vantage: “Victor was so frustrated, he arranged to see Gianni. He went out there, and Zagato said, ‘We’ll have dinner…’ But Victor said, ‘No! I’m coming to see you in the morning, and we’re going to talk about this quality thing’. “So Victor goes there in the morning, and Gianni instantly goes to a fridge in his office, and comes out with this big box of chocolates. ‘Before we start,’ he says, ‘try these beautiful chocolates…

’ There was a lot of that type of thing.” Bigger issues came after a year, Kingsley adds: “We had a bit of kickback on the window arrangements. We had screens de-laminating, and paint bubbles appearing in certain places because the aluminium was touching the steel superstructure, which it shouldn’t have been doing if the tape had been put on properly.

” Despite a love-it/hate-it response to the car’s looks, it certainly generated a lot of interest in the car, as well as celebrity purchases.

“I remember Duran Duran visiting the factory,” says Andrea. “Simon Le Bon and Nick Rhodes both bought a Vantage Zagato – our company was literally under siege from fans.” Aston Martin had committed to making 50 production examples, but there was a demand for more.

Rather than upset those who had bought the coupé by producing additional cars, the idea of a drop-top Volante was mooted, and was approved for production in 1986. “It wasn’t part of the original plan,” says Andrea. “It was born from an idea from Zagato, and presented as a sketch during the building of the coupé.

” Production followed the same process as the coupé, with the rolling drivetrain and chassis sent to Zagato to be bodied – but this time with additional bracing to improve torsional rigidity.

However, the car itself was a very different animal; out went the Vantage-spec engine, in came a 305bhp V8 with fuel injection, hence the drop-top’s flat bonnet. While the headlamp ‘eyebrows’ provided a good deal of exoticism at the front, the Volante didn’t go down as well as its bubble-roofed stablemate.

“I understand why the convertible had to have the fuel-injected engine, because there were concerns about the hood at speed,” says Kingsley. “If you saw this thing blatting down the Autobahn with the Vantage engine, the hood would be blown up like a hot-air balloon. However, if the car had been a little bit more intense, I think it would have done better – but you have to put it against what the market was doing at the time.” By the time the car was ready, the global financial markets were beginning to soften, deflating the collector market at the vertiginous levels at which a Zagato-bodied Aston would find buyers.

Aston Martin V8 Vantage Zagato
Aston Martin V8 Vantage Zagato

In the end, just 37 drop-tops were sold, including one to the Zagatos. “My father Aston Martin V8 Vantage Zagato Elio and my uncle Gianni kept a V8 Volante for themselves, but it didn’t survive the next project with Aston, which was the rebirth of the Lagonda brand,” says Andrea. “As always, a new project always convinced my family not to keep the ‘old’ one in the company collection.” Once the cars themselves were finished, Works Service’s next job was upgrading them.

“We started converting Volantes to Vantage specification; maybe six or eight,” remembers David. Several coupés and Volantes were also converted to 6.3- and 7.0-litre spec.

Despite the challenges in managing a project across two languages in an era long before email, all involved have fond memories of the model. “I personally thought they were monster cars – they drove really well,” David continues. “They handled a lot better than the [normal] V8, and drivability was better, too.

” That performance made its mark on others as well, as Andrea recalls. “When Ulrich Bez became Aston Martin CEO, I read an article about his test drive of all the marque’s models,” he says. “He declared the V8 Zagato to be the best, and it was probably that what got him thinking about contacting me for the DB7 GTZ.

We signed our deal at Pebble Beach, and we decided to make a short-wheelbase DB7 to improve driveability and fun.” However, the Zagato project had a much more profound effect on Aston Martin as a whole, according to Kingsley. “It’s an important chapter in Aston’s history,” he says. “Was it painful? I think it was, certainly the relationship with Zagato, but we came through it – and some wonderful cars came out of it. “If you meet a person who’s a character, it takes a while to get to know them. You understand why they’re a character, because there are so many facets to them – they’re not boring. They’ve got different bits and pieces – some you like, some you don’t – but it’s what makes that person a character.

Aston Martin is a bit like that as a company. The whole Zagato programme gave a halo to the brand – lifted it at the time, made it different. This all weaves into the fabric that makes it a special company.” Although the project didn’t run as smoothly as planned, getting the cars to market so soon remains a huge achievement, especially given the constraints both Aston and Zagato were under. Another Yogi Berra quote could easily describe the V8 Zagato – the” overwhelming underdog”.

Words by: NathanChadwick

Photographs: Sam Chick

Article: Magneto

Thanks to Keith Riddington and all at Classicmobilia (www.classicmobilia.com) for the V8 Vantage Zagato, Caspar Eccles-Williams and all at Hexagon Classics for the Volante Zagato (www.hexagonclassics.com), Andrea and all at Zagato, David Eales and Kingsley Riding-Felce.