How the original Aston Martin V8 Vantage toppled the supercar tree
With all the current talk of ‘hypercars’, it's nice to think back to a simpler time when ‘supercars’ ruled the roost. In a time of Countach, Boxer and Turbo, Vantage was the name that sat atop the ‘supercar’ list. Its performance set benchmarks the European opposition could only dream about – or lie to claim they had reached.
The Aston Martin V8 Vantage was launched in an era when every manufacturer had a ‘supercar’ in its line-up, the Lamborghini Miura commonly regarded as being the first of the breed. Aston Martin Lagonda (AML) was late to the party, not through neglect but due to market forces that saw the marque enter bankruptcy in 1974.
Having overcome that obstacle, Aston lacked the resources to develop an all-new model to go up against the Lamborghini Countach, Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer et al. With great British ingenuity, it took its standard V8 saloon and modified it to create Britain’s first supercar. The prototype wasn't even a new car, but a two-year-old sales demonstrator converted for the purpose, such was the perilous financial state from which the company found itself emerging.
Just as the Phoenix rose from the ashes, so too did the Vantage, quickly assuming the mantle atop the supercar league. AML’s engineers had first proposed a Vantage version of the DBS V8 in 1969, testing a prototype in 1972, but it took another five years before they realised their plans. While the basic design underpinning the chassis and suspension could trace its lineage back to the team cars of the early 1960s and the V8 engine was developed from a unit raced at Le Mans, a return to the circuit – albeit for testing rather than competition – was used to develop the V8 Vantage.
Mike Loasby, the engineering director who proposed the original DBS V8 Vantage, and engine man Dave Morgan were responsible for its development. A standard looking AMV8 that entered the 1976 Aston Martin Owners Club Silverstone club race was employed as the first mule for AML’s ultimate performance car.
Morgan takes up the tale. “Mike Loasby was always pushing for more performance from the V8. Having fitted the big valves to the Lagonda, he thought we should use them to build an uprated V8. So, we put big valves into the V8, fitted 48IDA carburettors and higher-lift camshafts, using the profile from the fuel-injected V8, which actually dates back to the Vantage C engine of the DB6.
“The first engine produced around 375–380bhp. We used the ‘hot’ engine in a standard V8 – chassis number V8/11429/LCA – for testing and raced it at AMOC club meetings in 1976 to prove its performance. It raised quite a few eyebrows on the track as it looked like the standard car but certainly didn’t go like one.
“At the same time, Robin Hamilton was developing his Le Mans car and Loasby wanted to assist Hamilton, so he paid for a session in the wind tunnel. We made the spoiler and bits and pieces to go on V8/11429/LCA and tested it in the tunnel with Robin's car. Combining the aerodynamic aids fitted to both cars resulted in a nice taut car, quieter and more controllable at speed.
“We’d had the first experience of what aerodynamics could do and hence the Vantage bodywork was born, basically with a 10-percent reduction in drag. We deleted virtually any lift, too. The biggest gains were made by blanking off the grille. Air was brought in under the bumper through the spoiler instead and had no negative effect on cooling. The drag reduction was amazing.”
Essentially the Vantage was derived from a race version of the Aston V8, with subtle refinements that made the car more suited to gentleman road racers. As with most things, the first cars off the line were the best, the purity of the idea not yet diluted by commercial considerations. By the time the last Vantage was built 12 years later, it was a heavier and bloated yet more refined version of the original.
The reaction to the Vantage was swift and positive. Journalists raved about the performance of Britain’s first ‘supercar’. Such was the speed of the prototype, it was crashed on numerous occasions by scribes caught out by the effortless pace, arriving at corners far too quickly and unable to stop.
To drive a fully sorted Vantage is a joy. Somehow the size and girth of the standard V8 saloon melt away and the more powerful Aston feels smaller and nimbler. The power is intoxicating and the noise a symphony of mechanical harmony with the deep bass of the larger exhaust providing the backing vocals. ‘Chuckable’ is a word easily applied to the Vantage – the tail can be provoked to move around with a judicious jab of the throttle and the front-end bites hard with moderate steering input from the excellently weighted power-steering system.
Braking from the uprated grooved front disks is immediate and progressive, the larger Pirelli 255/60 15-inch tyres transferring the added braking force to the road. For cross-country jaunts, the interior is a lovely place to be, the simple leather upholstery unspoilt by wood veneers that were a later option, creating an elegance that coddled the driver. Visibility is excellent with the thin A-pillars, the hood bulge and tail spoiler providing convenient sight lines to accurately place the car on the road.
The first Vantages built were lavished with attention, every small detail overseen by the engineering team before delivery to their fortunate new owners. Development was ongoing, with customers forming an essential part of the process. Among the first new owners was the UK importer for Koni suspension and his input helped tremendously in refining the handling and recalibrating the shocks.
One of the first cars delivered was immediately prepared for club racing, driven to the circuit by the owner (who also happened to do AML’s advertising work at the time) and successfully campaigned with modifications garnered from Dave Morgan’s exploits on the track.
A dedicated build area was established in the front of the service department where a rolling road was used to test the car before being signed off and released for sale. If the power output at the rear wheels didn’t exceed 300bhp, it was sent back for more fettling to bring it up to spec. The aerodynamic aids were added to the first 16 cars after the standard bodywork was completed in production. An aluminium rear spoiler was attached to the tail, in body-colour of course.
The large glass-fibre front air-dam was mounted under the front bumper and a plug inserted in the hood opening on the bonnet. On the first batch of Vantages, four of them received five-inch Cibie driving lights mounted in the blanked off grille opening (only two exist today in their original state), while seven-inch units were fitted to each car after that. Later cars had the rear spoiler built smoothly into the bodywork and the hood opening welded closed and these have become known as ‘Fliptails’ among the cognoscente.
Suspension modifications included recalibrated Koni shocks, stiffer springs and a larger front roll-bar on early cars. Revised bump stops and a wider rear track rounded out the changes. Larger Pirelli 255/60 tires filled out the wheel arches and reduced the ride height, and the visual effect was quite brutal. An all-important ‘V’ suffix in the chassis and engine numbers denoted the uprated vehicle.
To say the first Vantages were special is an understatement; no other Aston V8 received as much care during its build to ensure performance met or exceeded expectations. In all, only 50 were built from a total production run of 370 Vantages – 16 of those with the early ‘Bolt-On’ bodywork and 34 with the smoother ‘Fliptail’, 11 of those destined for the US market but without the full Vantage-spec engines of their European counterparts (though many of them were later upgraded to full Vantage specification). A V8 Vantage registered VNK360S, a standard ‘Fliptail’, was also bought back by Aston Martin and subsequently used as a development mule for all Vantage models up to and including the Zagato and the X Pack.
To this day, they are the rawest and purest of the line, an essential addition to the collection of any avid Aston Martin enthusiast. Fortunately, they are just as enjoyable to drive as they are to look at, yet they fly under the radar as too few people are familiar with them and their place in Aston lore.
Text: Kean Rogers / Photos: Roman Rätzke for Classic Driver © 2019
Period imagery courtesy of the Aston Martin Heritage Trust and the Roger Stowers archive.