Lightning from Automotive Heaven: Aston Martin’s Project Vantage

Aston Martin

Twenty years ago in January, this startling green bolide blew everyone out of the water at 1998’s Detroit Auto Show. Aston Martin’s landmark Project Vantage literally changed the course of the company by serving as the inspiration for the famed Vanquish. It’s thus a bit surprising that this milestone passed last month with no fanfare.

Last month a major automotive anniversary surprisingly passed without fanfare for one of the world’s most celebrated marques. What happened 20 years ago changed the direction of the company, and led to the birth of perhaps the icon car of the early 2000s.

In January of 1998 at the Detroit Auto Show, Aston Martin unveiled its Project Vantage showcar, a bolt of lightning from the automotive heavens that brought forth a startling machine no one saw coming. “We wanted to try things with the business,” Bob Dover, Aston’s superb CEO, told me at the time. “The idea was to pull things together in a single car: a new direction in styling, and with the interior, and to try a paddle shift transmission.”

Aston Martin GTZ

Aston Martin turned to Ian Callum to design the Project Vantage showcar. At the time Callum was not a permanent employee at the company but instead a consultant, as he working for racing car constructor TWR. “My starting point was the DB7 melded with the DB4 GTZ,” Callum told me. “I wanted it so those that had not seen a DB4 GTZ instantly related it to the DB7 (seen on right in photo), and those that knew the GTZ instantly related it to that.”

There was much technological advancement going on back then, and while Aston wanted to capitalize on it, the styling direction may have been the most difficult issue to tackle. In the three decades prior to Project Vantage’s arrival, Aston’s V8 and Virage model lines were quite a departure from their more lithe DB2 through DB6 predecessors, with a larger footprint and heavier, more muscular styling based on the William Towns’ designed DBS of the second half of the 1960s.

Aston’s design language began to change when the DB7 debuted in 1993. “The DB7 actually started out as a Jaguar,” former Aston Design Director (and current Design Director at Jaguar) said in a recent phone conversation. “The Jag style was not yet established, and were trying to get the package right when management came in and said to make it look like an Aston. So the DB7 had its own beginning. (Aston Chairman and former Ford Vice President) Walter Hayes brought a DB5 into the design studios, and left it there. I wanted something a bit more flamboyant with some different design elements. We didn’t know what we were about to do would be the DB7…”

Aston Martin Vantage

Two decades on, Aston Martin’s Project Vantage showcar is still stunningly beautiful. At the time of its introduction, the sharp vertical angle on the rear “haunch” was somewhat controversial, but that didn’t faze its designer, Ian Callum. He purposefully put it in to create tension, noting “Power comes from every line, and forming an emotional value, so all lines and forms create an impression…(The shape) will only ‘sing’ when I, as the designer, have battled out in my own mind what it will take to work. This takes much thought and intense concentration—never panic—but this pressure comes from myself.”

Two years after its Geneva Auto Show debut, the DB7 went into production and literally transformed Aston by giving major shareholder Ford confidence to back future projects. The DB7’s elegant and sleek form was widely hailed as a masterpiece, and while that shape made Callum’s name known throughout the industry, it created turmoil for Aston’s small team. “Where do we go from the DB7 was one of our biggest questions,” Dover told me, “for all our customers were saying, ‘don’t change the shape of my car.’ We decided to do similar elements and move things forward.”

Which is where Project Vantage comes in. In early 1997 Dover wanted a multi-car line up, not something largely based on a single model like the V8, Virage, and their derivatives. The latter and its variants were still in production, but with the DB7 being produced in much larger numbers and receiving the accolades, “Bob wasn’t looking for a replacement,” Callum remembers, “but something more expensive. He wanted the beauty of the DB7 with the muscularity of the V8s and Virage—and didn’t want me to hold back.”

Aston Martin DB7

In addition to the sensational lines on Aston’s Project Vantage one-off showcar, another strong drawing point was the V12 shoehorned under the hood (or “bonnet” for all English car fans☺ ). Prior to the Project Vantage, Aston had a single V12-powered model in its history, the DB3S-based V12 Lagonda sports racer of 1954. By the late 1990s, that many cylinders represented refinement, power, performance and prestige—the perfect recipe for moving Aston upmarket. This particular engine was used in Ford’s radical Indigo showcar from 1996, and presaged the V12 powerplant coming to the DB7 lineup in 1999.

Undoubtedly those last words were music to Callum’s ears, but he was anything but a lock to get the job. Dover initially put feelers out to several British design firms before someone inside Aston suggested they contact Callum at TWR, where he was at the time. “That was the first quarter of 1997,” the designer said, “and Dover wanted to know if I had an interest in doing a concept car. I said yes.

“The brief was to do something that recaptured the essence of the DB4 GTZ. (Ford CEO) Jacques Nasser wanted something like that, that was more aggressive. But they also wanted something that played into Aston’s history, for the company was more than a ‘gentleman’s club heritage.’ Aston had racing history, and they wanted to show that with the concept’s aggressiveness.”

Aston Martin Vantage

Driving Aston’s one-off Project Vantage showcar was a treat. Granted, with so many experimental components we weren’t allowed to go very fast, but you could sense the package’s potential. Most intriguing was the first steps towards paddleshift transmissions, where you could literally feel the car changing gears in a deliberate manner—much like the secret Ferrari FX I drove some years later. And like that Ferrari, the Project Vantage’s 12-cylinder sung a sensational song.

With marching orders in hand, time was now of the essence, for the car’s debut was marked for the Detroit Show a few months away. Callum felt the pressure but was confident, for “my starting point was the DB7 melded with the DB4 GTZ. I subconsciously did this by being aware of their presence and atmosphere. I wanted it so those that had not seen a DB4 GTZ instantly related it to the DB7, and those that knew the GTZ instantly related it to that.”

He made a number of loose sketches “because (looseness) gives you the freedom to evolve; if you go too specific it will cause the client to hold onto their ideas.” Once those drawings were in-hand there was no formal presentation; instead it was a low-key affair with Aston’s Board of Directors. While showing the renderings Callum recalled saying, “This is what I would like to try and achieve,’ and they liked it. No one ever said stop.”

Aston Martin

One of the main objectives of Project Vantage was to bring interior materials back to Aston’s more sporting roots seen in the DB2 through DBS models. This meant eliminating the fine wood finishes and such that the V8 and Virage model lineups had used for the previous three decades. Instead, Project Vantage used modern finishes such as carbon fiber, brushed metal surfaces, and all new instruments housed in a special binnacle.

As the designer pressed forward, the high-tech chassis was coming together. Its’ extruded aluminum sections and roof pillars were reinforced with carbon fiber, and the tub itself used aluminum honeycomb, substantially reducing weight and increasing torsional rigidity. Powering the package would be the V12 from Ford’s Indigo showcar of 1996. The six-speed paddleshift system was designed by Magneti-Marelli, while the ventilated brakes came from AP.

Like so many projects devoid of outside interference (last week’s Iso Grifo A3/L is another example), the finished package was—and remains—stunning in person. There is such cohesiveness and purity of concept here, and much of that comes from Callum’s mindset. “I don’t think towards the customer,” he told me back in 1998, “I think toward the observer. If you see a Ferrari, the guy looking at it should get as much pleasure as the guy driving it. It should take his life a couple of notches higher for a few seconds.”

Aston Martin

Project Vantage looked sensational on the move, and that was by design. “I don’t think towards the customer,” designer Ian Callum told me back in 1998, “I think toward the observer. If you see a Ferrari, the guy looking at it should get as much pleasure as the guy driving it. It should take his life a couple of notches higher for a few seconds.”

Project Vantage did exactly that in March 1998 when I was fortunate enough to photograph and drive the sensational one-off. That shape was absolutely brilliant in person, beautiful yet loaded with the tension of a balled-up fist, ready to strike. Looking back at that drive, paddleshift was still in its infancy then, and I recall feeling the tranny mechanically (and in a way, deliberately and methodically) shifting, much like Pininfarina’s secret Ferrari FX made for the Brunei Royal family that I tried years later.

While the rest of the world overlooked this landmark car’s anniversary, Callum informed me that in January he and Bob Dover reunited with it, and its current owner. I’m glad the creators celebrated the milestone, for the Project Vantage remains a stunner, even two decades later.

Aston Martin

Two Astons served as the inspiration for the sensational Project Vantage showcar that debuted in January 20 years ago. One was its contemporary DB7; the other was this luscious piece of machinery, the DB4 GTZ. Aston and Zagato teamed up to make 19 of them in the early 1960s, and it is pure art—especially when shot with ethereal Kodak HIE infrared film.

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