Although not currently in running condition, this car’s 1.5-litre engine is reputed to have propelled it to an 84.5mph lap of Brooklands. It was a prodigious speed at the time. Today, although mute, it was playing a vital role in a special mission we’d set ourselves: to start where Aston Martin was founded 104 years ago and drive through as much of the company’s history as possible, calling at significant Aston factories and sites while driving several different Aston creations along the way.
Our plan was to end up at Aston Martin’s mighty new factory site at St Athan, currently an enormous collection of aircraft maintenance hangars on a Ministry of Defence base west of Cardiff. There, the revolutionary electric crossover model, codenamed DBX and shown as a concept in 2015, will go into production from 2019. It’s part of a plan, created and led by Aston CEO and former Nissan chief planning officer Andy Palmer, to greatly increase the company’s volume and bring it the security its backers have craved but never quite achieved.
We had several reasons for starting early. First, this was going to be a long day. Second, inner-London traffic after 7am can be savage. Leave late and you’ll be trapped for hours. Third, our plan involved departing Henniker Mews in a beautiful 2004 Vanquish, a car I’d written about in its launch heyday but hadn’t touched for a decade. And it’s always best to have tolerably open roads when you’re trying to familiarise yourself with someone else’s £100,000 car.
By seven, we were on the road, shaking away the dregs of London’s commuter traffic and heading for the site of the old muddy hillclimb course on Aston Hill, just off the A41 near Aston Clinton in Buckinghamshire. There, the firm’s founder, Lionel Martin, drove so well in his Singers and home-made specials that on the cars he built, he decided to combine the Aston name with his own and go forward with a double-barrelled car company. They’ve long since tarmacked the muddy track and Aston Hill has become Mecca for mountain bikers, but with the sun beaming through mist-shrouded trees, it still felt distinctly historic.
By the time we arrived there, I knew this Vanquish V12 was a lovely car. This was the lower-powered 450bhp model, not the later 520bhp Vanquish S, and was equipped with the automated manual gearbox that an increasing number of owners seem to want to replace with a sixspeed stick shift. Cars of a certain age (the Vanquish was introduced in 2001) can be a bit intimidating if you spend your days in new ones, but the excellence of this car will never be extinguished. The engine was smooth and flexible and packed about the best V12 exhaust note you could imagine (unmolested by modern gizmos such as exhaust butterfly valves and sound symposers). For me, it had plenty of poke. You drive on the torque, anyway.
After half an hour of delicately sniffing the same sort of spring air that must have sustained the company’s founder in his pomp a century ago, we set off due north across country to Newport Pagnell, Aston’s post-war manufacturing home for just over 50 years until 2007.
Vanquish manufacture continued at the site as the company got going at its present place next to Jaguar Land Rover at Gaydon from 2003. Of course, Newport Pagnell is still home to Aston Martin Works, where you have always been wise to get your Aston serviced or restored, or where nowadays you can buy one.
Our mission was to meet Paul Spires, boss of this thriving enterprise , whose workforce now outnumbers the former manufacturing operation across the road. Soon, Spires and a hand-picked team will begin building the 25-off run of ‘continuation ’ DB4 GT lightweights, all of them already sold and for track use only.