’80s Rarity: When Zagato Styled An Aston Martin Into A Boxy GT With V8 Power
Photography by Will Broadhead
Aston Martin. The name conjures up feelings of elegance, old-money upper-class, exclusivity, maybe some spy work. It’s a prestigious brand that is, as far as those of us on this side of the pond are concerned, quintessentially British, a bit of heritage in sports car form. Of course, with the somewhat turbulent history of this particular marque, that is perhaps not something we can claim completely. What is more, when our cousins a few borders away get hold of one of our nearest and dearest, the results can be stupendous if not entirely elegant.
Enter Zagato, the famous Italian coachbuilder responsible for the “re”-bodies of many an already beautiful car throughout history, from the roaring ’20s and racers from Alfa Romeo through to the height of the ‘60s GT efforts with the likes of Fiat, Ferrari, Maserati, and of course, Aston Martin. The Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato is, to my eye, one of the most beautiful cars ever built, but it wasn’t the only Aston that got the Italian treatment in its panel work.
In 1986, a year after it was announced, a Zagato-bodied V8 Vantage coupe was unveiled to the world in Geneva. With its squared-off body, odd bulged hood, and rectangular rather than flowing lines, it caused some stir even for the decade. Only 50 were planned to be built, all of which were sold quickly. but with a world that perhaps still hasn’t come to terms with this angular Aston, prices these days haven’t increased at quite the same percentage rate as other models, presenting enthusiasts who know where to look with somewhat of a bargain.
Personally, I think they look fabulous, with Lancia 037-esque perspectives and stripped-down dimensions. They offer something a little different to the household-name DBs, so when I was offered a chance to take one out for a road test by the expert team at Nicholas Mee Aston Martin, I was eager to see how the stats transferred to the road, but also just for the chance to “participate” as it were in this piece of lesser-known British motoring history.
Already a special one, having had the Zagato treatment and all, the machine that I was to drive had been given an extra big sprinkling of fairy dust within its life, seeing as it was bought by British actor and comedian Rowan Atkinson. Atkinson had purchased the car with the intention to go racing, and had it prepared and converted for combined fast road and race use by Aston Martin Works. He then campaigned the car at a national level, with factory support, for three years. The car is still very much a fast, race-spec, road car with the 480bhp Aston-prepared motor (50 horses over the original) and electronic fuel injection conversion, race-grade suspension, and uprated brakes. Since being converted back into road use though, the engine has had its power curve tamed a little to make it a little more suitable for the highway, and some creature comforts have been added back, like air-conditioning and the original seats, not to mention carpets and more user-friendly interior trimmings in general.
Don’t be fooled though, this is a powerful car that isn’t tamed with a few layers of wool, and as the starter button is pushed and that V8 gurgles up into being again, the deep-seated thrum that comes from the twin pipes at the rear of the machine are more than a hint of the former life and leftovers in this car. The good kind of leftovers, the kind that get better with a little age somehow.
I can’t wait to get behind the wheel, and from the instant the dog leg gearbox is slipped into first and the clutch released, it’s clear that this is a purposeful being. It leaps a little as we make our way down the road, and once warmed and settled the engine is happy to snap my head back in the seat on command, and the only thing that interrupts the soundtrack of the V8 is my belly laugh. Instantly this car feels like good old analog fun, and whilst the hard suspension is a tad skittish and nervous on the smaller selection of England’s B-roads for the day, I can tell that this is a car still small enough to reward the front seat with more if you were willing to provide the daring inputs, as one would expect from a racing car of this era; still something that requires a lot of your own will and brainpower.
As we travel through the urban populous of Hertford, heads turn and admiring glances are cast in the direction of our beautiful, red Aston, but I wonder how many of them recognize it as an Aston at all. Unique in its muscular looks and ‘80s aesthetic, the engine growls and spits a little on the over-run during the entrance to yet another traffic island. Leaving the town behind, the test route takes us onto a faster dual carriageway and I am able to bury the accelerator somewhat deeper and lean a little harder on the suspension, and I’m rewarded instantly with a healthy injection of pace and roadholding while the modern-day traffic disappears in the mirrors. It’s addictive and a compelling ode to the ‘80s GT car experience, and the bark of the V8 gets to you and becomes the devil on your shoulder “Just a little bit more.”
Unfortunately, just as components are starting to build a little temperature and bed in, including myself I might add, it’s time to hand the car back. My emotions are a mixture of disappointment that my time behind the wheel is over and elation at having driven such a wonderful car. While my first loves from the marque will always be the early DBs, and although I am a big fan of the modern classics that Aston Martin has crafted since, having now been lucky enough to experience a V8 Zagato first-hand I must admit to being somewhat besotted. A stunningly capable car, that has equally exotic looks that place it firmly in a decade that’s becoming rather popular again without earning it cocaine jokes. If you happen to be in the market for a classic Aston Martin but want to stand out against the DBs and other V8s, a Zagato is surely worth serious consideration, no? It can’t be long before the rest of the world catches up in its appreciation.