Car Thoughts: The Aston Martin V550 V8 Vantage – My Grail Car

This post about the mercurial Aston Martin V8 Vantage V550 was originally published on DriveTribe but as is the case with most social media, it has devolved into the sharing of unoriginal, vintage and viral media, so I’ve edited and reposted here.:

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My Journey to See My grail car
James May of The Grand Tour and another deceased pokey motoring show says “never drive your icons,” and i look forward to breaking that rule to drive the coolest f*cking Car Ever made…some other day.

I had the good fortune to grow up in Newport Beach in Southern California. The area was populated by the upper-middle-to-1%-class of people (mostly construction czars, real estate magnates, and con men) and during the late 80’s and early 90’s, business was booming.
My father also maintained a subscription to Road & Track Magazine, which gave me my first introduction to the Aston Martin Virage….and that was the first car to imprint on me. So before we go any further, let me testify that the Aston Martin Virage/V8 is my grail car, and I am proud of it. Not a Lamborghini, not a Ferrari, not some tiresomely overproduced Porsche. It is an Aston Martin Virage Era V8 (and all variants thereof).

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My Grail Car
Anyway, not long after I discovered the Virage in the hyperbolic Road & Track article that seemed obsessed with referencing Alastair Cooke (because the writer likely wanted to feel smart), the local luxury car dealer on Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) known as Newport Imports opened an Aston Martin franchise, and for some time, a Virage Volante in deep blue with a parchment interior sat parked in the showroom, one of such a ridiculously small run of vehicles to make it to the US that I imagine it would be easy to track down.
Sadly Newport Imports went belly up during the recession of the 90’s, shuttering our beloved local coastal Jaguar, Lotus, Ferrari, and Aston Martin dealer, and scores of exotics were repossessed or liquidated. I don’t know if the Virage sold prior to the bust, I just know that I never saw it again.
My next encounter with a Virage didn’t come until 1998 when I would see a rich red one occasionally driving along a nearby stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway near where Newport Imports once stood. Unfortunately, this predates cell phone cameras, so I never got a picture. A brief skim of the internets leads me to speculate that at least three red Virages were imported to the US. The one I saw, one in the midwest (chassis #303) that seems to get bought and sold with alarming frequency, and a third wearing OZ rims. As an aside, Newport Imports is now Sterling BMW.

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But I never got to see a V8 Vantage at home, because they were never imported to the US. Talk about messed up. So to  I went to England to see what I could find. Turns out these cars are pretty damn rare no matter where you go. My first stop was the Aston Martin Heritage Trust Barn in Drayton St. Leonard.

The museum was amazing, and I got part-way through my quest to witness a Vantage…in the form of a twin-supercharged Tadek Marek V8 pulled from one (hopefully a crate motor and not a wreck), as well as some die-cast cars which must be as rare as the real things because I’d never seen them before.

 

Okay, that was a start, and the museum was a pilgrimage, but and engine and toys aren’t quite the whole car. While there, I met one of the collections assistants who, along with being my soulmate (because Aston Martin…), referred me to a mass gathering of AML’s taking place only two days later at Burghley house. So I went, and it was beyond incredible.

Pretty much everything was there, and for someone from the states, this was Valhalla. The only cars I did not find there were any Zagatos apart from a DB7 and AR1, although there was evidence from others that a V12 Zagato had been there earlier in the day.

 

But in this sea of DB6s, DB7s, DB9s, Vanquishes, AMV8s, One-77’s, and even a Vulcan…

…yes, a Vulcan…there were no Virages or V8 Vantages. Finally, after scowering the green multiple times and finally pulling myself away from the DB10, I turned up a grand total of three. First off, there was this utterly perfect seafoam green Virage in concours condition (I’d challenge anyone to find a flaw)

 

The gentleman who owned it was described as being exceptionally nice, although I was unable to meet him.

Okay, so I found one and only one. Could this be it? Could it be that out of roughly 600 Aston Martins, only one Virage existed? Nope, found another…

 

This particular example was of great interest to me. This is the Lynx Virage: A perfectly refined exterior with bits from the vantage, sublimely designed (and possibly one-off) forged wheels, and…oh yeah…a Tadek Marek V8 bored out to seven liters (that’s a 427 for us ‘Mericans) and turbocharged as f*ck. The car was rated at 720 bhp and 1090 lb ft of torque (which is insane) and even had to have a differential cooler fitted to the rear axle, which was of course, built from the ground up. The interior was gorgeous as well, and the mods extended even to the gearshift which replaced the standard and very baggy gaiter with the pleasing shift gate out of a mid-90’s Jaguar XJ. The owner was a cool guy too.

But by then, I had ventured onward and found it, the [allegedly and with numbers matching] first V8 Vantage off the line, in a gorgeous deep Pantone PQ-273C (I know it’s not much of a name, but it’s the closest I can come not knowing the AML name for it) it was beautiful.

 

Agressive, intimidating, and yet understated, this is the pinnacle of cool. As Jeremy Clarkson once said about the Pontiac GTO, you don’t have to explain anything about this car’s design to someone. It’s interior was gorgeous leather and wood, perfectly thought out lines, an imperfect hand assembly, and the ever present aroma of fumes make this a car that bridges the past and the future like none other. Who cares about the Ford steering wheel?

This design is timeless. It doesn’t age. Nor was it made long enough or high enough volume to become long in the tooth. It’s Breaking Bad on four wheels. Just look at it! Made in such limited numbers, it totally lacks ubiquity like anything with a DB prefix. Every body panel was made by hand. That front clip has a feature I’ve never seen on another car either, and I attribute my fanboydom to this detail in particular:

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See that? What’s missing?

Okay I’ll just tell you: What’s missing is a gap between the fender and front clip. I’ve never seen a car that closes the seam between these two body components and it speaks to real thought (or passion and enthusiasm anyway) going into its design and construction. Of course it also means massive repair bills if you get in an accident, but so what.

Speaking of accidents, that gets me to the topic of handling. Nobody is going to say the Virage/V8 was the greatest handling car, and there are actually articles that make that point (I think Jalopnik wrote the seminal aggregate article on the Virage/V8), but that’s not always the point is it? The reality is that nobody is really making a bad car anymore. Jezza, Hamster, and Slow routinely describe cars’ handling as astonishing like it’s a drinking game trigger word, so I think that cars with character are becoming far more interesting, and their demand for good drivers is all the more attractive. Going on the Grand Tour in this car would likely be a far more enjoyable experience than it would be in a 911 (fighting words, I know I know).
I unfortunately didn’t get the opportunity to drive a V8 coupe while I was in the UK, but of course I will wind up back there, or who knows, perhaps some day I will find myself fabulously wealthy and be able to import one to the states. I guess that’s why it’s my grail car: I’ll stop looking for love before I stop looking for it.

Of course you can always stop by The Gallery for higher resolution versions of the photos found here.