The cars we loved.
Aston Martins get plenty of love today thanks in part to a certain fictional British secret agent. James Bond has been depicted as driving many Aston Martins old and new, but never the Virage. Even when it was new it was being upstaged by the old V8 in those awful Bond films of the early ’90s.
Such love for the past or most current Aston Martins underscores an odd bias that has overshadowed one of my favorite Aston Martins, the Virage.
The Virage is something of a transitional car. As a replacement for the beloved V8, a car that was developed in the ’60s, the Virage was the last new car developed by Aston Martin before Ford gobbled it up. As an independent project, the Virage development team reached out to various suppliers to reuse, update or develop new components. The result was a big GT car that despite being made with a sleek aluminum body was very heavy.
Buyers of Aston Martin cars were a particular lot who valued tradition over the sass of Italian sports cars. So with that in mind, Aston Martin sought independent design teams in England for the Virage’s final design. With the Lagonda’s chassis hard points as a starting point the winning design came from the team of Ken Greenley and John Heffernan. The had worked with Aston Martin in the past and were well aware of the company’s design heritage, yet used CAD to design the all aluminum body.
The Virage was the first ever CAD designed Aston. Its simplistic and flowing wind tunneled design featured thin”C” pillars that suggested the Opel Calibra.
When possible, corners were cut where it saved the most money. That included using the same old engine block and engine management system from the V8 (the displacement was unchanged). Not everything was old. Aston Martin reached out to American based Callaway Engineering to develop new DOHC cylinder heads. The team at the Newport Pagnell factory did not have to look so far for other components. Taillights from Audi and headlights from Volkswagen joined interior components from GM, Jaguar and Ford.
What sounded like a mess on paper came together surprisingly well. Starting with chassis bits from the Lagonda sedan, a new lightweight de Dion rear suspension was fitted that had fewer components than previous models.
Once Aston Martin managed to work out issues with catalytic converters in US bound cars, the 32 valve 5.3 liter V8 produced as much as 325 hp. That power was initially managed through a Chrysler four speed automatic. The more modern manual transmission was a 5 or 6 speed ZF sourced unit.
At over 4,000lbs with 320 hp, the Virage could only muster a 0 to 60 time in the low 7s. While many V6 performance cars like Ford’s Contour SVT could approach the Virage’s top speed of 145 mph, no V6 could hum with the rumble of an all aluminum V8. All out speed was not what the Virage was about anyway.
Inside hand-stitched leather upholstery made the Virage a comfortable place to be on long drives. The English styled opulence concealed the modern electronics systems that included traction control and anti-lock breaks (must haves on a car that was well over $150k when new in 1989).
The name Virage was French for turning a corner which was exactly what happened to Aston Martin as Ford came in and modernized it’s production processes. The transition to Ford ownership did mean that antiquated components like the Chrysler transmission would be replaced by a Ford unit in 1993. Other components would gradually arrive from other Ford or Ford owned companies like air conditioning units from Jaguar. For the most part Ford seemed to look the other way and allowed the Virage to be the freelance project that it was.
The Virage’s timing was awkward in that Ford’s in house design, engineering and global sourcing system had no room for the homegrown freelance methods that created the Virage. As as a result production numbers were quite quite low and fell as the years rolled on. Variants like the convertible () would spike sales, but the Virage platform’s days were numbered.
To further diminish the Virage’s legacy, news of the Ford blessed DB7 made buyers all but forget about the Virage by the mid ’90s. Aston cars would have improved performance and reliability under Ford’s ownership, but would loose a little of the quirky English charm that came with cars like the handsome Virage.