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Car and Driver: Brit-stang Two: We Cruise with Aston CEO Andy Palmer in His 1980 V8 Vantage


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Things didn’t go as planned the last time that Aston Martin CEO Andy Palmer lent out one of his cars. That was during his previous role as Nissan’s chief planning officer, when he had personally imported a Nismo GT-R into the UK. It arrived in time for the Goodwood Festival of Speed two years ago, and Palmer generously allowed professional bicycle racer, and wannabe car racer, Chris Hoy to take a turn in his pride and joy up the infamous Hill Course. A turn that ended 25 seconds later when Hoy left the track and embedded the ultra-rare GT-R in the hay bales.


So we’re honored, humbled, and slightly frightened to be offered a turn in Palmer’s newly purchased 1980 Aston Martin Vantage V8, especially as he hasn’t had a chance to drive it yet since it emerged from Aston’s Heritage works division in Newport Pagnell after a heavy refurb that was accompanied by an equally hefty bill.


Senior auto executives normally borrow the old models from the corporate museum when they want to be photographed with one. Not so Palmer, who has invested a considerable amount of his own cash in this gorgeous Vantage, a British muscle car that—pricetag aside—bears a passing resemblance to a Mustang II. He won’t say quite how much he paid—“a lot, but not too much”—but an internet trawl of similar cars in the UK suggests they’re now north of £200,000 ($290,000 at current exchange rates). Yet Palmer insists he would have bought a period Aston even without having become the company’s boss.




“I couldn’t afford a DB5 or a DB6, even if I wanted one,” he says, “when I came back to the UK my plan was to get something nice. The Vantage was always on that list, very close to the top in fact. This is the car I lusted after when I was a teenager. I was really looking for a ’79, that was the year I started work. But 1980 is close enough. That was the year I got my license.”


The minimum age for driving in the UK is 17, giving tacit confirmation that Palmer began his trip to the top at the very bottom. He started as an apprentice for brake manufacturers AP, moving from there to Austin-Rover and then on to Nissan, rising to be head of Nissan’s vast European Technical Center—located just seven miles from Newport Pagnell—at the age of 38, and earning two engineering degrees along the way. A move to Japan lit a rocket under his career, first as head of Nissan’s commercial vehicle arm, then ultimately as Nissan’s chief planning officer and as chairman of Infiniti. In 2014 he gave it all up to come and run a British sportscar maker that, although famous around the world, has made fewer cars in its 103-year history than his former employer builds in a couple of days.


“I was really enjoying what I was doing at Nissan,” he says, “I love cars, I had a big budget and I could make 10 new cars a year,” he says, “but I was kidding myself that I’d achieved my dreams. When Aston came knocking it woke me up—call it a mid-life crisis or a reality check—I thought I’m going to live out what I set my goal to be.”




Bringing us back to the Vantage V8, another of Palmer’s realized dreams. It was often described as the first British supercar, and offered elegant proof that Aston was able to keep pace with the dramatic spike in power outputs that occurred in the second half of the 1970s, while still being the sort of gentleman’s expresses that had made the company famous. Introduced in 1977, the Vantage—which was based on the existing V8 Saloon (Aston refused to use the vulgar term “coupe”)—had 375 horsepower thanks to a reworked version of the company’s 5.3-liter V-8. A contemporary Porsche 911 Turbo made do with just 300. Like all Aston’s period engines this one was hand-built and we’re told that the man who constructed it, according to the plate it still carries, Terry Durston, is still alive. Palmer is planning a meet-up.


This Vantage has subsequently been upgraded to the later “X-pack” specification, boosting power to a claimed 403 horsepower, and also has changed color at some point; it was brown when it originally left Newport Pagnell but has been repainted in this equally period-appropriate shade of green. In every other regard it feels factory fresh, its originality proved by a leather-bound folder attesting that it scored the highest grade in Aston’s recently launched Assured Providence program. There’s even a period radio-cassette deck at the bottom of the button-strewn dashboard. We ask Palmer if he is planning to replace this with something more modern.


“Of course not,” he says, seemingly shocked at the very suggestion, “I’ve still got my cassettes. I’m going to listen to The Stranglers on it.”




Palmer looks remarkably calm sitting in the passenger seat of his box-fresh six-figure sportscar for what he tells us is the first time. The Vantage feels impressively modern, and doesn’t need excuses made for it. There’s no low-down hesitancy, despite breathing through four carburetors that sit in the heat-soaked vee of the engine. There’s a dogleg manual gearbox, which Palmer admits served as partial inspiration for the decision to offer a similar shift pattern for the newly launched Vantage S V12 manual, and it shifts cleanly and accurately; although the clutch is heavy it’s easy to modulate. The power steering feels good too, with far more weight than the finger-light assistance that was common in the ’70s.


The Vantage is happy to keep up with traffic while being driven on little more than the engine’s prodigious low-end torque, but that’s clearly not enough for Palmer, who admonishes us to push harder. It soon transpires that the engine is equally keen to rev, and by 4000 rpm it’s starting to feel fast for 2016, with another two grand still to come. In 1977 it must have been like the hyperdrive universe blurring in that year’s big cinematic hit, Star Wars. Palmer admits that he narrowly avoided getting caught by one of the UK’s robot armies of speed cameras the first time he drove the car.


As to present-day Aston, things are developing quickly. The new DB11 is the first in a series of new cars, one that will see the entire model lineup revamped in the next three years. The replacement for the current Vantage will follow next year, using the twin-turbocharged AMG V-8 that Aston has licensed from Mercedes-AMG. After swapping places to put Palmer at ease by letting him drive his own car, it’s time to ask the question: Will the famous name live on?


“That decision hasn’t been taken yet,” Palmer says, deadpan “but we’d be mad to walk away from heritage like this, wouldn’t we?”




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