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Aston Martin Zagato on the Furka Pass

  1. “I can’t help feeling that cars like this will soon be consigned to the history books. I have this horrible, dreadful feeling that what I’m driving here is an ending…” J Clarkson, reviewing the V12 Vantage in 2009.

    The boss’s words ring loud in my ears as the V12 Zagato crests the Furka Pass and the Alps yawn out beneath us. A mile and a half above Europe, the Aston’s venerable V12 beats a tattoo off the cliffs, warm morning sun flashing over aquamarine bodywork, and I am struck by a happy thought: JC was wrong. Three years since he delivered his epitaph to the finest modern Aston, here we are, atop Switzerland in a car that shows the V12 Vantage to be far from dead. The big-engined, beautiful GT is alive and wearing a new Italian suit.

    Words: Sam Philip
    Pics: Lee Brimble

    This feature first appeared in the September issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. Welcome, then, to the latest - and definitively not the last - chapter in the A to Z of Going Fast and Looking Good. It all started in 1961, when Aston bosses, impressed by coachbuilder Ugo Zagato’s pioneering ventures in weight-saving, aerodynamics and aluminium, asked the Italian if he fancied reskinning their DB4. The result was the unforgettable DB4GT Zagato, an aluminium masterpiece heralded as one of the most beautiful cars ever to grace road or track. Just 20 were built.

    Despite the DB4 GT’s success, Aston and Zagato spent the next five decades pursuing a Friends Reunited-style romance: great periods of separation interspersed by frenzied bump ‘n’ grinding. After a 35-year break, Zagato’s V8 Vantage arrived in 1986 (52 coupes and 37 convertibles produced), succeeded by 2002’s DB7, which also spawned an America-only DB AR1 cabrio.

  3. And that was it until May last year - the 50th anniversary of the DB4GT - when Aston unveiled the V12 Zagato concept at Italy’s Villa d’Este concours, where it scooped the Best In Show award (I think they call it something rather grander than that). A month later, a pair of V12 Zagato racers competed in - and finished - the Nürburgring 24 Hours. It seemed that might be that for another decade or two of Gaydon-Milan collaboration… until Aston quietly announced a limited run of 150 road-going V12 Zagatos, and TG did its patented happy-dance.

    Which brings us neatly to the latest chapter, to the top of Switzerland’s Furka Pass, with the world’s very first V12 Zagato road car. And it looks Furking brilliant. This is no conventionally pretty car, eschewing the uninterrupted, swooping lines of the rest of the Aston range for a bolder, stubbier aesthetic.

  4. The Zagato flirts with inelegance: from certain angles, its curt, turret-lighted tail resembles the face of a hog-nosed snake. But old Ugo Zagato was never one for a wantonly slinky profile, his designs sculpted by function rather than fashion. The V12 is brutally beautiful, wrapping Zagato’s most famous fast-car cues - the double-bubble roof (a feature originally intended to house a pair of race helmets) and gaping, shark-tooth grille - around the Vantage frame. Unlike previous Aston Zagatos, the new V12 isn’t built in Italy, but fabricated instead by Coventry firm CPP to an Aston design approved by the Zagato studio.

    It shimmers. The Zag’s aquamarine livery seems liquid-dipped like quicksilver, and so it should: this is no ordinary paint job. V12 Zagatos are painted alongside One-77’s in the poshest corner of the Aston factory, a process taking over 100 hours per car. In total, each Zagato requires over 2,000 man-hours to produce, which points either to its handcrafted, bespoke nature or some very slow blokes on the production line.

  5. Menacingly picturesque seems the flavour of the day on the Furka. This isn’t the Switzerland of soft-green rolling meadows and clonking cowbells and Julie Andrews. This is the Alps at its most brutal: glacier-cut cliffs looming over rocky valleys, the Eiger lurking behind. For three hours after dawn, we have the Furka in all its deserted perfection, diving over silver-blue rivers, tacking from switchback to smooth switchback.

    And then, on the stroke of 9am, they arrive in their hoards to ruin our fun. The motorbicyclists. Hundreds and hundreds of them, buzzing like masochistic flies, blazing and burbling, undertaking and overtaking, often simultaneously. TG is not given to the traditional driver-biker animosity - personally, I’ve always found motorcyclists most courteous, a courtesy I’d guess has much to do with their high risk of being converted into a leather-wrapped black pudding if something goes wrong - but the bikers on the Furka are, for want of a better word, idiots.

  6. A couple of bends below the Belvedere hotel, I turn into a blind right-hand hairpin to find myself being passed on the left and right by a pair of splay-legged buffoons… as another half-dozen appear from the other direction, knee-down, wrong side of the road. I wince, close my eyes and somehow avoid an impromptu round of Ducati dominoes. I am left a) very glad Aston doesn’t have to rewrite its press releases to announce a limited run of just 149 V12 Zagatos and b) trying to remember why we’re here.

    In fact, we’re here with good reason: the Furka has its own Aston connection. Three years after Zagato first laid hammers to the DB4, Sean Connery’s James Bond duelled in another modified Aston with Tilly Masterson’s Mustang convertible on this very road in 1964’s Goldfinger. OK, so Connery’s Aston wasn’t a DB4 but a DB5 (packing machine-guns, rotating plates and an ejector seat), and modified by MI6 not Milan, but, like Zagato’s back catalogue, the Furka is a vital chapter in Aston’s rise to the epitome of Cool Britannia.

  7. 007 never had to deal with an onslaught of brainless, buzzing bikers (actually, he did, but they were baddies, so he just shot them). Without the machine-gun option at our disposal, we’re reduced to ambling along and letting the bikers do their thing. Still, the Zag’s cabin is a very nice ambling-spot, trimmed in semi-aniline leather with wavy contrast stitching lurid enough to induce seasickness and an F1-garage’s-worth of carbon fibre.

    As the sun assumes biker-melting ferocity, the two-wheeled irritants are scorched from the road and we can stretch the Zagato’s V12 without fear of punting a biker off a thousand-foot cliff. It may be old enough to qualify for a free bus pass, it may be as technologically cutting-edge as a soup spoon, but this is still a mighty engine: less Large Hadron Collider, more the noisiest bits of the Industrial Revolution stuffed under a handbeaten bonnet.

  8. The 6.0-litre lump develops 510bhp, the same as the standard V12 Vantage. I wonder if Aston missed a small trick here by not bumping up the Zagato’s power a touch (the DB4 Zag had around 75bhp more than its donor car), allowing potential customers to boast that they own not only a very exclusive modern Aston Martin, but also the most powerful Vantage.

    Still, half a ton of horsepowers isn’t to be harrumphed at in a car some 20cm shorter - and a little narrower - than a Mercedes SL. Even in dry, warm, late-summer conditions, the V12 will overwhelm its fat 295-section rear tyres in every gear up to fourth. Planting the throttle is like being punched in the solar plexus by a small but intensely powerful fist: a huge amount of energy condensed into a tiny package.

  9. Driving the Zagato hard on these lofty mountain roads is a lethally, brilliantly simple exercise: go as fast as your bravery reserves allow; crash and die as soon as you exceed them. Unlike so many modern cars, the Zag doesn’t feel idiot-proof. It has the brutish mien of a Sixties muscle car: a car built around a big engine with secondary regard for driver wellbeing.

    Not that it’s bad to drive, simply uncompromising. The Zag’s steering is seriously weighty, the sort of wheel you grip hard, biceps tensed, rather than twirl with a couple of fingers. Aston insists the Zagato is a reskin rather than a mechanical reworking, so maybe it’s just a psychological trick of being wrapped in squishy stitched leather and posh plaques, but the Zagato feels more expensively engineered than the standard V12.

  10. The bulge beneath your right hand plays a part: I’m delighted to report Aston has ditched the Terminator Appendage gearstick from the V12 Vantage and the DBS, replacing it with a stubby little Alcantara effort. It’s a lovely thing, the sort of shifter BMW’s M Division might fashion given near-infinite resources, a touch that makes the Zagato feel more wieldy and engaging than the V12 Vantage.

    A tip: should you happen to find yourself on a deserted Furka Pass with a V12 Zagato, press the Sport button immediately. Partly because it sharpens throttle response, but mainly because it activates the exhaust bypass valves, which pop open around

  11. 3,500rpm and plunge the valley into a maelstrom of furious sound that’ll cause every heifer in the canton to immediately enter labour. We spend a happy, deafening afternoon charging up and down the Furka and the Grimsel, its next-door neighbour (Furka ‘n’ Grimsel: only the German tongue could turn two of Europe’s most beautiful mountain passes into a pair of cave-dwelling fairytale trolls), clocking up dozens of supercar scalps for the TopGear office wall. As well as biker Mecca, these passes are a place of pilgrimage for cars, too: in a couple of hours, we whip past a Mercedes SLS, half a dozen old Ford Mustangs (well hello, Ms Masterson), a red-on-white Weismann, two DBSes, a Lambo Murciélago, even a Ferrari 599 GTO in gunmetal grey.

    I’ll keep the Zag, ta. It’s a life-affirming thing. Maybe, maybe you could gripe at Aston’s failure to improve the Vantage’s now-ancient centre console interface and display: the high-gloss finish looks lovely in photos, but is blindingly reflective in sunlight. Similarly the disc-shaped Bang & Olufsen tweeters either corner of the dashtop, which make delicious noises but strobe squint-inducing pulses straight into your eyes as you flick below street lights.

  12. And definitely, definitely you could gripe at the price. £330k plus taxes (meaning nearly £400k if you’re in the UK) is an insane price for a rebodied V12 Vantage, a car costing £130k on the road. That said, were you to splash out your life savings on a Zagato, wrap it in clingfilm and stick it in a high-security garage, I can’t imagine you’d ever lose your cash: its limited run and sheer visual impact should make it a concrete-set cert for future profit.

    But it’s deeper than rarity and looks. The Zagato feels far more than a lipsticked V12 Vantage. It feels special, genuinely bespoke, the product of a design and engineering department cutting loose, from the Z-embossed buckles securing the behind-seat compartment to the snouty bonnet vents to the carbon-sculpted rear wing. That wavy stitching running the length of the seats and headlining? The pattern continues through the rear window’s heating elements, which sine-wave back and forth on their way down the screen. The standard V12 Vantage doesn’t have wavy window heaters. Someone at Aston thought, “Hey, that’d look cool”, and had the freedom to carry it through. I like that.

  13. Before heading out to Switzerland, strictly in the name of research, I watched the remastered DVD version of Goldfinger. It was simultaneously brilliant yet rubbish: sub-zero Sixties cool riddled with clunking special effects, hammy acting and gaping plot holes. I feared the V12 Zagato might be the same. In the last couple of years, some of the Aston range, though lovely to look at, listen to and - in a hairy-backed way - drive, has started to feel long in the tooth: too reliant on Gaydon’s box of Ford leftovers, the product of a company lagging behind the pace of progress set by Ferrari and the Germans. But the Zag feels more personal, more handcrafted than anything Italy or Germany can offer. In combination with the fantastic Furka, it’s almost as good as motoring gets.

    Almost. Late in the day, a couple of hills down the road from Furka, we stumble on the Passo della Novena. Curled cosily against the Italian border, the Novena is 50m higher than the Furka and even better: a stack of great, wide, sweeping hairpins, Corby-trouser-press-smooth tarmac and, best of all, free of motorcycles. If you’re ever in southern Switzerland - hell, if you’re ever in Western Europe - take a detour to drive it. If our latest get-rich-quick scheme comes off (a multiple pyramid scheme christened ‘The Toblerone’) you’ll spot TG heading the other way in a V12 Zagato, exhausts trumpeting, tyres scrabbling up another grand switchback as the evening light casts the glaciers and peaks purple.

  14. If this were the end of the line for the big, beautiful, unapologetically powerful supercar, it’d be a worthy send-off. But it isn’t. The V12 Zagato is a glorious, unrepentant lump of noise and handbuilt luxury: not a gravestone inscription but proof the grand, glitzy GT is alive and well. The Aston Martin V12 Zagato will be in the history books alright, but it won’t be the final chapter.

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