Top Gear drives the Aston One-77
AM said no writer would drive its £1.2 million hypercar. We didn’t get the memo...
There's probably something profound to say here, but I can't for the life of me think what it is. There's an empty road stretching out in front to some unseen event horizon, arrow-straight and unflinching, a thick black stripe slicked through the view and shimmery-indistinct in the distance. The desert frames it, bare and indifferent, fretted shallow and sinuous by a coarse wind that tastes of dust and ancient things, but the metaphor remains slippery and indistinct. So I do what I must, push hard on the throttle of this Aston Martin One-77 and bury lack of revelation in an avalanche of V12 noise and fury. A second later, I'm not so short of inspiration. I'm hanging on for dear life.
Up until about an hour ago, despite having flown to Dubai in the company of editor-in-chief Charlie Turner and photographer Justin Leighton, nobody was entirely convinced this was going to happen. Of course, in theory, anyone can drive the Aston Martin One-77 supercar. The only stumbling block being that you'd have to buy one first, and the list price for entry to the 77-strong club comes in around a not-insubstantial 1.2-million quid, depending on exchange rates. Which neatly purges the option for all but the platinum rich, or the obscenely well-connected. Usually, TopGear gets to sidestep the necessary requirements, despite not being wealthy or the right kind of popular, but not this time. Aston Martin decreed that no journalist would drive a One-77 in any official capacity, the experience being for owners only, an exclusive adventure unsullied by description in the popular press, lest potential clients be ‘discouraged' from purchase. And yet, with all One-77s sold, Aston still wouldn't let anyone without an Amex Black bottomless credit rating get anywhere near it.
Pictures: Justin Leighton
This feature first appeared in the September issue of Top Gear magazineAdvertisement - Page continues below
Which to TopGear is provocation and pure challenge. Thus, after a year of negotiation, extravagant pitches, slightly iffy plans and false dawns, we finally find ourselves on the Arabian Peninsula in the company of a man called Abdulla Al Ketbi, owner of ultra-high-end dealership Al Ain Class Motors (see more of his cars right here), with a white One-77 that he has purchased so that we can drive it. And, yes, you did read that right. Mr Al Ketbi had pledged to editor-in-chief Turner that we could drive his previous One-77 some months ago, but promptly had an offer he couldn't refuse for the car. In order to satisfy honour, he subsequently went out and bought another one - at well over a million quid - so that TopGear could have a go. Mr Al Ketbi, it seems, takes his promises very seriously indeed.
Interesting, then, that the first time I drive the near-mythical One-77 is to back it gingerly off an uncovered low-loader into a dusty side road in the desert outside Dubai. But, hey, I'll take what I can get. Push the glass and aluminium lozenge of a key (Aston calls it an ECU, or Emotional Control Unit, but such pretension escapes me) into the dash slot, pause, and hear the fuel pumps prime with a whirr. Next comes the high-pitched grunt of the starter motor, and then a click and metallic bark of V12 finally getting some air into its robot lungs. It sounds fast and vital, loud on start-up before settling back into that kind of slightly raspy, businesslike burr that you get from racing engines. But it's also uncanny in its smoothness and closeness, the exhaust running as it does through the sill by your hips instead of underneath the car.
Hit the R button on the dashtop, and reverse with extreme caution, aware that several people - including the owner Mr Al Ketbi - are watching intently. Probably because very few people have actually seen a One-77 out in the wild. Unfortunately, I can't drive it properly just yet, because photos have to be taken, lest this whole endeavour become a featureless novella. So I pop the door and step out to take a closer look. Which proves to be a mistake. The issue, for those of you unfamiliar with Dubai in July, is the weather.
It's roughly one o'clock in the afternoon, and the sun isn't so much shining as jackhammering out of the sky like a dirty orange laser. Step from the ubiquitous icy aircon of any car or building, and it hits with weight and severity. The atmosphere trying to beat you to death with a hot felt mallet. It's humid, too, filling your lungs with cotton wool and making it hard to commit to any sort of open-air industry. We haven't even really started, and Justin already looks part-roasted. He is wearing a large hat, a green cravat and some sort of close-fitting long-sleeved black undershirt that he insists will wick sweat away from his body. Charlie and I, skin puckering and crispy in T-shirts and shorts, are convinced he is going to die.Advertisement - Page continues below
No time to waste, though - now we have a One-77, we shall have a story, even if we have to parboil friends to get it. Luckily, this most extreme of Astons isn't short of angles, or detail. The internal brief was to create an Aston Martin that pushed the boundaries of what the public knows of the brand, to ‘create a car closer to art than the automobile', according to its designer and Aston's director of design Marek Reichman. To create the fastest, most extreme and technically advanced Aston to date, and to poke around the edges of technology and design that might influence future models.
The conceit wasn't taken lightly. Up close, the One-77 is blatantly exotic, but strangely familiar, the Aston Martin meme threaded through something bigger and more aggressive than we're used to, though strip the badges off, and you'd still be in no doubt as to its lineage. The bonnet is very long, the stance cab-rearward, the shoulders broad and powerful. At a hair's breadth under two metres, excluding those sticky-out mirrors, it's ever so slightly wider than a Bugatti Veyron, but carries its visual bulk more gracefully. The Bug has a stolid, engineered look to it, while the Aston, with its flared nostrils, wasp waist and bunched rear wheelarches looks bred. More organic.
Inside, it's again Aston familiar and yet re-proportioned, the usual visual cues allowed extremity and deeper breath. The forms are stretched and elegant, every single metal piece milled from billet. I don't know why you can tell, but you can, part of your brain picking up subconsciously on the temperature and texture of the little metal rings and trim pieces around the huge centre console. The seats are wide, comfortable and cobra-headed, navy blue with white stitching to match the rest of the interior, the doors bare carbon, hung with door furniture that looks like a robotic dinosaur's foot. There's a matching piece between the two seats, and it's easy to spend a long time just looking at the various bits and wondering which would make the best piece of abstract art.
It's a very similar story underneath, because although there are recognisable elements in the One-77 architecture, they've been accelerated into exceptional areas for Aston. The underlying monocoque, for instance, may have been created with knowledge gained from AM's aluminium VH (vertical/horizontal) platform, but is formed from carbon fibre and built in conjunction with composite specialist Multimatic of Canada. It is then clothed with handcrafted aluminium panels, making it light, strong and, presumably, a complete bugger to repair.
The engine is a 7.3-litre, naturally aspirated V12, repurposed by tuning legends Cosworth, that produces 750bhp and 553 lb ft of torque, making it - despite the arrival of the Ferrari F12 (see p120) - the most powerful naturally aspirated production car engine in the world. And, yes, the engine's basic structure is the same as the DBS's V12, but with 80 per cent new bits and a 15 per cent weight reduction to just 260kg, the filial comparison becomes a little stretched. Quick?
Well, all that unprocessed urge should be enough to power a car that weighs just 1,630kg, despite its considerable physical footprint. And it is. The results are spectacular on paper, with 0-62mph coming up in around 3.7 seconds and a top speed past 220mph.
Poking around it, you can't help feeling there's very little visual or physical flab on the One-77. Stood here, resplendent in pearl-white paint and shockingly bright against a desert background, it looks almost projected. The strakes behind the front wheels cast stark shadows, the scallops and stretched feature lines in the bonnet like tendons in a predator's throat as it bites. Gather up enough time to absorb this car (say, about a year), and it's like figuring out a 3D Magic Eye mosaic. There's always something new to pick at. For instance, there's a line born on the rear surface of the headlight that runs down the side of the car, swoops entirely around the back over the top of the stretched C shape of the rear light bar and back around the beltline to finally die at the opposing headlight.
It feels like an indulgent bit of surfacing - as does that Frisbee of a rear light ‘cluster' - but entirely in keeping. Appropriate excess. The proportions, too, are cracking. Low, wide and gloriously GT-ish. This is a car that makes a great visual play of not going down the usual hypercar route of having the engine in the middle. Except of course, it has. Technically, anyway. Despite those GT proportions - you sit way back near the rear axle, gazing out over a huge plain of bonnet - the One-77 is counted as a front-mid-mounted configuration. Meaning that although the engine sits ahead of the driver, the entire block sits behind the centre line of the front axle, 100mm lower than in any other Aston, and entirely within the wheelbase. So the engine is in the middle of the car - it's just that you actually sit towards the back.Advertisement - Page continues below
The suspension is traditional double-wishbones made exotic with inboard pushrod-actuated coil springs and racing-car-spec dynamic spool valve dampers. In fact, the engineering of the One-77 seems to push its way up and through its skin - you can see the rear suspension through the back window, and the front springs and fully adjustable dampers are front and centre in the engine bay, just forward of an engine that looks good enough to be displayed on some sort of plinth. Chief engineer Chris Porritt says that AM took inspiration from the most technically advanced front-engined, rear-drive racers on the planet: DTM cars.
You can see the allegories wrought in the packaging. But enough already. I've now considered the big Aston from every angle except directly underneath, and I really, really need to drive it. Justin is panting like a labrador having a small but important coronary event and is noticeably thinner than this morning. Charlie has been standing on a sand dune in summer footwear - essentially submerging his feet in semi-molten glass wearing only flip-flops. Change of scenery.
Time to drive.
In the first few miles, the only thing I can think is that the One-77 simply doesn't feel as heavy as it looks. Like a block of titanium, the heft you expect from looking at the physical volume never actually arrives. It's light at the wheel and keen to turn - with just three turns from lock to lock - though, until you get used to the sensations, it does feel like those front wheels are some distance away.
You also get a keen sense of the traction available, sitting as you do so close to the rear wheels, a good thing on tarmac rendered part-slick with windblown sand. The engine is brawny without being overbearing at low revs, and the suspension is surprisingly indulgent for a car so committed. Shift up to a more than respectable speed, watch the vestigial-looking spoiler rise up in the rear-view mirror at around 80mph, and concentration is deployed in force.Advertisement - Page continues below
Not the Aston's fault: the roads around here may be dead straight, but endless trawls by traffic with much narrower tyres and track have left grooves in the part-molten tarmac. Not a problem for a less substantially shod vehicle, but the One-77 is running 20-inch forged alloy wheels with 335-section tyres at the rear (255-section on the front), and the ruts cause the car to buck and weave, yanking around through the wheel.
In fact, the One-77 can't physically settle unless positioned in the middle of the road, white lines sighted in the centre of the bonnet, whipping through the middle of the two pairs of bonnet-mounted louvres. Which seems appropriate somehow. And the noise. Oh, my goodness, the noise. Active bypass valves open in the stainless exhaust at around 4,000rpm, and what was a very respectable V12 bellow becomes an all-out heart-piercing scream further up. A pure note, too. This is what people tell you supercars should sound like, and it makes your heart pump faster with every millisecond of your foot on that throttle.
The shove is relentless, pressing you back into those seats well into generous speeds and beyond, without significant pause. Howling out of the dipping sun and reflecting the orange glow, the white One-77 looks like a supersonic ember spat from a horizon-wide bonfire. Not just a car, this. Not here. Not now. There's a ‘but' coming, though, and it's a fairly big one.
After a little further, I start to suspect why Aston Martin might not have wanted journalists to drive the One-77 before the allocation was safely sold out. Because the six-speed automated manual gearbox is - compared with the best in the sector - rubbish. This is not something I say lightly. But the rear-mid-mounted Select Shift Manual and its Auto Shift counterpart really are not in keeping with a car of this price, or pretence to the technological cutting edge.
Even when you take into account the One-77's official release date. Aston says that a double-clutch 'box wasn't on the cards for a variety of reasons, mainly that they tend towards the expensive, big and heavy, and that, given the time frame for One-77 development, one would be impossible to engineer quickly enough. Not forgetting the issues regarding cost versus benefit for such low-volume production. But this gearbox, extrapolated and strengthened as it is from the paddle-operated version you'll find in a regular DB9, albeit driving through a magnesium-alloy torque tube and with a carbon-fibre propeller shaft, just can't do the rest of the One-77 justice.
After just three or four gentle three-point turns, the car started pinging warning lights about an overheating clutch. It slurs between ratios with huge head-nods between ratios in virtually any gear - although especially in the lower ranges - and, compared with what we're used to, lacks finesse or fine control.
As with all of these single-clutch efforts, you can mitigate most of the effects by driving carefully, a judicious lift of the throttle and well-timed pull of the paddle helps enormously, but the slow-speed refinement is not up to scratch. It's not as if the problems are a trade-off, either. Where other robotised manuals exchange slow-speed clunkiness for lightning responses when revving hard, the One-77 slithers between ratios, no matter what you do. It's better going fast, no doubt, but it's never impressive, and always feels faintly fragile. Of course, you could say that we have an odd car, but I don't think so. I recognise the unacceptable elements of this Aston's behaviour, and, unfortunately, the last time I felt anything like it was on early paddle-shift Vanquishes. The first versions of that car allegedly dropped clutches every 4,000 miles.
It's a shame, because, otherwise, the rest of the One-77 is a genuine joy. The engine feels down on power, but considering the outside temperature is nudging 50°C, I'd expect a little loss of breath on a car that forgoes the easy bang-for-your-buck that comes with forced induction. It doesn't rev quite as hard as I thought it might, but the way it makes power is a long and liquid experience, a smooth-surfaced torrent rather than the sudden gush of a turbocharged car, and the soundtrack is worth the price of admission on its own. Joyously, I really do get to experience it. Mr Al Ketbi is inordinately relaxed and simply allows us to take the car out unaccompanied into the wild, and the desert is a fine stage for this Aston Martin V12. In fact, I get so wrapped up in the Zen-like featurelessness of the landscape that I realise with a start I haven't really driven around many corners. Which suddenly becomes an almost all-consuming worry. Oops.
Now, it's wise to remember that the One-77 is ordered pretty much completely bespoke in terms of set-up. Were you to have stumped up for one, you could specify left- or right-hand drive and have the suspension tailored specifically to your requirements, from street cruiser to track mauler.
Our car - number 10 - feels comforting and supple, so I'm keen to find out just how well this thing can feed itself around a curve. Except there's a distinct lack of anything but junctions or mile-long arcs for the foreseeable future. Without significant natural obstacles to steer around, road-planners in the desert obviously become unimaginatively practical.
Luckily, we are with Mr Al Ketbi, for whom very little is impossible. Soon, I'm faced with a bare mile of freshly laid tarmac that winds through a series of excellent corners. Second and third gear, and I can almost forget about the gearbox, because the big Aston comes alive. It is not, however, the kind of experience you might expect, because the One-77 doesn't necessarily act like a mid-engined car capable of this pace. It's much more relaxed and less knife-edged, easier to understand and clearer in its messages. Turn into a corner and power through, and there's a remarkable lack of lean but no slack. The brakes, huge carbon-ceramics all-round, stop with feel and vengeance, scrubbing speed quickly and without drama. Push a bit harder, and the nose starts to gently, almost gracefully, push wide. Do daft stuff like lift mid-corner, and the One-77 merely tucks up and tightens where a traditionally mid-engined car would give you a warning wriggle at the very least.
And, of course, hit the throttle mid-corner with the traction off, and you can have oversteer on a pivot, but - being honest - I only did this once and got so terrified of crashing that I switched the traction back on and immediately retreated for a quiet moment on my own. Despite the genial appearances, this is still a 750bhp, rear-wheel-drive hypercar. One would be wise to respect that.
In what feels like bare minutes, the sun starts to freefall out of the sky, bathing the scenery in the red-gold blush of a dying day. It's been six hours. In that time, I've only covered about 50 miles in the One-77, but it's just about enough to give a flavour of what is a very complex proposition. Justin is only a third of his original size, previously skin-tight clothing now baggy, previously skin-tight skin now sagging like a bearded, albino Yoda. Charlie has gained the kind of bronze tint associated most readily with aftersun and skin grafts. And I am left kicking stones around in the desert and trying to figure out how I feel about the One-77.
Is it worth over a million quid? For me, no. Not as a machine, at least. The carbon-heavy monocoque might well inform the next generation of Aston Martins, making them lighter and more efficient, and the design study for such limited production allows for more indulgence than a straight production car, but the gearbox, such a vital, involved part of the experience would drive me absolutely insane. Supercars don't have to be fragile these days - no matter how powerful - and the One-77 feels like it might not suffer the kind of abuse I'd want to throw its way.
More to the point, I'd be embarrassed stuttering through heavy traffic, which I suspect might be the absolutely worst place to drive it. But I'm not sure that's the entirety of the point when it comes to the One-77. Because not all brilliance can be measured in tenths of seconds. More pertinent for a car like this, is that every single time I walked up to the One-77, it made me catch my breath. Every time it fired up, it roused the 12-year-old me that dreamt of cars like this and made him giggle in sheer excitement.
It might not be the ultimate tool for demolishing a track, but it is an expression of what an Aston strives to be: a story of drama, art and endeavour. The story of the One-77, then, is about the journey, rather than the destination. And I'm pleased to have been along for at least part of the ride.