Mar 2020

‘The New Testament – The Aston Martin V8: 1969-2000’

Russell Hayes, author of The Aston Martin V8: 1969-2000, gives the inside story on the book:


“With only a few published each year, a Palawan Press book is a rare thing. And in may 2017 I had the honour and the challenge to be asked by founder Simon Draper to write a history of the magnificent hand-built V8 engine and the Aston martins it propelled for three decades. It was a project that had been waiting for its time for nearly ten years; some preparation had been done but the scope and content was still wide open. I’d written five motoring books before, but all non-Aston. This was The Big One.

Simon allowed me the freedom to create a comprehensive synopsis of each chapter’s content. We started in the early 1960s when the quad-cam, all-alloy V8 began its long journey into production – including a premature debut at the Nürburgring in 1967 – then into the 1969 DBS V8. Then onto all the V8-engined cars of the 1970s and ’80s, including full chapters on the 1976-92 ‘wedge’ Lagonda, the V8 Vantage Zagato and the V8 engine in competition. But why stop there? Accepting that the highly developed 32-valve and supercharged V8 engines were by then far developed from designer Tadek marek’s original, we continued through the Virage and Vantage of the 1990s until the last engine was assembled by Terry Durston in July 2000.

And what an extraordinary 30 years at Newport Pagnell; roller coaster ride doesn’t do it justice. Cast off from the David Brown Corporation in 1972; receivership in 1974; rescued by an American and a Canadian; the marvellous madness of the 1976 Lagonda; the V8 Vantage in 1977; re-connecting with Zagato and being pocketed by Ford in 1988.

Not to forget a works racing return to Le mans in 1989 with AmR1. All this for a company often producing under 300 cars a year by hand, and some weeks struggling to pay the wages.
But of course all this has been written about before by respected authors. What could I add? In short, original archive research and people. The best way to bring the story to life was to talk to those who lived through those turbulent times. Starting with a Wish List of interviewees, in June 2017 my first visit was to Nick mee who, from joining Aston martin Lagonda (1975) Ltd. in 1976, rose to sales director before leaving in 1991. Nick had been a supporter of the project long before I arrived and as well as having plenty of stories to share, set me off with connections. Like a family tree, the interview list grew. Another frequent stop-off and sounding-board was kingsley Riding-Felce who also joined in 1976, rising from panelbeater to director of Works Service.

The list grew and grew, everybody adding a little or a lot more; as varied as for example kellforms Woodmasters, who made the body bucks; or a fun call to the Duchess of Bedford, who took delivery of the first Lagonda, which then failed to start. Often tracking people down through friends of friends and using lots of reassurance, I spent time with former company owners, some in person, some by late-night phone calls to America. my finally tally of interviewees ran to 36.

It included one particular celebrity owner; Rowan Atkinson, a great supporter of the Aston martin V8 then and now. In 1981 he dared to buy a used V8 and in 2018 brought a V8 Vantage to star in Johnny English Reborn. As an owner of several more V8s during the 1980s and a frequent factory visitor, he has unique insight into personalities of the time, such as Victor Gauntlett.

Our interview was a pleasure postponed; the challenge with all busy people is to find a time which suits them and leave plenty of time should your date be re-arranged, then be ready to go at the drop of a hat. Rowan vividly recalled his V8 years and very kindly wrote the foreword for the book.

Challenges? Firstly as well as writing, I also had to source 400 archive photos, principally from the Aston martin Heritage Trust, but also from my favourite newspaper and magazine archives, contacts and other museums, always looking to find images which hadn’t been seen before. And secondly the time needed for such a hefty project – doing an unrelated full-time day job most evenings, weekends, holidays and early morning had an Aston element, and I had to persuade my employer to let me work part-time for six months.

While I was pummelling the keyboard there was a parallel team at work for Palawan, Rob Smith Chairman of the Aston martin Heritage Trust who was sourcing further archive photos, and owners to bring their precious cars to photoshoots for the striking images which now grace the pages. Rob also compiled a companion book, The Register, which records the specification for each V8 model and a list of all the chassis numbers.

Handing over the final draft in 2018 was just the beginning of a painstaking process of checking, being challenged by an exacting editor, adding extra material and working with the designer to create a book worthy of the Palawan name. I was delighted that Nick offered the launch, a neat full circle since that first day we spoke in his former showroom in Shepherd’s Bush.”

This piece was originally featured in the Spring 2020 issue of Fullbore, the e-zine published by Nicholas Mee & Co.