Nobody does single-minded, radical and ultimately extraneous futurism quite like the British - as the formidable Aston Martin Lagonda emphatically illustrates
Sometimes, being driven into a corner can result in hitherto unforeseeable bravery.
The brave men finding themselves in a corner at Newport Pagnell in 1975 were American entrepreneur, Peter Sprague, who’d recently bought an interest in Aston Martin, the company’s chief engineer, Mike Loasby, and stylist, William Towns. Faced with the formidable task of reviving Aston Martin after the storied brand had gone into receivership, they agreed that the company needed to make a statement of the automotive kind. Announcing a new sports car, however, was likely to cannibalise sales of the V8 gran turismo, whose production had just restarted. Thankfully, William Towns happened to have some illustrations of a car he’d been penning in his free time over the past two years at hand. It was a very sleek, very sharp and very wedgy design. It also had four doors. Sprague, the almost incidental saviour of Aston Martin, asked his chief engineer whether he’d be able to turn Towns’ illustrations into a production car. Loasby’s answer was to the affirmative.
Nine months later, the prototype was unveiled at the Earl’s Court Motor Show, where the crowds showed little interest in the bare-chested girls competing for their attention. It was the Lagonda that stole the show - and quite a few deposits. The gamble appeared to have paid off.
Some years later, the general view of the Lagonda isn’t as favourable. It’s seen, above all else, as an oddity, an example of a fringe company overextending its capabilities beyond breaking point. Not to mention a bottomless money pit for anyone foolish enough to invest in it.
However, hindsight can be arbitrary. And reputations, once firmly established, are hard to overcome. On that basis alone, the Aston Martin Lagonda deserves a thorough, impartial view.
The late 1970s were a particularly peculiar point in time for the UK. The ‘sick man of Europe’ seemed to be lagging behind the rest of Western Europe (that is Italy, West Germany and France) by about a decade. The standard of living on the British isles was either stagnant or declining. Social and economical crises were becoming the norm. And yet amid this environment of frustration and fatalism, a number of home-grown engineering and design marvels were launched.
On January 21st, 1976, Concorde took off on her maiden flight from London’s Heathrow Airport to Bahrain. In June that year, Rover’s striking SD1 fastback saloon went on sale. And then there was, of course, the Lagonda. Three products of British provenance whose advanced, optimistic nature was so completely at odds with the doom-laden Zeitgeist, which resembled more of a faint glow of desperation than a ‘white heat of technology’.
Naturally, none of those three marvels was an unreserved statement of British creative might. Concorde was at least as French a harbinger of progress as it was British. Rover’s SD1, though unquestionably of UK origin, was too obviously Italianate in its styling and cynical in its execution to truly make the grade. And as for the Lagonda?
It could be argued that it was Peter Sprague’s very American can-do attitude that prevented it from remaining confined to William Towns’ sketchbooks. Having a car maker that had just been shut down produce a car of a kind that would present far healthier and larger an automotive business with arguably unsurmountable challenges was definitely an act of progressive and rather naïve defiance that couldn’t have been in sharper contrast with what happened elsewhere in the UK.
Yet that shouldn’t distract from the fact that the Lagonda truly was the by far most daring and quintessentially bold British car of the 1970s. It tried to push the envelope of both car styling and automotive electronics to a far higher degree than any of its contemporaries. It wasn’t a case of window dressing or jumping onto some bandwagon. The Lagonda really was unique.
And that uniqueness is at its most obvious in its styling, of course. Inspired by, but hardly imitating the wedge proportions and folded paper forms established as the de rigueuer style of the 1970s by the Italian carrozzerie, William Towns had created no less than one of the definitive shapes in automotive history.
Such is the breadth of Towns’ design that any other considerations are in a subordinate role. This results in a car that, albeit longer than a contemporary Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, only offers somewhat cramped accommodation for four adults. It also means that the Lagonda (at least in its early, pure guise) offers no opening rear windows, for the necessary rear-quarter light would have spoiled the appearance of the windows’ silhouette. Instead, the Lagonda offers a glass roof for the rear occupants’ well-being. Only what spoils the shape could ever be considered an inconvenience, as far as the Lagonda is concerned. This results in a front aspect that features a squinty, futuristic interpretation of the traditional temple grille that signified luxury motoring for over a century and a bonnet of enormous, low flatness.
Somewhat ironically, given its futuristic, technoid appearance, the Lagonda cannot betray its bespoke, coachbuilt nature. The thin rear flanks, the razor-sharp folds, the absence of any unnecessary panel gaps and particularly the drip rails, which each ‘flow’ into the a- and c-pillar (and constitute the only example of obviously soft, ‘organic’ forms on the Lagonda’s body), are clearly the work not of sophisticated machines, but traditional craftsmanship of the highest order. This UFO from the future was definitely the product of tinsmiths in leather aprons, rather than shiny robots.
This juxtaposition continues inside the Lagonda, where the traditional luxury triad of Connolly leather, Wilton carpet and burr walnut frame a dashboard and single-spoke steering wheel design of blunt minimalism. The difference between the Lagonda and any other luxury saloon are just as obvious on the inside. The seating position, for a start, is sports car-like in that it’s very low and requires one’s extremities to be spread. The view therefore isn’t commanding, but perplexing, for the Lagonda’s size remains conspicuous, yet it is similarly hard to reconcile this impression with the feeling of intimacy the cabin’s dimension and homely materials conjure.
The digital dashboard (which is barely legible in direct sunlight) and pressure-sensitive buttons also have a traditional counterpart in the shape of a few remaining controls, which are made of such substantial-feeling, high-quality metal that they’d render most modern attempts at perceived high-grade materials hopelessly flimsy. The old and the new, the advanced and the traditional - one is never far away from the other on the Lagonda’s 5,28 metres of length. How very British, in the best sense of the term.
William Towns’ shapes were undoubtedly demanding. Taxing even. They required considerations such as practicality, efficiency and convenience - usually to be found at the forefront when creating a mobility device - to take a backseat. They also must have caused the engineers, panel beaters and tinsmiths that created these cars in the metal (and aluminium) a fair few nightmares. And to what end?
The sad truth is that the Lagonda has no legacy to speak of. Its inimitable establishment of a concept of futuristic luxury did not inspire others to follow suit. Its own reputation eventually resembled that of an ill-fated anomaly, a style-over-substance fad that became a bit of a joke at some point. This, of course, is the fate of a great many stylistic benchmarks, whose boldness has the tendency to turn on themselves eventually. In this Aston Martin’s case, the malice was heightened by its enormous price when new and its reputation for unreliability, particularly as far as its advanced electronics are concerned.
There is no more spiteful a laughter than that aimed at the once-mighty, once they’d fallen. But this laughter, more often than not, comes out of the mouth of the mediocre. And if the Aston Martin Lagonda can be accused of one flaw, it could not be mediocrity.
One doesn’t even need to take into account that the Lagonda’s sales figures weren’t dreadful, but rather healthy (by Aston standards). Or that it played its part in keeping Newport Pagnell’s contribution to the automotive world alive. Just looking at Town’s masterpiece is good enough. For this may be a very compromised, or even borderline useless car. But as a piece of sculpture, a kinetic artwork, it is unbeatable.
William Towns would never again design even remotely as impressive a shape. His similarly bold, but unbecomingly blunt Aston Martin Bulldog one-off may be considered another stab at stylistic intransigence, but it lacked the Lagonda’s elegance and lightness of touch.
Mike Loasby left Aston Martin a few years after the Lagonda’s launch to join the DeLorean Motor Company, which turned out to be an altogether different kind of folly.
Peter Sprague had to sell his share in Aston Martin Lagonda eventually.
But anyone with a remote interest in motor cars or aesthetics must rejoice at the fact that these three people met one another at just the right time to form the committee that commissioned this most non-committee car.
Like Concorde, their creation may not have set any noteworthy precedent or been beneficial to the masses. But the world would be a poorer place without either of them.
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