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Estate of the art... - Driven: Lagonda Shooting Brake

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Take one Aston Martin Lagonda, add a fifth door, and you're left with one of the most unusual load-lugger money can buy...

Switzerland: where Teutonic efficiency meets French chic and adds a touch of Alpine beauty. Home of the world’s best watches, wealthiest banks, superb chocolates – and unique Aston Martin conversions?

It’s true. In the fertile fields west of Berne lies Roos Engineering, the Swiss capital’s principal agent for Aston Martin Lagonda, a specialist with a flourishing new car business and astonishing repair and restoration workshops.

Proprietor Beat Roos, a quiet, slight but insightful genius who is never happier than when wearing his workshop coat and figuring out an engineering problem, grew up in South Africa but has spent his working life in Switzerland. There he has developed a reputation that sees Astons arriving from all over Europe – one customer even flies his car over from the West Indies for servicing.

The Roos shooting brakes have been built for special customers, demonstrations of the skills and ingenuity that Beat Roos has nourished in his workforce: ‘We have only made three,’ he explains. ‘Each one is unique and it would not be fair on the customer to make another, though we have certainly been approached to do more.

The Lagonda was the first and, in some ways, the most difficult; it was a project for a Hong Kong customer. My idea with all the shooting brakes is that the basic car must still be clearly the Aston Martin or Lagonda: it would be easy to make a complete new car on the chassis, but it’s much more difficult to make the conversion entirely cohesive with the original design. The body was two years’ work: I like to have one panelbeater on one project, so it’s “his child” – the quality is always better that way.

‘There’s a long tradition of Lagonda shooting brakes – the books always start with the DB5 but in fact Aston Martin had two 2.6-litre Lagondas bodied as shooting brakes by Tickford to use as support cars for the DB3S on the Mille Miglia in the early 1950s. The William Towns design was particularly difficult to adapt to a shooting brake body but the key was to replace the entire roof from the screen back. The original roof tapers in, but now it’s straight. The car is just 1.3 metres high.

‘The chassis and wheelbase are untouched and the doors are the originals, but the top of the rear wing is completely reworked. The sealing of the rear hatch was a particular problem and the rear side windows are divided to accommodate pillars, giving stiffness needed for the tailgate. We don’t have the problems that the Virage shooting brakes built elsewhere have had – they’re quite floppy and once you’ve shut the tailgate 20 or 30 times you have to start the job again. We’ve built a Vantage shooting brake [see picture on p88] that has 612bhp, so the bodyshell has to be stiff! Another thing you have to think about is a decent-size fuel tank – our Vantage has a 100-litre tank, whereas the new Bertone Jet has only 40 litres, which doesn’t give much of a range on a €750,000 car.’

‘On the Long Wheelbase Virage shooting brake [p88] we’ve made the rear seats fold flat; that wasn’t the plan on the Lagonda, where we wanted to put an extra air-conditioning unit in the rear seat back. The Long Wheelbase took four years and over 10,000 hours – we started with a convertible, of which only 63 were made. Now we have a project on the new Rapide four-door...’

After William Towns’ success with the muscular and massive DBS body, Aston Martin gave him an even freer rein to design the next Lagonda, with the brief that it must have four doors and look stunningly modern and fast. Announced on October 12, 1976, it was a dream car made real, with monster performance from the 280bhp/360lb ft V8 combined with car-of-the-future electronic digital dashboard, touch-sensitive switches, self-leveling rear suspension and a dramatic wedge body that was 17ft 4in long and just 4ft 3in high. Aston Martin relied on the highly regarded Cranfield Institute of Technology to develop the car’s computer system and this proved to be its Achilles’ heel, delaying production and leading to a reputation for unreliability – though in fact the system’s reliability did steadily improve during production. By 1984, the system had acquired a synthesized voice in English, French, German or Arabic...

Fuel injection replaced Webers in 1986, before in 1987 the styling was softened to suit current tastes (although without the central swage line, it did end up looking a bit slab-sided); pop-up headlights and touch-sensitive switchgear were also abandoned. Production finally ended in 1990 after a total of just 637 cars (plus six prototypes) had been built over 14 years.

It’s a delight to see a Lagonda in such stunning condition – so many around today disappoint with tired, dirty trim and signs of neglect. This car is better than new.

You climb into a leather armchair, the height of luxury, and are surrounded by switches: so many it’s reminiscent of a light aircraft cockpit. Everything is electrically operated and the seats move in every direction. There are electric releases for the two fuel filler flaps, soft/loud horns, no fewer than five light switches and even an electrically operated bonnet release. Then, of course, there are the trip computer, air conditioning and electric mirrors.

Leather wraps every tiny panel on the console, the armrests, the steering wheel and the doors, as well as the seats. The rooflining is suede, with aircraft-style air vents and map/reading lights in front and rear. Between the front seats is the first non-standard part of this car, a beautifully integrated console for the extra switchgear – to open and close the two rearmost windows and operate the rear wash/wipe.

Insert the key and turn, and the digital dashboard springs to life. A particularly nice touch is that first, for a few seconds, the Lagonda emblem is lit up across the screen before it settles to the total and trip mileage display. Fire up the big V8 and you discover that the dashboard scribes graceful arcs for the revs on the left and speed in the center, with fuel and temperature stick-type gauges on the right: all are supremely clear and easy to read, cleverly using the flexibility of a digital display to emphasize what you need to know rather than just mimicking conventional gauges.

But we’ve been sitting here too long, wondering at all the complexity: it’s time to drive the beast and I’m not sure I’m looking forward to it. The last Aston I drove, a bulbous 1980s V8, disappointed; it was impossible to sling around English country lanes because you were constantly reversing to wider parts for oncoming traffic. The Lagonda appears huge from the outside and, on the inside looking over my shoulder, the back of the car seems the length of a football pitch away – and I have to start by reversing out of a car park.

Maneuvering goes better than expected. Automatic reversing sensors are a useful aid, though not essential as you can see the rear pillars from the driving seat and, though the very front is not visible, you can see most of the bonnet. If in doubt, putting the headlights up is helpful. Out onto the road and floor the throttle: the Lagonda sits down and surges forward with impressive verve. Its weight means it isn’t stunningly accelerative, especially uphill, but it’s quick enough and, when the road opens out, speed just continues to build inexorably and seemingly ever more quickly until you chicken out and lift your right foot.

Through twisty roads the car springs its biggest surprise: it’s remarkably nimble and seems to shrink around you. You expect a great wallowing whale and it does roll a bit, but not too much as the weight is low and between the wheels. Through narrow spaces the car is far better than expected: it’s not as long as it looks – its low overall height makes it seem immensely long – and the wheelbase is relatively short, with overhangs that, though long, taper gently at both ends so they are not an embarrassment when maneuvering.

In the back seats, space is a bit limited – photographer Matt comments that it feels a bit like sitting in Economy in an aircraft with First Class up ahead. Presumably because of the multiple electric motors under the front seats, there’s no room for rear passengers’ feet to tuck under, which would improve comfort dramatically. The TV in the center offers some compensation, though. Tickford did offer long-wheelbase Lagondas in 1984 but the price was prohibitive and only three were made.

But what of the boot? Is this shooting brake just an expensive gimmick or is it a practical estate car? Here the care and thought that has gone into the Roos conversion really shines through. Its uncompromised styling, carrying through the dramatic long, low lines, does a terrific job of looking as though Towns himself had penned it this way. That means, of course, that the roof tapers down very gently towards the tail and the roof height is very low there – but since the tailgate is cut well back into the roof and lifts high, access is very good to the large, sloping-floored rear compartment.

The hatch, of course, is electrically closed: lower it, press gently and you can hear the electric latch slide into place. First registered in March 1987, this Lagonda was one of the last of the original shape and as such boasts the last and most reliable version of the digital dash with the fuel-injected engine and the original, uncompromised styling. Its conversion to shooting brake form was carried out in 1998-’99 and the car hit the road on January 1, 2000, with a new engine, running gear, interior and electrics as well as the body modification. Roos now maintains the car for its owner and it turns heads wherever it goes: exclusivity made unique.

Thanks to Roos Engineering, +41 (0)31 926 11 37/38, email rooseng@bluewin.ch.  The Lagonda shooting brake will be appearing at the V8 Lagonda meeting at Murten, Switzerland, on August 25-27; see www.lagondav82006.org

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