When Victor Gauntlett took over the reigns as chairman of Aston Martin in 1981, the new board was under no illusions that left to its own devices, the Newport Pagnell-based prestige carmaker would struggle to make a profit. Although Gauntlett’s commercial expertise had been honed in the oil market as head of Pace Petroleum rather than the automotive industry, he was a shrewd businessman with a passion for cars and had a burning ambition to build a top-selling ‘baby’ Aston Martin. Unfortunately the company lacked the finances to underwrite Gauntlett’s dream, but despite constantly battling a shortage of development cash the new chairman was determined that Aston Martin should set its sights high and aim for a slice of the very lucrative Porsche market.
A chance meeting over lunch during the 1987 Mille Miglia between Gauntlett and Walter Hayes, then vice chairman of Ford of Europe, set in motion a chain of events that resulted in the Ford Motor Company purchasing 75 per cent of Aston Martin in 1988. Although the last major acquisition by Ford had been in 1931 when it purchased Lincoln, the Blue Oval wasted little time after the Aston Martin deal taking control of Jaguar after a very expensive bidding war. Ford now had two of the world’s top prestige marques in its fold and Gauntlett, who was to stay on as chairman at AM for the next three years, could now see the potential for his pet project to become a reality.
Following the takeover, Ford gave Aston the green light to put its planned V8-powered Virage into production while the Blue Oval turned its corporate might to the more pressing matter of getting Jaguar back on track. Having access to the Jaguar parts bin would prove a financial bonus for Aston, as one of the early casualties at Jaguar under the new regime was the XJ41 prototype – the latest in a number of proposed replacements for the aging XJS grand tourer. Even though a version of the Jaguar prototype had been based on a modified XJS chassis, production costs came out far too high for the number of competitively-priced cars Jaguar proposed to build. As the cost of the XJS’s floorpan, the biggest part of any new model’s development budget, had been written off years ago, it made economic sense to base a more cost-effective premium-priced Aston Martin around the abandoned Jaguar prototype rather than developing a new car from scratch.
Gauntlett’s dream for his new Aston was fast becoming a reality, as not only was there an extremely competent chassis available, there was also the possibility of adapting a Jaguar engine for the new car too; the 3.2-litre alloy twin-cam straight six of XJ40 ancestry. With Ford’s financial backing and Jaguar providing access to its impressive parts bin and design facilities, the stage was now well and truly set for Aston Martin to bring a new ‘volume’ premium sports car to market. After successfully steering the company through a very financially-challenging period, Gauntlett fulfilled his contract with Ford and handed over the top job to Walter Hayes in 1991.
Although Hayes eventually managed to prise a £1,000,000 development budget out of Ford for the new Aston, the Newport Pagnell factory was fully occupied concluding Virage production. This presented a major dilemma as to where Project NPX (the internal codename for the new Aston Martin DB7) would eventually be built. Preliminary design work on the new Aston’s body had already commenced at the independent TWR Group, an operation headed by the late Tom Wilkinshaw, one of a talented band of engineers behind Jaguar Sport’s successful re-entry into motor racing.
While designer Ian Callum took on the brief of redefining the overall shape of Project NPX and Neil Simpson designed the car’s bespoke gentleman’s club-style interior, Hayes seized the opportunity to base DB7 production at Jaguar’s Bloxham factory in Oxfordshire. At the time the plant was producing the XJ220, a ‘supercar’ that was unfortunately involved in a drawn out legal wrangle over downgrades in specification that seriously affected its value. This complex issue put full DB7 production on hold until the final XJ220 departed the site in early 1994.
Using proven Jaguar components considerably shortened the new Aston Martin’s development time and resulted in a concept six-cylinder DB7 being completed within 16 weeks of Hayes securing the funding. This in turn led to a virtually production-ready prototype getting its first public airing at the Geneva Motor Show in 1993. Although the whole of Aston Martin’s car production from 1913 to the launch of the DB7 could be churned out in just over half an hour by one of Ford’s super-efficient assembly plants, the US-based vehicle maker had to be congratulated for not tarnishing or cheapening Aston’s hard-won heritage – the prototype DB7 looked every inch a thoroughbred.
When introduced in 1994, the DB7 was considered to be one of the prettiest Aston Martins ever built – this was in spite of its Jaguar underpinnings and the fact that the DB7 had never been anywhere near the company’s spiritual Newport Pagnell base. Even the influential Aston Martin Owners’ Club considered the DB7 to be a fitting partner to the new car’s larger V8-powered sibling. At long last Aston Martin now had a competitively-priced sports coupé that was competent enough to make inroads into hallowed Porsche territory. It didn’t matter to Ford if the premium-priced DB7 initially took sales from Jaguar, as the soon to be introduced V8-powered XK8 would quickly rekindle interest in the Big Cat marque, especially in the lucrative US market.
Under the DB7’s bonnet, the Jaguar engine had been ‘Astonised’ by adding a water-cooled Eaton ‘Rootes’-type belt-driven supercharger to increase power output to 335bhp at 5600rpm. The 3226cc six-pot, twin-cam engine had four valves per cylinder and fuel was delivered by a Zytek multi-port injection system. There was a choice of either a Getrag five-speed manual gearbox or GM four-speed automatic transmission. Throughout the DB7’s production run, all Jaguar- and Ford-sourced engines destined for the DB7 were specially built and modified at TWR’s Kidlington-based factory.
The DB7’s front suspension consisted of an independent double wishbone set-up with coil springs and telescopic dampers. The £78,000 car’s rear independent suspension included double wishbones, a pair of longitudinal control arms, coil springs and telescopic dampers. Steering was by power-assisted rack and pinion. To pull the supercharged car up squarely and evenly, braking was provided by a very efficient set of servo-assisted Lockheed disc brakes with ABS as standard. A set of specially commissioned 18-inch alloy wheels filled the DB7’s wheelarches. DB7 alloy wheels have been known to distort if the car is driven quickly over poorly-surfaced roads, an expensive business as a replacement rim for a six-cylinder car costs over £370.
Unlike previous alloy-bodied Astons, the DB7’s bodywork consisted mainly of flush glazed hand-built steel panels combined with composite materials; front wings, boot lid, sills and deformable bumpers. The former XJS steel floorpan had been extensively reworked for the DB7 and this complex component’s longevity was extended even further when an evolution of it went on to form the underpinnings of the Jaguar XK8.
The DB7’s Neil Simpson-designed interior consisted of a two-plus-two seating configuration that exuded quality and consisted of handcrafted leather and veneer opulence laid out in typical Aston Martin style. The gear lever was mounted high up on a leather-clad, veneer-faced full-length central console that included controls for the air-conditioning and music system, an analogue clock, auxiliary switches and, on later models, a big red ‘press me if your dare’ starter button.
In 1996, the attractive convertible DB7 Volante was simultaneously unveiled in the US at the Detroit and Los Angeles motor shows, the same time as the coupé version of the ‘baby Aston’ was first offered for sale on the other side of the Atlantic. Not only was the DB7 Volante 200lb (90.7kg) heavier that the 3798lb (1723kg) coupé, the rear panels of the convertible’s body were redesigned together with a different-shaped boot lid to allow the hood to stow away behind the rear seats. In general, the Volante currently carries an average of a ten per cent premium over the price of a coupé.
The DB7’s chassis had been designed to handle extra power right from the outset, so it came as no surprise when Aston Martin launched the 6.0-litre V12-powered DB7, the Vantage in 1999. The Cosworth-developed all-alloy, 12-cylinder, OHC, 48-valve Ford Duratec based engine installed in the DB7 Vantage had a swept volume of 5935cc and pushed out a very impressive 420bhp at 6000rpm. An option of either a six-speed manual gearbox or five-speed automatic transmission driving a limited slip rear axle was offered for the V12. The front and rear suspension on the more powerful car gained beefed up anti-roll bars and the car’s braking system was totally uprated with larger cross-drilled ventilated steel discs combined with alloy four-pot callipers. Different sized wheels were fitted front and rear, the wider, unsupported rear rims on the V12 Vantage being even more susceptible to distortion.
The V12’s cabin received more creature comforts, including electrically-controlled front seats incorporating heaters, plus a six-speaker Kenwood stereo system and an upgraded alarm. In 2002, the run-out production V12-powered GT was introduced. This improved version of the DB7 Vantage was named the GTA when equipped with automatic transmission and the new model’s tuned engine could now produce 435bhp and 410lb/ft of torque. To differentiate the firmer riding GT from a standard Vantage, the improved car had a mesh front grille, bonnet vents, a boot spoiler, optional carbon fibre trim, an aluminium gear lever, redesigned wheels and massive Brembo brakes. With just 84 made in right-hand drive, prices for a well-sorted GT start at around £55,000. Prior to DB7 production coming to an end, two special limited edition variants were built – the DB7 Vantage Zagato and the very rare and expensive 185mph, 435bhp DB AR1.
With just 2461 six-cylinder and 4100 V12 DB7s built, expect to pay £14,000 for a well-sorted early coupé – £25,000 for a top notch V12. Full service history by either a main dealer or AM specialist is essential for peace of mind. Bargain basement DB7s will probably turn out to be very expensive money pits and are best avoided. While the cost of many DB7 parts has come down over the years, a few service items have increased significantly. Cars fitted with a combination of items listed on the optional factory-fitted Driving Dynamics package are extremely desirable and usually carry a 20 to 25 per cent premium over standard cars. This package allowed customers to choose between brake, suspension, wheel/tyre and bodywork upgrades. The complete package cost a cool £15,000, hence many DB7 customers cherry picked just one or two items off the Driving Dynamics list for their cars.
The overall success of the Aston Martin DB7 has proven that this hand-built sports car is far more than just a Ford-financed hybrid Jaguar; an opinion still fiercely debated by die-hard traditionalists. Former Aston Martin chairman Victor Gauntlett’s ‘baby Aston’ not only saved the famous marque from ending up in the history books, it was the model that introduced many aspiring owners to the Aston Martin fold. As the DB7 speeds toward true classic status and prices for good examples fall to more affordable levels, let’s hope that more fans of the breed will be able to sample the pleasure of owning and driving a classic Aston Martin.