What comes around

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 July, 2011, 12:00am


Love is lovelier the second time around, so the song goes. Whether this is true of Aston Martin's new V12 Zagato is a matter for time to decide. It has certainly been an intense affair for this writer, who has had the privilege of driving both this new car and the original to which it pays homage.

In May, on the shores of Lake Como, Aston Martin and design and engineering company Zagato unveiled a stunning new concept that won the design award at the Villa D'Este Concorso D'Eleganza car competition. Just a month later, that same car was being raced at the 39th Nurburgring 24-Hour Race in Germany - with a small Hong Kong flag next to one of the drivers' names.

The legend the V12 celebrates is the DB4 GT Zagato - a racer created by re-shelling Aston's DB4 GT in a lightweight aluminium body designed and created by the famous coachbuilder from Milan. While Zagato's delicious lines and hand-beaten panels have adorned many cars since the 1920s (especially Alfa Romeos) the firm's rendition of the DB4 GT receives most praise.

It's one of the most beautiful vehicles ever created - an opinion validated five years ago by the heads turning as we drove through the streets of London - and extremely rare; only 19 were made. Incredibly, they have all survived despite being raced in the early 1960s by some of the sport's greatest names against the iconic Ferrari 250 GTO.

On reflection, it should not have been such a shock to learn how valuable it was. 'That car is worth five million quid!' a text message read. 'Who gave you the keys?' The answer was a generous - and trusting - Hong Kong collector. This time, with the V12, it was Dr Ulrich Bez, Aston Martin's chief executive, with whom I was a co-driver.

Being German, and responsible for research and development at Porsche for many years, it is natural that Bez should be familiar with the original and infamous Nurburgring-Nordschleife. The 23-kilometre, tree-lined band of asphalt was home to the German Grand Prix until Niki Lauda barely survived a fiery crash in 1977. It was then deemed too dangerous for Formula One, but for the world's leading car and tyre manufacturers, the variety of corners and road conditions made the Nordschleife a perfect test track.

It has made it also the ideal venue for perhaps the most challenging and extreme endurance event on the motorsports calendar. The ADAC Nurburgring 24-Hour Race is a twice round the clock race in which some 230 of the world's top sports cars (think Audi R8, Ferrari 458 Italia, Mercedes-Benz SLS, Porsche GT3) skid and fly, bump and crash around a 26-kilometre course created by combining the Nordschleife with the modern F1 circuit to which it is adjacent.

Cramming 230 cars into a pit lane more used to the 24 of an F1 grand prix makes for an interesting sight. Sharing our 'box', to use the German racing vernacular, were two Lexus LFA supercars from the Gazoo Racing team - named after the dog of Toyota's chief executive. Like Bez, Toyota boss Akio Toyoda comes to the 'Ring' every year, blending into the crowd of 200,000 by wearing jeans and a windbreaker.

It was in these circumstances two years ago that the leader of the world's largest car company and that of the marque last year voted the coolest brand in Britain conceived Aston's controversial new city car, the Cygnet (see sidebar).

This, however, is not a light-hearted annual jamboree for Bez and his R&D department. It has become part of Aston Martin philosophy to sign off new products by entering a vehicle - as close as possible to the production version and road legal - and subjecting it publicly to the toughest 24-hour regime. It's the ultimate durability test - and with the CEO at the wheel, supported by three co-drivers.

On June 26, the new Zagato survived the ordeal and just two weeks later went from concept car to an item in the Aston Martin catalogue. A year from now the first production versions - of a maximum of just 150 - will be delivered to customers who, in Hong Kong, should expect to pay about HK$4 million before tax.

Aston Martin design director Marek Reichmann (also an amateur racer) describes wanting to capture, 'the feel of the original - not the look'. This then was not a retro design as, say, with BMW's Mini. Reichmann's intention was to create something, 'beautifully brutal' - a perfect description also for the howl that the six-litre, V-12 engine produces at full chat. The numbers - 510bhp and 570Nm of torque - are impressive enough, but it's the crackle and pop on overrun that makes you grin.

As with the 1961 car, craftsmen, rather than robots, created the new Zagato. There are 17 pieces of aluminium in the front wing alone - each hand formed and then welded together, reformed, linished (the smoothing of the weld) and polished. To allow for the fine spokes and huge hollows that make them so dramatic, the road car's wheels will be machined from solid.

With such a limited production, the Zagato does not really compete with other supercars. Buyers will choose it for its heritage, beauty and rarity rather than its speed. It was still designed with performance very much front of mind.

Around the Nurburgring, the Zagato combined serious straight line speed with a confidence-inspiring poise when charging through corners on uneven terrain. That's not unusual with modern-generation Aston Martins, their engines mounted 'front-mid' to give an almost perfectly balanced weight distribution. But the Zagato feels lighter and sharper than 1999's V12 Vantage. It's guided with gentle movements of the wheel rather than white knuckles - and given the way the original model appreciated in value, that seems entirely appropriate.

Matthew Marsh is a Hong Kong-based professional racing car driver