Has there ever been another car launch quite like it? It’s almost 40 years since the extraordinary Lagonda wedge was unveiled, but you can still almost sense the shockwaves today.
Towns’s astonishingly low, futuristic Lagonda was shown to the motoring press at the Bell Inn at Aston Clinton in Buckinghamshire on October 12, 1976, and later that month it made its public debut at the London Motor Show at Earls Court. Around 200 orders were taken on the stand.
It wasn’t an easy birth – and the main culprits for the delays that ensued were the fantastically ambitious electronics, particularly the dashboard with its digital instruments and touch-sensitive switchgear.
The Shock and Awe tactic worked brilliantly for Aston Martin, a company that was then in as deep a financial hole as any it had fallen into during its history. In 1975 it had gone into voluntary liquidation and was moribund for about six months, before it was resuscitated by a small consortium as Aston Martin Lagonda (1975). And it was the last part of that name that would keep the company afloat for the crucial remaining years of the 1970s. Buyers, particularly in the Middle East, loved the Space Age looks of the new Lagonda, and during the honeymoon period following its launch it outsold the more conventional AM V8 model by a considerable margin.
Fashion is a fickle mistress, however, and Lagonda owners soon found that she could be a particularly expensive one, too. As the 1980s passed into the ’90s and then the new Millennium, the inevitable problems suffered by ageing 1970s electronics – and, it has to be said, the Lagonda’s love-it-or-loathe-it looks – saw these cars slip quietly down the metaphorical Cool Wall and become the preserve of a handful of bloody-minded, not to say obsessive, enthusiasts. Everyone could see the appeal of a classically elegant Aston Martin V8 two-door; not many still carried a torch for the peculiarly 1970s optimism enshrined in the wedge-shaped Lagonda.
Performance and specs
Engine V8, 5340cc
Power 280bhp @ 5500rpm
Torque 301lb ft @ 3000rpm
Transmission Three-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential
Top speed c140mph
Dimensions and weight
• As with all Newport Pagnell cars of this era – and underneath that sharp suit the Lagonda is essentially just another V8 Aston (in fact based on the stretched platform that supported the early-70s DBS-based four-door) – rust is the main enemy.
• It’s aluminium bodywork on top of a steel platform chassis, and it corrodes in all the usual places, particularly the sills, which are a major job. The work and costs are much the same as any V8.
• The big clue to structural issues are the door gaps. It’s a long chassis, and if any of the doors don’t close properly, it’s a sign of problems underneath.
• Mechanically they’re pretty robust, but look for signs of overheating and listen for any unusual noises. It should be a quiet, smooth-riding car.
• Check all the electrics work, including the instrumentation. If a car has non-functioning cathode ray tubes, and you need to replace them, you’re looking at around £8000-9000 to get everything working again.
Evolution of the digital dash
No-one knows more about the headaches posed by the Lagonda’s pioneering electrical systems than Dave Dillow – or ‘Mr Lagonda’ as he’s known at Works. One of the longest-serving employees at Newport Pagnell, Dave joined AML as an auto electrician in October 1976 – just as the Lagonda was making its public debut.
Today, Dave still works as an auto electrician at Works, but in the Heritage workshop rather than on the production line. He talks us through the evolution of the Lagonda’s digital dash.
The original version, with its red LED displays, was created by the Javalina Corporation, a Texas aircraft instrument specialist. ‘It was advanced for its day,’ says Dave, ‘but by today’s technology, they’re very basic. Then there was a mk2 version of the LEDs, and then the CRT screens…’
The trio of cathode ray tubes – basically miniature versions of the old-fashioned TV sets that used to be in everyone’s sitting rooms – represented the speedo, rev-counter, and a central display for the warning lights. ‘Think about taking that TV from your home and bouncing three of them down the road, and you can sort of see how problems might occur,’ Dave laughs. ‘Actually it was a beautiful dash and easy to read – when it was working.’
There was even one further variation, with the Series 4 cars introduced in 1987, when the CRTs were replaced by VF (vacuum fluourescent) gauges, which were thankfully less problematic.
‘Over the years we’ve developed ways of making each of the systems work,’ Dave continues. ‘We found the CRTs can be replaced by three LCD screens, which are much more reliable. Other cars have had LEDs replaced by conventional-looking dials.’
Summary and prices
So an important car in the Newport Pagnell story, but a wise buy today? As an investment, they’re starting to look a decent bet. At the recent Bonhams Works sale, an excellent low-mileage car made a strong £87,000, though a very tidy, average-miler reached only half that.
According to specialist Nick Mee, prices for the best are rising steadily – the Series 4 is the rarest and best-sorted, and an example in first-class all-round condition might now command as much as £120,000 – but you can still find driveable, presentable cars for around £50k.
Still good value, then – but only if you buy a sound car, and essentially one with a solid structure that doesn’t require major restoration.
Words: Peter Tomalin // Images: Matthew Howell