How an Oddball Car of the Future Saved Aston Martin, and Almost Killed It
The Lagonda Series 2 won our first ever Raddest Tech award. Here’s why it’ll be remembered as an awesome nightmare.
Picture the global scene in the early 1970s when William Towns, designer of the Aston Martin Lagonda Series 2, was putting pencil to paper. A spike in oil prices and an echo crisis in the steel industry had jackhammered the economies of Aston Martin’s largest market, the U.S., and its home country, the U.K.
With a double punch of high unemployment and high inflation, the bad times persisted through the decade’s midpoint. By early 1976 when Towns' sketches were giving way to clay models, the economic skies were brightening, but only just. Aston’s prospects were on the edge. The company had changed hands twice in four years, and while its new management team was enthusiastic, they needed a win desperately.
Towns had been hired to sketch car seats during Aston Martin's mid-1960s heyday; just two years later, he’d graduated to styling the epochal DBS coupe. Now, he faced a critical moment. The Lagonda Series 2 didn't just have to make an impact, it had to send a shockwave through the industry. If the word "disrupt" had the same meaning in corporate lingo it does now, someone would have used it in a speech to rally the troops.
In his sketchbooks, Towns had been toying with the idea of a sedan influenced by angular sports cars of the time, particularly those penned by Bertone’s Marcello Gandini (the Lamborghini Countach) and Giorgietto Giugiaro (the Lotus Esprit) as well as his own creation, the Rover-BRM prototype from a previous employer.
When his new bosses started talking about a revival of Lagonda, the historic nameplate Aston Martin acquired after World War II, Towns knew exactly what to do. As the '70s lumbered on, his experiment in avant garde design would become a blueprint for Aston's future.
Build or Bust
February, 1976. It was like something out of one of those "garage deadline" TV shows, but with higher stakes. A Lagonda prototype had to be finished in time for the British Motor Show at Earls Court in London. There were just eight months until the show, where company managers hoped to land enough orders to keep Aston Martin afloat through the next development cycle. The fate of a legendary car brand hung in the balance.
As the team, lead by chief engineer Mike Loasby, rushed to build a show-ready car, pressure from above was intensifying. Aston’s new owners were desperate to emerge from London with a fistful of cash and renewed vigor in the luxury car market. Lagonda was the ticket, a sort of Hail Mary pass whose success meant, ironically, avoiding the receiver (the office in the U.K. that handles bankruptcies, that is). After a string of last chances, this was Aston's do-or-die moment.
Starting From a Blank Sheet
Back in 1972, industrialist David Brown, the “DB” in DB5, had settled the company’s debts and sold Aston Martin to a Birmingham-based investment consortium for a handshake and the price of a three-martini lunch. The economic shocks hit in 1973. In late 1974, hemmed in by debt, Aston went bust. The end came without warning; employees returning from Christmas break found the doors locked. TV news anchor Walter Cronkite, a car enthusiast who raced a Lancia at 12 Hours of Sebring in 1959, delivered a eulogy for Aston Martin on CBS Evening News.
Then, Peter Sprague appeared. A tall, quiet American who'd made a fortune in the growing high-tech industry, Sprague was part of a British-American consortium that took control of Aston in early 1975. The U.K. media eyed him and his British co-director, Alan Curtis, an engineer and architect, cautiously. Touring the company's desolate Newport Pagnell workshop—and wondering how to lure back production staff poached by Rolls Royce—the partners quietly discussed a plan for the future. It hinged on a return of Lagonda to add a new, higher-volume line of business to the sports-car maker: a sedan.
They weren't quiet enough. Rumors flew that the company was pivoting away from sports cars, which had been Aston’s stock in trade during the post-WWII era, but which some board members felt would soon be legislated out of existence by lawmakers looking to score political points on auto safety, a debate that had been raging since Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed.
Following the Lagonda thread wasn’t an unprecedented move. Back in 1974, the company had revived the mark, established in 1906 and last surfaced in the early 1960s for a DB4-based sedan called the Rapide. The DBS-based Lagonda Series 1 had attracted eyeballs at the 1974 London show, but few buyers were willing to fork over £14,000 ($180,000 in today’s money) for a stretched, four-door GT. Only seven Series 1 cars were built, and the project was abandoned.
With a modest infusion of cash came a blank-sheet effort. The Aston Martin Lagonda Series 2 would combine traditional coachbuilding methods with new-wave design and cutting-edge electronics. It would cost upward of £20,000 (an inflation-adjusted $200,000), competitive with top-class sedans from Bentley and Rolls Royce. It would have a traditionally appointed interior of leather and British wool woven by Wilton, an esteemed carpet manufacturer. Most importantly, it would make a statement that the future of luxury belonged to Aston Martin, whetting the appetites of young, wealthy buyers raised on sci-fi. In 1976, just as now, many such buyers were from oil-rich countries in the Middle East.
There was another, more practical reason Aston bosses were focusing on a sedan instead of a coupe. If prospective buyers of the latest AM V8 thought a new two-door was in the pipeline, they might postpone their purchases. In its weakened state, Aston just couldn’t risk losing that income.
By mid-1976, Loasby and his team were running flat out to get a prototype built. As the months ticked by, it was clear the Series 2 would either save the company or drive everyone involved to the brink of collapse. In the end, the groundbreaking, maddeningly complex, and unforgettable sedan would do a little of both.
Only The Raddest Tech
This particular Lagonda Series 2, a 1985 model owned by South Florida dealer The Barn Miami, recently picked up The Drive’s Raddest Tech award, as part of the latest Virtual Radwood event. While it rolled out of Aston’s Newport Pagnell shop nearly a decade after the first Lagonda hit the stage at London’s Earls Court, the differences between it and the first Series 2 customer cars delivered in 1979 are incremental.
The 5.3-liter, dual-overhead-cam V8 is similar to that in the AM V8 coupe of its era. To match the torque demands of the heavier sedan, the team changed the inlet manifold and added different heads with larger valves to compensate for a downsized air box wedged into the Series 2's smaller engine compartment. In its revised state of tune, the Weber-carbureted V8 produced 280 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 350 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm. (A turbocharged version producing 380 HP was said to have been tested, but later abandoned to reliability concerns.) To the crank was fitted the same Chrysler TorqueFlite three-speed automatic that dealt gears in the Maserati Quattroporte of the same era.
Like all Series 2s, the '85 has a conventional suspension comprising unequal wishbones, coil springs and standard telescopic shocks, and an anti-roll bar up front. In the rear, it has the AM V8's typical de Dion tube, Watts linkage, and trailing links, but Loasby's team added Koni self-leveling shocks to handle extra passengers and cargo.
Next to traditional sedans, the radical design from Towns telegraphed that the Lagonda was from the future, even if its engine and suspension were merely on par with its luxury-car peers. On the inside, however, the future was as close as the dashboard binnacle.
A Great Success, and That Darn Dashboard
Thanks to Loasby and his team's hard work, a Series 2 prototype rolled onto the show floor at Earls Court on cue in October 1976. It wasn't production-ready—it couldn't even run under its own power; BBC footage of the prototype in motion showed it coasting downhill, unbeknownst to viewers—but crowds stormed the Aston Martin display, and the company picked up 76 deposit checks, mostly for Lagondas. To showgoers, it was a triumph of the electronics age.
A purpose-built demo of the Series 2's interior gave visitors an unobstructed look at its NASA-like dash cluster. Upward of 40 touch-sensitive buttons controlled all of the car's functions: pop-up headlights, power windows, air conditioning, cruise control, door locks and memory-adjustable seats. A digital LED display, the first on a production automobile, gave readouts on speed, distance traveled, and fuel economy. An exotic, single-spoke steering wheel allowed unobstructed views of the massive interface.
After the show, as the excitement waned and the development team shifted their focus to delivering a finished product, optimism for the Series 2’s complex, microprocessor-based instrumentation turned to panic. R&D snafus and a herculean troubleshooting effort threatened to derail the entire project. Why had the company placed such a big bet on all that splashy tech?
To anyone familiar with Aston’s new owners, the reason came as no surprise.
The shift in ownership in 1975 had put Aston in the hands of a British-American consortium co-lead by the aforementioned Sprague, an entrepreneur whose takeover of National Semiconductor in 1967 put him in the books as Silicon Valley’s first venture capitalist. Sprague and his co-directors, celebrated in the press for having "saved" Aston Martin—even as the company's fortunes still hung in the balance—were eager to show off its engineering talent. According to company lore, chief engineer Loasby got the idea for the Series 2’s innovative, solid-state digital instrumentation and switchgear after visiting the headquarters of National Semiconductor in Santa Clara, California. He was particularly taken by the futuristic touch-sensitive buttons the company used in its elevators.
Early on, the Series 2 prototype’s instruments were developed by Fotherby Willis electronics of West Yorkshire, but financial problems put them out of the running, and Aston Martin co-chairman Alan Curtis turned to Cranfield Institute of Technology for help from the school's well-respected Centre for Aeronautics. The results, while cutting-edge, were less than stellar for a production vehicle, as Loasby remembered in the 2007 book, Aston Martin: Power, Beauty and Soul, by David Dowsey:
“[Curtis] made a bit of a mistake in going to Cranfield for the electronics. You should never get any academic on anything because they will never finish the job and they will never get it to work. Cranfield made a fearful mess of the electronics because, even though they were at the forefront of technology, they had no idea of the realities of what you could or couldn’t do in a car.”
As Peter Sprague remembers in his own account of the project, the team used the massively expensive IMP-16 printed circuit card from National Semiconductor to run the Series 2's dashboard electronics. It was the first multi-chip 16-bit microprocessor, costing around $1,400 (in 1977 dollars) each. "We were programming this at about the time Apple was introducing its first computer, Sprague wrote. "The team learned quickly that the automotive environment is much more difficult than that of a modern military aircraft. Everything is supposed to work immediately at temperatures from -30F to +140F."
Production development rolled on through 1977. As Loasby remembered:
"During 1977, we went through a crucial development phase with the car, and I must confess that at times I thought we made an appalling mess of the whole thing. We’d underestimated the time it would take to develop the car, which, after all, contained many innovations for the automotive world, and some of the costings were sheer guesswork. We made the necessary moves to bring the programme into some semblance of shape, but in my view, we only cleared the hurdle of development in March, 1978."
One Embarrassment Left to Go
In reality, there was one more hurdle to clear, and it was a big one. A month later, in April, 1978, a carefully orchestrated press event at Woburn Abbey, one of Britain's stateliest homes, would nearly crush the development team's will.
The first Series 2 was to be delivered to Lady Tavistock, a banking heiress and wife of Robin Russell, a stockbroker and in royal nomenclature, the Marquess of Tavistock (now the 14th Duke of Bedford, as you almost certainly already knew). Lady Tavistock had expressed disappointment that the car she'd ordered—a present for her husband for which she'd plunked down £32,500 on her Diners Club credit card—had been delayed. Aston Martin would make good by delivering the first Series 2 to her at Woburn Abbey, witnessed by a phalanx of media.
They would make anything but good. Fourteen mechanics working for days around the clock were unable to get the Cranfield-built electrical harness to cooperate. The IMP-16 chip, as Sprague remembered, kept glitching. And yet, the event went forward as planned. In an utterly embarrassing scene, Lady Tavistock's Series 2 had to be pushed to an assembly of waiting journalists.
David Flint, Aston Martin's manufacturing director at the time, remembered the incident in the Dowsey book:
“We worked for two days and two nights solid trying to fit this harness from Cranfield Institute of Technology into the car. We had nearly finished when we were told we had better send the car out “right now.” I’d had enough by this time and I said, ‘If you want to push this car out, you can do it yourself. I’m going home.’ So I went home.”
As Sprague remembers, he addressed the grumbling crowd with a personal appeal to salvage the Aston team's honor. The Aston Martin crew wasn't to blame for the failure, he pleaded. It was his fault. In effect, he threw himself on his silicon sword:
"I stated the obvious. 'We goofed' or, more specifically, 'I goofed.' I held up the malfunctioning computer circuit board by one fiberboard corner and explained that the computer had packed it in. It had been my bright idea in the first place; the engineers and the factory were innocent. Everything about the car was magnificent with the slight problem that it did not run. It was not the fault of the Aston workforce. It would run the following day.
Late that afternoon Lord Tavistock drove one of his functioning cars to the factory to thank the workforce. He apologized to the Lagonda team for putting them under such pressure. It was a kind and thoughtful thing to do. One witness remembers that there were tears in the eyes of some of the men.
The Press were remarkably gentle. They were willing to give us another chance. As usual, no one wanted to see Aston fail."
With Cranfield sputtering, the company approached Texas-based aircraft electronics supplier Javelina Corporation, which redesigned the Series 2's electronics and, over time, was able to bring its innovative instruments and switchgear to production, but it required another year of intense development work to finalize the project.
Finally, in 1979, Aston Martin delivered the first Series 2. By then, ballooning production costs and inflation had increased the price to £50,000 (around $300,000 today). By 1980, production ramped up to the promised one car per week, and in 1982 the Lagonda was finally federalized for sale in the U.S.
While the number of cars built—mostly Series 2 cars at around 492 units, and adding the updated Series 3 and Series 4 models—is foggy, company records and enthusiast efforts together put the total of all series at between 635 and 646, making the Lagonda one of AML’s most successful cars of its day.
From his memoir of the Aston Martin years, "Swift Running," Peter Sprague offered a fitting epilogue.
"I have been asked many times whether we had done any market research, was there a detailed budget, and what gave us the confidence that we could do it? Basically we looked at William Towns’s extraordinary drawings, and we asked Mike Loasby if he and his team could build it. They said “yes.” We had confidence in the team.
It was comparable to building the Spitfire during the Battle of Britain."
The New York Times would later report that, although directors believed the Lagonda could be developed for $850,000 in one year, it eventually cost $3.5 million and took three years. Despite being created on a knife's edge, the Lagonda ended up helping save the company from yet another collapse, and its design and engineering set the stage for a second Aston Martin moonshot: William Towns' even more radical, one-off Bulldog concept. Unlike the Lagonda, however, the Bulldog never made it to production.