Aston Martin and its various ownership incarnations have perfected the art of going under — think massive avalanche — and then being saved for another life of making cars.
Anyone familiar with the history of this much-admired, cherished and revered company realizes that Lazarus has nothing on these car builders from the United Kingdom.
The Big Three saviors that I will reference during the “walking on that razor for survival” chapters of Aston’s history are not the Detroit Big Three: Ford, GM and Chrysler. The “Big Three” for Aston have been David Brown, Ford and the advent of the 1996–2003 DB7 and DB7 Vantage.
I highly recommend reading Aston Martin: Power, Beauty and Soul by David Dowsey if you want the full story on Aston’s recent history, but a simple recap going back 60-odd years goes something like this:
Sir David Brown bought and saved Aston Martin during the 1950s and 1960s. He is the true soul, DNA and fabric behind every great “DB,” and for him the monetary bottom line simply did not matter. Under his command, truly exciting, beautiful road and race cars were designed and built. These Astons are now literally coveted by royalty, James Bond fans and rabid marque enthusiasts alike.
For the sake of brevity, let’s a give a golf clap and proper acknowledgement to the various owner groups after “DB” (including Victor Gauntlett and Peter Livanos) whose hearts and wallets were bigger than the bleeding-red-ink bottom lines that kept Aston Martin alive from 1971 through 1985. Thank you.
Ford, Savior II
Ford. Without Ford’s ownership (1985–2007) I truly believe Newport Pagnell would be a place that you’d now visit to see a number of quaint crumbling buildings that were once a factory that built magnificent cars. Ford and their team of engineers/designers/managers understood what needed to be done to get Aston Martin into the real world of automobile manufacturing, and more importantly, to survive and thrive in that arena.
For the first few years, Ford was hands-off and had no immediate plan for Aston Martin. During that time, the V8 cars came from an old-school, hand-built line, and volume was five or six cars a week. The sound of hammers shaping metal was truly deafening. It was an anachronism.
In the early 1990s, the world economy brought Aston manufacturing to a grinding halt. Aston was living on one-off orders for royal family members (think Brunei) and a trickle of over-priced, under-engineered, outdated road cars. Yearly volume was fewer than 20 cars sold at the company’s sad nadir. Then Savior III was conceived, which was the DB7 — our topic.
The DB7 rescue
To become a company with a future — and one that was solvent — Ford knew Aston needed a volume car, a “baby” GT, to sell alongside these “bespoke” V8 whips.
With just a $1m prototype budget, Ian Callum’s “Baby Aston” (which is still one of his favorite designs) went from paper to clay model to rolling chassis. This was nothing short of sensational and unbelievable. It was a real testament to the engineering team that was assembled. It did help that Ford’s connection with Jaguar allowed the use of the then-aging Jaguar XJS chassis.
Tom Walkinshaw Racing (subcontracted by Aston for engineering work) could also lean on Ford to pinch Jag’s current 6-cylinder lump for the heart of the new, smaller beast. A supercharger was added to massage 335 horsepower from this unit. The car’s 0–60 mph times were under six seconds, which was a good start.
Coupe, Volante or Vantage?
Launched in the United States at the 1996 Detroit Auto Show, the DB7 was offered as a coupe or Volante, with your choice of a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission. In total, 478 copies were sold in the United States as 1997–98 model year cars. Keep in mind that this total was sold from mid-1996 through mid-1999, so yearly volumes were still relatively small.
Although the DB7 was a hit, it was still an under-powered GT.
Aston Martin launched the DB7 Vantage at the 1999 Detroit Auto Show to bolster sales. The new 5.9-liter V12 made 420 horsepower with much more torque (and a 5.5-second 0–60 mph sprint).
The DB7 Vantage was again a winner, selling for four more years. 1,129 examples were delivered in the U.S. as 2000–03 model year cars. This number includes the DB7GT, which was the real driver’s car of the group, with power now boosted to 435 horsepower. Manual gearboxes were fitted with six speeds, and automatics got five speeds with Touchtronic as an option.
DB7s can best be described as GT sports cars. They are a fantastic and more sporty alternative to the period Mercedes-Benz SL or Bentley. They are far more usable as daily drivers than any Ferrari or Lotus. There weren’t any real competitive cars for the DB7, which helped Aston Martin sell a great many units.
The current price range between a driver-quality DB7 and low-mileage DB7GT is very wide. Spending as little as $25k will get you a decent 6-cylinder car, and $65k will land you in a great DB7 Vantage Volante or DB7GT.
What to watch for
Cosmetically, you must watch out for leather that has turned to stone, shrunken dashpads, faded wood veneers and mismatched, faded paint. Keep in mind that these cars are pressed steel and composite, and not all panels are created equally.
DB7s generally came with very few options. The story is different for DB7 Vantages, as there are no two alike because of the options. If you see something you like, buy it. There may not be another exact match anywhere. Do not pay extra for any of the Limited Edition cars.
The Dunhill, Neiman Marcus, Aston Martin of Beverly Hills, Queen’s Jubilee and 10th Anniversary Edition cars are all the same car in different colors. Also be aware that the DB7GTA did not benefit from any extra horsepower.
Mechanically, the biggest taboo is non-use. Beware of the car that has sat, as it will need plugs and coil packs, gummed-up radiators flushed, dead fuel pumps fixed, flat-spotted tires replaced — and no doubt the removal of a mouse nest.
Because these cars were hand-assembled at a very small factory in Bloxham, U.K., quality control was generally very good.
If properly serviced, any DB7 or DB7 Vantage will go 100k miles. Engines, brakes, suspensions and transmissions are all as robust as can be — if properly serviced. I say this twice for a reason.
When considering the purchase of any late-model classic, having a specialist conduct a thorough inspection is absolutely necessary. Please pass on a perceived bargain — just wait and buy a great one.