The first Lagondas used red LEDs that failed with alarming regularity, but the CRTs that replaced them cost a fortune to repair


Every so often, British industry has an epiphany and produces something truly groundbreaking. While perhaps not as significant as the introduction of radar or disc brakes, the Aston Martin Lagonda-along with the Concorde-symbolizes Britain's struggle against becoming technologically irrelevant in the 1970s.

The Lagonda marque saw only sporadic revival after WWII, with the large Facel Excellence-like Rapide and a very small run of stretched AM V8 saloons. Neither created much of a buzz. In the early 1970s, Aston and new owner Peter Sprague wanted their new four-door flagship to create a huge splash, especially among buyers in the oil-rich Middle East.

Stylist William Towns held up his end of the bargain and succeeded in creating a design unlike anything seen before or since. The Lagonda caused a sensation when it was introduced at the 1976 London Motor Show. Low and knife-edged from the origami school of design, the car was striking, with a minimum of gratuitous ornamentation.

Favorite choice of New Money

It was therefore odd that so many pundits dismissed it as garish or vulgar. Although quite unusual, it was neither. Perhaps it was a case of guilt by association as the car became the favorite of New Money, from rock stars to Middle Eastern oil sheiks. Nevertheless, during its brief time on the A-list, the Lagonda was a fixture in front of places like the Carlton in Cannes or the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Under the hood was the familiar Tadek Marek-designed 5.4-liter quad-cam V8. Given the high-tech approach to the rest of the car, it was odd to see early cars delivered with carburetors. In injected form, the V8 made 240 hp. Mated to a 3-speed Chrysler automatic transmission, performance was brisk and smooth, in keeping with the character of the car. Ride was supple and well-controlled. Fuel mileage was a dismal 8 mpg, but for those owners living in Kuwait, big deal.

The interior of the Lagonda was as stunning as the outside; acres of hand-stitched hide and wool carpet juxtaposed with the first stab at digital gauges in a production car. Not surprisingly, the dashboard electronics made up the bulk of the car's development costs.

Inevitable out-of-warranty failures

The first cars used red LED readouts not unlike early calculators or a Pulsar watch. They were difficult to see in full sunlight and impossible to see when they failed with alarming regularity. The LEDs were replaced in later cars with CRT readouts. These were even more troublesome and cost several thousand dollars each to replace when the inevitable out-of-warranty failure took place.

The touch-sensitive buttons located on panels that protruded from either side of the steering wheel were another interior oddity. And as any astute reader will have guessed, these were also about as durable as rice paper.

The Series IV was introduced in 1988 with fixed headlights replacing yet another failure-prone component, the pop-up headlights. The original Towns knife-edges were also softened, and some of the purity of the original car was lost.

Today, the Lagonda's days as the A-list sedan have long since passed, its place in the valet front rows taken by Maybachs, Rolls Phantoms, Bentleys and Maseratis. Most that show up at auctions are silly period pieces finished in "Old Emirate White," with filthy white leather, flickering dashes, and gold accents.

Free is too much for a bad one

Free is too much for a dodgy Lagonda. A potential owner is confronted with a one-two punch of ruinous repairs to the quad-cam V8 and electronics that can deliver a knockout of their own. Perhaps a foreshadowing of what owners of a 2007 BMW 7-series will face circa 2025?

On the other hand, a Lagonda with a tired motor and non-functional dash really does present a unique opportunity for a very cool custom. Re-engineer the dash for some analog gauges and drop a crate motor in it. It will never be worth restoring properly and somehow, it seems far more sacrilegious to turn it into a salad bar, part it out, or let it molder away.

While few and far between, Lagondas with replaced CRTs, up-to-date records on the mechanicals, and good interiors represent a huge amount of eyeball for the money. When they do show up, they inevitably draw a crowd and bidders will pay close to $60,000 for a right car, but it's difficult to see an upside.

Frankly, compared to today's crop of sedans for the jet-rich, such as the exceedingly bland Maybach, and the clumsy and gigantic Rolls-Royce Phantom, William Towns's Lagonda looks better than ever. And there are few cars from the late
1970s you can say that about with a straight face.u

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