Power. Beauty. Soul. These things were sadly lacking in the Peugeot 308 that I had hired to take me up to Gaydon, the home of Aston Martin, for a day of what promised to be exclusive access to their design and manufacturing facility. Unfortunately, our regular automotive expert, Straight-Six, had come over with a severe case of the thingumywatchums, meaning that it was left to yours truly to have to endure the trails of being looked after by two of the greatest brands in their fields of expertise, namely Aston Martin Lagonda and the creators of innovative and luxury timepieces, Jaeger-LeCoultre.
After my SatNav guided me inexpertly to a housing estate, I decided to use the old fashioned way of navigating and followed the road signs. Sure enough, ahead of me was a left turn marked simply: Aston Martin.
As I passed the huge stone monolith that marked the entrance, I got the feeling I was slipping into another, almost cinematic reality, like entering Jurassic Park or approaching the Bond villain’s secret lair.
This experience was enhanced when I approached the building itself. There, nestled amongst the pleasantly sculpted gardens and water features, sits the Aston Martin headquarters, looking for all the world like some modern interpretation of a medieval castle, all imposing sheer walls and even a bridge across a “moat”.
Opposite the car park, itself filled with an impressive display of AM horsepower (and a Cygnet), sits a knight in shining armour – a metal wrapped AM on a rocky outcrop, keeping sentinel – whilst on the moat below, a yellow AM defies gravity, logic and rust, floating neatly on the surface of the water, like Jesus has just parked up for a visit.
Passing over the drawbridge (okay, it’s not actually a drawbridge, but you get the idea) I approached the giant doors, which gracefully swing open as my hands almost touch the glass.
The atrium sets the tone for the rest of the building, all light and space and a sense of weightlessness and unreality. How did they get all these cars in here? The natural daylight and soft tones of the stonework set one almost at ease, but the scale, the beauty of the design, the sheer affront of this structure leaves you with no doubt of the message here: We’re impressive, aren’t we?
After checking in, like the first-class of some magnificent airline of the future, it’s off to the new design wing. I’m aware that this article is really about cars and watches, but to an architecture geek such as myself, this new wing is simply gorgeous. This pavilion style structure actually does mirror the brand’s design ethic though, so I think it’s relevant. It’s forward-thinking, directional, with an honesty of materials and a sense of pride and power kept in check.
Quietly parked in a corner of the room sits the embodiment of Aston Martin’s philosophy: The One-77. Not just any One-77, either. The first One-77. As I peer inside and try not to drool on the bodywork, the charming Lily Cloake, Aston Martin’s head of Digital Marketing, tells me the V12 is so loud that when you’re driving it’s impossible to have a conversation inside it. You simply can’t hear yourself over the engine noise. When I venture that this isn’t a car to do the weekly shop in, she counters that the passenger seat is surprisingly roomy. I picture myself pulling in to the Crouch End Budgens car park in a £1.4 million pound supercar, but quickly dismiss the idea.
There are perhaps some thirty other guests, but out of these I am told that there are only three journalists invited, none of whom are from the mainstream press. But before I’ve had much time to dwell on this, Marek Reichman is before us, welcoming us and giving us a brief glimpse of the wonders that are in store. This isn’t left to their head of marketing or PR, this is Aston Martin’s Director of Design, a man responsible for some of the most beautiful cars of the last decade. And Marek is no stuffy suit, either – in fact he’s dressed on the more casual side of business-casual and he’s younger than I had imagined. He’s immediately disarming and welcoming, his speech dynamic and passionate.
The same passion is evident when he hands over to the Jaeger-LeCoultre spokeswoman, whose enthusiasm when it comes to the partnership between the two brands is genuine and affecting. Clearly, this is a partnership in the true sense of the word. This isn’t merely two brands trying to align themselves for some spurious mutual benefit, this is a relationship between two companies that share a similar set of beliefs and principals and that have a genuine mutual interest and fascination. Despite all that we are about to be shown, this is perhaps the biggest revelation of the whole day.
However, as entertaining as all this is, and despite the much-needed coffee that I have hardly touched, it is time, ladies and gentlemen, to start your engines. Yes, that’s right, what may be an everyday occurrence for some is a holy grail of automotive experience for others. I was about to slip behind the wheel of an Aston.
After being handed off to my professional racing driver – a very patient and forgiving Ben Seyfried – for a bit of tuition and advice on how to actually avoid writing off a one hundred and fifty thousand pound supercar, it was out to the car park to be assigned our vehicles. This, unfortunately, was a bit of a lottery. The jet-black V12 DBS Volante, along with the attractive instructor Tiffany Chittenden, went to a thoroughly undeserving individual who will remain nameless, but who shall now forever owe me one. The again, who can really complain when the car you are assigned is a Vantage S? It’s surely not the worst booby prize in history, after all.
With this still in my mind, Ben drove me out of the facility, talking me over the car as we went. On discovering I was a writer, I noticed a distinctive change in his attitude. When I called him on it, he simply said: “Oh, it’s just whenever we do these things, it’s the journalists who end up crashing.” This did wonders for my confidence, I can assure you. Anyway, we pulled into a lay-by and we switched places. Finally, I was at the wheel of an Aston, about to drive away into the distance and hopefully not a tree.
The first thing to note is that the Vantage S is not an automatic. It is, in fact, a manual with an assisted clutch. The famous “flappy paddles” replace the ordinary shift and, whilst they do take a few moments to get used to, I found them easier to use than I had feared. The hand break is situated next to the driver on the right (or left in a left hand drive), which is unusual, but not so alien as to make driving difficult in any way. I wasn’t about to perform a hand break turn in this, after all.
Remarkably, the Aston Martin is very easy to drive and, almost disappointingly, it felt as though I could have been in any one of a hundred luxury cars. Honestly, pootling through a quaint English village at thirty miles an hour in an Aston isn’t going to do much for anyone’s adrenaline levels. But then we hit the national speed limit sign and I hit sank my foot to the floor. The acceleration is fantastic, the engine note satisfyingly primal and at speed the Vantage S handles extremely well, too. There is a palpable sense of the available power, but in spite of this the drive in this was smoother than I’d expected, even with the stiffer sport chassis. There was appreciable feedback from the road and I certainly knew I was driving it. Sadly, by the time I got to actually open her up, it was almost time to switch over to my other vehicle. But in those few moments of tearing up the road, I finally got to feel the car. This is a car that wants to – no – needs to be driven. It yearns to eat up the miles at a searing pace. Like a lion, it wants to roar. And roar it does.
After witnessing two AMs performing a speeding, side-by-side manoeuvre into two-way traffic, in which they narrowly avoided an accident by perhaps a foot, we pulled over into another lay-by to switch vehicles.
The next car was the Aston Martin Virage Volante. This Aston has an automatic transmission, but the differences between the assisted clutch and the automatic gearbox are minimal in terms of basic, everyday driving. However, the feel of this car is quite different. Obviously, being a soft top, the chassis isn’t as solid, and even with the sport mode enabled and the chassis artificially stiffened, it is still a much more comfortable car to drive. Because of this, there is a bigger disconnect from the driver to the road and it feels much softer. But then, this is more of a touring vehicle than a purebred sports car and, as such, it needs a comfortable ride. That said, this car also has plenty of welly. Open it up and it’ll eat up the asphalt with a ravenous appetite. It’s hard to say which car I preferred, because despite their similarity in looks, their handling and ride were noticeably different. Of the two, I’d possibly go for the Virage Volante, despite the less sporty drive, mainly because it’s much more of an all-rounder. I guess I’ll have to just wait for the V12 DBS.
Overall, the driving position on both cars is nice and low and very comfortable and the cockpit is a beautiful, elegant place to be, with everything in a logical, easy to use place and finished to the standards one would expect of a marque of this calibre. If I had any niggles it would be that I did feel somewhat engulfed by both cars. I’m six foot and I somehow felt small in them. That and the fact I wasn’t allowed to take one home with me afterwards.
But this day wasn’t all about the cars. Oh, no. Today was in celebration of the unique partnership between Jaeger-LeCoultre and Aston Martin, so, after bidding farewell to Ben and with a dizzy, cheese-eating grin slapped across my face, it was time to get familiar with the history behind these two brands and to get a good look at the rather gorgeous AMVOX range of watches.
Aston Martin and Jaeger-LeCoultre: A match made in heaven? Part I
Our man Dublo points his trusty Peugeot 308 towards Gaydon and splutters off in search of answers. Is the union between Aston Martin and Jaeger-LeCoultre just style over substance or is there more to it?
Ben is our resident screenwriter, that’s right, a real-life movie screenwriter. If we hadn’t captured him, drugged him and locked him in the basement here at Prodigal Towers, right now he’d be living the Hollywood dream that should rightfully be his, ensconced in a John Lautner house in Malibu. But don’t feel sorry for him. More fool him for drinking that spiked Martini in the first place.
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