The cars : Aston Martin DB7 development story (1994-2004)

The Aston Martin DB7 development story tells an interesting tale. It relates to how the entry-level sports car from the legendary firm started out as a Jaguar, and ended up being sold by Newport Pagnell via TWR…

However, despite its mixed parentage, the DB7 emerged as an excellent gateway into Aston Martin ownership, especially once a V12 found its way under the bonnet.


Aston Martin DB7: New frontiers

Aston Martin DB7

The Aston Martin DB7 was a new direction for its maker but, for a certain element of the enthusiast community, it struggled to live up to the glories of its predecessors. However, for others, it was a brilliant continuation of the DB line of sports cars that had been on the wane since the DB6 had shuffled off this mortal coil.

Unveiled at the 1993 Geneva Motor Show before going on sale the following year, the Aston Martin DB7 would be the gorgeous precursor of a full range of Ferrari-baiting British super GT cars. It not only put its maker firmly back on the map but also guaranteed Aston Martin’s future and defined its direction to the present day.

When the wraps came off the Aston Martin DB7 on a spring morning in Geneva, the automotive world came to a standstill. Jaw-droppingly beautiful, attainable and progressive in a way that no Aston had been for generations, it hit the bullseye. It’s not as if the firm hadn’t been updating its range – the Virage replaced the V8 in 1988, and a new Vantage had been rolled out the previous autumn.

A new direction from Aston Martin

Concepts and prototypes : Jaguar XJ41/42

But the DB7 was something else entirely. The Virage was a hugely expensive and hand-built, crafted at Newport Pagnell using production methods employed by Aston Martin for generations. The DB7 was built in Bloxham, was powered by a supercharged six-cylinder engine and was priced to sell to a far wider audience. It ushered in a new era for Aston Martin.

The story of how the DB7 came about is one of opportunism and remarkable timing. Ford had taken control of Aston Martin in 1987 but, with an ageing model range and little in the pipeline, sales were dwindling. Yes, Aston Chairman Victor Gauntlett, was talking a brave game about Project DP1999 – a new entry-level car – but that was just vapourware.

In 1990, Ford bought Jaguar, and the magic started to happen. Walter Hayes, a driving force behind the Lotus Cortina and Ford GT40, came out of retirement to replace Gauntlett – and his most pressing job was to bring profitability to Aston Martin. He approached Tom Walkinshaw, asking for ideas.

Another Project XX catches the eye

Jaguar-TWR Project XX by Ian Callum

This was an opportune moment. TWR was piecing together Project XX, which had emerged from the dying embers of the abandoned Jaguar XJ41 F-Type programme (above), which had been in development since 1982.

Undoubtedly beautiful and fast, it was also massively over-budget and weight, and when it came on board, Ford swiftly took the decision to kill it.

Walkinshaw stepped in with an alternative – an off-the-shelf replacement, which could be built at the JaguarSport facility in the XJ220 factory at Bloxham. Project XX featured an evolution of the XJ41’s styling, penned by Ian Callum, but based upon the Jaguar XJS’s still-capable platform.

What was under the XX’s skin

Project XX was designed to be powered by a TWR-tuned twin-turbo Jaguar slant-six engine. Getting it into production would have cost a fraction of the XJ41, and all looked promising.

And then, out of the blue, Jaguar decided not to take Project XX. ‘It was a case of not invented here’, said Ian Callum. ‘Instead, Ford decided it wanted Jaguar to develop a new car instead – and that became the XK8.’

That’s where Walter Haynes comes in. Now Project XX had been cut loose by Jaguar, Hayes and Walkinshaw needed each other. From that mutual need, Project XX morphed into Aston Martin Project Newport Pagnell Experimental (NPX).

From Jaguar to Aston Martin

Although it would have been easy to slap a new badge on the XX, in becoming an Aston Martin, the NPX was fully re-engineered with Callum making several changes to the styling. ‘I had total autonomy over how the car would look,’ said Callum.

‘Tom understood that it had to look great, because people would buy it primarily for the aesthetics. It was the looks that sold it.’ In the end, he created a design that referenced classic Aston Martins while setting the tone for all subsequent models. Clarkson simply called it, ‘the most beautiful man-made object on the planet.’

Hayes insisted the NPX would be straight-six powered, and based on Jaguar’s all-aluminium AJ6 (below).

Aston Martin slant-six engine

A new engine for a new Aston

Its engine was developed by TWR and featured an Eaton M90 supercharger. Based on the 3.2-litre AJ6, and developing 335bhp, production and development would be handled TWR at Kidlington.

That required a further redesign to house the engine, and Callum said, ‘that made it look even more like a Jaguar. We’d need to lower the engine.’ The engine was dropped into a redesigned subframe, which gave the NPX a lower centre of gravity.

From there, it really came together rapidly and, like the Jaguar XJ220 before it, this process involved a lot of people working long hours – everyone wanted it to happen. The good news was that Walter Haynes gained David Brown’s permission to reinstate the DB numbering system, and Ford approved Aston Martin’s request to show the new car in prototype form at the Geneva Motor Show.

Jac Nasser

Launched at Geneva

Ford of Europe’s new Chairman, Jac Nasser (above), revealed the new Aston Martin to a rapturous reception, and that was enough to push it over the line, and green light it for production. Within a year, they were rolling out of Bloxham as the first steel monocoque design from Aston Martin – it was quite a moment.

The exterior styling was praised to the hilt, and arguably put Ian Callum into the stratosphere of superstar Designers. Inside, not so much. Motor Sport‘s Simon Arron commented in his first road test, ‘Sumptuous as the finish is in parts, it is still a little difficult to reconcile the idea of a near £80,000 supercar with knobs and switches that can also be found in a Ford Orion.’

Objectively, though, it ticked all the boxed. Inside, Burr walnut and Connolly leather was used extensively. Standard cabin fitments, tech and driver aids included air conditioning, remote alarm and immobiliser and high-quality Sony radio/cassette. The only listed option was a 10-disc CD autochanger, at £823. Airbags would be added later.

What the road testers said

The DB7 went on sale in 1994, and Motor Sport’s Simon Arron said of the car’s performance: ‘It builds up to a point at which, around 5200 rpm, it starts to sound deliciously akin to a TVR. Peak power is delivered at 5500 rpm, and there is enough torque to rotate several planetary systems. Simultaneously’.

Acceleration was quick, if not ballistic for the time, with 0-60mph being dispatched in 5.8 seconds. But all-out acceleration was not this car’s forte – it’s its ability to overtake dawdling A-road traffic with consummate ease which is most pleasing, aided nicely by the mid-range punch afforded by its supercharger.

It wasn’t perfect. Car & Driver noted: ‘The gear selector feels like the flag on an aluminum mailbox, clunky and not securely connected to the linkage. The Alpine radio is littered with buttons so minuscule as to make them largely unusable when the car is in motion. The plastic high-mounted brake light is a tacky add-on. And the passenger airbag has devoured the hole that should be a glove compartment.’

Aston Martin DB7 Volante interior

Volante joins the line-up

Interest in the DB7 was phenomenal, and production quickly ramped up. But the firm wouldn’t rest on its laurels – first addition to the range was the convertible, which took the firm’s traditional Volante nameplate.

Unveiled at 1996 Detroit Motor Show, the Volante received a myriad of improvements, which we retro-engineered back into the coupe.

Four special editions were sold along the way. These included the Alfred Dunhill and Stratstone Editions as well as the Neiman-Marcus and Beverly Hills Editions. Later they were joined by V12 specials that included the 2002 Keswick Limited Edition and 2003’s Jubilee and Anniversary editions. That wasn’t an indicator of a lack of success, even if some critics were beginning to criticise the DB7 for a lack of cylinders.

Aston Martin DB7 Volante

Six cylinders supplanted by 12

They needn’t have worried, as parent company Ford had that in hand. Rewinding to the DB7’s Geneva debut, there was another prototype alongside – the Lagonda Vignale. According to Ford, ‘Aston Martin Engineers have identified an advanced concept for a V12 engine which could be developed for Aston Martin.’

This in essence was the starting gun being fired for the next stage of the DB7’s evolution.

Development of a V12 engine to go in the DB7 began by Ford in Dearborn. Powertrain Engineer Anthony Musci recalled in an article by the AMHT, ‘in 1994, I put a rough plan together that called for an all-new block, cylinder head and crankshaft designs using the piston assemblies and valvetrain components from the upcoming V6 Duratec family.’

Aston Martin DB7 Vantage V12

New V12 conceived in Dearborn

In many ways, this was the car that Tom Walkinshaw had always wanted, as he’d envisaged Project NPX having a V12 based on the Jaguar XJR-S power unit.

The design was then evolved to the point where Ford approved the plan and invited Cosworth to build the engine. Initially, Cosworth wanted to be involved in the development, but Musci said that didn’t happen.

‘The rumour that Cosworth designed the AML V12 is simply untrue and really sells short the many dedicated people both within Ford and throughout the industry that worked really, really hard to make this programme the success it turned out to be,’ Musci said.

Aston Martin DB7 Vantage

DB7 Vantage breaks cover

The production DB7 V12 Vantage (above) made its debut at Geneva in 1999, a year after first being shown in prototype form at Detroit. The effect on demand for the DB7 was instant ­– production of the straight-six model (by now known as the i6) was rapidly scaled back and, before the end of that year, it was phased out.

It’s easy to see why – with a 5.9-litre 420bhp V12 under the bonnet (below), and substantially uprated suspension, the DB7 Vantage was more than capable of taking the fight to Ferrari’s latest front-engined fighters.

In 2002, a final flourish for the DB7 was announced, with the GT and its automatic GTA cousin coming on stream with 435bhp. It seemed apt that Aston Martin saved the best ‘til last with a car that boasted the most power, the best handling and most luxurious interior. Of the 7091 DB7s that were made a mere 302 GTAs and GTAs left the Bloxham factory.

Aston Martin DB7 Vantage V12

The special DB7s

But even these weren’t as special at the DB7 Zagato (below) which was also unveiled in 2002. Arguably uglier than the car it was based on, this double-bubble roof special was limited to just 99 examples.

Another Italian take on the DB7 was the 2001 Twenty Twenty concept by Ital Design, which was made from aluminium and composites and incorporated a targa roof arrangement. It remained a one-off.

Aston Martin DB7 Zagato

Conclusions

It was in V12 Vantage form that the DB7 remained until the final example rolled off the line in December 2004. Interestingly, it would overlap its replacement, the DB9, by several months following the successful launch of that car at the 2003 Frankfurt Motor Show.

The new car was an obvious continuation of the DB7 stylistically, with the design being credited to Ian Callum and Henrik Fisker. But under the skin, it was very different being based on Aston Martin’s all-aluminium VH architecture.

What was so clever about the DB7 was that it was more than special enough to vault Aston Martin back into the big time, while introducing the marque to a whole new generation of buyers. Its legacy is way beyond the sum of its parts, and its place in history is already guaranteed.

Aston Martin DB7 Vantage

Keith Adams

3 Comments

  1. Jaguar’s loss was Aston Martin’s gain. Probably amongst the most beautiful cars ever produced, it really did bring Aston Martin back into the public eye.

    Would have Project XX helped Jag out more here we ask? Well, not sure with the engine derived the Jaguarsport lump. It was a shame that Ford didn’t look at what TWR did to the AJ6 as the Aston unit is far smoother than Jaguar’s own version.

  2. A fascinating story, as the DB7 turned out to be the perfect junior Aston, despite being a bit of an automotive mongrel. While the V12 is clearly a more desirable car, I prefer the look of the original 6 cylinder models, with their disc alloy wheels.

  3. The DB7 is still remarkably affordable in the USA. The run up in car prices left it behind for some reason. Manual transmission is rare here, and so is the coupe. There’s a handful on cars.com for around $30,000 though. I’d buy one but have so many XJSs I can’t walk in the barn any more.

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