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Aston Martin Virage

DRIVEN AROUND THE BEND BY A VIRAGE? Published: 10th Feb 2014 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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Aston’s long awaited replacement for the DBS-derived V8 was initially half-baked and the model still carries this stigma. Performance, luxury, typical Aston styling, plus they look great value… but there seems little else to commend one admit specialists

Over the years, most Aston Martins have gone through a banger phase, only for the word to get out and prices to go sky high. We saw it with the DB models (albeit a very long time ago) and until recently the DBS was one of the all-time performance car bargains. But those have now gone stratospheric – leaving the Virage to take over the mantle of bargain British bruiser.

Largely developed just before Ford’s takeover of Aston Martin in 1987, the Virage has long been the poor relation. Often accused of being overweight and underdeveloped, this V8 monster didn’t have the brutal charm of its V8 forebear and contemporary press reports were less than favourable. The Virage would go on to be developed, but the 355 coupé and 234 convertible examples of the regular model built between 1988 and 1995 have remained unloved pretty much since they left the Newport Pagnell factory. But is the antipathy – or even vitriol – aimed at them really deserved?

HISTORY

1988 The Virage makes its début at the Birmingham motor show, in coupé form only; it’s the first all-new Aston Martin for 20 years, although the engine and gearbox were carried over. Power – all 330bhp of it – comes from the classic 5340cc Aston Martin V8. This also features four valves per cylinder and Weber electronic fuel injection thanks to an overhaul of the powerplant by American engine tuning specialist Reeves Callaway. The price tag is £135,000, but there’s no shortage of takers for this new Aston, with the global economy soon to hit an all-time high.

1990 The Virage Volante is unveiled, initially in two-seat form only. But within a year the car is developed into a 2+2. Also released in 1990 is a wide-body option, giving a far more muscular look, complete with vents in the front wings.

1991 leading specialist RS Williams introduces an unofficial Virage Vantage conversion, with a 465bhp 6.3-litre engine. The £60,000 package consists of Cosworth pistons, a six-speed gearbox and a Harvey-Bailey handling kit.

1992 With the global economy in meltdown and Virage sales now very hard to come by, the factory Works Service unleashes a series of tiny-volume specials, including a three-door shooting brake, a five-door estate and a four-door saloon.

Generally, half a dozen of each are made – and most of them are destined for the Sultan of Brunei’s collection. In the same year, the new Vantage is unveiled, featuring heavily revised Virage bodywork, with only the roof and doors carried over from the original. There are no Virage references in the name, so officially the model is dead, but the series of cars which will follow over the next few years are all based on the Virage’s bodyshell, even if it doesn’t look much like it.

The Vantage features two Roots superchargers, with the V8 still in 5340cc form – but it now produces a massive 550bhp and 550lb ft of torque. Production of this British bruiser would run until 1998, by which time 239 examples had been built.

1998 The most extreme Virage evolution yet is released – the Vantage V600. Capable of 200mph thanks to a 600bhp V8, this is the most powerful Aston Martin yet created. Understandably it is also the most costly of its standard production cars, with a list price of £233,682.

1999 The last of the hand-built Astons is revealed at the Geneva motor show; it’s also the ultimate incarnation of the Virage/Vantage – the Le Mans. Limited to 40 examples, the Le Mans is introduced to commemorate Aston’s 40th anniversary of victory at Le Sarthe.

Buyers can choose between 550bhp or 600bhp editions; whatever they opt for the price tag will be around £250,000 and they’ll get a car that’s visually different from the regular Vantage, thanks to a modified front spoiler, blanked-off grille and revised cooling ducts.

DRIVING AND PRESS COMMENTS

When Autocar first tested the Virage in August 1990, it wasn’t blinded by its high price or badge. Quite the opposite in fact, the magazine disappointed by such a costly car failing to come equipped with standard anti-lock brakes, and keen to point out that the John Heffernan-styled bodywork had proved to be controversial with its lack of aggression – it “looked almost dainty and effete, a coupé of the mass market Manta/Calibra school”.

Things didn’t go much better when it came to the Virage’s performance; an excess of weight and a relative paucity of horses meant that a 157mph top speed and a 0-60mph time of 6.6 seconds weren’t anything to shout about; the much cheaper Ferrari Testarossa (£111,000) was significantly faster in terms of top speed and grunt, at 171mph and 5.2 seconds respectively. Even worse, the Virage squatted so badly when launching off the line that the offside rear wheelarch was damaged by the tyre…

The review went even further downhill when it came to the handling, the Virage failing to impress with its steering or suspension – despite there being just 2.2 turns between locks. The testers claimed: “The steering is inappropriately light at speed and masks too much road feel. This is precisely what you don’t want with a wide, heavy car like the Virage. As a result, and as with the old V8, it feels cumbersome and slow-witted – and a car only the inordinately brave or foolhardy would consider hustling along a demandingly twisty or bumpy B-road”.

Taking the driving experience out of the equation (easier said than done, admittedly), the Virage acquitted better. The sumptuous interior just oozed British charm, refinement levels were very good and build quality was (predictably) quite brilliant. But overall there was no doubt that the Virage was a missed opportunity, Autocar concluding that: “The Virage is fast, handsome and beautifully made. Fine grand tourer as it is though, the Virage deserves to be a better one. It does nothing Jaguar’s ageing XJ-S can’t do at least as well at a fraction of the price. A Corvette ZR-1 beats the Aston hollow in every dynamic respect. For all its refinement and autobahn-shrinking ability, the Virage is lamentably short of appeal for enthusiastic drivers… we can’t help thinking that the Virage is simply too big and heavy to be a truly enjoyable driver’s car. Look at it and you understand why it costs £125,000. Drive it and you begin to wonder”.

As the Virage evolved to become the Vantage and V8 Coupé, it would become the driver’s machine it should always have been. But the price would keep rising inexorably and those later cars are now far more collectible and consequently much more valuable. So while the V cars are genuinely desirable, it’s the Virage which remains relatively affordable. If you can find a good one at the right price.

Car pitched the Vantage against a 456GT Ferrari in 1994 and said by then it was a much improved car which was “one of the most chaotically developed cars of our time”, reckoned guest tester and devout Aston fan Rowan Atkinson. The magazine said that in the end, “The Vantage is a performance development of the Virage… and hold little attraction after the novelty of the performance wears off”. Of its handling the monthly bemoaned its lack of finesse; “There seems only one way to drive the Vantage quickly – grab it by the neck and kick it in the buttocks”. Maybe that’s how a classic Aston should always be?

PRICES

Few people are more knowledgeable on the Virage, or the Aston Martin market as a whole, than Chiltern Aston’s Derek Campbell. He comments: “The Virage is in an odd place at the moment; it’s where the DBS was a few years ago, when people were buying those mainly to break for their valuable engines and gearboxes. While Virages aren’t being cannibalised, they’re also generally not having significant sums of money spent on them, which frankly a lot of them need.

“Virages could suffer from an array of issues when they were new, and if they weren’t fixed in period the chances are they won’t have been fully fixed since. As a result, if you buy one you’ve got to ensure that it’s got as few faults as possible. That may sound like an obvious statement, but problems with the electrics or electronics may be impossible to sort out. Relatively few Virages were built and there’s little support for them now”.

According to Campbell, the key is to buy the best you can find and look after it. Ideally it will have already had lots of cash lavished on it in a bid to get it working as well as posisble – but don’t be surprised if there are still some problems, which you might just have to live with.

Of the Virages available, many are either neglected or simply not properly sorted. The tattiest coupés are changing hands for as little as £10,000, but such examples are likely to need anywhere between £15,000 and £30,000 to bring them up to standard – they’re likely to need attention to the bodywork, trim, electrics and running gear and are bound to prove a false economy. The best Virage coupés can change hands for £30,000, or even more if they’re really special – but such cars are very few and far between.

Predictably, the Virage Volante is worth more than the coupé, and it helps that this open edition was slightly better developed too. Throw in the fact that most open-topped Virages are better cared for than their closed equivalents and you’re in a stronger situation if you can stretch to one of these editions.

With the cheapest open-topped Virages worth around £25,000 – but still likely to need significant expenditure to keep it running properly – the Volante isn’t exactly a cheap Aston option. And with the best Virage Volantes changing hands for £50,000 or so, you’ll need fairly deep pockets to buy a really nice convertible.

Meanwhile, the 6.3-litre engine conversion can add up to £10,000 to the value of a Virage. Such cars tend to still be dogged with electrical issues but they’re better to drive thanks to their revised brakes and suspension – along with the extra power and torque of course. Don’t confuse the 6.3-litre conversion with the later 6.3L though; the former took a standard car and comprehensively overhauled it mechanically.

Because Aston hadn’t sought homologation for the final spec, the 6.3-litre conversion had to be performed on an existing regular production car.

However, later on, Aston Martin would offer a wide-body Virage with a 6.3-litre engine, known as the 6.3L. Because of all the hoops it would have to jump through to achieve homologation, the rest of the car was mechanically as before, so you don’t benefit from the brake and suspension upgrades that make the 6.3-litre conversion such an attractive package.

And what of the future? Campbell isn’t too optimistic about the Virage’s prospects. He says: “The Virage is caught in a vicious circle of low values and high repair costs, meaning the average condition is going down rather than up. The cars are too rare for specialists to make the necessary investments to finish off Aston Martin’s development work. As a result many Virages will continue to have issues which could result in only the serious collectors buying them, with a focus on owning rather than using them”.

IMPROVEMENTS

Despite the power and luxury on tap, many Virage owners opted to upgrade their cars in period and it’s still possible to spend cash on engine, brake and suspension upgrades. The quad-cam V8 can be taken out to 7.0 litres and it’s not difficult to tease 600bhp or more from it – but with this many horses available you’ll need to beef up the anchors too, as well as the suspension.

It’s still possible to invest in a 6.3-litre engine conversion, but if you take that route you really need to spend some cash on suspension, brake and bodywork mods too – budget to spend around £40,000 all in. Bearing in mind that’s the price of the very best standard Virage you can buy, the reality may be that you’re better off keeping the car standard but spending your cash on keeping it in as good a condition as you possibly can.

What To Look For

GENERAL

• Look for a full service history. Because they can be relatively cheap to buy, but a little more expensive to maintain, some Virages haven’t had the care they need. A full history points to a caring owner and that’s a good place to start.

• In the best Aston Martin tradition, the Virage is sumptuous inside. But for all that fancy trim it’s one of the most innocuous parts of the interior that needs checking as the rubber seals around the doors, bonnet and bootlid can perish and let water in. The parts alone are over £700

• The Virage is stuffed full of electrics and electronics, and tend to cause to most financial pain. Don’t be fobbed off by excuses about a blown fuse as the whole dashboard binnacle can fail and that’s several thousand pounds for the parts alone.

BODY AND CHASSIS

• The Virage’s all-aluminium body is draped over a chassis that was zinc-bathed at the factory. The Vantage shares just three standard panels with the Virage – both door skins and the roof. The 6.3 added wider wheelarches, sill extensions and a boot spoiler. Some owners opted for this option alone and kept the 5.3-litre engine. This is known as a ‘cosmetic’ 6.3.

• Aluminium corrodes – and things can get expensive. It costs £1200 to replace the scuttle panel beneath the windscreen and £7000 at least for repairs to the A and B posts, new inner/outer sills and door steps.

• Inspect the whole body, the bodywork is an area that will yield far more to the trained eye; a professional inspection before buying – a move which will almost certainly prove to be worthwhile anyway.

ENGINE

• This is the ultimate development of Tadek Marek’s superb V8 unit. Check for weeping from the cylinder liner seal holes. There’s one for each cyinder and they run along the side of the block in line with the drain tap. New parts cost £1 each but because the cylinder heads and cylinder liners have to come out to replace them this turns into a £4000-£5000 job.

• While you’re looking at the top end of the engine see if there’s any oil leaking from the cam covers. These are kept oil tight with a sealant rather than a gasket and it takes anything from four to eight hours to remove and re-seal them. Move down the block and look for weeping around the head gasket – if you find any, budget for a £3000 head gasket job.

• Ensure the anti-freeze mix is sound and watch for hot running and signs of past overheating.

RUNNING GEAR

• The ZF five- and six-speed gearboxes are bombproof, and it’s a similar story for the Chrysler Torqueflite three- and four-speed automatic gearbox. Both manual and automatic options suit the Virage well. The ZF manual takes a firm hand to get the best from but will reward with slick and dependable gearchanges – the typically heavy clutch action can be improved upon.

• Don’t be alarmed by rattling from the manual gearbox when the car is ticking over in neutral. This is a ZF trait and is caused by the idler gears – dip the clutch and it will disappear. When the car is warm drive it and look out for any slip in the clutch. If you detect any slip you’ll need to put aside £1500+ to get a new clutch fitted.

• When you’re driving, a knocking noise from the front of the car accompanied by pulling to the left or right under braking means the brake reactor shaft bushes have failed. The parts cost around £50, and it takes two hours to fit them all.

• Before you go for a drive take a good look at the rear suspension, particularly at the de-Dion tube outer mounting points. The square-section cast aluminium can develop cracks here and it makes the car dangerous to drive; proper repairs will cost around £5000.

Three Of A Kind

BMW 950I
BMW 950I
After the Aston the 850i is perhaps a bit too clinical, but you can’t doubt the quality of the engineering. With a fabulous gearbox, a sublime V12, excellent steering and a quite brilliant chassis, the 850i is one of the most under-rated cars of recent years – it’s also one of the hardest to fi nd, as most of the 8-Series for sale are the 840Ci with the 4.0 or 4.4-litre V8.
ASTON MARTIN DB7
ASTON MARTIN DB7
If you’re after a cheap Aston, then the DB7 is the one to go for. A Jag in drag it may be but it was a far better rounded and developed supercar than the Virage and looks like a modernised DB4. The straight six is considered by some to be more agile over the admittedly faster V12 but common to both is really good value, although they can outstrip Virage prices.
PORSCHE 928 GTS
PORSCHE 928 GTS
The ultimate incarnation of the 928, the 5.4-litre GTS packed a very fruity 350bhp, compared with the regular model’s 320bhp. With its glorious quad-cam V8, the GTS has a stirring soundtrack and thanks to its transaxle transmission, the balance is far better than you might expect – which is why on a fast cross-country run the 928 will show a standard Virage a clean pair of heels.

Verdict

It may be a cliché, but there really is nothing like a proper hand-built old school Aston Martin. The muscle that’s on tap, the brutal driving experience and the road presence are all to be savoured, but let’s not beat about the bush here, the Virage is hardly a classic Aston like the DB strain and the image is somewhat lacking. The company didn’t have the money to fully develop the car when it was contemporary, and as a result there’s a whole array of reliability issues that can crop up – and you can’t assume that just throwing money at them will make them go away either.

The key is not to see the Virage as the cheapest route to Aston Martin ownership even though they look temptingly cheap; it’s now the DB7 that can make that claim. Sure it’s not a hand-built V8 bruiser, but you get gorgeous looks and a far higher level of development if you buy this later car – although it doesn’t offer anything like the sense of adventure the Virage can supply.



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