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I had to pinch myself when I received an invitation from Aston Martin to attend the worldwide launch of the DBS Volante, the itinerary for the week long program read like a location shoot for the next James Bond film.
By - Anthony Crawford, pics - Nick Dimbleby
“Arrive in London on Emirates A380 (top deck no less), chauffeur driven to the Hotel Du Vin in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. Collect your DBS Volante the next morning and drive to Le Mans with stops at the Royal Champagne Hotel in Reims and transfers to The House of Louis Roederer for dinner with dignitaries.
Depart for the Hotel de France, La Chartre sur Le Loir via coffee stop, Chateau d’Augerville. Lunch with Stirling Moss and the Aston Martin Owners Club at the Hotel de France, transfers to Chateau du Grand Luce and dinner at Club Tertre Rouge…”
The airport taxi was a beautifully appointed Mercedes-Benz S- Class and while I can’t deny it was a superb ride, that won’t do once Aston launches its four-door Rapide supercar later this year, which may well provide a substantially faster service with superior handling and materials.
As nice as all this was though, I was in a hurry to catch my first glimpse of what is, in my opinion, the world’s most beautiful convertible.
After 36 hours in the air with transfers, I also needed to recalibrate my body clock for an early departure to France, in what I hoped would be a manual DBS Volante.
Royal Tunbridge Wells (generally shortened to Tunbridge Wells) is a quaint little village in Kent, south of London and home to this wonderful old boutique hotel where it seems Queen Victoria used to frequent, many years prior to her ascension to the thrown in 1837, and a perfect backdrop for five of Aston’s finest.
I don’t know what the secret is in Britain, perhaps its the abundance of that lush green grass, but these guys produce the best sausages and eggs on the planet and low fat diet notwithstanding; I was ordering another serving of this delicacy before any thoughts of departure.
Backed up against a wall of ivy at the hotel entrance, were five gleaming Aston Martin DBS Volantes and one of them was mine, at least for a few days.
My Welsh-driving partner for this first leg of the journey was gracious enough to allow me the first steer, not that I would have wanted it any other way.
This really is a seriously good-looking car, and if James Bond ever quits MI6 and moves to Cap Ferrat in the South of France, you can bet he’ll be driving a DBS Volante to the Casino de Monaco each night.
I know this is London and the weather can be (is) 'shite', but this is only the 16th drop top in Aston Martin’s 95 year history and like it or not, we would be travelling top down today, despite the drizzle.
I’d put money down here and now that Aston Martin will never do a folding metal hardtop on any two-door car it builds. Proper sports cars simply must have that soft-top look, and without it, the real essence of open-air motoring is watered down.
That doesn’t mean you need to pull over on the side of road and manually raise the roof, as any poor unfortunate owner of an MG would know all too well.
No sir, they’ll have none of that up at Aston Martin HQ in Gaydon, only the quickest and most sophisticated, power assisted, fabric roof in the business will do.
Thirteen seconds (unofficially timed by a Sinn Chronograph) is all it took for the roof to disappear behind the rear seats on the DBS Volante and its whisper quiet, you can’t hear a thing.
And don’t worry about any of the elements sneaking in through the fabric either, not going to happen. The roof is lined with a layer of that special Thinsulate fabric (yes, the same stuff that’s in my beanie) which keeps you warm and dry.
For those of you who will need the roof raised from time to time, don’t be at all concerned that your DBS Volante will somehow look ordinary, like many other prestige examples I could name.
This car has been specifically designed to maintain its beauty even with the roof up, due to its ultra low profile.
There are also more than a few world-class motorways in Britain, equal to any Germany autobahn, and we were soon blasting south on the one of these towards Folkestone and the Eurotunnel. That is, until I took the wrong exit and ended up 32 kilometres down the road and in the wrong direction, before an exit finally appeared.
In a desperate attempt to make up an additional 64 kilometresd and catch the scheduled train, I buried the throttle and held it there (the specifications say the DBS Volante has a top speed of 307km/h), with the Italian press corps giving gallant chase.
I’m delighted to be able to report, that you can still hold a conversation with your front seat passenger at speed and without resorting to the use of sign language.
I’m the first to admit I’m a big fan of paddle shifters on anything that remotely resembles a performance car, but the silky smooth shift action of this six-speed ZF gearbox in the DBS Volante, is completely and utterly addictive. I found myself changing up and down through the gear ratios unnecessarily, just because it felt so good.
There is such an even spread of the car’s substantial torque output, that you can sit in sixth all day long and the car will happily accelerate from less than 100km/h to double that speed in seconds. It makes life easy when you’re sitting on a motorway for hours on end.
The other remarkable thing is, that your hair (should you be lucky enough to still have a tuft or two) will remain largely in place as the air turbulence stays largely outside of the cabin.
When I saw Aston Martin’s design director trying to drive inside of what looked like a standard issue passenger carriage, I wondered to myself, what on earth is the guy trying to do?
I was silly enough to think that we were driving under the English Channel through a tunnel, at least that’s how it’s done under Sydney Harbour.
Minutes later, three Volantes were inside a carriage literally millimetres from each other, where we sat and ate croissants for 35 minutes, until it was time to exit the train onto French soil.
It really is a brilliant system and sure beats the ferry, if that service still exists.
Driving across rural France in warm sunshine, through scores of delightful little French villages is a rare treat in itself, but behind the wheel of Aston Martin’s flagship convertible, resembles heaven to me.
While the Volante is a large car, it doesn’t drive large, I mean you can happily weave in and out what would be considered small one-way streets in our part of the world, just pray though, that the other guy is driving his Peugeot 205.
It’s nimble through the tight sections too, but a quick dollop of the throttle and you’re flying.
Now, if you intend ripping into the French countryside at a respectable pace in a DBS Volante, then can I suggest you light up the track button, which automatically set the dampers to their stiffest positions and yes, it works brilliantly.
I’ve said it before in previous Aston Martin reviews, but the steering set up in this and every over Aston I’ve driven, is near enough to perfect. The cat like response and the calibration of power assistance are ahead of the game.
Perhaps it’s been too long since I’ve driven the smaller Vantage Roadster at this kind of pace, but to me and despite its size, the Volante feels every bit as composed through the bends as its smaller sibling.
The proof is, I’m not treating the car any different to a Vantage on these back roads and I’m pushing it harder and harder and still the big car is superglued to the road.
Once you’re well and truly outside the village perimeter and the tachometer needle is nudging 4000rpm, only then can you fully appreciate the aural delights of topless motoring in a V12 from Aston Martin.
This is precisely the point when the special by-pass valves inside the exhaust open up and produce a sound similar to a Le Mans GT1 car at full tilt down the Mulsanne Straight.
The only problem I found driving in this part of France is that there just aren’t enough tunnels in the Champagne region.
Before long we had arrived at the Royal Champagne Hotel, built in 1750, perched on the mountains surrounding Reims and overlooking vineyards, just beautiful.
We wouldn’t be driving the Astons tonight; they were going to remain parked in front of the hotel, while our group was shuttled to a spectacular location in Reims, the House of Loius Roederer, of Champagne fame.
You might also know the brand as the makers of “Crystal” possibly the finest champagne in the world, and one of the last family owned champagne houses in France that hasn’t been annexed by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH).
The next morning I had a new driving partner, a woman from the music industry. I know what you’re thinking I was thinking the same thing.
Let me assure you, this lady could steer better than half the blokes, I mean I had to fight for the ECU (it starts the car) and you should have seen the look on some poor French guy driving his spanking new Laguna as she blasted right by him, it was complete and utter surrender.
Yes, it was my turn to play passenger and soak up the fact that I was kicking back in the world’s sexiest drop top and the weather was perfect, if not a little warm.
At 182cm, I barely make the average height these days, and my greatest concern is that my seven-year-old daughter, will be taller than me by the age of ten, I kid you not.
My point is, there is loads of leg and shoulder room up front in the Volante for folks taller than I, and if you must, there are two miniature size pews in the rear for emergency school pick-ups.
The hand stitched, full grain leather interior with Alcantara headlining has a Savile Row look and finish about it, but it’s all exactly as you would find in the DBS Coupe, so no changes in that department.
And while the standard fit sports seats are well contoured, well bolstered, and comfortable even after long stints behind the wheel, I ‘d still like the option of the lightweight seats you can specify in the Coupe, especially given the 20 kilogram weight saving.
Now I had a set of quick shifting paddles to play with in the automatic version of the DBS Volante, and things were about to move decidedly up-tempo.
It’s a hugely flexible transmission, in that one minute I’m rapidly taping the downshift paddle as I approach another village, and hit the D for Drive button, which disengages the paddles so the car is full auto mode as we cruise quietly down the main street.
If you can’t be bothered with the paddles, then just engage the sports mode and those rapid fire gearshifts further up the rev counter will happen automatically.
It was the smart move, as it allowed me to focus on a few high speed overtakes on narrow roads, as we made our way towards Le Mans and the iconic Hotel de France to meet Sir Stirling Moss, that’s if lunch wasn’t over already.
The problem was we were following another Aston, who had abandoned the published drive route and was relying on his satellite navigation, which appeared to be taking us on a little back road detour.
At least we saw more of France than expected and eventually arrived as part of a three car convoy, much to the delight of the crowd who had come to see the stunning collection of beautifully maintained Aston’s from the past and present.
What caught my eye was the beautifully maintained black Aston Martin DB3 from 1952, parked outside the hotel. While the car didn’t do so well in competition, it did pave the way for the DB3S and later on the Le Mans winning DBR1 in 1959, which I would feast my eyes on soon enough.
The legendary Sir Stirling was centre stage inside the Hotel speaking to a privileged audience, to which we had been given passes, courtesy of the Aston Martin Owners Club.
If you ever make the trip to Le Mans, the Hotel de France is a pit stop you must make. It’s the most famous motor sport hotel in the world and you’ll find it in La Chartre sur le Loir, where the Pasteau family has run the place for over 100 years.
The walls are covered with some a huge collection memorabilia including photographs of Le Mans winning drivers and their cars, oh and the food is also outstanding.
With a whole lot of luck and a little persistence, I found myself in a one-on-one conversation with Sir Stirling, chatting about driving Le Mans and of course, and I had to mention our own Sir Jack Brabham.
The setting was perfect too; seated next to a mint DBR1/2, which won this endurance race back in 1959, with the UK/US combination of Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby at the wheel.
You’ve got to hand it to these owners clubs, their undivided loyalty to their chosen marques are hugely important to many automotive brands and it’s all voluntary work by thousands of enthusiasts worldwide, and they ask nothing for it.
Sadly, my time in the DBS Volante had come to an end, well almost, we were driving a parade lap tomorrow, just three hours prior to the start of the 2009 24 HEURES DU MANS in front of more than 250,000 motor sport worshippers, and I couldn’t wait.
In between, we would have to endure life in the very French Chateau du Grand Luce, and what a superb location for a DBS Volante photo shoot.
Built in 1760 on65 acres, the bedrooms were as big as my house and the dining room, twice that. After three days, I found myself sitting by the pool (heated) and thought to myself, I could get use to this.
Race day was particularly warm as we drove our designated cars to the Le Mans track, desperately trying to avoid hundreds impatient spectators in cars and on scooters, who were determined to make the start of the race, no matter what collateral damage they might cause on the way.
French race officials seem to operate in a controlled chaos kind of state and although we were due to drive a lap at midday precisely; the call was made to be sitting in the cars ready to roll by 11am.
Unfortunately, on this particular day they were unusually well organised, so it was a long, hot wait, but a small price to pay as we soon on a lap at Le Mans, in front of a massive crowd eager to catch a glimpse of Aston Martin’s latest creation, the DBS Volante.
My apologies to those readers who were also hoping to get a review of the 1000 watt Bang & Olufsen sound system, standard fitment in the Volante, I forgot to switch it on. Sorry.
With the road test out of the way, it was time to get busy watching Aston Martin and its three Le Mans Prototype 1 (LMP1) cars do battle with Peugeot and Audi. No one expected the small budget team to do anything spectacular against the mega budget teams from France and Germany.
Its not that those teams were without passion and commitment, they have plenty, but not nearly as much as the guys and girls wearing the Aston Martin Racing gear. What I witnessed in and around the pits was obsession, David and Gloiath stuff and it paid off, with the 007 car coming in fourth ahead of a bunch of Audi's and Peugeots.
I think you'd be a brave person to wager against Aston Martin finishing on the podium at Le Mans next year.
2010 Aston Martin DBS Volante - Manufacturers List Price A$535,350.00 plus on-roads (includes GST & LCT)