Dream machine

    30 November 2013

    The fear began as soon as my bum settled into the leather seat. It rose from my foot to my right hand, which was poised above the start button. This was a boyhood fantasy come true. Yet instead of savouring the moment, I was contemplating how to manoeuvre this £180,000 beast past the skip, underneath the builder’s ladders and out of this poky Spanish village. My co-driver, who had already tackled the first 70km of our adventure, reassured me there was nothing to worry about. As my thumb inserted the black key into the dashboard, the Aston Martin crest appeared, followed by a body-shaking roar. Help!

    How did I find myself driving this purple Aston Martin Rapide S through the rugged landscape of southern Spain? The Rapide S, a brand-new model of Aston, has been handed over to the world’s motoring corps for a weekend. The original Rapide received a tepid reaction and so Aston, which this year is celebrating a century of car manufacturing, is particularly keen for the new version to be a success. This is how Spectator Life’s highly experienced motoring correspondent (whose last car was a ten-year-old Volkswagen Golf) comes to find himself sitting behind the wheel of this lustworthy automobile.

    Aston Martin has managed to maintain a unique position in the British car market. Just say the name to yourself: Aston Martin. It evokes the coolness of another age, when everything British was exciting. Ever since Q branch presented Sean Connery with a DB5 in Goldfinger, Astons have transcended other luxury cars. It doesn’t matter that the Jaguar F-Type has a higher top speed or that a Lotus Elise apparently handles better — the panache of owning an Aston makes such quibbles irrelevant.

    Aston Martin opened its futuristic intergalactic HQ at Gaydon in Warwickshire a decade ago. The Gaydon plant produces 3,800 cars every year; while Astons are thought of as handmade cars, a 21st-century Aston is a fusion of old and new. In one corner of the giant factory, robotic arms scurry around, moving chaises onto the production line with precision timing. In another corner, a vigorous stitching machine spends 40 minutes sewing a single crest onto the headrest.

    Yet each car also has plenty of human attention lavished on it. The seats are assembled entirely by hand. Every coat of paint is felt over by a technician for any defects bigger than 1mm. If any are found, a whole new coat of paint is applied. In total, the Gaydon factory takes around 220 hours to produce a vehicle from beginning to end.

    What’s more, the top-of-the-range Vantage takes nearly ten times as long to build. Had I known all this, there is no way I could have been persuaded into the driving seat of any Aston.

    Back to that heart-stopping moment in Spain. The Rapide S — because everything sounds more glamorous in French — is essentially a four-door version of Aston’s DB9 coupe; for James Bond when he finally settles down and has kids. It’s a big machine, and therefore has a 550bhp V12 engine to push it along nicely. The Rapide S can go from 0-60mph in 4.9 seconds, about the time it takes to say ‘Holy moly’.

    Finding some courage, I managed to put the car into ‘Drive’ and manoeuvre it onto the open road. While the more experienced hacks speeded off, I pondered along at first, concentrating on not hitting the verge. But I slowly realised this beast isn’t hard to drive at all. In fact, it’s easier than a normal car. I put my foot down a little more, taking the corners faster and, boy, did she respond.

    Twenty minutes in, I was throwing the car into cliff-top bends, overtaking like Steve McQueen and loving every second. Eventually, I spotted a tunnel up ahead. Slowing right down to 20mph, we lowered the windows, pumped up the volume on the Dire Straits CD and then, as I believe the term goes, floored it. The explosion of speed and noise was unbelievably exhilarating.

    Windows up again, I was getting used to the luxurious interior. The Spanish countryside flew by. Music swelled from the Bang & Olufsen sound system. A luxury sports car conjures up the idea of cut-and-thrust driving but this is not what the Rapide S is about. An Aston is about getting somewhere in style and, if you want, in a fun and speedy manner.

    My fellow hacks gave the Rapide S universal thumbs ups, but as a motoring novice, it’s hard for me to tell. I just thought the car was fantastic. There is the odd downside, though. For a start, it costs as much as an average house in England, and you would probably have a job fitting two adults in the back. It would be even trickier parking at your local Tesco. But if you are in the ballpark where you can even  consider owning an Aston, none of that -matters.

    For my trip to the Aston Martin HQ, post Spain, I was picked up from the train station in a DB9 convertible. As soon as we hit the roads outside Leamington Spa, the chap from Aston took the roof down and put the pedal to the metal. I felt it again — the lurch in your lower abdomen from the thrill of the acceleration. It is truly incomparable.

    The thought I might never experience that again is distressing. Every other car I will drive for the rest of my life will feel like a disappointment; a generic, thrown-together pile of metal. But at least I will always have Spain, where my Aston dreams briefly came true.