The best car designers are undoubtedly great artists, but ones who are closer to sculptors than musicians. They rarely get the chance to revisit past triumphs or to bust out spectacular free-form riffs on earlier themes. Yet that’s what Ian Callum has managed with an updated and heavily revised version of one of his most famous cars, the 2001-2007 Aston Martin Vanquish.
The process began a few years ago when Callum bought a Vanquish S. Up to that point, he didn’t actually own any examples of his own star-studded back catalog, and Vanquish values in the United Kingdom were rising at a rate that meant they would soon be unaffordable. He started to drive it regularly and was soon thinking, as he puts it, of how to give the car “the facelift it never had.”
Such plans were purely personal, but around that same time Callum was contemplating his departure as Jaguar’s design director. He began to discuss setting up a new company with a small group of other JLR veterans, and so the idea of an updated Vanquish gained obvious relevance. Having decided on a name for the new business—Callum—a comprehensive makeover of the Vanquish became its first project, with a plan to build a limited run of 25 cars.
The original assumption was that well-heeled clients would send their aged steeds to be transformed, but that has only happened in a minority of cases. “For many of the buyers, it’s really not a case of either/or,” Callum’s engineering boss Adam Donfrancesco said. “They are getting one in addition to an existing Vanquish. They love the original car, but they want something a bit more special and more modern as well.” For customers who don’t already own a Vanquish, Callum will source one. The work is done at R-Reforged’s 30,000-square-foot Warwick, England, facility.
While it is certainly justifiable to question the logic of spending roughly twice the price of a brand-new Aston DBS Superleggera on a restomod version of an older car, the up-close reality of Callum’s demonstrator is pretty stunning. Finished in Roxanne Red—Ian Callum loves ’70s pop-culture references—the car looks both familiar and new. While the core metalwork is unchanged, pretty much every external detail has been altered, from the shape of the grille and the addition of a sizeable rear diffuser (with new bumpers front and rear) to modern projector headlights and LED taillights. The updated car sits 0.4-inch lower than the original, with the wheels pushed out another 2.4 inches. And although the wheels are a very similar design to the original ones, they are larger at 20 inches front and rear.
Changes in the cabin are more obvious. Callum admits he never liked the original car’s interior, and the alterations are closer to a full remodeling than a redecoration. There is a new carbon-fiber center stack with an integrated touchscreen interface, thus losing the first-generation Jaguar XK HVAC controls of the original car. The seats are new and positioned lower, and the new metal door handles are substantial. A Bremont mechanical watch is mounted to the top of the dashboard—it can be detached to be worn outside the car—and there’s a redesigned steering wheel with a narrower rim. The standards of fit and finish are obviously high, with the “deconstructed tartan” trim referencing Ian Callum’s Scottish roots. But the most exciting change is the presence of a manual gear selector between the seats.
That’s because the original Vanquish was built with a roboticized automated single-clutch transmission of limited refinement and frequently snappy temperament. Callum is offering Vanquish 25 buyers the option to stick with that, change to a six-speed General Motors torque-converter automatic, or install the same manual conversion that Aston Martin Works has been offering as an approved upgrade for more than a decade.
The manual gearbox brings both a heavy clutch pedal and a weighty shift action that requires careful aim to select the right gear. But it’s soon clear that accurate selection isn’t especially important given the potency of the naturally aspirated 5.9-liter V-12. The big 12 pulls cleanly from little more than idle and with the linearity lacking in a more modern turbocharged unit, muscle flexing harder as revs increase. Peak output increases by 60 horsepower over the original Vanquish S thanks to freer-flowing intake and exhaust systems and revised engine mapping, with the maximum 580 horsepower arriving at a sonorous 7000 rpm. On an empty, open road there is absolutely no desire to shift anywhere below that point.
The Callum’s suspension actually feels softer than our distant memories of the hard-riding original Vanquish S, with the idea being to improve refinement while better managing the car’s mass with upgraded Bilstein dampers. Like the original car, this one does without electronically adjustable suspension, but the Bilsteins proved adept at keeping the car’s two-ton mass under tight discipline—even over a test route that included many of the fast but imperfectly surfaced roads frequently used by Aston and JLR’s development engineers. Stability is impressive at speed, which is fortunate because the dull-witted old traction control only intervenes after the rear axle has begun to slide. The Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires help deliver more grip than the Vanquish ever had, along with more progressive breakaway when you’re playing around at lower speeds. The steering is excellent—direct and bristling with a level of feedback that most modern electric systems seem determined to filter out. The new carbon-ceramic brakes, taken directly from Aston’s current lineup, offer relentless stopping power and good pedal feel. It’s very much an analog sports car.
You will be unsurprised to hear that, in other areas, a car that was substantially developed during the 20th century is now feeling pretty old. At highway cruising speeds there is a lot of wind noise from the top of the windshield and also more road roar than would reach the cabin of a modern equivalent. Although lowered, the driving position still feels a mite too high, and taller occupants might struggle for headroom. The aftermarket touchscreen interface also lacks in smarts compared to the better OEM systems. We couldn’t stop it from admonishing us every time we transgressed a speed limit, even by a single mile per hour. It was a naggy day.
The original Vanquish S cost $255,000 when we drove it back in 2004. The reimagined version costs the equivalent of $600,000 without the cost of a donor car, but that steep price hasn’t deterred several United States buyers we’re told have already ordered cars. Of course, you’d also have to pay substantially more to listen to the Rolling Stones live than you would have needed to when “Paint It Black” was freshly written. On that basis, the Callum Vanquish 25 is the equivalent of a personal concert in your own garage.
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