“We can’t disclose those figures I’m afraid.”
This was the reply I received to a series of questions from a fellow who should know, Paul Spires, the general manager of Aston Martin Works in Newport-Pagnell, County Buckinghamshire, England.
Situated in the “historic home of Aston Martin” since 1959 – effectively the fifth Aston factory, following earlier stints in London and Middlesex – the AM Works is the keeper of the brand’s historic flame, offering “heritage services” for all late model Aston’s including “heritage upgrades” as well as a menu of other services.
The Works website and company brochures tout Newport-Pagnell as the font of all things AM. “Aston Martin Works is now the largest, best equipped and most knowledgeable heritage restoration center in the world.”
So why can’t the Works general manager “disclose” how many of Aston’s already imposing Virages received the full “Works Service conversion” that resulted in the very rare and lusted-after British muscle car you see here?
Why is Aston Martin unable to divulge how many of the converted cars were right-hand-drive or left-hand-drive or how many were equipped with manual gearboxes?
Three reasons as far as anyone can tell: the plight of Aston Martin in the late 1980s/early 1990s, poor record-keeping and the English penchant for doing rather grand things in convoluted fashion.
That’s not to say the Virage, or this most muscular iteration of it were a muddle, exactly. They were however, the first products to emerge from Aston after Ford came to the maker’s rescue in 1987, buying 75 percent of the long-suffering firm (Ford bought the remaining 25 percent in 1994).
And as Matt Clarke, AM’s Americas Brand Manager notes, the story of the 6.3 Liter Wide Body Virage and the company itself at the time is a “rather confusing history”
The Virage, which debuted in 1988, is often referred to as the first new Aston model in 20 years, following two decades and five series of AM V8 Coupes originating with the DBS V8 in 1969 and two series of Volante (convertible) versions, both in production through 1989.
In truth though, the real novelties for the Virage were its 5.3 liter V8 – a development of the Tadek Marek-designed 5.3 liter unit that first appeared in the DBS V8 – and its refreshed styling.
Rated at 330 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque, the new fuel-injected V8 was quieter and more refined, boasting four valves per cylinder and cylinder heads developed in cooperation with Callaway Engineering. Mated primarily with Chrysler-sourced three-speed automatic transmissions (as many as 50 cars had a ZF five-speed manual), the nearly 4,000-pound Virage accelerated well enough – reportedly 6.5 seconds to 60 mph – but wasn’t a stunner in a straight line.
Contemporary Vantage “X-pack” V8s with carbureted/high performance-cam versions of the 5.3 liter offered more power and better acceleration.
The Virage chassis did receive some lightening and strengthening but its lineage, including front-independent and rear de Dion trailing arm/Watts linkage/coil spring suspension, could be traced all the way back to the DBS V8… and arguably further.
Here’s where the history gets a bit fuzzy. Apparently the Virage sold in decent numbers to start with but owners – from what we can gather – were less than impressed with its performance given the steep price of the new model.
The Virage commanded approximately £135,000 or $202,500 in 1988 dollars. Hence, it’s reasonable to assume some buyers were a wee bit disappointed with its lack of pace and somewhat floppy handling relative to similarly pricey contemporary cars.
With what we imagine was a slight shrug of its corporate shoulders and the notion of making further money on the Virages it had already sold, the AM Works (then known as AML Customer Service Division) came up with a plan to offer performance enhancements for the cars beginning in 1992 – the aforementioned Works Service conversion.
When asked for the backstory on the upgrades Paul Spires, responded flatly, “It was a performance upgrade in response to customer demand.”
Not terribly insightful. But we do know that the conversion was actually a menu of upgrades from which owners could choose. One could opt simply for the cosmetic conversion of the body to “wide body” spec with bulging new aluminum panels to get the aggressive look of the shapely coupe pictured here or go further, adding larger wheels and brakes (14-inch front discs, claimed to be the largest brakes fitted to any production car at the time) and a suspension revision (beefier springs, rose joints).
The ultimate dish on the menu was the full conversion, an option which required a bigger commitment – another $75,000 in 1988 and “a mandatory major rework of the brakes and suspension to meet the demands of the increased engine output,” Spires notes.
Choosing the full conversion set the staff at Newport-Pagnell to work boring and stroking the 5.3 liter to 6.3 liters. Reportedly, the unit received a new crank, bigger valves, a high-lift cam and tuned exhaust.
But the origins of the 6.3 liter are the subject, as Matt Clarke affirms, of “lots of conjecture.”
One oft-repeated story goes that the engine derives from the unit that powered the Protech AMR1, Aston’s prototype racer which competed in the 1989 World Sports Prototype Championship.
“No,” says Paul Spires. “It was engineered as a road car engine in 6.3-liter format for the Virage. The four valve engines in AMR1 were dry-sumped and used as a semi-stressed member in that car, and are therefore very different to the road car.”
The power produced by the muscle-bound 6.3 liter has also been debated with some writers claiming that later 6.3 conversions made more power than the first batch. Again, Spires is unequivocal.
“The output was 456 hp and torque of 460 pound-feet. There was only one spec of engine and, beyond normal production variances, they developed the same output.”
We’re inclined to take Spires at his word not just because he’s the Works supremo but because as Aston Martin informs us, he was actually involved in the development of the full-spec 6.3 Wide Body.
“In 1992/93 Paul Spires was the Sales Manager at HWM (a long time Aston Martin dealer), and a weekend racer campaigning a privateer DB5. The Virage 6.3 project was progressing but, as AML was running somewhat ‘lean’ in those years there was a need to maximize efficiencies, which is why Kingsley Riding-Felce and David Eales came to Paul for some help with testing the converted car. There was a need to run it ‘at pace’ over a long period to investigate a potential issue with high differential temperatures, and Paul stepped up to take the development car to Silverstone for a day-long testing stint.”
“Paul was tasked with running the car hard over scores of laps of the GP circuit and, to his credit, rose to the challenge – so much so, in fact, that the car ended the day looking a little different. It had ‘dived’ somewhat under the exceptionally heavy braking associated with such high speed running on a circuit, and the chin spoiler had been ground down to the point that it almost no longer existed!”
The biggest, baddest Virage is the example before you – a “Cannock Black” 6.3 wide body owned by Josh Mazer of Annapolis, Maryland. Mazer, a long time British car devotee (he’s owned Triumph TR250s, TR5s and other Virages) is the car’s fourth owner. When it was offered for sale in 2009 he seized the opportunity to own the ultimate Virage.
“I owned a Virage at the time but I wanted the full Wide body conversion, the real deal,” he says. “The Virage as it was imported to the U.S. was a federalized car, a world-market car with four valves per cylinder, designed to be importable anywhere and not have to deal with emissions. But the 6.3 was Aston’s version of what the car should be. It had the power, the brakes and the look, and it wasn’t designed to satisfy government regulations, never designed for the U.S. It was the real deal.”
Acquired with just 16,000 miles on the odometer, this gray-market car had been in the U.S. since 2000 after stints in Germany and the U.K. (for the conversion). Extensive documentation shows the previous owner, the gent who imported the machine, dropped a bundle on it, not just in purchasing it but in having the car federalized and overhauled. As such, the restoration work and cost was born by that enthusiast. Mazer has further improved this 6.3 with a rebuild of its fuel system but has had to do little else. This is a well-bought beast.
Mazer surmises that his car received the full transformation in 1991 and was the first 6.3 liter exported but it’s likely the car was actually converted in 1992. With the car’s commission plate number provided, Paul Spires could only say, “We can confirm that it is an early conversion, but can’t be precise about whether it was the very first to be exported.”
So what’s the result of the full Works Service conversion? We were lucky enough to get behind the wheel to find out. Firing up the big coupe produces a thundering rip – startling for passersby but very satisfying for the driver.
Contemporary reports suggest the car would hit 60 mph in 5.5 seconds and 100 mph in 11.5. That seems about right. Mazer’s AMOC (Aston Martin Owners Club) award-winner certainly has plentiful power and torque, displaying particular gusto in second and third gear where its thrust equals or surpasses most of today’s front engine/rear wheel drive super coupes.
Boasting its original ZF five-speed manual, an exceedingly rare option in the 6.3 liter, this Virage gives away some of the performance it might have with a modern manual transmission. Shifting the dogleg gearbox well is relatively easy despite a heavy clutch. But it requires unhurried rowing so as not to beat the synchronizers, reminding us of the patience historic cars require.
In a way, that sums up the 6.3 liter Wide Body Virage driving experience. It’s a mixed bag – a car that arrived at the tail end of an era of automobiles dominated by mechanical technology, not electronics. Big disc brakes stop this heavyweight GT far better than the drums that were still available on many cars of the period.
Likewise, fuel injection and improved cylinder heads give the engine smooth power delivery. But the chassis, even in its improved Works Service conversion state, harkens back to an earlier time. Grip is good but the Virage 6.3 doesn’t change direction eagerly and unsurprisingly given its heft, this stud understeers when leaned on.
Stopping hard repeatedly would undoubtedly induce brake fade but remember this is a high-speed luxury touring machine, meant to gobble up miles on the Continent with great comfort and – Paul Spires’ exploits aside – not a track toy.
Inside, leather abounds, covering comfortable and supportive front buckets, the walnut trimmed dashboard and center console. A full analog gauge package greets the driver complete with 200 mph speedometer (top speed is quoted as 175 mph) and 7000-rpm tachometer with no redline indication.
It’s a nice place to be with outward visibility equally suited to spotting corner apexes and the onlookers who stare at Mazer’s 6.3 on every one of his twice-weekly commutes to his office.
“I’ve never taken the car out without noticing someone taking pictures, especially of the rear end of the car,” he enthuses. “I have strangers walking up to me asking, what is it?”
Only the most studious will see that the taillights are taken from the VW Scirocco while the headlights come from the Audi 100. Bits lifted from the Ford and General Motors parts-bin are also to be found in the steering column, climate control panel, and dash switches.
The Virage is among the last of the hand-built Aston Martins, designed and assembled largely before Ford could bring the storied maker into the modern era. That’s another factor in its mixed bag personality.
Ultimately, it’s the ultimate Aston Martin muscle car, purer to our way of thinking than the supercharged Vantage variants that followed. Josh Mazer likens it to an analog Ferrari 550 adding, “It has the heritage and DNA of old Aston Martin. That’s what attracted me.”
As many as 60 Virages may have received the Works Service conversion. Most remain in Europe and only fraction have the full 6.3 liter upgrade Mazer’s car has. He thinks his may be the only such car in America.
For now, we’ll have to leave it at that. Precise figures are unavailable.
[Images copyright 2015 Hooniverse/Jan Tegler]