Aston Martin's long awaited new car for the 1990s, a replacement for the 20 year old AM V8, was unveiled on October 18th, 1988, during the British International Motor Show at the National Exhibition Centre near Birmingham. Called the Virage, the pair on display were one of the sensations of the show getting enormous public and media attention despite the surprise first showing of the Jaguar XJ220 supercar. The name was chosen by Victor Gauntlett and his fellow directors from amongst a number of suggestions submitted during May 1988, many of them from AML employees and members of the AMOC. 'Virage', which in French means 'bend' or 'corner', fitted in well with the established names of Vantage and Volante, which also lead to the V8 powered cars of the 1990s being referred to as the 'V range'.
The car, initially known as Design Project 2034, was under intense but secretive development for three years, calling on the best engineering expertise in Britain, Germany and America. The very first DP2034 Virage prototype mule was in fact so well disguised that it appeared to be a two-door Lagonda. It was an apt choice of disguise as the platform chassis for the Virage was indeed from an Aston Martin Lagonda although much modified and shortened. The mule covered many miles, testing the ideas and revisions before being eventually handed over to Works Service in the 1990s for rebuilding to customer specification and sold to a collector.
The future styling of the Virage was decided by a styling competition; entrants were given just three months to come up with a design and a quarter scale model of their proposals. In August 1986, models from five stylists were put on display at the Customer Service Department and the directors, key employees and a selection of loyal customers were allowed to choose their favourite. It was a close run thing but the overall winning entry, the work of two young British stylists John Heffernan and Ken Greenley, was a notch back design with pop up headlights and side lights incorporated within the grille line. "From the outset we felt that the car should be an evolutionary successor to the DB4, 5, 6 and V8," said Heffernan. "Another key ingredient is the elliptical plan shape of the cockpit, which whilst current is also reminiscent of the DB4GT." The transition from concept to production saw the replacement of the unpopular popups with rectangular fixed headlights (from the Audi 100), a correspondingly higher front wing line plus revised rear lights (courtesy of the VW Scirocco), larger front air dam and a higher roofline.
AML stayed with the 5340 cc displacement fuel-injected all-alloy V8 basic engine concept, much having been learned over more than 20 years of reliable service; yet it was heavily revised for the new car with the addition of entirely new cylinder heads with four valves per cylinder (last used by Aston Martin in 1921-25) for better breathing and to overcome power losses inevitable with the use of standard catalytic converters. The development of the new cylinder heads was put in the hands of a renowned expert, Reeves Callaway of Callaway Engineering in Connecticut, USA, with a significant input from Arthur Wilson, development engineer for the V8, who helped to make the new engine run properly in the early days of its development. Arthur continued to develop the V8 engine until production ended in 2000. The aim was to produce a powerful engine suitable for use worldwide without the tiresome differing specifications needed for various overseas markets with divergent emissions requirements. In addition, wide variation in the engine specification needed in each country had given different performance figures making some owners feel short changed and, of course, also increased engineering and production costs. Both power and torque showed an improvement over the older two-valve V8 but with each unit built to an identical specification, every automatic transmission Virage coupe sold in the world would be capable of accelerating to 60mph in approximately six seconds, to 100 mph in 15 seconds and have a maximum speed of 155 mph. The four-valve V8 was designed to run specifically on unleaded fuel, although some markets only had leaded 4 star fuel which would irreparably damage catalytic converters so, on a few cars, these were not fitted.
The new platform chassis was initially based on that of the Aston Martin Lagonda although it retained the same basic dimensions for wheelbase and track as the outgoing AM V8. The adoption of computer-aided design (CAD) had enabled the chassis to be refined, lightened and yet made torsionally stiffer and at the same time simpler to make - in itself quite an achievement. The assistance of the nearby Cranfield Institute of Technology’s Finite Element Analysis Department, one of the leaders in aerospace technology, was much appreciated in this area.
The all-new upper and lower wishbone front suspension system was complemented with the use of a cast aluminium alloy de Dion rear axle beam on an 'A' frame, also cast in aluminium alloy, all of which reduced road noise. Aston Martin engineers worked with Bilstein to develop dampers exclusively for the Virage, while the rear brakes were moved outboard from beside the final drive, to the wheels as on the outgoing AM V8. The front brakes were given massive ventilated discs, the system being servo-assisted, but independent from front to rear. Anti-lock brakes were not fitted originally, but were introduced on the very last coupes at time the Virage Volante entered production in mid-1992.
In true Aston Martin tradition, the coachwork was in aluminium, hand-beaten by the skilled craftsmen of Tickford Works. The front air dam incorporated an aerodynamically-shaped undertray similar to that on the 185 mph V8 Vantage Zagato, while the rear featured a discrete upturned boot-lip, combining to produce zero lift. The Virage also featured flush glazing throughout to reduce aerodynamic drag and exclusive Aston Martin-styled road wheels.
The new interior was developed by Aston Martin’s Research and Development engineers, with a high level specification of traditional Connelly leather and burr walnut veneer combined with electronically-controlled analogue instrumentation contained within a single clear fronted binnacle. In the centre console was mounted an on-board computer known as the Vehicle Information Centre, or VIC for short, providing vital driver information. Useful information such as low fuel and oil pressure levels, high water and oil temperatures, ambient temperature, and high or low battery charge were displayed using an alpha-numeric display of green LEDs.
Completing the interior specification was a digital clock, radio/cassette/compact disc player, climate controlled air-conditioning, electrically adjustable and heated front seats (the driver’s seat with memory interlinked with mirrors), remote control security, anti-theft system, and electrically-heated front and rear screens. Without increasing the wheelbase or overall width, the Virage provided both increased leg and headroom over its predecessor. All North American specification cars were sold with an automatic seatbelt feature that ensured that you could not sit in the front seats of a Virage coupe without the seatbelt being fastened.
The new body appeared to have increased space for luggage at 11.5 cubic feet (0.33 cubic metres). Some of this increased space was swallowed up by the space saver spare wheel. The problem came when a puncture was experienced and the deflated tyre and wheel had to be stowed; a feature that caused much heart-ache in years to come but was eventually and easily solved with a simple aerosol can of Tyreweld. Nevertheless, the body boasted a much better co-efficient of penetration than the AM V8 and was developed with the help of a wind-tunnel, of course, which went a long way to controlling fuel consumption, making the most of the 25 gallon fuel tank.