Life Cycle – The life story of an Aston Martin V8

One owner from new and still maintained for him by the Aston Martin factory

Words Russ Smith Photography Rory Game

1979 – Neil Phoenix buys the car brand-new for £23,700 

‘I wanted the Vantage because of the extra 100bhp; that made it interesting. The regular V8 is pretty ordinary.’ That’s a pretty assertive opinion; possibly fighting talk in the wrong company. But when you realise the speaker was looking to move on from a Lamborghini Espada and already  had a V12 E-type in his garage, it starts to make perfect sense. Neil Phoenix, a chartered surveyor, is a man who knows his fast cars.

So began a 34-year journey through life with this Aztec Gold Aston Martin V8 Vantage – in its day the fastest four-seater car in the world – though not without a fact-finding detour to southern Europe first. 

Neil says, ‘On holiday in Italy in 1978 we had a tour of the Lamborghini factory, but sadly that was six days after they’d gone bust. I then test-drove Maseratis, but they didn’t impress, and I felt the Ferrari 412i was ugly. On our return I had a drive of Aston’s Vantage demonstrator. No contest; this was the car. I wanted to part-exchange my Espada for it, but didn’t like Aston’s £8000 trade-in offer so I sold it myself privately for more.

‘As years have gone by I’ve never regretted buying the Vantage. It’s a proper GT with a big enough boot for the family to use it to go on holiday in. We had two daughters under ten when I bought it, so that was important. I also like that there’s a fuel filler on each side. I am also intensely patriotic: in my work we always specify building materials made in Great Britain.’

1979: The first Aston family holiday with friends in Kent

1979: The first Aston family holiday with friends in Kent

The car was ready for collection from the factory on 6 April 1979, once a quick ‘under the counter’ modification had been made, ‘Once it had been signed off as legal the car was taken to the other side of the road in Newport Pagnell to have two silencers removed, on the recommendation of sales director Tony Nugent. He assured me, “It will sound like a Ferrari that’s been to Oxford!”’

Neil’s patriotic streak has also seen his Vantage return to the Aston Martin factory in Newport Pagnell for every service and virtually all repair work. Not that it’s been the smoothest of rides. Part of this car’s unique history is a fat file of correspondence between Neil and Aston Martin Lagonda. Some are letters of praise, but most document an ongoing struggle for AML to make the car right, for it to live up to Neil’s expectations of something bespoke, expensive…and British.

A letter dated 24th April 1979 that accompanied the car to its 1000-mile service sets the scene well, ‘Speedo is hopelessly optimistic!; a rattle when doors are slammed; carpets need a better fixing point; radio and all other items using the same fuse do not work; sometimes very reluctant to start when warm; as a general point, it would be much better if you could have warm air to the feet as well as the knees.’

Just two months later another letter continues the complaints about the optimistic speedo ‘to be replaced’ and loose carpets, but now there’s a petrol leak from a carburetor pipe, a flat spot between 1000 and 2000 revs, the air-conditioning doesn’t work, very bad squeaks as the car is cornering, but a little humour in the request, ‘remove daughter’s pen from windscreen heater vent’. It’s obvious that Astons don’t have to be old to get cranky.

1981: Aston proves popular birthday party location

1981: Aston proves popular birthday party location

I’m left thinking that a lesser man would have thrown in the towel after no more than a year or two and bought something German, but also that Neil had found a partner for life in his car, and was willing to work at the relationship. Neil’s other life partner, wife June, smiles as she recalls his early attachment to the Vantage, ‘Early on I used it as a shopping and school run car when Neil broke his leg playing tennis. He’d hobble out to the garage on his crutches and listen out for when I was coming back.’ It shows in other ways too. He reaches into the glovebox, ‘I’ve always kept a record of the car’s mpg in this little book; every fill-up. The last was 16.12mpg.’

Neil’s resolve over the Aston’s dark side was tested again a year later at the 10,000-mile service. The aircon/heating system remained awful, the radio had only improved to intermittent, three tyres were worn out, as was the driver’s footwell carpet. And that most special of Aston touches, the plaque that says who built your engine, had dropped off. Not the level of quality you might expect. Yet an exchange of letters with AML’s Service Manager, Kingsley Riding Felce, concludes, ‘Ventilation apart, I am very pleased and proud of my motorcar.’

1981 – Neil clocks up 20,000 miles and rejects a set of tyres

There were further trials around September 1981 and the 20,000-mile service. The GKN alloys hadn’t stood up well to year-round use, and Neil was at pains to point out to Aston Martin that ‘the condition of the wheels is deplorable’. Aston’s response was to offer 50 per cent of the £80.50 each cost of a refurbished and stove-enamelled set. Also the bonnet had faded and several attempts at a respray were needed to get a match Neil was happy with. And of course the aircon was playing up again. There were also tyre issues at this time, as Neil explains, ‘When Pirelli stopped making the Vantage’s original CN12 255/60x15 tyres in 1983 Aston switched to 275/55 P7s on inch wider alloys and flared the wheel arches [switching to BBS alloys at the same time]. They wanted to do the same to mine but I said no and bought up their last five 255/60s and stored them in my shed to keep me going.’

I’ve always kept a record of the car’s mpg in this little book - every single fill-up, The last was 16.12mpg

In between all this the car remained glorious enough for Neil to encourage others into Vantage ownership, as this wonderful excerpt from a letter to Aston’s sales director Tony Nugent reveals. ‘Christopher Milne is a good friend of mine who is considering treating himself to an expensive toy. Unfortunately he is at present being uncharacteristically indecisive by allowing his mind to consider a, dare I mention it, F*****i as an alternative to an Aston Martin. I’m sure you can put a stop to such silly notions…you may have to let him borrow some of your best toys so he can see what he is missing.’

The upshot of which was that Mr Milne soon became the owner of a dark blue Vantage, and managed to remain a good friend too.

1985: Neil sports a matching jacket to oversee cleaning activities at the AMOC concours at Greenwich

1985: Neil sports a matching jacket to oversee cleaning activities at the AMOC concours at Greenwich

1988 – Neil buys the Aston from the leasing company for £10,000

Now definitely in for the long haul, in April 1988 Neil Phoenix became the true owner of CNP 44, buying it for £10,000 from the leasing company the original purchase had been arranged through. That was quite a steal as classic car dealers were already offering good examples for three times that, and prices were on the rise. 

Even after boom turned to bust around 1990, an average Vantage was still worth £22,500, though it hardly matters when you have no intention of selling your car. Buying another, maybe, but it was around this time that Neil showed marque loyalty only stretches so far, ‘In 1988 I placed an order for a Virage Vantage and paid the £20k deposit, then got planning permission for and built a fourth garage. Four years later AM finally said it could be delivered, but the price was now £197k, not the £80k first suggested. Thankfully I got my deposit back as I’d inserted a clause in the contract about the price remaining within a certain percentage of the original quote.’

1988: Neil sung the praises of his Aston to friend Christopher Milne (right), who promptly went out and bought one

1988: Neil sung the praises of his Aston to friend Christopher Milne (right), who promptly went out and bought one

So Neil remained a one-Aston man, and turned his concerns to the impending loss of leaded petrol. He even got a quote from the Aston works to convert his cylinder heads to unleaded – it wanted £4864.50. Politely declining the opportunity, Neil took the advice of the AMOC’s Jim Whyman to use VSP additive instead until such time the heads actually have to come off.

Twenty-one years on he still uses VSP, though the official line on these engines is that they are fine on super-unleaded as long as you don’t do track days or sustained runs at more than 3500rpm. As that equates to 92mph in top gear, not many owners will be losing sleep over it.

It’s still only about 0.6 seconds slower from 0-100mph than a DB9. At my age I couldn’t tell the difference

Neil’s next worry was the spectre of rust, creeping its way in despite regular applications of underseal at service time. 

The car’s 1993 MoT was only gained after £900 of welding to the sills and floor. That proved to be something of a sticking plaster job; four years later the Vantage spent more than four months back at the Aston factory for a major overhaul. The bill came to £18,474.19, almost exactly half of which was swallowed up by body repairs. Complete inner and outer sills this time, along with lower A- and B-posts, radius arm mountings, chassis outriggers and the lower sections of all four wings.

1995: Oh dear. Power steering hose loss stops play

1995: Oh dear. Power steering hose loss stops play

2009 Factory recognises car’s servicing history

In 2009 Neil received a rather special letter from Aston Martin. In recognition of his car’s unbroken 30 years of factory servicing he was invited back for a photo shoot, lunch and factory tour – fittingly on its April 6 completion date – to mark the car’s 30th anniversary.

2013 Neil refuses offers of £90,000 and and thinks of passing it on

Time may have taken its toll on the bodywork, but regular use and all that fastidious factory servicing means the car has so far racked up 113,000 miles without needing an engine rebuild, which is by no means usual for V8 Astons. Noting how well it sounds and goes, with no puffs of smoke, there’s still likely to be no pressing need for some time yet. Never a high mileage car, even when in regular use, it now takes life even easier. Neil says, ‘Nowadays I generally do 2000-3000 miles a year then put it away for winter.’ Many of those miles have been covered on Aston Martin Owners Club tours, which have taken Neil and the Vantage as far afield as Monte Carlo and Switzerland, ‘The best part of AMOC is the tours, mixing with other true enthusiasts.’

2013: 34 years and 113,000 miles have diminished neither the visual impact of the Aston, nor its speed

2013: 34 years and 113,000 miles have diminished neither the visual impact of the Aston, nor its speed

Neil has had several offers for the car, which has been valued at £90,000, due as much as anything to its unique provenance, but is very clear that it isn’t for sale. As he is keen to point out, it remains a devastatingly fast car, ‘It’s still only about 0.6 seconds slower from 0-100mph than a new DB9. I can live with that. Anyway, at my age I couldn’t tell the difference.

‘The funny thing is, I’m not at all practical – I used to say I could never own an old car. Now I have a 34-year-old Aston and a 41-year-old E-type.’

With his young grandson Charles now showing great enthusiasm for the Vantage and demanding rides in it at every opportunity, you do wonder if this Aston might still have a very long future in the Phoenix family.

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