When it first unveiled its radical, wedge-shaped four- door saloon, the Lagonda, in 1976, Aston Martin was asking pounds 50,000 for it. I reasoned that a seven-year-old from Burgess Hill was unlikely to be able to find that sort of money easily, and when the last car was sold in spring 1990 for pounds 120,000, I resigned myself to never owning one. Now, though, things have changed. Lagondas still look like they should have a nuclear reactor under the bonnet and a Gerry Anderson puppet at the wheel, and I still don't own one, but they are cheaper - pounds 11,000 will get you something you can use. Can you name another second-hand car that offers as much for your money?
Like it or loathe it (as almost everyone with a scintilla of taste does), no one can deny that the first Lagonda shown at Earl's Court made an impact few cars ever do. Thanks to "technical difficulties", it was to be 1978 before the first production car was delivered to Lord and Lady Tavistock (prophetically, its electronics were playing up), but the delay did nothing to diminish the effect of the stupendous vehicle on at least one spotty little Herbert. As one particularly well-thumbed page (22) of my 1978 Observer Book of Cars attests, this was, is, and probably always will be, my Dream Car.
Tempted by reports of bargain Lagondas I thumbed the used ads and found a 70,000-mile car for pounds 15,500 at Midlands Aston specialist Desmond J Smail. Technically, I could afford to buy it (if I took out a crippling loan and gave up, say, food, clothing, housing and cigarettes), and so I arranged to borrow it to find out more about owning and running an original Aston.
Travelling along the country roads from Desmond's garage to the Aston factory at nearby Newport Pagnell, the first surprise was that, despite its epic length, the Lagonda is easy to place, almost chuckable if you can bear the tyre squeal. It's rather corner-phobic, but the ride was taut and comfy, the steering told me all I needed to know about the road surface, and the dashboard lit up like a fruit machine (though the speedo registered 12mph when stationary). All 645 Lagondas were automatic, but 280bhp of kickdown from the 5.3 V8 launched my 16-year-old car skyward with a creamy Aston roar that never failed to raise a smile. Styling-wise the Lagonda may teeter on absurdity, but no Ferrari or Roller has made me feel quite as special, quite as regal, as this grandest of motoring follies. Within five miles I was planning a garage extension.
"Lagonda are very good value for money right now, and they can be run on a budget," Keith Riddington, Aston's service reception manager told me. "Most Lagonda owners tend to only use them for special occasions and they're the owners who have trouble. The more you use them the better they are."
Proof was on hand in the form of Roger Ivett, MD of a London-based finance company, there to pick up his glorious gold example, bought three years ago for similar money to "my" car. He covers 20,000 miles a year in his Lagonda. "The only time it broke down was due to neglect on my part. I ran out of oil, for want of a better technical term," said Ivett. "It's not cheap to run, I think everybody who owns one of these cars questions their sanity, but then you don't have it because it's cheap."
According to its service history, my car cost its owner pounds 3,800 in 1996 alone, but Keith Riddington reckons an annual budget of pounds 2,000 is enough to maintain one of these behemoths, assuming the gods are smiling and nothing goes wrong. The notorious electric dash with its touch-sensitive switches is the source of most problems. "When you recharge the battery, the surge blows the transistors," he warned. "We've reached the point where we convert them back to analogue dials." The cost? pounds 4,500.
Mechanically, the news is better. "All running gear is interchangeable with the other cars so we've got the parts on the shelf and they're quite reasonable value for money. The engines go on for 90,000 miles-plus, and the gearbox is very reliable." Riddington even insisted that a competent DIY enthusaist could work on the cars.
Passing his eye over my Lagonda, he noted corrosion in the rear-door jams, some shrunken leather trim, stained roof-lining and a cheap paint job, but beamed when I started it up ("lovely, typical V8") and pronounced it good value. But before you all rush at once, I should say that this was only a cursory glance and that body restoration, which this car will require one day, could cost, well, think new BMW.
Unfairly derided over the years, the Lagonda's charms are only now beginning to be recognised by a select few who admire not only its craftsmanship, performance and all-round barminess, but its exceptional value for money. That said, perhaps the fellow Lagonda owner from America who wrote to Roger Ivett painted the most accurate picture of Lagonda ownership: "Brain surgery would have been cheaper, but if you're a masochist it's nirvana"