It would have seemed so simple back then. Aston Martin wanted to make its already-special DB4 GT even more race-competitive. Milan-based coachbuilder Zagato had years of experience of reclothing exotic machinery in lightweight bodywork. Boom! The two came together and the result was their first collaboration, the Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato.
Would Aston Martin’s David Brown and Ugo Zagato have had even an inkling that the union would be revisited four more times over the following six decades and that the cars would become among the most collectible ever made? Of course not. They just wanted a faster race car for the next season. And faster it was, thanks to a substantial weight saving over the DB4 GT, itself a special, short-wheelbase version of the standard DB4. Yet it was also stunningly different from its elegant donor; aggressive and purposeful, yet erotically curvy, with every feature exaggerated.
It caused a sensation when first revealed at the 1960 Earls Court Motor Show in London. When it hit the track in 1961, it attracted the very greatest drivers of the day: Jim Clark, Innes Ireland, Stirling Moss, Roy Salvadori and more. Only 19 were built and then there were no more Aston Martin Zagatos for more than 30 years.
Meanwhile, both companies continued to grow in parallel, just as they had in the years before their first collaboration. Where Aston Martin had started from a mews garage in London’s Chelsea in 1913, Ugo Zagato had founded his company six years later in Milan for the construction and repair of automobile and aircraft bodies, combining construction techniques to produce lightweight car bodies to aeronautical standards. Within a few years, he was producing competitive racing cars, although the fledgling Aston Martin had started to dip into motor sport even earlier.
Fast forward through the difficult war years, past the inaugural Aston Martin and Zagato union of 1960, into the 1970s’ fuel crisis and out of the other side — and still no hint of a reunion between the two great companies. Aston Martin had become known for fast, classy Grand Tourers — and for a certain fictional spy named Bond — while Zagato had been through highly innovative periods, developing ever more lightweight and aerodynamic bodywork for major manufacturers before becoming best known for — wait for it — fast, classy Grand Tourers as well as sportier models and brave, forward-thinking concepts.
Then, out of nowhere, the two companies came together again, taking the tough but traditional Aston Martin V8 Vantage and making it more avant garde and yet more brutal in appearance. First seen at the 1986 Geneva Motor Show, it was on sale within a year. Only 52 coupés were made, followed by 37 convertibles, between 1986 and 1990. With its 430bhp and top speed of 186mph, this was a true supercar of its time and one of the most exclusive.
And then… nothing. The two companies got on individually with their own businesses once more, this time moving in opposite directions. Aston Martin made ownership more accessible with the DB7, while Zagato moved into the production of prototypes and concepts, not only of cars, but also of trains and industrial vehicles.
It wasn’t until 2002, with Aston flying high on the launch of the V12 Vanquish and working up to the launch of the new DB9, and Zagato producing bespoke low-volume builds, that the two companies united for the third time. The result was the Aston Martin DB7 Zagato, built on a shortened DB7 chassis, just as the DB4 GT Zagato had been. In appearance, too, it harked back to the DB4 GT Zagato, its most obvious features being the bulbous nose, wide grille and signature “double-bubble” roof — a long-established Zagato calling card. And, like the previous Aston Martin Zagatos, the DB7 Zagato wasn’t only about looks — it could do 0-60mph in 4.7 seconds and had a top speed of 186mph. Supercar territory once again. One hundred were built; 99 of them for customers, one for Aston Martin.
Off the back of the DB7 Zagato came a softer, open-top version, the DB AR1 (the “AR” stood for American Roadster as this was a US-only model). Made to the same numbers as the DB7 Zagato, it had no form of weather protection other than a cover to protect the interior. It was as curvy as the coupé, though, with the double-bubble theme transferred to the rear deck.
Once more, the cars became immediate collectors’ items, sought after across the world; once again all went quiet for a while as the companies returned to minding their own business as usual. But the 50th anniversary of the first collaboration was fast approaching, so, for 2011, came a celebration model — the V12 Zagato.
This was the fastest, most powerful, most advanced and arguably best looking of the Aston Martin Zagatos to that point. Unveiled at the 2011 Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este on the shores of Italy’s beautiful Lake Como, it had all the styling cues you’d expect — powerful rear haunches, dominant front grille, double-bubble roof, all crafted in a mix of lightweight alloys and carbon fibre — plus by far the best-appointed interior to that point, all leather and carbon fibre, and 510bhp from its all-alloy V12.
How fast? 0-62mph in 4.2 seconds and a top speed of 190mph. What’s more, two racing versions were built, the first official competition Aston Martin Zagatos since the DB4 GT. They made their first outing at the gruelling 24 Hours of Nürburgring, finishing fifth and sixth overall. Quite a debut!
History suggests another long wait would occur until the next magical moment between the two companies, but Aston Martin Chief Exterior Designer Miles Nurnberger and Zagato CEO Andrea Zagato, grandson of Ugo, had other plans. To the surprise of the motoring world, there is a new model out for 2016, once again revealed at the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este: the Vanquish Zagato Concept retains the Italians’ sensuous curves, double-bubble roof and rounded rear end, but is still unmistakably an Aston Martin, with design cues taken from the CC100 concept and the Vulcan hypercar.
Will there be more? No one knows, which is one of the many factors that keep the mystique of the Aston Martin Zagato alive. Will the latest be the fastest, most powerful and best-equipped? Undoubtedly.