DAY ONE, MILLBROOK. BY JETHRO BOVINGDON.
We’ve been waiting for this moment since the Paris motor show in 2008, so it’s only right and proper that it’s starting like this, at the gatehouse of a secure location. The lens of my iPhone’s camera is being obscured with a special seal and the uniformed staff are stern and stoic, eyeing my signature with suspicion and then reluctantly sending me on my way through the barriers and on to track control.
The not-at-all-Fat Controller is much jollier but then asks for my permit. ‘Erm, I’m pretty sure I have one,’ I reply. He checks his system. ‘It expired in 2007,’ he says, and my heart thumps and throat dries. This is a big day and if my poor housekeeping scuppers it, I may be looking for a new career. ‘Oh no, you were issued another one in March, it’s OK.’ I nod with faux-cool assurance and sign again, this time for a radio called Pogo #707.
Okay, maybe I’m being a little overdramatic. I’ve been to the Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire many times before. It shouldn’t feel so illicit. But this vast facility, packed full of tortuous circuits and brutal surfaces designed to shake a prototype to pieces, is just one of those places that makes you feel an irrational, burning guilt. You know, the sort that usually only rushes from your feet to your crimson cheeks when a police car stops you for a routine check.
Our mission today is pretty undercover too, adding to the tension. By now photographer Jamie Lipman has joined me, looking equally sheepish. His cameras haven’t been sealed up, but he does have a security officer in tow to make sure they point only at one car. I have a feeling there won’t be anything more exciting pounding the high-speed bowl or various handling tracks today anyway. We’ve got our hands on an Aston Martin One-77. Number 17, to be precise. A heavily disguised B-segment MPV doing durability testing isn’t really going to get a look in, is it?
THE UNREMARKABLE plain white trailer in which the One-77 arrived is already empty by the time we reach Aston Martin’s permanent Millbrook hospitality suite. The lovely glass-sided building full of elegant furniture and those coffee-table magazines nobody really reads isn’t open this morning. This isn’t an Aston Martin press car and the company hasn’t helped us to locate a One-77 to test. In fact, the intention was that no media outlet would ever drive a One-77.
But the owner of this car wants to see it used like a supercar ought to be, and for that we owe him an eclipse-inducing debt of gratitude. For the next two days his One-77 is in our custody and we’ll drive it here at Millbrook and on sopping wet, bumpy and very real roads. Top Gear magazine bagged a drive of a One-77 in Dubai recently so this isn’t quite a world exclusive, but the wilds of Wales are a long way from the desert and, I’d wager, a bit more revealing, too. For now, though, I just want to stare at this sage ‘Aston Martin Racing’ green One-77. It is hypnotically, brutally and startlingly beautiful.
So what do we know about the One-77? Quite a lot, actually. Aston might not have felt the need to let any journalists drive the car, but it certainly wasn’t shy about its supercar’s fabulous specification and exquisite construction techniques. And who could blame it? A fully dressed One-77 is jaw-dropping, but the bare rolling carbon chassis that did the rounds at various motor shows was enough to make grown men weep and open very big wallets at record speed. £1.2million? If you had it and you saw the One-77 on one of those stands, it might have been irresistible.
Let’s recap, then. The One-77 has a carbonfibre monocoque chassis skinned with hand-crafted aluminium panels. The chassis weighs in at 180kg and is incredibly stiff. Each of those extraordinary front wings, made from a single sheet of aluminium, took one man three weeks to shape and perfect. Three weeks for one wing. It seems only right that Aston’s ultimate road car should honour the incredible artistry of the men who hammered and smoothed aluminium at Newport Pagnell for many an uncertain year. A carbonfibre body just wouldn’t be the same.
Of course, the basic layout of the One-77 had to honour tradition, too. So it has a front-mid V12 engine driving the rear wheels through a six-speed automated manual gearbox. But the familiar Aston 5.9-litre V12 has been radically re-developed by Cosworth Engineering. Capacity is up to 7.3 litres, weight down by 60kg; it’s been given a dry-sump and the compression ratio is up to 10.9:1. Aston claims that this wild, high-revving V12 has 750bhp and 553lb ft. It also sits a full 100mm lower in the One-77’s chassis than in the DB9’s thanks to the dry sump, and it’s way behind the front axle line. It drives the six-speed transaxle via a carbon propshaft that passes through a magnesium alloy torque tube. Then there’s the fully adjustable inboard suspension that allows each customer to tailor their car for the way they intend to use it.
Chief programme manager Chris Porritt said of the One-77: ‘Let’s be honest, it’s going to be pretty hardcore.’ I don’t know where on the scale of ‘pretty hardcore’ to ‘very hardcore’ this particular One-77 sits, but I do know that the owner has some pretty extreme cars in his collection. My guess is that we’re dealing with the One-77 at its least compromising. I also know Porritt well enough to surmise that his personal tastes probably align pretty closely with the most enthusiastic of Aston owners. So this is probably the One-77 as the engineers and test drivers always intended it.
I still haven’t got a clue what to expect, though. A V12 Vantage could be described as ‘pretty hardcore’ in most company, but in the rarefied world of Carrera GTs, Enzos, Koenigseggs or Zondas, it’s about as intense as a Golf Bluemotion. So where does the One-77 fit? And why didn’t they want us to drive it?
THE DRIVER’S DOOR SWINGS out and arcs gently upwards, just like it might on a DB9 or new Vanquish, but the slow, expensively gloopy motion is gone and instead the door zips away from you like a lost helium balloon. It’s skinned internally in shiny carbonfibre with an odd baseball glove-stitched pull, but it’s the vivid tan and black trim that demands attention.
The dash is very obviously from the Aston family but the shapes are elongated, teased into elegant teardrops and smoothed and sculpted until the whole cabin seems almost organically formed. It’s not a car you simply jump right into and get on with driving, you sort of stand back in reverence. That might sound like romantic nonsense but the One-77 really does exude a specialness that is every bit a match for a Pagani Huayra, and it has a sense of theatre lacking in the rather staid and serious Veyron.
The deliciously shaped seat is really low, so you collapse into it and then feel that same sense of trepidation that you do when you first jump into a racecar that has its seat positioned to improve the centre of gravity with little care for actually seeing out. The flat, Alcantara-sided steering wheel might look odd, but it feels gorgeous and natural to hold. Beyond it, the graphite instruments are tricky to read but your brain registers that the last mark on the speedo is 220mph and the rev counter reads to eight but has no red line. If you believe Aston’s claims, then it should be possible to get the needle somewhere beyond the 220 mark, having passed 62mph inside 3.7sec. (Apparently a 0-100mph time of 6.9sec was seen during testing. For comparison, we’ve figured a Koenigsegg CCX at 7.7sec to 100mph, and an Enzo at 6.7sec.)
So you take that awkward hunk of crystal and aim it at the little letterbox cut into the Engine Start button. What happens next is almost worth the £1.2million on its own. The 7.3-litre V12 rips a wicked spit of tight, jagged noise into the cold air. It’s sharp and pure and malevolent. Another little blip makes the revs flare and die with the freedom of a Carrera GT or Lexus LFA V10. That word comes back to me: ‘hardcore’. Pull the small upshift paddle and the gearbox clunks into first, and my timid application of throttle makes the One-77 chunter and judder away with all the grace of a Corsa driven by a learner in size-12 wellies. It really does feel hardcore and totally intolerant of my respect for its value.
The gearchange is smoother into second but it still has that fragile thump of a single-clutch paddle-shifter, and that sensation is exacerbated by the superlight flywheel and the sheer anger of that V12. It really is a special engine and it’s seriously, deliciously loud. Of course, it has effortless torque should you quickly flick your way up the ’box, but you just don’t. You want to hear it and feel it get right on cam at 5000rpm, so you almost immediately drive it like you might a VTEC. Within 100 yards you know that this isn’t a supercar in the mould of a Veyron. In fact it has the ferocity of something really nutty. A front-engined Koenigsegg, perhaps.
Having said that, the One-77 doesn’t feel at all flighty or hyper-sensitive. The steering has similar weighting to a V12 Vantage’s and its rate of response is deliberate and reassuring. In a Ferrari F12 you constantly have the speed of the rack at the front of your mind, but the One-77’s system is more intuitive and it lets you concentrate on getting the most from the chassis and engine. On the tight and slippery confines of Millbrook’s infamous Alpine route, that’s a very good thing indeed.
Cold P Zero Corsas that are 335mm wide don’t really like tarmac that’s freezing to the touch, and the traction control constantly cuts into the V12’s delivery. It’s fighting a losing battle and the Aston is either electronically tethered and grumpy, or fizzing and slithering with wheelspin. If you want to select DSC Track mode or turn off the DSC altogether, you have to flip up the central cubbyhole lid (light, leather-trimmed carbon) to find an oblong sliver of chrome with a picture of a skidding car above it. Maybe it should be anodised red or protected by a break-only-in-emergencies glass panel. I decide that DSC Track is the sensible option.
Millbrook’s Alpine route is basically a tarmac roller coaster, littered with blind brows, nasty cambers and one almighty jump. In a car as wide and as valuable as the One-77, it’s pretty much hell on earth. However, after the initial clumsy fumbles, the big Aston starts to feel at home. Harry Metcalfe will discover more about the ride on real roads later, but it’s a stiff, alert and agile car. You don’t feel much body roll and you can really lean on the front tyres. They feel a long way away but the benefit is that the engine’s mass isn’t overly burdening them, so when you expect some mid-corner understeer, the One-77 just keeps on gripping. The DSC snips at the V12’s torque mid-corner and as you straighten the car out it sets the engine free, the Pirellis spinning up and the car spitting sideways. Everything seems to happen quickly. It’s a wild, almost rabid ride.
It becomes apparent pretty quickly that the One-77 needs a bigger stage and that the Corsa tyres would appreciate a climate more temperate than Bedfordshire in December. The truth is that I can only really enjoy the V12’s epic rush to the limiter on Millbrook’s mile straight, and although I catch fleeting glimpses of the chassis’ talent, this is just a taste of what the One-77 has to offer. Eventually I work up the courage to fully disable the DSC and it actually becomes a more predictable car, because the engine gives exactly what you ask for exactly when you want it. Once or twice I even provoke the One-77 mid-corner, feeling it slip easily into oversteer and then using the power to keep the car balanced and sliding. It’s a crazy thing to do, but I suspect I might never drive one again.
I’ll never forget the sense that you’re walking a tightrope when you start to push. The One‑77 has a savagery right at its core. Harry, you’ll need three Shredded Wheat for breakfast tomorrow…
DAY TWO, WALES. BY HARRY METCALFE.
My first glimpse of the One-77 comes at 6.45am in the middle of a spookily dark car park in Betws-y-Coed, north Wales, and even though it’s a bracing -2deg C out here, I couldn’t be more excited. Lit only by the moon and a streetlight way in the distance, all I can really make out is the outline of the One‑77’s outlandishly curvaceous aluminium body stretched tight over the extravagant mechanicals beneath. This almost mythical Aston Martin has silently rolled (under the power of gravity) from the covered trailer that delivered it here moments ago. We’re trying our best to be kind to the local residents by saving the 7.3-litre, V12 quad-exhaust-pipe pre-dawn chorus until the moment we are ready to leave. And now the delivery driver is handing me the famous Aston crystal key. It doesn’t get better than this.
I crack the lightweight driver’s door open to climb in. Bare carbon reveals itself everywhere: the sills, the door panels, the floor (where a carefully positioned mat protects the area around the pedals). Even the wall behind the seats is untrimmed glossy carbon. Everything that isn’t carbon or leather is black anodised aluminium, apart from a huge hoop of glinting rose gold that rings the centre console as it swoops down from the windscreen, around the handbrake and then back up to the windscreen again. Spectacular seems almost too feeble a word to describe all these interior details.
Time to get down to the business of driving this very special Aston. My plan for today is straightforward: I’m going to spend as much time as is humanly possible driving the One-77 on some of my favourite roads in north Wales. As far as I’m concerned, we’re wasting time already. The ‘key’ slots into place and, as I hold it there, the electrics come to life and the needles on the twin dials do their initial sweep before settling down on their pins again, at which point the cabin is filled with the whirl of a high-speed starter motor waking the 750bhp, 553lb ft, 7.3-litre V12 engine from its slumber. It quickly catches and settles into a busy idle. There’s much less exhaust blare emulating from behind me than you get from certain Italian marques, but it still sounds fabulous. It’s different to all other contemporary Astons, racier, fitter sounding and delivering an instant flare of revs when you blip the throttle, suggesting the One-77 is equipped with little in the way of a flywheel.
We want to get a picture of the Aston high up on the moor as the sun rises, which is only half an hour from now, so there’s no time for dawdling. I strap in (conventional three-point seat belts, thankfully), press ‘D’ and feed in the power to pull away. It’s not a great getaway, to be honest. In fact it’s so bad I think I must have done something wrong, because just as the twin-plate, semi-race clutch bites, it releases for a moment before biting again, and as a result we stutter our way out of the car park awkwardly. No matter: changing from first into second gear works fine and all I’m thinking of now is keeping up with the camera car to our chosen location.
The road surface is wet and there are evil-looking stone walls flashing past my left shoulder. The One-77 feels impossibly wide from where I’m sitting and the huge mirrors look like they’ve been attached to those extensions so beloved by caravanners, but they work well and need to be positioned that far out so that you can see past the One-77’s vast rear wheelarches. I’ve driven lots of cars over the years, but for a maiden flight this is about as intimidating as it gets, especially as the windscreen washers are frozen up, so the clap-hand wipers are now smearing the screen as they fight through the salt-laden spray being thrown up by the camera car. Great.
I also can’t help but notice there’s a sprinkling of snow beside the road as we climb higher. The weather forecast for today is good, but this being north Wales in December, my fingers are firmly crossed. At least the seat feels terrific, trimmed in a clever mix of tan leather and fabric, the subtle shape gripping me nicely without me even realising. The One-77’s distinctive square steering wheel might look odd, but it turns out to be pretty good to hold. It’s early days, but I do wish there was more information filtering through to me as to what grip the front tyres are finding on this dank morning, but maybe it’ll all work better in the promised dry conditions later today.
It’s still dark as we arrive at our shoot location and, more worryingly, it’s turned misty too. But it must be our lucky day because just as we’re busy discussing a plan B, the gloomy sky starts to turn a vivid pink as the winter sun begins its slow climb from behind the hills in the distance. Watching as this subtle light grows in intensity, as if being controlled by some studio director, and then falls on the One-77’s bodywork is magical. The whole world around us is silent; there’s not even a breath of wind up here today and we haven’t had anyone pass by for ages. If the locals only knew what they were missing…
Photographs done, I’m free to go off on the first proper strop of the day. As a teenager I spent my formative years pounding rubbish cars on these very roads and one of my all-time favourites is the A4212 that takes you from Bala, around the Celyn reservoir and on towards the west Welsh coast. Wide, open and impossibly scenic, it should suit the One-77 perfectly. Well, it would if there was any fuel left in the tank. I hadn’t noticed how empty it was on the way up here but the warning light is now flashing and the trip computer is telling me that over the last 500 miles, this car has averaged 6.2mpg. A trip to Bala for fuel is required before the real fun can start.
As luck would have it (or not), there’s a tractor filling up at Bala’s only fuel station right by the pump we need, and when manoeuvring around it, the One‑77’s clutch is again struggling to catch cleanly. I’m quickly learning that the drivetrain hates any sort of manoeuvring, as the rear diff locks up and the resulting locked rear axle seems to give the clutch an even harder time.
Still, it’s not long before the tractor has departed and the Aston’s tank is being filled with Texaco’s finest, and soon I’m finally ready to start stretching this Aston’s super-long legs. We leave Bala behind, I get up to speed and the trick gearbox starts to come into its own: it’s behaving perfectly, firing in changes up and down the ’box as quick as you’d hope it would and with none of that excessive ‘thump’ you get on some other ultra-sporting automated manual gearboxes I can think of (Aventador, anyone?). As more miles fly by, I forget all about those low-speed shenanigans.
The One-77’s on-board V12 symphony is bewitching from the moment the key is pressed, but poke the ‘Sport’ button on the dash and it’s enriched even further. Because the exhaust runs inside both sills, I’d swear those travelling in the cabin are rewarded with an almost surround-sound effect. But it’s the change in the character of that mighty V12 that’s really getting my attention. Not only has engaging Sport mode given me access to the full 553lb ft of torque (without it you get only 75 per cent of the available total), but the engine has also gained an almost VTEC-like top-end howl. From 4500rpm on, it’s as if there’s a squirt of nitrous finding its way into the engine; it storms through the rev range with no let-up before clattering into the 7500rpm limiter. In fact, it feels like the electronic overlord is being a spoilsport, because the torrent of horsepower is in full flood at that point, such is the relentlessness of the V12 on full song.
All of this means I’m really having to concentrate in the driving seat because the delivery of all that power to the rear wheels is just plain vicious when you approach the top end of the rev range. Even the trick 335/30 20in Pirellis are struggling to cope. But boy, does that make this Aston exciting. There’s nothing quite like a car that can spin its wheels in a straight line at beyond motorway speeds to grab your attention. With each millimetre of throttle delivering a further spike in power, this is not a car you can drive with the accelerator welded to the floor in the hope the electronics will sort it all out. No, this is a proper old-school, high-horsepower, front-engined supercar that demands proper respect, especially in the patchy-grip conditions we’ve got today, and in my book, it’s all the better for it. With the carbon brakes nicely weighted with plenty of feel underfoot, it’s easy to tell that this car has been built for driving, rather than for sitting in some collection.
AFTER THE FAST SWEEPERS of the A4212, I’ve turned inland again and onto the tight twists and turns of the A498 that leads up to Snowdonia and the Llanberis Pass. I’m fast discovering that the One-77 is an addictive mix of racecar drivetrain and suspension with a serious helping of luxury-car accompaniments. Take the multi-function screen in the centre console, for example. It’s equipped with satnav, offers iPod and Bluetooth connections, and is linked to lovely Bang & Olufsen tweeters that silently rise out of the far corners of the dashboard each time the car’s electronics come to life. The seats are electronically controlled too, as is the steering column, and all this adjustment means you can achieve a near-perfect driving position, for which I’m thankful as the front end of this car feels a horribly long way away from where I’m sitting. Even the windscreen seems like it’s in another county. But you only need to see how far back the engine is in the chassis to understand why the One-77’s nose is so long, and the result of the rearward weight bias this brings is that the front end feels super planted. All I have to focus on is what the rear is up to.
After a glorious run up the A498, the snow-capped peak of Snowdon heaves into view, so we pull over for a bit of a breather. It really is stunning here, especially when the roads are as empty as they are today. Each time I step out of the One-77, I can’t help but glance back; it’s that sort of car. I love the colour of this example too. The owner ordered it in this hue as a homage to his favourite Aston of all time, the DB4 GT Zagato (registration 4 RTA), which is finished in the exact same colour.
The green suits the One-77 really well, showing off its heavily sculptured body beautifully, as well as linking the car to Aston’s historic past. The only bit that jars for me is the way the scoops either side of the nose take in the base of the headlights, but then the extravagant sweep of the tail lights more than makes up for it, as does the brilliantly aggressive crease that runs along the top of the rear haunches. In fact, everywhere you look, the One-77 is dripping in beautiful details. I’m sure there was a budget to work to, but it seems any problem Aston encountered had to be solved with the most elegant solution.
I have to take the One-77 for one more blast before the sun finally sets on this incredible day, and the flowing twists of the Llanberis Pass seem like the perfect place for the finale. The hikers and their cagoules have long gone, so it’s just me and the Aston – and perhaps the odd errant sheep to spoil my lines. The key slots home again and the V12 barks into life for one last time, and we pull jerkily away. First, second and third gear are quickly munched in the way only a 750bhp supercar can, and moments later we hit the more challenging section where the mountains close in, squeezing the road tight between their lower slopes. I drop the window to wallow in the sound from those howling quad exhausts bouncing off the slabs of stone lining the route of this wondrous pass. God, I’m loving this car. It’s impossibly addictive and I can’t stop driving it again and again. Yes, it’s demanding to get right and I haven’t quite mastered it yet, but I’m desperately keen to learn.
This is exactly the sort of challenge I want from a £1.2million supercar. I don’t want some easy-driving machine delivering mind-altering performance on a plate; if that’s all you want, go buy a Veyron. With the One-77 there’s real work for the driver to do to extract the best from it. I bet some of the original owners won’t be up to it and will either abandon their One‑77 to gather dust in a collection or sell it on as quickly as possible. But they’d be missing the point, because this is a monster of a car – over-powered yet impossibly charismatic. It’s a masterclass on blending low-tech aluminium-forming skills with high-tech carbon technology, and it’s shockingly beautiful, making it eye-wateringly desirable.
From the outset, the One-77 was designed to be the ultimate modern-day Aston, and after my day with it I’m very happy to tell you that it hits the bullseye. Big time.