Everyone heads to the west coast of Scotland. Even James Bond. It’s quite understandable – the lure of a drive across Rannoch Moor, down through Glen Coe and onwards over the sea to the magical Isle of Skye is as powerful as a dram of un-watered Talisker. But when photographer Dean Smith and I reach the top of the M74 in a couple of hours’ time, we’re going to ignore the temptation of the A82 and head east instead. It’ll be dark as we go past Stirling and we’ll probably hit Perth at the end of rush hour, at which point most of the traffic that’s going north will join the A9 towards Inverness. But not us. We’ve got our sights set on the Old Military Road, nestled away in the bosom of the Cairngorms – a road that doesn’t seem to attract much attention, but which might just be the best in the country.
And what to take to such a stretch of tarmac? Something with bodywork beautiful enough to complement the scenery, a soundtrack majestic enough to fill a valley, and simple dynamics sumptuous enough to get the best from the road. I give you evo’s favourite British supercar: the Aston Martin V12 Zagato. With a V12 squeezed into a short wheelbase, rear-wheel drive, passive dampers, 510bhp and a manual gearbox all wrapped up in imaginatively tailored carbonfibre and aluminium, it seems absolutely perfect for the job.
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At the moment I’m still settling into the Zagato, enjoying those first few hours drinking in surroundings that are currently unfamiliar, but which will start to feel like home over the next two December days. So far I love the wavy stitching of the headlining, but I’m baffled by the radio and satnav, which seem to be controlled by a range of unconnected little buttons tumbling down the sweeping carbon centre console. Not that there’s much need for the radio when the road does anything remotely interesting, because the Zagato’s V12 is capable of providing ample aural entertainment. It’s just nice to have Test Match Special for company.
Ah yes, company. Normally on these adventures I have the grumbling bulk of Dean Smith in the passenger seat of whatever wholly impractical car we’ve decided to thrash across a mountain range. Right now his iPod would usually be providing Gangnam Style amusement, and the fumes of the Red Bull that he seems to mainline would be widening my eyes and making me shake in the same way that passive smoking might make me wheeze. But Smith took one look at the Zagato’s boot this morning and decided that there wasn’t enough room for his camera gear. Admittedly it’s not much more than a Hobbit’s closet (must be a thing about achingly pretty cars – the Alfa 8C was even worse), but I still think he could have wedged a lens and a daft hat in there, and a tripod wrapped in a couple of spare pairs of long johns would definitely have fitted behind the seats. He could have even cuddled a couple of flashes on the passenger seat. But instead he’s currently sitting about 50 yards in front of me in his long-term Audi RS4 Avant. Odd choice.
Loping up the motorway with a stride almost as comically long as my own, the Zagato is an exceedingly relaxing car. One of its differences over a standard V12 Vantage is that the awkwardly angular lump of a gearknob has been replaced with a much nicer, smaller Alcantara-covered item. It lets the weighty but satisfyingly positive shift action shine much more brightly, but sixth gear is so wonderfully flexible that there’s no need to change down on a motorway and you simply ooze along, a blissful slug of torque only ever a prod away.
Blairgowrie is dark and bitterly cold when we arrive. Dean leaves me in a dodgy-looking car park to guard the wheels while he goes to investigate the promising-sounding Royal Hotel. He returns just as I’m starting to get nervous, announcing that he’s secured us bed and breakfast for the princely sum of £33. It’s fair to say that we’re not staying in the main wing of the hotel.
After barricading the cars into a dark corner round the back of the Royal, we head in search of food in a pub and then perform a late-night raid on a 24-hour Tesco to stock up on provisions for the following day. ‘Provisions’ turns out to include a snow shovel, which Dean spots. I don’t think we’ll need it, but I feel compelled to buy it because I know that if I tell him to put it back we’ll inevitably find ourselves with a car up to its wing-mirrors in powder and Dean muttering ‘I told you so’ like a scolding housewife.
It’s minus five when we walk outside at 6.30 the following morning. Fortunately the hotel’s corridors were about minus four, so the shock’s not too great, but as the cold, dry air invades the nostrils it still sends a shuddering shiver right through me, which eventually settles somewhere around my liver. The cars are still there, which is a relief, and I manage to reverse out without hitting the low concrete wall, which is even better (the rear-view camera’s image of the ground isn’t much use, and all you can see out of the shallow rear window is the carbon wing).
There’s not going to be a lot of navigating involved today; we’re simply continuing north on the A93 and then turning left onto the A939 just before Ballater. At first there’s nothing too special about the road. There’s no traffic, but every so often small squares of warm yellow light from farms and cottages pierce the darkness, showing that we’re not in the wilds just yet.
The Aston’s headlights aren’t as bright as I’d like, but they’re spilling enough illumination onto the way ahead for us to see that we’re travelling along a road flanked by stone walls and avenues of deciduous trees. With its short overhangs and tightly wrapped body, the Zagato looks neat and compact and it feels exactly like that to drive, but the road is sufficiently wide that you’d feel perfectly comfortable in a more expansively sprawling supercar. At one point a section of black and white Armco appears, signalling a couple of good corners, but even these are fast sweepers that don’t really necessitate a change down, other than to enjoy a gratuitous blip of revs.
If you don’t change down, the V12 emits a deep gargle at low revs, the sort of voice that speaks of a large swept volume and mountain-moving torque. But as it spins faster and faster so it takes on a snarlier, harder edge, building with every revolution until it’s developed into a full-on Le Mans race engine war cry. Arguably this sounds best on blipped downshifts, where the revs flare up with surprisingly little inertia.
This far north, dawn takes an awfully long time to emerge in winter (she’s a lazy so-and-so), but with every passing minute the sky is gradually shaking off the night and the hills on the horizon are becoming darkly silhouetted against an inky blue. The Alba Blue Zagato blends in perfectly. We drive through Bridge of Cally and I vaguely remember hiring boots and planks there to go and spend an exceptionally cold day hurtling through a blizzard down a mountain when I should have been writing my dissertation. That was at least ten years ago and my student wheels were somewhat less glamorous than the Aston, yet I still remember the drive to and from Glenshee being terrific (my passengers probably remember it as being horrific), so I’m hoping nothing’s changed in the past decade.
Rounding a corner, the view down a valley suddenly reveals an appreciably bigger snow-capped peak in the distance. The fields and verges seem to be whiter here too. Then almost without warning, the road changes from long straights and smoothly flowing corners to a roller coaster of second- and third-gear twists, turns and yumps. It’s like the tarmac has suddenly taken inspiration from the knotted bit in the middle of your headphone wires. Despite the big engine in its nose, the Zagato is beautifully balanced through here and turns in with more deftness than you might expect. It means that you quickly feel at ease with the chassis even if it’s difficult to use large chunks of the 510bhp and 420lb ft on the cold surface.
Once out the other side, there is no doubt that we’ve arrived in the Cairngorms. Snow poles mark the sides of the road and we’re heading up the final climb to the Glenshee ski station. The V12 notices the incline in the same way that Frank Bruno would think he was being tickled by a punch from Willie Carson, but back in 1905 this was seen as a real test for man and machine – so much so that several of the cars in the Scottish Automobile Club Reliability Trial struggled even to make it up to the start line. No times were ever actually published for the climb – presumably to avoid embarrassment – and it wasn’t used again until 1924.
It’s worth struggling to the top though, purely for the drive down the other side. Here it feels like you’re descending into the very heart of the mountains as they close in all around. After a couple of miles I pull into a lay-by to wait for sunrise. It appears to arrive just a couple of minutes later but this actually turns out to be the unfeasibly bright xenons of Dean’s RS4, which pulls in next to me. By way of breakfast we tuck into our supermarket sweep from the previous night and take in our surroundings as the light seeps into the sky.
The snow is not yet quite the thick, 15-tog duvet covering that it will eventually become and the hillsides are a monochrome patchwork with the heather and scree poking through. We’re not alone up here either; the queer clucking chuckle of red grouse can be heard quite close by and there are a few snow hares about too. Then just as we’re setting up a photo, CRACK! A single report echoes round the valley like the upchange from an S2000 rally car. Dean and I instinctively look up and see three or four deer charging across the skyline ridge of the hill nearest to us. Someone’s stalking.
Just before 9am, the sky turns appreciably pink through chinks in the cloud, so we count this as sunrise and take a couple of photos to celebrate. Some of you will disagree, possibly quite strongly, but Dean and I happen to think that supercars look better when they’re dirty. Not just in need of a wash after driving through a couple of country puddles, but streaked, caked and baked with hard-won grime, wearing their miles like a badge of honour. There was a white (underneath the dirt) Aventador at Donington recently which was clearly used every day and it looked absolutely fantastic. That’s why, after seeing the slipstream stripes of salt around the nostrils and noticing just how easily its bluff rear end collected filth in a 70mph vortex, we decided to leave the Zagato dirty for this shoot. It has absolutely nothing to do with bare hands rinsing sponges in buckets of water in sub-zero temperatures…
The road continues along a valley floor, running in sympathy with the meanderings of the River Clunie, which looks like a gin and tonic in motion, with beautifully clear water running over icy lumps just below the surface. The Zagato is on season-appropriate Pirelli SottoZeros but this produces its own challenges, as there is appreciably more squirming under braking as you lean on the big carbon rotors and the tail can start to feel very light. Perhaps less surprisingly, the back end is moving around easily under power too, helped by the road surface. In my experience the Scots are fantastic at gritting their roads properly, but the thick red ribbon of grit laid on the tarmac means that at times it feels closer to a forest rally stage than a tarmac one. It’s quite fun if you like that sort of thing and the Zagato seems quite happy to move about, gliding around as it skates across the surface of the road. It’s only when you remember that this is a limited-edition £396,000 piece of automotive sculpture that it seems faintly ridiculous.
We hit civilisation in the form of Braemar and then very nearly hit a moss-green Skoda Fabia, as the owner has decided he can’t be bothered to de-ice the windows and so pulls out of the side road with all the vision of a mole in a sleep mask. To be honest he was a bit unlucky, as it’s not exactly a busy road at this time of year and he could probably have tackled the junction utterly unhindered in any of the 20 minutes either side of our arrival. Nonetheless it was a heart-in-mouth moment as Czech hatchback seemed destined to be conjoined catastrophically with Italian coachbuilding.
The Gleaner garage in Braemar offers one of the few chances to refuel that we’ll encounter along our route, and although the Aston’s tank is still three-quarters full, the temptation of a Scotch Pie (contents meaty but unidentified) is too much to resist; it’s delicious.
The section of road that follows is quite different, as the big vistas are suddenly hidden from view by a dark barrier of pines and silver birches on either side of the road. I imagine it’s a bit like running from the open expanse of the pitch at Twickenham back into the players’ tunnel. Without the distraction of views you focus even more on the road, which is still fast, flowing and well surfaced. There are probably a few too many straights to make this section really engaging in something like a hot hatch, but they let the Aston run through a couple of gears and stretch its legs. There’s a little slush now and again just to keep things interesting, and although I’ve mostly left the DSC (Dynamic Stability Control) in its more relaxed ‘Track’ setting, it’s worth saying that even with it fully engaged the system is so beautifully unobtrusive that it doesn’t spoil proceedings.
Balmoral Castle and its 49,000 acres are the private property of the Queen and they lie halfway along our route. They are also right next to the Royal Lochnagar distillery (this Royal being slightly more official than our hotel the night before), where I stop briefly to buy my father’s Christmas present. Unusually for a distillery, it’s actually quite an attractive set of dark stone buildings, and I could happily stay here for hours sniffing the heady aromas. But the winter sun is scurrying between horizons and time is pressing, so it has to be a fleeting visit.
Once back on the main road, fourth gear has barely been tickled when the indicators are on and we’re swinging left off the A93 just before Ballater. We’re continuing north on the A939, which is a much narrower and snowier road than we’ve encountered so far and so our pace inevitably slows a little. The reward, however, is stumbling into an almost impossibly fairytale winter wonderland scene with a beautiful single-arch stone bridge (I do like a good stone bridge), which is exaggeratedly humpbacked like a whale breaching from one bank of the river to the other. The Zagato’s rounded snout appears to be heading heavenwards and the windscreen fills with sky as we go over it, and then seemingly just around the next corner the road opens out again, spreading back into two lanes as it climbs away from the tree-lined valley and onto an impressive expanse of windswept Scottish moorland.
It’s a glorious few minutes driving across this open section, and as we head back down onto a long straight, the landscape in the rear-view mirror is turning softly golden. I feel sure that we must be nearing the end of the road now and that the mountains are behind us, but there’s still 25 miles and another ski resort to go. It’s as we’re climbing back up again that we encounter the first hairpins of the journey and it’s impossible to resist having a bit of a play in the Aston as the road snakes back and forth. It’s also when it begins snowing.
‘Do you want to swap, mate?’ It’s a question that gets asked quite a lot when I’m driving desirable cars that clearly aren’t mine. Never before though have I answered ‘Yes!’ and scrambled out of the car with a massive grin on my face. We’ve reached Lecht and the Zagato is parked beside a PistenBully 200. I’ve been fascinated by piste-bashers since I was shorter than one of their caterpillar tracks. The chance to sit in one is too good to miss.
Like this Zagato, it turns out to be left-hand drive, but the view out is somewhat more commanding and I have a suspicion that the lever to my right has nothing to do with anything so mundane as gears. I’d love to charge off up the mountain and smooth some snow, but Dean is insistent that we have more photos to do and more miles to drive. Next time…
From the Lecht ski station the A939 sweeps down towards the small grey village of Tomintoul and then on towards Grantown-on-Spey, assuming you ignore the signs to the Glenlivet distillery off to the right. Although the light is fading fast the road is still fantastic, and is possibly the best section yet. My favourite corner is a left-hander that rises all the way to its apex then falls a little after it. With the Zagato loaded up and holding a constant throttle, you get a smidgen of oversteer just over the crest purely through the rear wheels unweighting.
By the time we reach the fuel station in G-on-S, there are 84 miles between the Zagato and Blairgowrie, and as I stand in the freezing cold with super unleaded sluicing into the tank I’m wondering if I’ve just driven the best road in the UK. Yes, Glen Coe might be a touch more dramatic and North Wales might be a fraction more testing on a chassis, but in my opinion the Old Military Road is certainly the most sustained stretch of decent driving you’ll find on our shores. I’d love to drive back down it, but with the snow falling more heavily Dean suggests we play it safe and stick together back down the A9. The fuel nozzle clicks off, the numbers stop spinning on the pump and I replace the lovely aluminium filler cap, before heading in to pay. To pay… Oh dear.
I pat my pockets and make a phone call before shouting through the snow to Dean and asking if he minds paying for this tank and heading back down the A9 on his own. It appears I’ve left my wallet in the Royal Lochnagar distillery. And there’s only one way back to it…