What would James Drive?
Behind-the-wheel exclusive in 007's Aston Martin
By JEREMY HART/AutoWeek
(All photos by Tim Broad)
There is not a 30-something-year-old man I have met who, as a boy, did not have a silver model Aston DB5 from Goldfinger with barbed wheels, ejector seat and pop-out guns and shield. (Editor’s note: We 40-something guys remember gold originals.) This holiday season, as the 20th Bond epic Die Another Day draws those grown-up boys to the theaters, the toy stores are braced for dads. They will be flocking to the model car section in search of Bond’s latest set of wheels—a gunmetal Aston Martin Vanquish. But if they’re expecting a 21st century version of the DB5, with Gadgets (but not Pussy) Galore, then there is going to be some disappointment. Bond has turned minimalist in his arsenal—we know, we drove his car.
The first Bond Aston in 15 years, the Vanquish packs four grille-mounted lipstick-red rockets, two machine guns and two motion-sensing guns. That’s pretty much it. No ejector seat, no whirling-blade wire-wheel knockoff nuts. But, hey, as Bond would say (with eyebrow raised), “It’s not what you’ve got, it‘s what you do with it.” His arch enemy Zao (henchman to the evil megalomaniac Gustav Graves) is the one who gets the mother of all four-wheel killing machines. Zao’s F1-green Jaguar XKR convertible is kitted out with nine rear-facing mortars, 18 grille-mounted rockets, a 6000-rounds-a-minute Gatling gun, six rockets in the doors and a bulletproof rear screen.
“If Jamie [the less than manly on-set nickname for Britain’s greatest screen action hero] is armed to the teeth, then Zao is armed to the head,” says Nick Finlayson, the SFX workshop supervisor who built Bond’s weapons.
Finlayson is standing alongside the XKR. We are outside a ramshackle workshop behind the massive Cubby Broccoli stage at Pinewood Studios near London, where much of the film was shot. In Finlayson’s hand is a remote control box pockmarked with stainless-steel buttons. Each button operates a different bit of kit on the two cars. The Jag has 14 controls, the Aston just nine.
“The key thing is that all Bond’s weapons are forward-facing. He clearly does not expect to be attacked from behind,” says Finlayson, punching a couple of buttons, which through a system of compressed air rams, operate the weapons. Invisible panels in the doors drop down to reveal the six-pack of rockets. The Gatling gun swivels menacingly like a hissing cobra. “In reality, this gun would need an ammo hopper as big as the car to have enough rounds to supply the gun.”
All the weapons fire, within reason. The rockets and mortar shells are ejected (without flame or smoke) just far enough out of shot (about 150 meters) for the computer wizards to take over and create computer-generated mayhem as the weapons find their targets. “What I like about the kit on these cars is the fact that it’s all real stuff,” says Finlayson. “We have based it all on real rockets or guns. There’s no lasers or stuff. Lasers are boring. But we can’t use real guns. A real Gatling mounted just above the baddie’s skull would behead him. Then what would Jamie have left to do?”
In Die Another Day, there is only one Q, purveyor of gadgetry, played nowadays by John Cleese. Behind the scenes there are two. Finlayson is the weapons man; the brains behind the cars is Andy Smith, whose film credits include the Batmobile.
“Bond is the ultimate for any special-effects car builder,” beams Smith, who spent $2 million on the latest Bond cars. “And Die Another Day, in car terms, is going back to basics. Having Bond back in an Aston was very special for a lot of people. For me and my team it was a real honor to build the Vanquish. But it was a tough call. “We had to build eight cars [four Astons and four Jags] in 12 weeks. All we had was a set of computer drawings to use as reference for the cars and what we had to do to them. There was no time to draw it all out. We knew that we had to remove the V12 engines from both cars, and fit in the bay a Ford V8 and a four-wheel-drive system from an Explorer.
“The Aston was pretty easy, we just unbolted the front, but being a monocoque, the Jag was a lot more complicated... luckily we got it right pretty well first time,” he says. “Mind you, I had 20 or so of the best guys in the business working day and night for three months.”
An Explorer drivetrain? Jokulsárlón is why. It’s a lagoon in Iceland. Last winter it became the focus of filming for Die Another Day. The lagoon was dammed, and in temperatures of minus 30 degrees, it froze solid as a massive ice lake—where devilish Gustav Graves lives in his ice palace. It is also where Bond and Zao clash in a slippery car chase.
Smith’s team set up base in a tented camp on the edge of the lagoon. His tools and spares filled 13 shipping containers. The temperature dived so low that car batteries froze and the car froze to the ice floor. Even in the heated tents the thermo-meter rarely broke freezing.
“Four-wheel drive was a must, for traction,” says Smith. “But also we had studded tires. Originally Yokohama came up with ones with 1000 studs. They were too good. We couldn’t get the car to slide at all. So we used standard road tires, fitted with about 60 three-millimeter studs in the end, which was more spectacular by far.” Smith reckons that below 100 mph there are few cars he has built that have better traction. He also had to ensure reliability. At an estimated $20,000 an hour for shooting, a broken stunt car is a costly heap of metal.
“The 5.0-liter V8 and the Explorer system worked perfectly. We needed torque, not top speed. It had 320 horsepower and tons of grunt. It was geared to 125 mph but handled like a dream. In the chase, they are up and down stairs [that took a week to perfect] and out across the lagoon. Then the ice palace starts melting whilst James is being chased by the XKR. The cars get soaked. Then... well, I’d better not tell you what happens.”
Bond’s Vanquish has been back to Aston for a few minor cosmetic repairs. But now it is back in action, not with stunt drivers or even Pierce Brosnan (who did do some stunt driving) at the wheel. I am the first and, as of this writing, the only journalist in the world allowed behind the wheel of James Bond’s latest car. The men from Aston have unloaded the beast from its unmarked trailer and it sits impassively at the Millbrook Test Centre in Bedfordshire, looking like, well, like a Vanquish. Not one hint of firepower, not even a piece of fluff from James Bond’s Savile Row dinner jacket. By comparison, Zao’s XKR looks like it has come from the garage of a South American drug baron.
“It’s all under here,” says the man from Aston Martin. And he dives in the passenger footwell and releases the hood. The massive handcrafted lid lifts up, revealing a pair of Uzi-sized guns just in front of the bulkhead. In fighting mode they pop up through the vents in the hood. “There’s more; look, rockets and a pair of machine guns behind the grille.”
Bond’s big advantage, apart from being witty, debonair and seemingly immortal, is CIWS, a motion-sensing Close in Weapons System, used normally to shoot down Exocet missiles.
“The idea is to throw up a wall of lead and shoot down anything that comes in,” says Finlayson. “Typically, Bond doesn’t want to learn how to use it, and when handed the manual by Q, throws it up in the air. At which point the guns sense the moving manual and shoot it down.”
It is tempting to take the Vanquish out onto public roads and pop up the guns behind the nearest overly macho driver. But the guns are not working and the Vanquish is not road legal. We’re lucky it still exists at all. The four film Astons were all pre-production models and at least two will likely be recycled into razor blades.
The guns are not the only eye-catching thing under the hood: Although the idea of replacing Aston’s smooth dohc V12 with a Ford pushrod V8 and 4x4 drivetrain makes one cringe in anticipation of a Monster Garage hack job, Smith’s big-budget V8 and 4wd installation turns out to be a work of art. Neat and almost gleaming. All the modifications to the cars are surgically precise. A bit like Bond himself. I am under strict instructions not to try to replicate the spins, jumps and barrel rolls of the shoot in Iceland. My maximum is set at 50 mph and the twisty, mountainous Alpine Course at Millbrook is my Jokulsárlón.
Guns up, rockets out and machine guns at the ready, I slip into the cockpit. There is only one seat. The other is a mass of cables covered in a scrap of carpet from the Aston warehouse. A full-on racing roll cage replaces the deluxe roof lining of the customer Vanquish. Drag racing gauges have been stuck into the fascia, measuring the race-tuned V8 nestling between the motion-sensing guns.
A fly-off rally-style handbrake, a foot-long shaft of stainless steel, sits on the transmission tunnel alongside a rudimentary three-speed automatic gearshift and a box with a key in it. I turn the key, and all hell breaks loose. No, the guns have not spotted an incoming Exocet. It is the engine, an all-but-unmuffled 5.0-liter monster, awaking from the dead. It sounds like an old Ford Mustang dragster. The deep throaty roar is enticement to ease the gearshift into Drive. And put the boot in.
All four massive lumps of rubber grip the Millbrook tarmac and hurl the Vanquish off up the hill. There might have been a squeal of begging tires but I cannot even hear my heart thump. Fifty miles an hour comes ’round in half a dozen seconds. And I am not trying.
I take a quick look around the dashboard and try to find a button with a gun on it or a picture of a rocket. But there are none. Maybe the hazard light switch will do the trick. Boy it is tempting.
The Alpine Course requires maximum attention. The Vanquish is a handful. But the four-wheel drive hugs the tarmac like an affectionate sumo wrestler. I throw it at the scenery but it does not want to go there. I pretend I am dodging bullets from Zao’s Gatling gun but no amount of ducking or diving, bobbing or weaving makes the Vanquish cower.
Hot and sweaty, with my eardrums hammered to pulp, I hand the Vanquish back. But not without one last tour ’round the beast. It’s immaculate. Except for three bullet holes in the side. Really.
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....