Stepping out from the dark, dusky corridors of Hampton Court Palace recently and squinting into the bright sunshine of the imposing tree-lined grounds for the 2020 Concours of Elegance, I was immediately distracted by a dramatic and purposeful-looking car that I’d not seen before.
William Towns was a British car design hero – Axon's Automotive Anorak
Although not obvious at a surprised first glance, and not helped by a (socially distanced) crowd obscuring most of the car, this unfamiliar ‘mystery machine’ turned out to a brand new ‘top secret’ Aston Martin, revealed just minutes before I’d spotted it from the corner of my eye at Hampton Court.
With an eager audience of curious admirers buzzing around this surprise unveiling, and no Aston Martin representatives available to talk me through this brutish retro-esque coupe, I initially used my own guile to figure out what this unexpected new model might be.
The strikingly low and wide Aston’s name seemed to be Victor (last used on an anonymous large Vauxhall saloon in 1976!), giving a strong clue to this as-yet-unknown model’s raison d’etre. From the Victor name and strong 1970s retro vibe though, I reasoned that this was intended to be a modern homage to Aston Martin’s now iconic late-‘70s V8 Vantage, introduced when the charismatic Victor Gaunlett ran the then-financially troubled Newport Pagnell-based exclusive British sport car maker. Sure enough, by the time I’d later got to speak to an Aston Martin chap, I’d already discovered that this unanticipated Victor was a special one-off model, indeed recalling the 1970s V8 Vantage. The Victor was commissioned by Aston’s Q division, using elements of the previous exclusive One-77, Vulcan and Valkyrie supercars, with a front-mounted 7.3-litre V12, developing a whopping 847.5PS.
Although the chosen Victor name was a fitting tribute to Aston Martin’s entrepreneurial ex-owner, I wonder if either William or Towns might have been a more fitting appellation for this menacing machine, as it was the talented yet undeservedly too forgotten British designer – William Towns – who not only styled the ‘70s V8 Vantage that has inspired the Victor, but also the original 1967 Aston Martin DBS on which the V8 was based.
Remembered by those in the know as the vehicle creator from the ‘origami folded paper school of design’ with a fondness for straight lines and sharp edges, ahead of his premature passing from cancer at a young 56, William Towns began his car styling career in his early 20s at the Rootes Group in Coventry. At Rootes he initially designed seats and interior fittings for various Hillman, Humber and Sunbeam models, before moving on to exterior design, styling the purposely plain but appealing Hillman Hunter and its many badge-engineered siblings.
Long before Rootes had publicly launched the Hillman Hunter in 1966, Towns had already departed to join Rover, working alongside David Bache to design the coachwork of the famed Rover-BRM. The Rover-BRM was an experimental gas turbine competition car that raced in a special prototype class at the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1964 and 1965, driven by notable British Grand Prix World Campions Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart, with the car finishing a credible tenth overall (making it the highest-placed British car) in the 1965 race.
In 1966 Towns left Rover to take up a new position at Aston Martin as head of design; a new role created at the Newport Pagnell sports car maker for the first time. He sketched the DBS in competition to an external design proposal from Aston Martin’s former favoured stylists, Touring of Milan, the creators of the iconic DB4 and DB5 models. Touring’s DBS submission was uncharacteristically fussy and dated, especially in comparison to Towns’ sharper and more modern fastback coupe style, the latter selected for production by Aston Martin and instantly winning wide acclaimed and admiration.
William Towns went on to cleverly adapt his DBS coupe design by stretching it into a one-off luxury four-door Lagonda saloon for David Brown’s personal use in 1969, with seven production examples later built between 1974-75. By this time Towns had also reworked the squared-off dual headlight frontal styling of his DBS to create a simplified single lamp face for the facelifted V8 model that remained in production until late 1989.
Although the Aston Martin DBS/V8 combo is arguably the most familiar and admired automotive work of William Towns (helped by the models’ on-screen roles, a DBS being the star car in the popular early 1970s TV series – The Persuaders! – driven by aristocratic playboy Sir Brett Sinclair [played by Roger Moore], plus 007’s wheels of choice in the 1969 Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, with a V8 later driven by Timothy Dalton’s Bond in the 1987 007 movie The Living Daylights), his most renowned design is undoubtedly the opulent straight-edged Series 2 Lagonda saloon of 1976.
Launched to surprised gasps of shock and awe at the 1976 Earls Court Motor Show, the ultra-modern Towns Lagonda grabbed headlines the world over, the luxury four-door wedged saloon being uncharacteristically daring for the then very traditional and conservative Aston Martin.
Powered by the same 5.3-litre, 284PS engine as its more affordable Aston Martin V8 sibling, the futuristic Lagonda featured advanced electronics, it being the world’s first car with an LED digital dashboard with gas plasma displays and touch pad controls, for which Towns was a keen advocate.
These advanced electronics proved far too ambitious and complex for Newport Pagnell, leading to unwelcome production and customer delivery delays that Aston Martin could ill afford. The improved fuel injected Series 3 version changed the instrumentation to more reliable cathode ray tubes, later featuring a Vauxhall-type vacuum fluorescent display. For 1987 Towns (now independent) was contracted by Aston to create a heavily facelifted Lagonda, retaining the same doors and roof panels as the 1976 original, but with an all-new front and rear design; six small rectangular headlamps replacing the previous dual pop-up units.
Towns took his love it or loath it Lagonda styling to even greater extremes for Aston Martin in 1980 with the wedged Bulldog prototype, a distinctive gull-winged mid-engined prototype that boldly signaled the then-fragile British marque’s survival (aided by a healthy Lagonda order book that realistically help to save Aston Martin from oblivion), that sadly never made production.
Ahead of the Bulldog, as an admired freelance ‘pen for hire’, Towns earned the majority of his keep through industrial design, such as creating street furniture that we rarely now notice and take for granted. He continued to style other notable British cars though, such as the Jensen-Healey and Aston Martin’s proposed MG B refresh when the Newport Pagnell briefly bid (but failed) to take over MG’s historic Abingdon factory from Leyland Cars.
It was Towns’ ruler-sharp vehicle designs that established the gifted Warwickshire stylist’s ‘signature’ straight edged look, however. These included 1970s low-volume cars like the one-off GKN FFF rebodied Jensen coupe, his reworked Guyson Jaguar E-type, the razor-edged GS Cars Lotus Europa, the Mini-based Minisima (made famous as a Corgi Toy diecast model) and clever three-seater Microdot city car, effectively acting as his calling cards.
After the Aston Martin DBS/V8 and Lagonda, possibly William Towns’ most familiar and prolific other work was his crafty Hustler, a versatile straight-lined ‘utility’ car, along the lines of a Mini Moke. Initially developed in 1978 for JSP (Jensen Special Products) as simple to build and buy transportation for developing countries, when JSP failed to develop the Hustler, Towns brought the project in-house through his Interstyl design studio, offering this airy box on wheels with sliding doors as a basic Mini-based self-assembly kit car, initially available as a glassy three-door hatch/estate.
Over subsequent years, Towns stretched his cunningly-simple Hustler to encompass more than 30 derivatives, ranging from four- and six-wheelers, stripped-back open Hellcats, flat-plan wooden bodies, sporting coupes, MPV formats, wheelchair carriers, ice cream vans, amphibious ATVs, and even an engineless rowing boat, using the Hustler’s roof panel!
Hustler mechanical bases developed from Minis, through to Metro, BMC 1100/1300, Rover V8 and Jaguar V12-based derivatives, the latter being offered as the plush and imposing six-wheeled Highlander, a thinking man’s self-build Range Rover alternative, plus the UK’s first-ever four-door kit car to boot.
In addition to a pair of very satisfactory restyling jobs for Reliant – to enhance the styling of its capable but unpalatable Michelotti-designed Scimitar SS1 – William Towns remained faithful to his origami design philosophy with his Tracer TCX, an affordable MG Metro-powered mid-engined sports car that anticipated the later MG F, plus the retro-1930s inspired Black Prince roadster, in addition to developing a seemingly endless stream of new derivatives, based on his crafty, head-turning Hustler format.
Town’s final automotive project, ahead of his untimely death at a young 56, was reviving the distinguished Railton name, a pre-war English maker of fine quality, sporting motor cars. Launched in late 1989 with an imposing pair of convertible models, the refined F29 Claremont and sportier F28 Fairmile, these elegant Jaguar XJS-based drop-tops promised much, but build/panel fit complications, plus William’s ill health, leading to his sad passing in 1993, saw the Railton revival fail before it ever had chance to (re-) establish itself.
Aston Martin’s striking new one-off retro coupe is true ‘victor’ of design and William Towns’ legacy, even if it is perhaps a tad too curvy to be a Towns design! The car is a fitting tribute to Victor Gaunlett, the charismatic one-time owner (and saviour) of Aston Martin, but the nod to Williams Towns’ style and his important role in the marque’s fortunes should not be overlooked either. Who knows, perhaps we can look forward to hopefully seeing an Aston Martin Towns one day.
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