The Alvis we saw yesterday may have been a posh lady in a conservative dress, but today we’re going to take a look at automotive royalty in a designer gown. The Lagonda Rapide had a DOHC 4-litre engine, a top speed of 125 mph, independent suspension and disc brakes all around and the best interior this side of a Rolls-Royce. Yet, it failed miserably and led to the end of the marque itself – four-door Aston Martins would sometimes use the moniker as a model name, but the brand died with the ‘60s Rapide. Was this David Brown’s ultimate Deadly Sin?
Based in Staines, Lagonda started making cars in 1907. By the early ‘30s, the firm had developed its production to include the 1.1 litre Rapier, a 2-litre mid-range car and luxury models from 3 to 4.5 litres. The company went bust in 1935 but was rescued by Alan P. Good, who focused it on the higher end of the market. The 6-cyl. Lagonda LG6 and the 200 bhp V12 Rapide were very expensive and fast cars, clad in beautiful bespoke bodies by Britain’s best coachbuilders. The engines were designed by Walter Owen Bentley himself, now that his company had been taken over by Rolls-Royce.
In 1945, Lagonda were preparing their latest model, which W.O. Bentley also engineered. The times called for a smaller car, so the post-war Lagondas would make do with a new DOHC 2.6 litre six instead of the massive V12s of yore. Before any cars were actually built, Lagonda decided to advertise their upcoming product, displaying the renowned engineer’s name in bold letters (or, as in the 1947 advert below, his signature).
Rolls-Royce, who owned the Bentley marque, took exception to this ploy and sued. Lagonda lost the court case and had to pay a huge sum to Rolls, as well as hefty legal fees. The company failed to sell any 2.6 litre chassis (which weren’t really ready for prime-time yet in any case): steel was rationed and Lagonda were not awarded sufficient quantities, plus the purchase tax was doubled in mid-1947, which did not help the struggling automaker. Bankruptcy seemed inevitable, as Lagonda resorted to assemble a handful of V12 Rapide chassis using pre-war leftover stocks to try and generate cash-flow.
Enter David Brown, a tractor and gearbox magnate who had just bought Aston Martin a few months before. Brown acquired Lagonda from Alan Good for a cool £52,000, including six prototype chassis of the promising Bentley-designed 2.6 litre (with Cotal gearboxes) and a few spare engines. The cars were evaluated, mated to a David Brown 4-speed gearbox and production was started at the Aston Martin factory (the Staines works were quickly sold off). By late 1948, the new Lagonda was unveiled at Earl’s Court, along with the new Aston Martin 2-litre. The potential of the 105 bhp Lagonda straight-6 was pretty evident, and it soon replaced the Aston four-pot in the DB2.
The division of brands was now clear: Aston Martins would be sporting two-door cars and Lagondas would keep making their rather bulbous tourers, coupés and saloons. Most bodies were built by Tickford in Newport Pagnell, which was eventually bought by David Brown in 1955. All Aston Martin / Lagonda production was moved to Tickford’s works in the late ‘50s.
The rather old-fashioned Lagondas received a complete restyle in late 1953, as well as a straight-6 bored out to “3 litres” (actually 2922 cc). But sales remained heavily skewed towards the more glamorous Aston Martin range. The Lagonda 3-litre lingered on for several years, sold only with RHD and finding clients only in older well-heeled gentlemen (and the Duke of Edinburgh) who disliked Daimlers. By late 1957, the 266th and final Lagonda 3-litre chassis had been made, and no new car was ready to take its place.
But David Brown had other ideas. He was perhaps the marque’s only ardent supporter, but he also owned it. He pestered his engineering department with demands for a new four-door saloon, using the upcoming DB4 as a starting point. They responded that the Aston required all their attention, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Dragging their feet, the Aston Martin engineers were saddled with the new project and a list of demands. The DB4’s development suffered from this decision, although the car was a success.
The new Lagonda would necessarily be heavier than the Aston, so David Brown wanted a bigger engine than the DB4’s 3.7 litre straight-6, which was based on the old Lagonda engine but heavily modified by Tadek Marek. Other demands were for the four-door car to have a large trunk, all possible luxuries and gadgets, an automatic gearbox and independent rear suspension, both to improve the ride and help free up rear seat space.
The new car’s styling, courtesy of Touring, was influenced by a couple of early ‘50s prototypes designed by Lagonda’s Frank Feeley – the “Red Monster” and the “Brown Bomber” – that Brown had used extensively back in the day. The latter car’s all-alloy 4.5 litre V12 proved a complete and costly failure, but its all-round independent suspension was deemed very satisfactory. The new model’s name would obviously recall the pre-war glory years: the Rapide was born again.
Working frantically, the folks at Newport Pagnell managed to get a car ready in time for the Paris Motor Show in October 1961, where it was launched, sandwiched between two DB4s. The Rapide was met with relative indifference by most of the motoring press at the time, who wondered whether this was a one-off or a real production car. The problem was that Aston Martin really did not have the capacity to produce the car, as they were selling as many DB4s as they could make at the time.
In 1962, about a dozen Lagonda Rapides were built. Ads and brochures were printed and disseminated, but the actual car was rarely seen. Building them was a time-consuming process within a cramped factory abuzz with DB4 activity: the Aston Martin’s order book was overflowing and down payments had been made even before the cars were being put together. By contrast, Rapides were usually ordered by folks who played golf with David Brown, and precious few others.
Tickford, who had licensed the Touring “Superleggera” technique (as it had the DB4), had no particular problems with the Rapide’s body, but the extra care taken into the interior’s fit and finish – plus the electric windows, remotely operated fuel filler flap, picnic tables and other trinkets demanded by David Brown – were far more labour-intensive than the DB4s.
Consequently, the Rapide was priced at over £1200 more than its two-door cousin: the Lagonda retailed at £5251 when it debuted – perilously close to a factory-bodied Bentley S2 and well over twice the price of the new Jaguar Mk X, whose launch had upstaged the Rapide at the 1961 London Motor Show. One big problem was that Lagonda’s name was virtually unknown outside the British Isles, whereas Bentleys and Jags were internationally-renowned A-listers.
Also, it soon became evident that the Rapide had a serious design flaw. The few cars that were running soon started to make a rather strange noise at the back. The engineering department soon got to the nub of the issue: the de Dion rear suspension set-up was at fault. The rear wheel hubs were about an inch too short, which meant the transmission arms were angled very slightly coming out of the final drive. This led to a clonking sound and the premature failure of the splines at about 7000 miles. Whoops!
Unfortunately, there was little that could be done, aside from ad hoc careful factory setting to mitigate wear. The issue was discovered by 1963, when production was (relatively) taking off. That year, around 35 Rapides were built and sold, including a few LHD cars and a handful equipped with the David Brown 4-speed gearbox in lieu of the 3-speed auto. About £900 came off the asking price by then, but sales remained sluggish.
The market for fast four-door saloons seemed to be more limited than previously thought. It wasn’t exactly overcrowded back in those days: the Rapide’s only real contemporary rivals were the Facel-Vega Excellence EX2 (1961-63) and the Maserati Tipo 107 Quattroporte. Bentleys, Daimlers and American luxobarges were not in the same league in terms of performance or style and Iso, Monteverdi or Mercedes-Benz were years away from producing their version of the four-door ‘60s supercar.
The Frua-styled Maserati, which was launched at the 1963 Turin Motor Show, was probably the last nail in the Rapide’s coffin. The Italian saloon had a V8 where the English car made do with a six (the V12 Jaguar would avenge Britain’s honour in the next decade) and had actual legroom at the rear. After all, if one wants to buy a super-expensive four-door car, it should be comfy in the back – and the Lagonda was pretty stingy with the legroom. The front seat were much better, although the 6-cyl. and the Borg-Warner autobox did provide the driver and front passenger with a tropical micro-climate that only the optional A/C could possibly alleviate on warm days.
Another glaring issue was the Rapide’s front end. The canted quad headlights were not to everyone’s taste (though the Lagonda is not the only car with “Chinese eyes”, to use the period expression), but that coupled with the vertical horseshoe grille? Not a few critics then and now saw a bit of the ’58 Edsel in the Rapide – and in those days, that was decidedly not a compliment.
The game was up by 1964. A trickle of cars were produced that year and David Brown saw that his Lagonda re-launch had been a costly flop. One works car (originally made in 1962) was given a restyled front end, in an attempt to dilute the Edsel cues that manifestly bothered a number of potential clients. This could have been the Rapide Mark II, but the company preferred to cut its losses there and then. With a grand total of 55 cars made in three years, the Lagonda marque went to the graveyard in infamy.
The Rapide’s 4-litre plant was put to good use on the new Aston Martin DB5, but the “de Dion de Debacle” threw cold water on Tadek Marek’s plans for a similar set-up in upcoming Astons for a while. The DB5 and DB6 stuck to their well-proven live axles; the de Dion only returned in the 1967 DBS. David Brown still lusted after a four-door, so a sole DBS V8 saloon was made for his personal use in 1969. It wore Lagonda badges, but it was titled as an Aston Martin, the Lagonda name now being Aston-speak for “four-door”.
And this would be the case for most of the four-door cars that Aston would make, episodically, from then on. Based on the 1969 DBS design, a handful of V8 saloons were made in the mid-‘70s, soon followed by the famous wedge-shaped Aston Martin Lagonda of 1978-1990. Both of these remarkably dissimilar cars were penned by William Towns. Then came the bizarre Ghia-made “Vignale” prototype of 1993. These were all Astons that used “Lagonda” as a model name. A few chunky Virage saloons (and a couple five-door wagons) were made in the late ‘90s, chiefly for the royal family of Brunei, but these did not wear Lagonda badges.
More recently, the Aston Martin Rapide reintroduced the four-door concept to a rejuvenated Aston marque – but the Lagonda name was not used. Only very recently did it finally reappear in the Lagonda Taraf, an ultra-exclusive V12 saloon that is currently in limited production for a few lucky oil sheiks.
Since the ‘60s, the Lagonda Rapide has had a tough time on the second-hand market, though 90% of the 55 cars made still exist. One was converted to a station wagon ten years ago by Carrosserie Ltd., proving that the car’s appeal may be on the rise after decades in the “Where are they now?” file. David Brown’s Deadly Sin was to rush the Rapide’s development against the wishes of his staff. Personal vanity projects such as the Rapide rarely end well for those who initiate them (see also: Monica 560, Cadillac Allanté, Plymouth Prowler, etc.)
And we’ll have a look at one of those in tomorrow’s third and final British Deadly Sins of the ‘60s: the mythical Gordon-Keeble, a Chevy-powered Giugiaro-styled rocket ship that hardly left its launch pad, though it did a little better than the Lagonda in terms of production totals.