(first posted 3/17/2017) 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.
Lots of great details on a car that I certainly was aware of from way back. I didn’t realize though that the legendary AM DOHC six was originally designed by W.O. Bentley.
Yes, these cars always had an outsider feel and reputation, and just didn’t ever find any traction. Which is a bit odd, as it clearly had the basic ingredients to be more successful. But the ingredients aren’t enough; they have to be cooked up by a master chef, and the rapide obviously lacked that.
I never knew that Lagonda was a brand apart from AM. Thanks for the great article!
I’m bothered more by the ‘Chinese eyes’ than the so-called ‘Edsel-grille’.
OTOH, I prefer those headlights to the ‘lizard eyes’ on today’s cars.
Happy Motoring, Mark
Hmm, another I had no idea about.
DougD industries would have taken the 6 cyl engine and never bothered with the Lagonda part, but since I have not become an industrial tyrant I don’t follow the correct thought process for this sort of thing anyway…
I had an opportunity to sit in both late-model Vantage and Rapide. The former is quite a very tight fit for me while the latter is more than adequate for my height at expense of rear passenger legroom behind me.
Two things jumped out at me when sitting in both models: both of them had strong smell of glue used to adhere the leather hide to the dashboard and interior trim. It reeked of UHU, a well-known German household glue.
While I liked both, I didn’t appreciate the lame-arsed door hinge mechanism. The doors don’t open horizontially like many other vehicles. They open slightly upward, which has the annoying disadvantage. The doors keep closing onto the body due to their weight overwhelming the hold mechanism.
This is my favorite ‘deadly sin’ — whenever I’ve seen pictures of Rapides, I’ve been fascinated by them. Until now, I knew virtually nothing about the cars, or about their failures.
This is one of the few car designs using canted headlights that I think is a successful design. It’s assertive-looking without being aggressive or obnoxious. However, I completely understand why others may find the design objectionable.
What really surprises me is the lack of rear seat room. When I first saw the photo, I assumed the front seats were adjusted far back, but in reading the article, I get the impression that the cramped rear quarters was a known trait of these cars. I really wonder where all the room went — from the profile shot, the car seems plenty long to accommodate a generously-sized rear seat, and the failure to provide for this almost inexcusable, given the effort taken to produce the car in the first place.
Thanks for the great article and illustrations!
All folks who sat at the back of these commented on the lack of legroom. One reviewer called it a “2+2”, comparing it (unfavourably) to a Jaguar Mk 2! It is puzzling how tiny the car is on the inside. They definitely didn’t do the same mistake on the V8 wedge — that one is hyuuuge.
What a contrast in space efficiency between the Lagonda Rapide and the stillborn Alvis TA 350. That was classic Issigonis … maximum wheelbase with very little overhangs.
As you mention, the headlights were not as out of place in an ultra-high end english car as might assumed. They were on the contemporaneous Rolls Royce Silver Cloud III Mulliner Park Ward (as driven by Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack, around 100 made) and in a more extreme form on the Jensen C-V8.
And the Jensen
And tomorrow’s Gordon-Keeble can be added to the list (also, the Triumph Vitesse). Quite a lot of British cars with that styling, it seems. Should call them Albion Eyes.
A shame the Brown Bomber prototype’s all-alloy 4.5-litre V12 proved to be a complete and costly failure, which in racing tune via the DP115/DP166 sportscars only managed to put around 321 hp (initially 280 hp) instead of the projected 350 hp.
Makes one wonder how the road-going V12 would have compared to the Tadek Marek designed 3.7-4.0 DOHC Inline-6 and 5.3 V8 engines had all the problems been ironed out. Like the idea of Aston Martin beating Jaguar to produce the first post-war British V12 engine, apparently Triumph also looked into producing a V12 (along with a 6-cylinder) during early development of what eventually became the Slant-4 / V8 engine family.
Expanding further on Aston Martin’s interest in selling its engines to other carmakers such as Alvis in yesterday’s British Deadly Sins article as well as the Volvo-commissioned 151 hp 2.5 DP208 DOHC Inline-4 used in a Volvo P1800 prototype (derived from the 3.7 DOHC Inline-6), is it known what other carmakers were approached by Aston Martin or vice versa on similar projects prior to being acquired by Ford?
HORROR OF HORRORS!!!!!!!
A Triumph TR7/Stag/SAAB 99 v12!!!!!!
DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!!!!!!
Just leave the development work on the engine family to SAAB via a continued collaboration and all will be well. SAAB themselves did produce a potent prototype V8 engine that was distantly related to the infamous Triumph V8
Though cannot see the Triumph-SAAB V12 happening if Jaguar is in the equation outside of a distantly possible flagship Triumph supercar.
So the Lagonda’s “independent” rear suspension turns out to be de Dion instead … which is NOT independent at all, because it uses a single axle to link the wheels. Not that this is a bad thing: the version that Spanish engineer Wilfredo Ricart designed for Alfa Romeo and then applied to his postwar Pegaso sports cars was used in several Alfa Romeo cars, one of which (a Milano) I am pleased to drive as often as I can. It’s a nifty design, and with the diff and inboard brakes mounted to the chassis allows a whole lot less unsprung weight, but there is still that axle, even though it is a relatively lightweight hollow tube.
Strictly speaking, de Dions are not independent — but they’re not live axles either. Kind of a half-way point. In the ’60s, that was considered good enough to be called “independent” both by the motoring press and the automakers.
Agreed that deDion is neither independent or live axle, but I don’t really remember the press or automakers ever calling it “independent rear suspension”. Maybe there were some exceptions, but I grew up reading magazines and literature in the 60s that always called it “deDion”, or possibly “semi-independent”. It was one of those early mysteries that made me feel accomplished when I finally understood (seeing a graphic) how it worked.
Likewise — I’ve only ever seen “De Dion,” with or without more detailed description.
The De Dion axle’s lack of independence was for a time considered a virtue because it avoided the camber-changing antics of swing axles without the unsprung mass of a live axle.
Its main failing wasn’t the interconnection of the wheels per se, but rather that both of the major options for dealing with track changes — sliding splines or Rover P6-style telescoping beam — had drawbacks of their own.
Also, as good as it may be for unsprung weight, I’ve never thought inboard brakes were a particularly sensible idea for a production car, which I assume is why they’re very rare today.
I wonder how hard it really would have been to fix this problem correctly. From what I understand, the same basic suspension was used on the later DBS, so maybe those parts can be swapped into a Rapide? Since they were basically building these by hand, why couldn’t they have just swapped out the rear hubs? David Brown wasn’t hurting for money back in those days. Instead it sounds like the reputation was ruined and the marque died.
According to HP Books Auto Dictionary, “the de Dion axle provides the unsprung weight of independent suspension with the stability of a solid axle”, and it goes on to say, “final drive system with a differential or transaxle bolted to the frame; exposed U-jointed half-shafts driving the wheels; and a separate dead axle, usually a tube, which connects the wheels and holds them upright and also supports the springs…”. Dr. H.A. Fitzpatrick, someone editor Nick Georgano picked to write the Lagonda history in the 1982 edition of the Complete Encyclopedia of Motorcars, wrote in one same paragraph that the 1962-1964 Lagonda Rapide had independent springing all around and had a de Dion rear axle(adding to the confusion).
Maybe one of the factors that led to the unpopularity of this model was it’s niche as the ultimate luxurious fast sedan/saloon, when one year later, the Mercedes-Benz 600 Sedan was introduced, not by any means less expensive but by comparison, relegating the Lagonda Rapide to just a DB4 4DR. I’m certain that even the Bentley people were shocked when the 600 appeared.
But, what a super history tale about the Lagonda Rapide. I just finished a very short column a week ago for this very same car, but not nearly as informative as your piece. Well done.
I had completely forgotten that my father had a Lagonda 3 litre drophead in the late 70s. Maybe that reflects its status in our family. As a car-obsessed child I can’t remember ever having been driven in it, and it was sold within weeks of us returning to the UK from three years in the US. I haven’t seen one since. I vaguely recall my mother having told me that my father bought it by accident thinking it was a pre-war Lagonda. Anyway it was one ugly beast. It seemed ancient to me as a 20-25 year old car in 1978 – did design move on that far between the 50s to the 70s or am I getting old in that a car from the mid-90s seems quite modern to me these days!?
Probably a bit of both – the 1960s pretty much saw an end to separate wings with bonnets/hoods and boots/trunks set between them and increasing rake on front and rear screens has led towards the smooth integrated look. Apart from the vagaries of styling, what has changed since the ’90s is the amount of technology both to run the engines, control the suspension and all kinds of add-on convenience & communication features. The actual ‘box’ isn’t so different since they went aerodynamic.
That 1954 DHC looks pretty appealing to me! I got the chance to get close to, and sit in one of those wedge shaped Lagondas. Very strange with the angular styling, not attractive. The interior was nice except for the dashboard. The flat surface controls look like the ones used on my microwave. That photo of the Aston DB2 emerging from the factory is priceless. Those DB2s and DB3s are now one of my favorites.
How do you steer this thing? Looks like the steering wheel is fixed. Maybe a good hint for new Citroen DS, to have not only brake by pressure, but also steering by pressure 🙂
Given their customary reliability, I presume many controls depended heavily on prayer.
Saw one of these recently at a car show.
An unmistakable design, inside and out.
Very enjoyable article. Thanks.
Thanks. My dad had a 2.6 in the early 60’s. The DVD Ripide was my dream car as a teenager!
I believe the all-electric Mitsubishi i‑MiEV had a deDion rear suspension. About ten years ago, the local Mitsubishi dealer had one in stock, so I took a look underneath.
The torsion beam rear suspension of the current AWD Mazda3, CX-30 and CX-50 is somewhat deDion-like. Perhaps 3/4-independent?
I knew of one, a fitter at the powerstation workshop I worked in was reviving it the car belonged to the then owner of Huka lodge, Ive no idea if it ever made it back into the road.
Where’s Mr. T87 now? He used to post quite frequently here. Is he busy with his main job?
It made un odd silverscreen apperence. In one Dirty Harry movie (I think it was magnum force) I saw a strange car in the background and took a screenshot. What the crew responsible for vehicles were thinking when they thought a bumperless lagonda was a good car to sit on dockworkers parkinglot, I do not know.
The postwar Lagonda looks like a car from The Far Side.