Aston Martin has always held a special place in my heart. As a boy, I remember watching Timothy Dalton drive across Arctic tundra in the V8 Vantage Volante, being chased by the Ruskies. Times have changed, though, and the Iron Curtain has fallen.
This issue, we couldn’t be further from tundra. This quarter, I convinced the ladies and gents at the hallowed Aston Martin Lagonda head office to loan us their new V12 DB9 Volante for an epic drive from Bristol to Antibes. The last time I drove across Europe was in a One Series BMW, following a team of 110 Defenders from Copenhagen to Monaco on the Gumball Rally. The trip itself was debauched, but the solo return journey from Nice to Bristol (in one day) was ill-advised for my mental health.
I had been told for a number of years by classic motoring friends, the drive down through France was a beautiful experience. I was determined to try it again in a car of substance; a car that truly defines automotive beauty in the 21st century.
The V12 DB9 Volante is a 2+2 convertible with more style and panache than the right half of Terry Thomas’s moustache. A car so well-balanced, so well built, it makes you shed a tear for this generation’s design students. How do you follow it?
When the car arrived on a sunny Thursday afternoon, I was meeting with my accountant, who by now knows better than to judge our fiscal reality based on the office driveway. Now, instead of raising her eyebrows when she sees a six figure-plus marque in the car park, she reacts like everyone in the office. iPhones held to head height, extend by two feet, press shutter button repeatedly. I can only assume she uses the images on social media to proclaim that her clients are doing better than Gerard Depardieu.
Once the office had cleared out, I took a stroll downstairs to take a proper look at this engineering deity. It was the first week of June, so the weather was perfect. The roof came down with no regard for people’s scornful looks in the city centre. Actually, it’s less scorn and more covetousness. I cannot begrudge people that – who wouldn’t yearn for a DB9.
The engine notes on ignition are like the angels of war calling forth reinforcements. It really does have a formidable sound. The AM11 engine is the most powerful in the DB9’s history, so it’s no surprise that it sounds like an archangel striking ground.
Rather than schlep across the channel with the roundabout appreciation society and hundreds of school children packed into coaches, we opted for the much quicker and frankly more-efficient Euro Tunnel. At a mere 35 minute crossing, it is three times faster than the good old ferry.
Arguably, you need to be careful keeping the DB9’s Pirelli P Zero’s inside the track lines in the shuttle bay, but at just over half an hour, you can’t afford to waste an hour-plus with the ferry.
35 minutes later, we were flying through the French countryside with the roof up. One thing you instantly realise is how quiet the car is for a convertible. It is ashamedly quieter than my hardtop, believe it or not. The silence is quickly broken by the 1000W Bang & Olufsen BeoSound wafting out The Black Keys to an unsuspecting French Sunday afternoon. Both Aston Martin and B&O were founded at the start of the 20th century and neither follow function – they clearly reinvent form. The audio system is a masterpiece, from the two speakers that arise, knighted, from the front dash to the soul-stirring bass.
The interior has that smell that only wallet-shredding cars produce. You would have thought that all car leather, irrespective of how you skin the cow, would generate that thick, leather, testosterone-fuelled musk, like Tom Ford smoking a cigar. And you would be wrong. Aston Martin use seven bridge of weir hides to trim the cabin of a DB9; it is beautifully appointed. The leather stitched detailing, the walnut, the carbon fibre gear paddles – as always, the interior is flawless. My only gripe with the paddles is the need to then push a circular button on the dash to reverse. I am sure though that anyone with the power of sight will say “I don’t care if it’s engineered by the Chuckle Brothers, take my money”. My advice is to keep the sport button pressed, however. The throttle awakens noticeably and the sound is like a pack of feral dogs truffle-hunting in a French forest.
At about 18:00, we arrived in Dijon on a lazy Sunday afternoon to collect Dr Farrow who had arrived from Heidelberg. Despite parking in a somewhat addled manner on the side of the road next to a junction, we received no beeping or shouting from our 2CV driving friends. Not a murmur, just the mere creak of necks as the locals drove past, craning to see the DB9 for a few more fleeting seconds.
They didn’t smile, of course. This is still France, and we had very yellow, very British number plates. I settled for the obvious sense of superiority that once derives from driving the epitome of British engineering through central France.
We had ourselves a deadline: the chateau dinner reservation. Having left the autoroute and taken a mortgage out at the Péage, I was faced with sunset-drenched country roads and a car full of weary passengers, who were not quite as adrenaline-fuelled as I was. The next time I drive across France, I will remember to have everyone else fly. Or, indeed, have them all killed.
The screaming was completely unnecessary; there was a good 30 meters of room and the vehicle holding up proceedings was (obviously) a small French car being driven by the most dishevelled old woman, no doubt heading for a Bastille re-enactment. Overtaking was the only sensible option, I assure you.
The car most definitely had the power. We made dinner with time to spare and I had the opportunity to use my Pigeon French to talk to the concierge about the love I had for the DB9. Aston Martin: breaking down cultural barriers.
The following morning, we set off from the chateau on the outskirts of Leon for our final 283-mile stretch to the Riviera. Despite my continued disdain for the French toll system, it does mean that mile after mile of beautifully-smooth tarmac is kept in pristine condition. The only thing that made the drive a little awkward was trying to pack four people into the DB9. No doubt short stints and children would be fine, but adults on a 12-hour cruise would be well-advised to shell out and get a car each. It’s the right way to do it, people.
The wide expanse of motorway surely turned into winding roads once again. The DB9 wills you onward, as if your self-preservation switch disengages in the pursuit of those enviable engine notes. Driving along the coastal road to the Villa Sandryon was breathtaking. White sand beaches, bright blue water and more non-French people on mopeds that you can shake a stick at.
The Aston handled like it was born on rails and, of course, demands that you stay on the power and enjoy yourself that little bit longer. I wondered if parking in the small coastal provinces of Cannes, Nice, Antibes and Juan Les Pins would be tricky. It was. The DB9 is no smart car and she certainly isn’t a moped. Luckily, the Aston Martin brand heritage is currency on the Riviera, so we were never far from a casino or hotel concierge who was willing to take the DB9 off of our hands for a fleeting moment.
Over the years, we have driven quite a few Astons, but the DB9 is by far my favourite thus far. Of course, I say that after driving each new Aston Martin. The DB9 is something special, though: another gold medal on Aston Martin’s journey to automotive nirvana. The car has lines as sharp as Jean Reno shooting you a glare across a bar for spilling his Pastis – and the minerals to back it up.
The DB9 is a car I know I can fawn over without fear of retribution; thankfully, everyone loves an Aston. You could pull up to the highest of ivory-clad Cannes-grade hotels and the most debauched of bars in the DB9.
The only question I was asked by the doormen, as they took my keys and sat in the car, was “Monsieur, what is that beautiful smell?”
“It’s my aftershave. I have it distilled from the bilge water of Rupert Murdoch’s yacht”.