It’s strange, is it not, that amongst the growing wave of automotive icons being ‘reimagined’ by assorted specialists, the project that seems to have set teeth on edge is the only one to be led by the man responsible for the design of the original car.
I’m referring, of course, to the Callum Vanquish 25 – a bespoke and strictly limited run of 25 comprehensively uprated and restyled Mk1 Aston Martin Vanquishes. Built at Callum’s Warwickshire HQ (and UK base of Swiss-backed R-Reforged, who co-funded the Callum Vanquish programme), the Vanquish 25 is Ian Callum’s first independent car project since leaving his role as design director at Jaguar.
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Personally I’ve always been smitten by the original Vanquish and rate it as Callum’s finest work. While I’ll readily concede the extensive upgrades to engine, chassis and brakes promise to refine and invigorate a car that was never short of character and charisma, but had a few dynamic weaknesses, I’ve never felt it wanted for anything in the looks department. Still, if anyone has a right to revisit the Vanquish, it’s Ian Callum.
Looking at images and standing next to an actual car are two very different things. This much is apparent when I see a Vanquish 25 in the metal for the first time. It looks good. In fact it looks bloody fantastic, the upsized wheels (which remain faithful to the original design), 10mm lower ride height and 60mm wider track ensuring the 20-inch alloys brim the arches where the originals now look a little undernourished.
Callum has taken a nose-to-tail approach with his aesthetic changes. Some you notice immediately, such as the brake cooling ducts set in the cheeks of the front bumpers and the new LED headlights, while the billet machined grille and ‘abstract tartan’ design mesh in the bonnet vents are things you spot as you spend more time with the car.
What you appreciate very quickly is that this isn’t a half-hearted revamp. The new headlamp and tail light units, for example, are ferociously expensive – circa £500k – to have manufactured (and Type Approved) in such small volumes. It’s items such as this that are indicative of the lengths Callum and R-Reforged have gone to.
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It’s the same story inside, which is where I’ll concede the original Vanquish has really begun to date. In place of the silver-painted centre stack there’s an all-new carbonfibre section, which is bordered by a huge wraparound metal frame, machined in one piece from billet. The instruments and detachable clock are made by English watchmaker Bremont and add another layer of quality and bespoke detailing. There’s also Apple CarPlay and a up-to-date hi-fi system.
Another considerable commitment was made in redesigning the front seats to help sit the driver lower in the car. Together with a steering wheel spacer it transforms the Vanquish’s driving position from too high to just right. You get the sense if it had been realistic to swap the steering wheel Ian Callum would have done so, as the original has never been a thing of beauty, what with the large airbag boss and overly fat and awkwardly shaped rim. But this hasn’t stopped R‑Reforged putting the wheel on a five-axis milling machine and reducing the diameter of the metal rim, before retrimming it. It’s another small but important improvement.
Speaking to Callum co-founder and engineering lead Adam Donfrancesco, beyond the styling alterations led by Ian, the primary objective was to enhance the connection between car and driver, and for the overall uplift in performance and handling to mirror that projected by the design changes. As he explains, the desire was meaningful and measured improvement, not a complete reinvention: ‘We took a holistic view of the project, identifying the things we liked about the original car and the things we’d like to improve or evolve. The thing we never wanted to lose sight of is that it’s a GT car. We didn’t want to corrupt it by turning it into something hard and unforgiving. Broadly speaking we wanted to give the car more performance, but more importantly we wanted to give it a greater sense of feel and connection.’
We’re here to drive Development Prototype #03, which features the latest iteration chassis tune, engine electronics and interior trim. With another development prototype also in the workshops (fitted with a torque converter automatic transmission in place of the original car’s ASM single-clutch paddleshift gearbox) there’s clearly an underlying foundation to Callum and R-Reforged’s approach, much as you’d find at a major car manufacturer. That’s no coincidence, for in addition to Callum’s career at Aston Martin and Jaguar, Donfrancesco also worked at Aston Martin, helping to develop cars such as the Vantage GT8 and GT12. Prior to this he worked at Noble Automotive and Jaguar Land Rover. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, though, so we take the Vanquish 25 and head off in search of some decent A- and B-roads on which to put it to the test.
From the instant you push the starter button you can hear and feel the difference. While the 5.9-litre naturally aspirated V12 has had nothing done to its major internals, the combination of work to the cylinder heads, calibration changes and new exhaust system from manifolds to back box give it an immediate uplift in urgency.
The manifolds have been pulse tuned to reduce back pressure, and the main silencer box has been acoustically tuned for a zestier soundtrack. The underside of the silencer has also been shaped to form the upper surface of the rear diffuser, which not only removes the need for an additional undertray, but helps dissipate heat more effectively.
Prototype #03 is fitted with the popular Aston Martin Works manual conversion, making the Vanquish 25 the only car we can think of with a choice of three transmission options. It has a transformative effect on the Vanquish driving experience by immediately immersing you in the process of driving. This is the ’box I would spec.
With a boost of 60bhp over the standard Vanquish S (lifting power to 580bhp) and a revvier, freer breathing delivery, you can’t help but drive this Vanquish with plenty of enthusiasm. It romps through the intermediate gears, yet retains a muscular and generous delivery that supports slotting a high gear and revelling in the elastic, big-hearted style that only a V12 can deliver.
This added energy to the engine’s delivery places more demands on the chassis, which in standard spec was always tuned for GT pliancy. Good to seven or eight tenths, when extended further it betrayed a lack of agility, a reluctance to change direction and an exaggerated sense of bulk. When really pressing on the rear end would ultimately run out of support and fall onto the outside rear wheel.
The Vanquish 25 is considerably more composed, with a tautness that suits its intensified performance, yet with enough compliance to remain true to the GT car brief. Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S tyres are predictably grippy and feelsome, and work very nicely in conjunction with Donfrancesco’s carefully tuned Bilstein dampers, new bushing material and stiffer anti-roll bars. The car rotates much more keenly into corners, yet never seems to ask too much from the rear. It inspires greater confidence, has brighter and more detailed feel and carries more speed into, through and out of any corner you care to point it at.
The final piece of the puzzle is the brakes. An adaptation of Aston Martin’s carbon-ceramic system, they address one of the standard Vanquish’s weaker aspects. With a firmer pedal and plenty of powerful yet progressive stopping power they complement the engine and chassis upgrades perfectly. There’s a fraction too much initial travel, but Donfrancesco is working on improvements, so they should be on the button by the time customer cars are delivered.
Like the products of Singer, Eagle and Alfaholics, the Callum Vanquish doesn’t come cheap. You’ll need £550,000 to buy one, though this does allow for the cost of a sourced Vanquish base car if you don’t already own one. Of those already sold, some are bringing a much-loved car to be Callumed. Others are former Vanquish owners who would like to own another that’s capable of impressing in 2022.
And I can see the appeal. Having arrived feeling uncertain how I’d react to a reduxed version of one of my favourite 21st century Astons, I head home feeling impressed and excited, both by the impressive way Callum and R-Reforged operate and the completeness of the car they have built.
Callum Vanquish 25 by R-Reforged specs