Behind the wheel of Agent 007's car

By , Automotive editor of The Christian Science Monitor

Will it really go that fast? I asked, peering at the 170 mph top figure on the speedometer.

''Not really,'' said Morris L. Hollowell IV, president of Aston Martin Lagonda, US distributor of the British-built sports car. Then he mentioned something about 145 mph in the US but faster in Europe without the US-required emissions gear.

Because this was the make of car driven by James Bond in the movie ''Goldfinger,'' maybe the speed potential can be excused. At least, no one has to drive that fast!

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So, as I turned the key in the door lock, I had visions of Agent 007 hunching over the wheel, foot to the floor, trying to dodge his pursuers--all the time spraying nails or an oil slick out the tail end of his car.

Yet I wasn't behind the wheel of an early-'60s DB5. Rather, I was holding the wheel of a '79 Aston Martin Volante ragtop with 23 coats of lacquer on the body and 6-ply tires on the road.

(The 1982 Volante I was scheduled to test-drive had just been sold, I was told by Mr. Hollowell, who pointed to some of the mechanical features of the car. Anyway, the cars are essentially the same, he said, except for the bumpers.)

Indeed, to sit behind the wheel of any Aston Martin, I soon found out, gives a feeling of sufficiency, of costly well-being, knowing full well that no one would ever dare to come too close to cause a scratch.

''How's everything, sir?'' the tolltaker smiled as I handed him 35 cents and then took off.

What I soon found out is that a few motorists know their cars! ''Thumbs up,'' they responded as they slowed down to take a look.

Most people, however, didn't have any idea what it was and probably didn't care.

''Hey, mister, is that a Mustang?'' a carful of teen-age males asked as I pulled up to a stoplight. ''No, an Aston Martin,'' I said--and they laughed. The light changed and I was on my way again.

''What's an Aston Martin?'' someone else asked, adding: ''I've never heard of it.''

It isn't surprising what with no more than 200 cars a year coming out the factory door.

Built in Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire, about 100 miles from London, an Aston Martin is a very special car which has been around since 1913. The company almost went belly-up in the mid-1970s, however, until rescued by Peter J. Sprague, an American businessman and head of National Semiconductor Corporation of Santa Clara, Calif.

Mr. Sprague now has divested himself of any ownership interest in the manufacturing company in England but still owns one-third of Aston Martin Lagonda Inc., the US distributor. The rest is owned by the carmaker.

Compared with Aston Martin, a Rolls-Royce is a mass-production car even though total Rolls output is under 3,500 a year. Only around 60 of the 200 Aston Martins a year are sent to the US.

Hand-built in time-honored tradition at the rate of five cars a week--powered by a 5.4-liter V-8 engine--the cars are fitted with 4-wheel independent suspension, 4-wheel disc brakes, and power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering for excellent ride and handling en route.

The engine in the car I've just been driving was built by Bert Nash, according to a small brass plaque attached to the four-cam V-8. Nash is one of four engine builders who assemble the engines a piece at a time.

''Take your time and do it right,'' the workers are told.

The automatic transmission (two-thirds of the cars have automatics) is provided by Chrysler Corporation while the 5-speed manual transmission comes from West Germany.

All the body pieces, including the doors, are formed by hand--everything, that is, except the roof. When completed, it all fits to a T, the seams hammered by hand and filed until the body becomes one.

''There are 2,400 hours of hand work in every car,'' says Mr. Hollowell.

Thus the high price--just under $100,000 for the coupe, $115,000 for the Volante softtop, and a whopping $150,000 for the 4-door wedge-shaped Lagonda due to be introduced in the US in June. It already has been on sale in Europe since 1979.

Why such a high price? The laborious, slow-paced construction process quickly comes to mind.

What's the horsepower of an Aston Martin automobile? Don't ask because they won't tell you.

''It's just not important,'' says Hollowell.

While the tachometer has no redline--surprising, it seems to me--the leather-bound owner's manual cautions against extensive driving with the needle above 6250 rpm.

Disc brakes are used on all four wheels. Braking is hard, but it's intended that way. To stop fast, use both feet on the brake pedal, Mr. Hollowell advises.

As for mileage on the road, it's bad by any measure. My figure was 11 to 12, but much of my driving was on the highway.

Thus, because of its low mpg, the car carries, in addition to a lofty price, a onetime ''gas guzzler'' tax--$1,200 in 1982 but going up next year and the next--levied by the US government on cars that fall below the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) figure decreed by Congress--24 mpg in 1982.

Who cares about the tax, anyway? Certainly not the people who can afford to indulge their automotive fantasies and buy an Aston Martin. Out of 12 dealerships nationwide, one is situated in Midland, Texas. Oil, that is!

Owners often drive to one of the dealerships - sometimes from great distances--leave the car, fly home, and then come back a few days or a week later to pick it up.

Ah yes, it's fun to drive an Aston Martin, certainly one of the best that Britain has to offer these days--a British crown jewel, an English Ferrari. But now, my balloon deflated, I'm back on earth once more.

Exclusivity! That's the Aston Martin. Since 1913, fewer than 9,000 have been built.

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