Aston Martin’s stand at the Shanghai Auto Show is worth a second look, not just because it features the Skyfall DB5, but you’ll also find, right at the back, a cutaway of the latest Vanquish.
It’s been developed to show the evolution of the VH architecture, now in its 4th generation, and demonstrate the beauty of the company’s £200,000 supercar under the skin.
When the company’s CEO Dr Ulrich Bez joined Aston Martin in July 2000, he petitioned his (then) bosses at Ford to adopt a bonded and riveted aluminium platform for their cars.
His plan, to reduce the timeframe and cost of developing and producing new models, is now known as Aston Martin’s VH Architecture and while it has served the company well, it’s also one of the most misunderstood aspects of its cars.
Use of the word ‘architecture’ perhaps implies a one-size-fits-all approach, but to conclude this would be trivialising the immense amount of time and effort that goes into manufacturing cars on an industrial scale.
Let me explain.
There are three generic types of vehicle architecture, each with its own pros and cons depending on the volume of cars being produced and the level of complexity and customisation that the market allows.
Most mass produced cars are made using a stamped sheet monocoque for the underbody, which when made of steel accounts for around 30% of the vehicle’s mass.
Nowadays this usually includes a mixture of steel and aluminium, but is only economic for larger production volumes (those greater than 10,000 units per year) due to the high costs of tooling.
The two other types of architecture – extrusion structures and spaceframe assemblies tend to be favoured by low-volume car makers who can offset the more expensive materials (in the case of aluminium) through higher unit prices.
There’s another type of monocoque that most of us have seen, comprised of a one-piece carbon passenger cell complemented by an extruded aluminum crush structure at the front and aluminum spaceframe for the rear suspension, engine and gearbox. It’s this kind of MonoCell arrangement that you’ll find on McLaren’s MP4-12C, LaFerrari and the soon-to-be produced Alfa 4C.
Aston Martin’s VH Architecture is an example of an extruded aluminium design, although VH has nothing to do with the orientation of components. Instead it refers to the scalability of the architecture ‘Vertically’ up and down the Aston Martin range, and ‘Horizontally’ across the systems and components used.
With VH architecture, the outer body panels are non-structural, hence it allows for inexpensive restyles and completely new models to be developed more quickly. It also allows components to be upgraded across the model range independent of each major evolution of car. It’s all about flexibility, speed of innovation and cost.
The real innovators in this area of course were Lotus, who you’ll remember launched the ground-breaking Elise back in 1995. Lotus developed their Versatile Vehicle Architecture (VVA) based on an alloy tub made from extruded aluminium, which was then bonded and riveted.
Aston Martin turned to Lotus to craft a similar chassis for the first-generation Vanquish, released in 2001. But unlike the Elise, with its ‘step in’ chassis, the Vanquish became the first front-engine rear-wheel drive car to use the architecture.
Aston Martin’s very first VH architecture required its transmission and propshaft to be accommodated in the middle of the structure, and so the Vanquish tub used a carbon fibre tunnel running its length and forming a rigid, structural backbone to the chassis.
Lessons learned from its development were incorporated into future VH architectures – now in its 4th generation – which is partly why Aston Martin refer to it as an engineering methodology rather than a platform.
A methodology in its truest sense, is a series of guidelines and procedures for solving a problem (or in this case, building a car) which reuses proven techniques, tools, materials and methods.
In Aston Martin’s case it includes both working methods and reusable components, so a common set of physical elements (steering system, engine, front suspension) can be combined to deliver either the two-seat Vantage or four-door Rapide, all sharing the same design and assembly principles.
The same philosophy is true of Volkswagen’s MQB (Modular Transverse Matrix) platform, which is the company’s strategy for shared modular construction of its transverse, front-engined, front-wheel drive cars.
As with Aston Martin’s VH architecture, MQB is a standardised system for designing and manufacturing cars with the flexibility to optimise each element of the architecture to suit the model being produced.
Second generation Vanquish
The latest Vanquish, unveiled last June, features a lightweight bonded aluminium structure that’s been completely re-engineered, with carbon fibre now used for every external panel.
Knowledge gained from the wholesale use of composite materials (for the exterior bodywork) will now be made available to other models in the range, hence the VH architecture continually evolves..
The Vanquish also adopts a new centre stack inspired by the One-77, the new AM11 V12 engine positioned 19mm lower, and a newly designed and significantly more spacious cabin and boot – 60% larger than that of the DBS.
I’ve seen the Vanquish referred to as using the ‘old’ or ‘ageing’ VH architecture, which is a bit like saying Volkswagen’s MQB platform is old because it uses steel.
Such nonsense fails to recognise the improvements made by VH 4 over the company’s 2nd-generation VH architecture used in the DBS.
According to Aston Martin, the Vanquish is now 25% torsionally stiffer, with a 13% lighter front chassis structure. The company’s engineers also worked hard to centralise the car’s weight, achieving a weight distribution whereby 85% is now inside the wheelbase. As a result, yaw inertia was significantly reduced and the Vanquish is more agile than its predecessor.
As you’ll note from the pictures, there’s more to the Vanquish than its fancy carbon-fibre skin. And far from being locked into an ‘old’ platform, Aston Martin are now at the forefront of the latest vehicle architecture methodologies – just ask Volkswagen.