Anyone who has watched the cult 1968 movie Bullitt, in which Steve McQueen embarks on a high-speed chase through San Francisco at the wheel of a Ford Mustang fastback, will know that the scene’s soundtrack is dominated by the squeal of tyres and the rise-and-fall of the car’s growling engine as the star’s character, Lieutenant Frank Bullitt, changes up and down through the gearbox in his bid to catch his prey.
More than 50 years later, the art of manual gear-changing is rapidly dying out in the world of high-performance cars due to the fact that the large majority are now fitted with Formula One-style semi-automatic, pedal-free transmissions operated by steering-wheel-mounted paddles – in fact, the only new V8-engined sports car offered with a stick shift was (until recently) the modern-day Mustang.
But now Aston Martin has met a call from purists seeking to revisit the more connected driving experience of a manual box by making one available on its Vantage sports coupe – and it’s an option that many believe turns an already great car into a truly sublime one. The manual transmission will initially be available on a limited edition of 200 cars called the Vantage AMR (for Aston Martin Racing), 59 of which are painted in Sterling Green, a replica of the colour worn by the DBR1 cars which came first and second at the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Under the bonnet lives the same four-litre, 510PS, twin-turbo V8 found in the regular Vantage, but the installation of the manual transmission and the substitution of the standard brake discs for carbon ceramic ones has trimmed a substantial 31 kilos off the car’s weight.
The seven-speed, race-specification Dana Graziano gearbox takes the classic “dog-leg” configuration, with first gear being engaged by moving the lever left and back, and second-to-seventh in the traditional “double H” pattern.
Settling in behind the wheel and discovering that third pedal for the first time instantly makes the Vantage AMR feel more involving, and there’s something wonderfully refreshing about pulling away in a new high-performance vehicle that doesn’t feel as if it’s doing an important part of the driving for you.
Wet roads on the test day combined with that punchy engine, the manual gearbox and the AMR’s limited-slip differential made for a thrillingly raw experience, not least since the car’s traction control systems are “dialled down” to enhance driver feel; the car has a far looser tail than most of its ilk.
But Aston Martin’s engineers have brought the manual gearbox right into the 21st-century with a nifty feature called Amshift, which not only “blips” the accelerator while braking and changing gear to allow smoother shifts, but also makes it possible to change up through the gears at full throttle – initially a counter-intuitive thing to do, but eventually great fun.
Getting used to the positions of all those gears isn’t something that happens instantly. The fact that there are seven of them means they are extremely close together and I drove the car for a good 30 miles before feeling entirely confident that I was able to select the ratio I wanted – but that’s all part of the relationship-building exercise that makes the AMR such a driver’s car. It is available in a choice of Sabiro Blue, Onyx Black, China Grey or White Stone with 59 special “Vantage 59” models having Sterling Green and lime exterior paint finishes with a leather, Alcantara and lime-striped interior.
The standard Vantage AMR costs £149,995, and Vantage 59 models £164,995. Following the sale of all 200 AMR models, the manual gearbox will remain as a Vantage option from 2020. And if you’re not yet convinced about going back to the future with a manual sports car, revisit that Bullitt car chase. It just wouldn't be the same without stick-shift...