Aston Martin Rapide S: Pilots Put James Bond Car to the Test

By Christine Negroni on 10 January 2014
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group shotDanbury, Connecticut—It isn’t too hard to understand why Learjet and Aston Martin would pair up to celebrate their anniversaries in 2013; Fifty for Lear, 100 for Aston Martin.  But let’s face it, only a privileged few have the opportunity to fly on a Learjet or drive an Aston Martin. Aside from exclusivity do other commonalities exist between flying a plane and driving a high-end car?   As it turned out, I’m not the first person to wonder about that.

Forty years ago, Ford Motor Company assembled a group of 50 Continental Airlines pilots to compare the Mercury Marquis to a Rolls Royce, an automobile worth $147,000 in today’s dollars. Ford was planning an ad campaign based on the expert opinion of these men whom they described as “professionals with acute sensitivity to motion, vibration and noise.”

Captains Jim Hughbanks and Jim Farrow, now retired, were two of the pilots who made the drive at Colorado’s Red Rock Park.  Afterwards they answered questions about the experience.  A group photo was taken at Denver’s Stapleton airport and it included the Marquis and a Boeing 727 jetliner. It was used for a full page ad in Look magazine, with this headline-making claim, “Forty four out of fifty airline pilots judge the 1973 Mercury more comfortable than a $31,000 European town car.”

“It was a big advertising scheme,” Capt. Farrow said, remembering that he saw it in several magazines, though he was not one of the 10 pilots in the particular photo that ran in Look. His friend, Capt. Hughbanks was front and center with a hand resting comfortably on the car’s door handle.

For participating, “all of us got a couple hundred bucks,” Hughbanks told me. It didn’t matter if they gave a favorable report on the ride, everyone got paid he said. Even so he remembers “most of us thought the Mercury was quieter and handled better.”

The ad is surely a very small piece of Ford history. When I contacted the company, no one seemed to even remember it. But what happened during the drive is worth noting.

“There was a motorcycle police escort for the test drive and the pilot drivers were encouraged to keep the lead officer in sight at all times,” Hughbanks told me.  One driver was trying to comply when “he slid the Rolls Royce into a rock in the side of the mountain and damaged it. I remember that quite vividly. That ended the testing.”

I first heard about the mishap from a friend who said it was still big news when he started flying for Continental seven years later.  I’d called to invite him to participate in an Aston Martin test drive I was putting together with several other pilots at Connecticut’s Danbury Municipal Airport.

I had already arranged for the car and several pilot/drivers were committed. But the story was very much on my mind when the Aston Martin Rapide S, a four-door version of the DB9 coupe with a 6.0-liter 550-horsepower naturally aspirated V12 engine and a price tag of just under $200,000, arrived in my driveway in early November.

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