Although divisive among 007 Bond fans, Die Another Day provided petrolheads with one of cinema’s greatest car chases. We revisit the action
Q: 'Your new transportation.'
An empty platform wheels up.
Bond: 'Maybe you've been down here too long.'
Q: 'The ultimate in British engineering.'
Bond: 'You must be joking.'
Q: 'As I learned from my predecessor, Bond, I never joke about my work.'
'Aston Martin calls it the Vanquish; we call it the Vanish.'
It was after a 15-year gap that we finally found 007 back in an Aston Martin. Marking the 20th official film – released in 2002 – and the film franchise’s 40th-birthday celebrations, Die Another Day gave Brosnan’s Bond a fitting vehicular send-off; pitching him and Q Branch’s all-new Vanquish head-to-head with a steroid-packed Jaguar XKR – on ice.
We can already hear the Bondians sharpening their pitchforks with that statement. So, before we see any harm come to us, yes – Brosnan did screech around in a DB5 throughout Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies (and even The World Is Not Enough for eagle-eyed viewers), but it was never the main feature vehicle. A complete traitor, 1990s Bond utilised BMWs. For shame.
The Aston Martin DB5 was never shown as anything other than a private car for 1990s Bond, with no special features besides a fax machine and small fridge. Bear in mind that Noel Edmonds had these items in his one-off P38 Range Rover.
For the first time since Timothy Dalton’s 1987 debut in The Living Daylights, Aston Martin was on board to promote its new vehicle in the form of 007-chaos. Ford, then owner of AM, came to an agreement with EON Productions and MGM whereby no money changed hands. Ford provided the cars – including a Ford Thunderbird for the female lead, alongside a host of Land Rovers – and agreed to deliver advertising support for the film upon release.
No fewer than seven Vanquish models were handed over to the Bond team, finished in Tungsten Silver with charcoal leather interior and a brushed-aluminium centre console. Three of these – chassis numbers 500172, 500173 and 500174 – were production cars, whereas the other four came straight from Aston’s pre-production batch.
However, the Vanquish wasn’t the only pre-production model to enjoy the spotlight; the villains of the film got involved, too. Besides harbouring early factory prototypes of the L322 Range Rover, their Jaguar XKR was far from a standard factory vehicle. It was supposedly a prototype showcasing the next-generation XKR-R model – but the design was changed and the car never went into production. Although proving popular on the motor show scene – while Tiff Needell called on Jaguar to slip a few onto the production line – sadly the XKR-R is now only an asterisk in the marque's history.
What sadly did go into production was Halle Berry’s Ford Thunderbird. Yet, despite the relentless advertisements of the day, it fortunately appears in the finished film for fewer than ten seconds. It's hard to miss, being bright pink...
Die Another Day continues to divide opinion among the ever-faithful Bond fanbase. Some complain about Pierce Brosnan’s age, while others bemoan the overly techno soundtrack. Certain fans rip the story apart, while the reliance on computer-generated imagery sent most Bond purists into a rabid frenzy. One thing that can’t be lampooned, however, is the impressive stunt work and polished car chase offered up prior to the climax of the final Bond adventure before the Daniel Craig reboot of 2006.
The film – where does the Aston fit in?
After a botched mission deep within North Korea, and having had his licence to kill reinstated by M, Bond is equipped with his new set of wheels – the V12 Vanquish (playfully nicknamed the ‘Vanish’). Crammed with the usual refinements, including cup-holders, the vehicle’s notorious feature proves to be a cloaking device, which allows it to become invisible at the push of a button. Mind you, Bond uses it to hide behind at one point, and the car strangely doesn't cast a shadow. Either way...
When infiltrating the supervillian’s Icelandic ice palace, 007's cover is blown in a story line that can induce headaches should you dwell on the plot holes. However, what comes next is the highlight of the film; the Aston vs Jag brawl across a frozen lake.
In theory, Bond should have had no issue with dispatching ol' Diamond-face in his convertible XKR, employing the £160k Aston’s 450bhp V12 and machine gun/rocket launcher optional extras – not made available to the general public (unless your second name was Gaddafi).
Except, for the first time ever in a Bond film, the baddie had gadgets, too – and he had twice as many of them. There were rockets behind the Jag's grill, rockets in both side doors, a Gatling gun on the rear and grenade launchers in the boot. As you do.
Behind the scenes
Forget about having to educate Madonna on acting etiquette or dealing with that spontaneous CGI tsunami – the most challenging aspect of the film's gruelling schedule was filming the main chase in Jökulsárlón, Iceland.
On delivery from Ford, the Astons and Jags retained rear-wheel drive – but Pinewood Studio’s real-life Q branch had something to say about that. To provide maximum traction on the slippery stuff, four-wheel-drive systems were developed for each car.
The modifications didn’t stop there. Besides roll cages and safety devices, stunt Astons no longer employed the sophisticated Cosworth-derived V12, but rather a Ford Mustang small block V8 mated to a Ford Explorer four-speed gearbox. The engine was pushed back as far as it would possibly go, to allow room in the front for the gadgets, not to mention an extra axle for the four-wheel drive. Whoever threaded the driveshafts around all that certainly deserves a knighthood. Interestingly, the gearbox set-up allowed for 120mph in reverse. Whoever discovered this trick also deserves recognition.
The cost of all these modifications to the four Astons alone? A cool £1.25 million.
Yet all these mods didn’t secure immunity from accidents. One of the Astons collided with an iceberg in an insurance claim the likes of which had never been heard before.
‘For a panning shot of the Aston going between two glaciers, a gap of only 16 feet, we wanted to go through sideways. I clipped the rear of the Vanquish on the iceberg and spun. It all ended in tears, basically. Four days off with a lump on my head.’
– Ray De Haan, stunt driver
Tyres were an issue, too. Having been provided by Yokohama as specialist rubber to tackle the complicated undertakings, the unique tyres provided so much grip through metal spikes that powerslides couldn’t be achieved. Retreating back to standard snow tyres for the dramatic spins, the stunt crew also had a further problem.
The ice had to be an exact thickness to allow the action to take place, yet there was a 1000ft-deep lake lurking underneath ready to snatch away people, equipment and cars. As temperatures rose, the ice had to be drilled every 30 minutes to ensure nothing fell through. You can't tell in the film, but the thickness of the ice was only just enough to support the cars – the shoot was nearly abandoned on several occasions.
Vic Armstrong, the second unit director, felt so paranoid about making the audience feel the danger of the lake, he incorporated J-turns and immense slides wherever he could. Not to say he wasn’t careful about returning the cars.
‘Where the Jag had to be rear-ended, it was precision. We had put several hundred thousand pounds into these cars, and we didn’t want to write them off, yet we still had to get the shot for the movie. While the slides look fantastic, you had to be careful. If you dug in and hit the snow, you could easily flip. It’s so easy to overcook it and flip out.’
This wasn’t all CGI and computing people airbrushing each frame, unlike other aspects of the film. Created in the special-effects workshop at Pinewood Studios, there were no fewer than four Vanquishes specially prepared for filming, with two XKRs tuned for maniacal stunt work on ice. Three Astons remained stock for close-ups and driving shots. The mechanicals for each weapon worked perfectly.
Using a double pipe ramp, the last Aston to enjoy a thrashing experienced a 50-foot jump through the side of a building. Besides having a second windscreen bolted in place to prevent debris decapitating the driver, the Vanquish was also lifted to help it on its way. With these extra mods, the Aston landed almost unscathed.
Where are they now?
It is believed that the two remaining stunt Vanquishes are still the property of Aston Martin, which displays them on rare occasions. After filming, the May 2003 AML/Bonhams auction included one of the ‘hero’ cars (chassis 500172) going under the hammer in ‘as new’ condition with minuscule mileage, not to mention full provenance from EON and Aston Martin. Bidding closed at £190,000.
Twelve months later, chassis 500173 was also put up for sale, finding a new owner for only £144,000. Remarkable, when you consider that a new example cost £160k. Sounds like a bargain to us...
On a side note, Pierce himself was given a Vanquish as part of his filming contract. Unfortunately, it perished in a house fire that engulfed his Malibu home back on February 11, 2015. As it turns out, it really did 'live to die another day'.
Pictures courtesy of MGM, 20th Century Fox and Instagram
Interview content courtesy of MGM