Car companies can’t buy history; they earn it the old-fashioned way: surviving ups and downs, navigating the dangers of world wars and economic catastrophes and by reading and reacting to shifting and often unpredictable consumer tastes, as well as government fiat.
Aston Martin has earned its status as an automotive legend, enduring all the above and more over its 101-year history – back to 1913 when what would later become Aston Martin was founded in London by Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford. Yet when I arrive at company headquarters in the British Midlands on an unusually warm, sunny spring day, the complex of buildings that houses head office, the design and engineering centres, and the factory itself, looks anything but musty and museum-like – although the main entrance is gained by strolling across a wooden bridge that stretches over a moat.
Aston’s modern headquarters, which opened in 2003, is a legacy of the days when Ford was the owner and a deep-pocketed one at that. The buildings, a mixture of striking glass and sandstone-like walls, are as elegantly crafted as the cars made inside.
Ford sold its interest in 2007 as the American company teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Today, Aston Martin is owned by a consortium of investors and is seeking tie-ups with larger auto makers in order to survive and grow after several tumultuous years. Last year, Daimler, Mercedes-Benz’s parent company, agreed to acquire as much as 5 per cent in a deal that included a plan to share technology and co-develop V-8 engines through Mercedes’ AMG performance division. There is talk of an Aston crossover, too, one with shared Daimler technology.
This is the way of it for small, exclusive car companies in the 21st century. They must find tie-ups with bigger, richer partners to produce new models for global markets. This year, Aston Martin reportedly secured $165-million (U.S.) in funding to develop a new range of cars. The Birmingham Post reports Aston is expected to use the money to develop a luxury SUV, perhaps sharing the underpinnings of a Mercedes-Benz SUV.
No car better symbolizes Aston’s former greatness and innovation – not even James Bond’s DB5 – than the 75-year-old Aston Martin Atom prototype set for auction in Bonhams’ Goodwood Festival of Speed Sale on June 27. The car could fetch a seven-figure price because it is a novel, lightweight, unusually aerodynamic coupe concept that is sought after by collectors and enthusiasts.
And with good reason. The 1939-40 one-off prototype has aluminum body panels and a tubular spaceframe chassis, along with a semi-automatic gearbox that is said to be a forerunner of modern shift paddles that are commonplace today. The 2+2 Atom was, says Bonhams, finished and registered only six weeks after the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940, the one that saved British and Allied armies at the start of the Second World War. It is a marvel of innovation and came at a time when Britain was struggling to survive as a nation, ill-prepared for a world war.
Yes, Aston has history. It’s fascinating to hear Aston’s own Mark Gauntlett tell the company story as we tour a factory where some 4,000 Astons are hand-made each year. Gauntlett has spent his life associated with Aston, right back to the days he was in short pants in the 1980s and his father was part owner, executive chairman and head of sales.
Yet again, the 1980s saw Aston struggling to survive in the teeth of a wicked recession. The elder Gauntlett’s personal connection helped facilitate the deal that brought Ford on board in 1987.
As we walk the spotless factory floor, Gauntlett, who describes his role at Aston as something to do with “separating the rich from their money,” rattles off the details of producing each car. Assembly takes 200 hours per vehicle in a process that can last five weeks. Aston requires 50 hours alone to complete a paint job.
Each Aston uses six to nine hides to create the leather seating surfaces and interior panels. The stitch work in every cabin is done on site by “technicians” at sewing stations. Each Aston, then, is purpose-built by up to 600 workers. The look and feel of the place exudes an air of craftsmanship designed to please customers – buyers often come to the factory to see their cars as they are assembled. This is not a car business, but a home for the manufacture of luxury goods.
The tour is delightful and dream-like. In a world where the Toyotas, Volkswagens and General Motors of the world spit out millions of cars each during a given year, Aston Martin carries on as a boutique car company.
The lineup may consist of just the Vantage, Vanquish, DB9 and Rapide S, all selling for six figures, but the company knows that its continued health depends on some sort of SUV and perhaps a more affordable sports car, too.
Aston’s leadership recognizes the need to expand the range with more affordable models, though affordable is a relative term. Aston spokesman Matthew Clarke confirms that sales of new versions of the Vantage GT ($105,000) and DB9 ($211,000) are intended to expand Aston’s appeal.
“We’d like to grow and we’d like to grow sales and I think this car gives us an opportunity to do so. But let’s not forget, I mean, Aston Martin is very exclusive,” Julian Jenkins, Aston’s president of the Americas, recently told Bloomberg Television. “We’d like to sell a few more cars and we believe that this will offer an opportunity just to broaden our appeal and bring a few more customers to the brand.”
Those looking for a road map to Aston’s future might consider what Porsche has done. There, the sports cars remain – the 911, Boxster and Cayman – but it’s SUVs such as the Cayenne and Macan, along with the Panamera saloon, that generate the biggest profits.
The British Aston modelled after the German Porsche? It’s an intriguing and compelling thought. This is how automotive history is being made at a 101-year-old brand.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker.
Correction: In some James Bond films, the title character drove an Aston Martin DB5, not DB4, as stated in an earlier version of the story. The car first appeared in the 1964 film Goldfinger, the third in the series.
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