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Aston Aspirations

Owning the car of James Bond has long been a driver's dream. Now the maker of Aston Martin sets its own lofty goal: turn a profit
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Greg Raymer, Sept/Oct 2004

(continued from page 1)

"It's not all about speed," contends Aston's chief designer, Henrik Fisker, who has sampled the sound of a revving DB9 engine to serve as the ring tone of his cell phone. "That's not the sum of Aston Martin to just go out and claim we have the fastest car and the most horsepower."

But there's no question that for those who prize performance, the new 2+2 will deliver. It can launch from 0 to 60 in well under five seconds, topping out at 186 mph. Yet for Aston, going fast has always been the easy part.

When Astons Leaked
Over the decades, a procession of owners whittled down large fortunes to small ones, vainly trying to make a go of Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd. At one point, in 1977, the company's very survival hinged on the sale of a single car to a wealthy Londoner, recalls general manager John Walton.

The factory was out of cash, and payroll was coming due. So a likely prospect was lured to Newport Pagnell and, before visiting the plant, taken out for a lavish lunch, the venison accompanied, as the story goes in the British vernacular, by several bottles of plonk, which were probably more like fine red wines. By the time lunch was over, he was in a very receptive mood. There was just one problem: while Aston had the car he wanted, it was the wrong color. It took a glass of Port to solve that problem. "We did the deal that day, and the line workers got paid the next," Walton says with an impish grin.

Disaster averted, but only for the moment. It was obvious that Aston needed a new lifeline, and the automaker had run through all the potential British entrepreneurs willing—and able—to provide one. Then Henry Ford II stepped in. The "Deuce," as he was known, was an unflappable Anglophile, as likely as not to work from an office in London. In 1987, almost on a whim, he secretly agreed to buy Aston, returning to Ford corporate headquarters in Detroit to make the announcement.

To provide a backdrop, an Aston was driven from a nearby dealer and parked next to the Deuce on a hastily constructed stage. During Ford's speech, one observant reporter spotted something under the Aston's engine that slowly but steadily appeared to be growing. When later asked about the odd appendage, a Ford public relations official blushed and tersely explained it was a disposable diaper, hastily duct-taped to the car's oil pan. "Astons leak," was his red-faced explanation.

Since Ford stepped in, the quality of Aston cars has improved significantly. But while its cars may no longer leak oil, the company has continued hemorrhaging cash. As recently as 1992, Aston built just 22 cars. Two years later, that was up to 42, notes Walton, "but we bought half of them back."

For several years the automaker couldn't meet tight new U.S. emission mandates, so it was locked out of the crucial American market, which accounts for roughly a third of the demand for cars in Aston's class.

As the new millennium approached, Ford was faced with a critical decision: either spend the money to make Aston a world-class competitor, or write the company off and close it down.

A Rounding Error
In the scheme of things, Aston is little more than a "rounding error" on Ford's books, says Bez with a laugh. He won't discuss how much Ford has invested over the years, though industry sources suggest the figure is likely several hundred million dollars. If anything, the level of spending has stepped up in recent years, reflecting the ambitious business plan that Bez and his team have cobbled together. There's the DB9 and its new V-12 engine, as well as a V-8 to follow late next year. There's also a new factory in Gaydon, where all of Aston's future vehicles will be built, and while Aston officials aren't yet ready to confirm it, it's been reported in the automotive media that Gaydon will replace the ancient craft hall in Newport Pagnell. The aged plant still has about a dozen specially trained metalworkers who spend hours hammering out by hand each aluminum panel for Aston's top-of-the-line $225,000 Vanquish.

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