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
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In the world of bespoke automobiles, Gaydon is as close as it comes to a modern assembly line. As always, each car will involve extensive handwork and customization, but with the DB9, Aston has integrated some decidedly modern manufacturing methods, including a new ultrasonic welding process pioneered by Ford. Indeed, along with its cash contribution, Ford and its various global subsidiaries have provided significant technical assistance to the development of the DB9—and other cars to come. Credit Volvo, one of the global leaders in safety technology, with helping Aston deserve a much-needed, four-star crash rating for the new DB.
The vast bulk of Astons are custom-ordered, and few reasonable requests are turned down. Walton notes with pride the many times that Aston has custom-blended a shade of paint or dyed a skin of leather to match a shirt, scarf or favorite lipstick. With so much individualization, Gaydon is as much a craft hall as it is an assembly line. On average, it will still take 200 man-hours of labor to assemble each DB9. That may seem a snail's pace compared to the approximately 20 hours of labor needed for the typical Ford, but it's down from as much as 1,800 man-hours per car at Newport Pagnell in the not too distant past.
Though Ford has plenty riding on Aston's success, Bez insists that after approving his 10-year business plan in 2001, "they left me alone."
A handful of senior executives, including Bez, Walton and design chief Fisker, make all key decisions, operating more like a garage-based start-up than a major manufacturer. "If it fails, I cannot blame anybody [at Ford]," says the German Bez. "It is us."
Bez and his business plan will be put to the test repeatedly over the next several years. But there are already signs that he can deliver. Bez believes the company can sell 2,000 copies of the DB9 this year, along with 300 of the even more expansive Vanquish line. That would boost sales by more than 45 percent over last year's number, which was itself a record 1,580. In turn, that should permit the automaker to break even this year and turn a profit in 2005, he flatly promises. That would be the very first time Aston has been in the black in its entire nine-decade history.
Ford's hands-off strategy has made it easier to produce a car true to Aston's heritage, asserts Fisker. His design for the DB9 was not "watered down" by going through the committee process. Now doing double-duty as head of Ford's advanced design studio, Fisker recently moved to California, but he's making regular trips back to the United Kingdom to keep his eye on the development of Aston's next endeavor, the entry-level Vantage.
Development of the vehicle, which goes by the internal code name AM305, is far from complete, but some details are beginning to leak out. Recently revealed in concept-car form, the Vantage bears an exaggerated version of Aston's trademark crosshatch grille. While some classic design cues remain, the goal is to move Aston "in a very modern direction," Fisker says, adding that Vantage will be "about the size of a 911 but a bit wider."
Unlike the rear-engine Porsche 911, Aston's new entry will have its engine mounted in a front/midship position to optimize weight balance and maximize handling. The power train is expected to be a new Aston V-8, while the Vantage will share the VH (for Verticle [sic] Horizontal) platform with the DB9.
It would not surprise observers if AM305 offered a supercharger to boost performance, either as a standard feature or as part of an optional performance package.
While Fisker is tight-lipped when it comes to precise details, it's easy to sense his excitement as he discusses the project, promising a "harmonious" blend of performance and styling, quality and craftsmanship. The designer puts special emphasis on the interior package he is developing for Vantage, especially the gauge and control cluster, which he promises will not only be visually distinctive but address ergonomic concerns, often an afterthought with a high-performance sports car.
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