Newport Pagnell is the sort of faintly quaint English village one might expect to find in an E. M. Forster novel, but certainly not on the pages of Business Week. Odds are you'd drive right through the sleepy little town without even noticing the ramshackle cluster of brick buildings that once rolled out graceful, Victorian-era carriages. These days, they're being used to assemble a more modern, if equally elegant form of transportation.
For much of the company's 90-year history, Newport Pagnell has been home and headquarters to Aston Martin. Think of Aston as the automotive equivalent of the Sasquatch; you're far more likely to hear about a Vantage or Vanquish or DB7 than to actually ever see one. Of course, it hasn't hurt the automaker's image to have a long-running association with superspy James Bond. But for a brief assignation, expensively sponsored by BMW, could you even imagine Agent 007 behind the wheel of any other car—with or without the rockets, lasers and ejector seats?
For a while, though, it seemed as if even that most dapper of celluloid spies wouldn't be able to save Aston. At one point, the perennially troubled automaker was down to producing less than one car every other week, and were it not for an "expensive bottle of plonk," Aston might have been relegated to Britain's overstuffed auto-motive dustbin, alongside the likes of Humber, Triumph and Sprint.
Yet in a twist of plot that Forster would have applauded, Aston's future is beginning to look decidedly more upbeat, and if it delivers on its admittedly ambitious plans, its story very likely will be hailed on the pages of the business press. With the helping hand—and deep pockets—of its American parent, Ford Motor Co., Aston intends not only to take on the likes of the Porsche 911, but also to outsell Ferrari. And, for the first time in nine decades, the British carmaker actually promises to post a profit.
A Lifestyle Statement
"An Aston Martin is not so much transportation," says Ulrich Bez, Aston's energetic chairman and chief executive officer, "as it is a lifestyle statement that happens to be a car."
The new DB9 is a case in point. Though there are unmistakable visual similarities to the old DB7, the new car is decidedly more satisfying and somehow possesses an even greater quality of timelessness, with a fastback body that's sinfully curvaceous. But the yawning Aston grille lends an element of machismo to the design, barely concealing a 6.0-liter, 450-horsepower V-12.
Slip behind the wheel and you'll discover one of the most elegant interiors on the road. The term jewel-like has become an auto industry buzzword these days, a description that is especially apt when you scan across the DB9's instrument panel, with its clockwork gauges. Aston offers a variety of combinations blending leather, wood and chrome, as well as the first automotive application of bamboo. There's even a crystal ashtray—and, for the American market, a cup holder, though it's hard to imagine a DB9 driving up for a Big Mac and Coke. Perhaps some pâté and Chablis to go?
Aston offered up an early prototype of the new sports car for a recent tour through the mountain and seaside villages of southern France. After a few minutes admiring the car, it was time to go exploring. There are a few tricks, however, to driving a DB9. After inserting the key, you need to press the start button at the top of the center console. The big V-12 comes to life with a resonant growl. But go looking for the shift lever and it isn't where you expect it to be.
There's a fairly conventional, 6-speed manual transmission model, but our test car featured a manually shifted automatic that is controlled by a pair of paddle shifters mounted behind the steering wheel. It takes a little while to get the hang of the paddle shifters, but eventually it becomes second nature.
The new Aston is, in a sense, two cars in one, as we discovered during a day of driving. Opt for automatic mode, letting the transmission shift itself, and the DB9 is your classic touring car—silky-smooth, comfortable and perfect for a casual day of driving. Shift into manual mode, and its character is transformed. Suddenly, the DB9 becomes a hard-driving performance machine, quickly propelling us to 140 miles an hour as we roar down the Autoroute toward Nice.
"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.
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.
While a number of the more mainstream luxury car brands have moved into Aston territory in recent years, the AM305 will take the British marque down-market, and is expected to be priced to compete with the top-end 911 Turbo model. At around $100,000, that's still pretty rarified air, but Bez is quite confident that there's room to move as many as 3,500 copies of the new car annually. About half that demand is expected to come from the United States.
Bez says that if he hits his target, that would boost Aston's total sales to around 5,000 annually, slightly more than Italian rival Ferrari. Still exclusive in the global scheme of things, but a far cry from the 22 sports cars the company sold just a few years back. And no one needs to ply wary buyers with wine anymore.
The CEO quickly adds that even if volumes leveled off at just 3,500 vehicles, Aston would be operating comfortably in the black. For those who've followed the ups and mostly downs of this very British automaker, that might seem almost sacrilegious. But Bez is confident, if not smug. "After all these years," he says, "always struggling to be a survivor, always counting on rich investors to save it for a couple more years, we have finally made Aston the brand it deserved to be. It now has both a history—and a future."
Paul A. Eisenstein publishes an automobile magazine on the Internet at www.TheCarConnection.com.