Aston Martin and James Bond have more in common than a joint big-screen adventure every few years. Every Bond movie features a scene where James seems to be facing certain death, but pulls off a near-miraculous escape. Aston Martin has regularly done the same thing. Despite being one of the most revered names in British motoring it has been in receivership seven times in nearly a century of history and has changed hands more often than an old fiver. The difference between Bond and Aston is that you know Bond will always escape, but Aston’s survival has never been certain.
Possibly its worst moment came in 1992; in the midst of a recession and with uncompetitive, overpriced product it built just 46 cars all year. Assuming 24-hour production, Toyota builds that many cars every three minutes. Aston was largely kept alive by the Sultan of Brunei, who would order bizarre special editions, including saloon and even ‘shooting brake’ estate versions of Aston’s two-door coupes, built to his own design by the half-dozen.
But today, Aston Martin builds over 4000 cars a year at its ultra-modern factory in Gaydon, Warwickshire, is profitable, and has a range that has received huge acclaim from the motoring press and punters alike. So where did it all go right?
In 1987, Aston found a sugar-daddy in Ford, which took a majority stake and bought the rest of the company in 1994. Back then, Astons were pure establishment; powerful, traditional, swathed in leather and walnut and laboriously built by hand by very skilled craftsmen. But they were also bulky, far from sexy and often unreliable. The Prince of Wales was Aston’s most famous customer, and a pretty good indication of what the brand stood for back then. Now it beats Apple and YouTube to the title of Britain’s coolest brand.
The £20m Ford paid to buy it was a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of pounds it pumped in afterwards. But Ford was prepared to play the long game with Aston, because it knew that it had something very special coming in the DB7. This was the car that saved the firm. Designed by Scotsman Ian Callum, now Jaguar’s head of design, the DB7 is on most expert’s list of contenders for the most beautiful car in the world. In 1995, its first full year of production, nearly 700 were made.
But the real transformation was yet to come.In 2000 Aston recruited former Porsche and BMW engineer Dr. Ulrich Bez as CEO. Bez created seminal cars such as the Porsche 993 and 911 Turbo. He had a brilliant vision for Aston Martin; to use the same underlying structure for every car in the range. Known as the VH platform, it’s a lightweight and very rigid structure made of aluminium and carbon fibre to which all the components and bodywork are attached. It first appeared on the DB9 coupe in 2004, and it now underpins - and makes possible - every car in Aston’s much-expanded range bar the One-77, from the Vantage Roadster to the four-door Rapide to the just-revealed new Vanquish.
But Bez’s boldest move came in 2007. Ford, losing a record $12.7 billion a year, decided to cash in on Aston’s success and sell up to shore up its finances. Bez helped to broker the deal with the new owners, led by his friend David Richards, owner of Prodrive. Together they bought 85 per cent of Aston Martin from Ford in a deal valuing it at £479 million.
So are Aston’s dicey days over? Perhaps not. Sales actually peaked at over 7000 in 2007 before crashing again in the downturn; they’ve been recovering slowly ever since. And it needs to begin to replace the DB9 and all the other cars spun off the VH platform: hard and expensive when, even at 4000 cars each year, you’re still an automotive minnow. “The big question is how they finance and develop the next generation of cars when they’re not part of a big group,” says Jay Nagley of Spyder Automotive and a leading car industry analyst. “Producing a beautiful car with a big engine isn’t hard. It’s the boring stuff that’s difficult, like making it meet all the safety and emissions regulations. In the past they could just ring up someone at Ford.”