Aston Martin has, since 1987, been owned by Ford, but has not lost its exclusiveness, writes Charles Darwent.
"Welcome to the last outpost of British incompetence," beams Victor Gauntlett, extending a large hand and an air of bonhomie. Executive chairman of a car manufacturer would not be one's first stab at Gauntlett's profession: ruddy in a way that Englishmen aren't any more, a pinstripe only just this side of loud, silk handkerchief, he looks hand stitched, coach built, bespoke. They say that dog owners come to look like their dogs: perhaps this holds good for makers of motorcars.
For Gauntlett's product is that most impeccably British of all motorcars (not automobiles), the Aston Martin: a car so devastatingly English as to make Rolls-Bentleys seem like Hondas. In its 77-year history, laughs Gauntlett, the firm has manufactured some 11,000 cars - rather fewer than three a week. This it has managed by dint of an almost wilful maintaining of standards (or refusing to accept reality, depending on your point of view). Aston's Newport Pagnell works is like a room at the Science Museum: on a given day in any given corner two men will be shaping a bonnet lid by rocking it through a hand press; in another a third-generation Astonian will be hand beating an aluminium (Astons have always been aluminium) wing. Others hand stitch Connolly hide, or hand assemble engines: one to a man, his signature appended to the finished product on a brass plate.
Vantages and Virages now roll off the assembly at the dizzying rate of five a week, and are bought by very rich men (cost: £120,000) with a taste for abiding values in a changing world. The platonic Aston owner is HRH The Prince of Wales, who has two. His wife, reputedly to his fury, once sat on the bonnet of one and scratched its paintwork. "O tempora, o mores."
But this is by no means a tale of automotive flat-earthers. For all its Wilton carpet, a Virage will speed its owner from 0 to 60 miles per hour in a shade over six seconds, and thence, constabulary allowing, to 155 mph. Likewise, Gauntlett, for all his gold watch-chain, is the model of a modern manufacturer, funding his 1980 part-purchase of Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd from the proceeds of an earlier creation, Pace Petroleum. Aston Martin Lagonda itself is also something of a corporate "trompe l'oeil": its bonnets may still accommodate itinerant royal bottoms, but its equity - 75% of it - has, since September 1987, been owned by (of all companies) Ford.
Gauntlett cites this last fact as evidence to support a pet theory. "Aston Martin", he says, "is analagous to Britain. When I first arrived here, shortly after Margaret Thatcher arrived in Downing Street, both the country and the firm spent all their time looking back to past glories. It took us both some time to wake up to the fact that the world didn't owe us a living."
This realpolitik was most vividly demonstrated by the Ford purchase, an act which an automotive Harold Macmillan might have condemned as selling the family silver. Indeed, says Gauntlett: "Had someone suggested such a thing to me in the mid-seventies, I too would have been horrified. But there was simply a major change of reality in the eighties."