UK: Aston Martin - a very distinguished marque. (2 of 3)

UK: Aston Martin - a very distinguished marque. (2 of 3) - A manufacturer of rich men's toys, Aston Martin Lagonda had itself always been something of a rich man's toy, with owners like the mythical David Brown (he of the BD4 and 5) underwriting the firm

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A manufacturer of rich men's toys, Aston Martin Lagonda had itself always been something of a rich man's toy, with owners like the mythical David Brown (he of the BD4 and 5) underwriting the firm's losses for sheer love of the marque. By 1987 such indulgence had become not merely unfashionable, however: it had become impossible. "The last 25 years had been bloody," Gauntlett winces. "Bankers were even tapping David Brown on the shoulder. By the eighties receivership was a real possibility, and new rulings on safety and emission levels were the last straw. The will and even the whim were running out. When Ford offered us a safe harbour it took me all of 15 seconds to say yes."

But a wind of change had already begun to blow at Newport Pagnell. For the two years before Ford's buy-up, Aston Martin Lagonda had actually shown a profit (albeit modest), the first time in its history that it had managed to do so two years running. This, too, suggests that, as with his cars, something steelier lurks beneath Gauntlett's fogeyish mien. When he arrived, Aston's industrial relations structures, like its capital equipment, looked like a museum display.

"Not only were there no training programmes or recognition of skills," recalls Gauntlett, "there was no personnel department for 400 workers. Some people had been made redundant four times, and, what was worse, they were almost proud of it." At one stage, says AML's chairman, strikes were in danger "of harming the firm very greatly indeed".

All of this has changed, first through such departures as day-release apprenticeships and, second, through what Gauntlett darkly refers to as "explaining the facts of life to the staff". "I was a jolly nice chap in 1980," he notes; "rather less so now."

Such changes were possible, but other obvious ones - increased mechanisation notable among them - were not. The appeal of an Aston Martin is, in Victor Gauntlett's words, "illogical". Hand beating an aluminium panel does not necessarily make for a better car, confers no empirically measurable added value; nonetheless, it is the hand wroughtness of Aston Martins that makes otherwise sensible men write out cheques for £120,000. Remove the brass engine maker's plaque and those same cheque books might more than conceivably snap shut.

As proof of his point, Aston Martin's chairman points out that one of his 155 mph product's soundest markets was Hong Kong, an island so small, he says, that the only things moving at more than half that speed "were taking off from Kai Tak airport". Nor could much be shaved off of AML's purchasing inventory, Connolly hide and bespoke cylinders being notoriously inflexible on pricing.

One happy side effect of manufacturing laughably expensive cars is, however, a certain price insensitivity in the product itself. A customer capable of signing a cheque for £100,000 is unlikely to balk at the extra £10,000 or so, and Aston's aberrant mid-eighties profitability was due in no small part to the fact that Gauntlett made his car more expensive, in real terms, than it had ever been. By dint of demanding £25,000 deposits up front, AML's order book has not been hit by the current recession or the Gulf war (some 30% of Aston Martins go to Arabic buyers), but some more permanent answer is clearly needed. "Some are born realists," Gauntlett observes dolefully, "and some have realism thrust upon them."

This realism has obviously become all the more desirable since the genesis of Fords. The accepted wisdom that bulk car manufacturers buy exclusive marques (Chrysler and Lamborghini et cetera) in the hope of garnering reflected glory is misplaced: any benefit that might accrue to the Escort by dint of its coming from the same stable as the Virage would be heavily outweighed by the damage done to the Virage by the Escort.

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