In a tumultuous 100 years, producing some of the most iconic cars ever, Aston Martin has become a desirable marque with few equals. Kevin Hackett travels to London for Aston's centenary celebrations.
Dr Ulrich Bez, Aston Martin's chairman and CEO, turns 70 years of age this year. When he was born in 1943, the company that he fronts was already three decades old and, in the years that followed, it has lurched from one crisis to another. Yet it's still here, still doggedly fighting to survive in a marketplace crowded with competition from manufacturers that evidently have deeper pockets and are able to be more modern as a result.
Unlike those competitors, however, seeing an Aston Martin elicits no resentment or mockery. If a new Ferrari or Lamborghini tears past, exhausts blaring in the small hours, the response is often one of justifiable indignation. Rude, vulgar, antisocial menaces only here to flash the cash with a "look at me" attitude that alienates practically everyone, except small boys. An Aston Martin is different, and it's this individuality that has kept it alive, with a loyal band of wealthy enthusiasts not prepared to see this most storied of brands fall by the wayside.
In all the years that I have been driving and writing about cars, only Aston Martins have engendered respect and, dare I say it, reverential admiration. And it doesn't matter how young or old an onlooker is: the sheer beauty of the cars has them mesmerised. Even if they were bad to drive or were poorly built (they're not), people would still yearn for them because of their harmonious lines and the sheer gravitas attached to that name. It has little to do with James Bond but much to do with human beings appreciating physical beauty, and as I walk through Kensington Palace Gardens in central London, joined by many thousands of appreciative supporters, fanatics, collectors and admirers, I can't recall seeing so much man-made beauty, class and sophistication in one place.
Or, for that matter, men wearing red and green trousers teamed with navy blazers and panama hats. I'm unsure how much money one has to have accumulated in life before matching these unlikely colours together, but it's entirely obvious that this gorgeous and peaceful park, in the heart of Britain's capital, is brimming with moneyed individuals. When I attended Lamborghini's 50th celebrations in Italy a couple of months ago, many of the owners and their wives sported tattoos and looked a bit rough around the edges. Not so here, where the vibe is one of classical, restrained elegance. Brashness is not in Aston Martin's DNA, and never has been.
This has been an incredibly busy year for Aston Martin. From landing a new Vanquish on the Burj Al Arab's helipad, to star turns at Le Mans, the Nurburgring 24-hour race, the Goodwood Festival of Speed and Villa d'Este, along with the launch of the Rapide S and the unveiling of the Vanquish Volante and the bewitching C100 Speedster concept car, we're only halfway through 2013 and there's no sign of anyone slowing down. But this gathering in London will go down as the pinnacle - an almighty achievement staged in the middle of one of planet Earth's most affluent areas. How they've done it is quite beyond me, but there is a timeline display running through the centre of Kensington Palace Gardens that includes (in chronological order) an example of practically every Aston Martin model ever built.
As I walk up and down, the lineage is remarkably clear to see, especially from the 1940s onwards. The cars before then look similar to many prewar models, but they still manage to stand out as being more glamorous than their counterparts. Then, in 1939, Aston Martin unveiled the startlingly futuristic Atom. One of the world's first fully functioning concept cars, this one-off is here for all to see, and it's understandable that a leading technical journalist of the time, Laurence Pomeroy, said of it: "I suggest that in this car we can see the new order of motoring before our eyes, and those drivers who have been able to handle it during the war have had the privilege of a peep into the future."
The Atom looks strange. From the front it could be mistaken for a spaceship from the old Flash Gordon shows, while its side profile is short and stumpy, because there wasn't enough steel tubing available to make it longer. But it's still very much an Aston and, once production resumed after the war in 1948, David Brown had already taken over the company and introduced the 2-Litre Sports, which came to be known as the DB1. That's here, too, and the car was used as the display model at the British Motor Show in 1949.
To describe seeing these cars in the metal as an honour would be a massive understatement. But it's estimated that some 90 per cent of these early cars are still accounted for, and their owners obviously enjoy sharing these treasures with people who, for the most part, have no idea about the real heritage of Aston Martin. After today, nobody will be in any doubt: this is one of the most precious companies in the automotive world.
Think about it. In 100 years, approximately 65,000 Aston Martins have been built. Porsche builds almost that number every six months and Maserati is gunning for annual production numbers in excess of 50,000. People still view both those companies as fairly exclusive, so to see an Aston - any Aston - is an unusual occurrence, despite the relatively high production numbers of more recent times under the stewardship of Bez.
As the timeline moves up through the 1950s, that famous radiator grille's shape becomes honed and refined, steadily becoming an immediate identifier. The DB4s merge into DB5s and DB6s, remaining fundamentally the same, if slightly less pure in form, until the rakish DBS of 1967. Designed by William Towns, the DBS started life with a six-cylinder engine, thanks to a protracted and delayed development process, when all along it was supposed to be a V8. That did eventually happen, and the stunning example here is the very one driven by Roger Moore in the ill-fated 1971 television series, The Persuaders! Moore summed up Aston owners to a tee, his character being a debonair sleuth to Tony Curtis's more hysterical, Ferrari Dino-driving Danny Wilde. I'm transfixed by this slab of 1970s nostalgia and, for all the 007 machinery on display here, it's this DBS that will be causing me sleepless nights from this point on.
Back in 1980, my father took me to the British Motor Show and its star was undoubtedly the Aston Martin Bulldog. The closest that the company ever came to producing a bona fide supercar, the Bulldog exemplifies the 1970s obsession with sharp, angular lines like no other car. It's had a change of paint and gained a pair of bulky mirrors since I last saw it, but it remains utterly mind-blowing and totally unique. With gull-wing doors that cut into the car's floor and the only curves being the round wheel arches, it showed that Aston Martin could, if it put its mind to it, still shock as much as anyone. Beautiful? Hardly, but it was fitted with a mid-mounted, 5.3-litre, twin-turbo V8, giving it a theoretical top speed of 381 kilometres per hour - two decades before Jaguar's XJ220 took a bow. It was tested at speeds in excess of 300kph, but never made production, remaining a one-off that offers a fascinating glimpse into what could have been.
Aston Martins have always been fast, but the whole supercar thing isn't really them, is it? Even the recent One-77 doesn't fit the bill, being front-engined and refined, although truly exotic, rare and desirable. Astons are hand-built carriages and, while some detractors moan about the competition being more technically advanced (difficult to deny, that one) and better value for money, an Aston Martin offers rarity and exclusivity - highly prized in certain circles.
But are those circles enough to keep Aston afloat? Even staying afloat is not enough these days, and Aston's top brass know this, having recently received investment from the Italian private equity fund, Investindustrial. This year, Bez will step down as CEO (he's just published a book on his time at the helm, if you're interested), and you can bet your life that the tree won't stop being shaken there. And while the current range is undoubtedly gorgeous, there hasn't been a genuinely new design since the DB9 was launched almost a decade ago, and people are beginning to grumble about the sameness.
Perhaps the company needs to take some inspiration from the likes of Bertone - whose fantastic, Rapide-based Jet 2+2 shooting brake is on display - and Zagato, which has been busying itself with two privately commissioned cars, seen here for the first time. The DB9 Spider and DBS Zagato Centennial models are radically different in appearance from the cars that form their underpinnings, and they're definitely dividing opinion, getting people talking. Personally, I think that they're both triumphs, and they give me hope that the DB9 mould can, in time, be broken with something new but still undoubtedly Aston in execution.
As the day draws to a close, the cars are driven out of the picket-fence enclosures to rapturous applause. They'll be taken home to every continent; some will be raced and some will no doubt change hands for ever-increasing sums of money. But I have no doubt that all of them will continue to be used, like their makers intended. I also have no doubt that this gathering of 1,000 Aston Martins (a world record) proves one thing: that the company will still be here, still breaking hearts and wallets, in 2113. A world without Aston Martin is, for many, utterly unthinkable, and that's easily its greatest asset.
Turbulence expected: the trials of a very British institution
Aston Martin began life just around the corner from Kensington Palace, in an engineering workshop in Henniker Mews. Lionel Martin and his cycling friend, Robert Bamford, joined forces, forming Bamford and Martin Ltd on January 15, 1913, to build and sell motor cars. Martin was a successful hill-climb competitor and he built a car named after one of his favourite venues: Aston Hill. In 1915, the first actual Aston Martin broke cover.
In the years since then, the company has endured one financial disaster after another, sometimes changing ownership within a year of the previous takeover. Yet it has always managed to find backers eager to keep the name alive, and the people in charge of the company have often made tough decisions to ensure its survival in the face of certain death.
The initial company was declared bankrupt in 1924 and was bought by Lady Charnwood, who put her son John Benson on the board. A year later the company failed again, with the factory closing in 1926, which coincided with Lionel Martin’s departure. Later that year, a group of investors, including Lady Charnwood, took over, renamed it Aston Martin Motors Ltd, and relocated the factory.
The money problem reared its ugly head again in 1932 and the company was rescued by shipping magnate Sir Arthur Sutherland, at the request of his car-mad son, Gordon. During the Second World War, production shifted to aircraft components and, after hostilities ceased, Aston Martin was bought by industrialist and tractor manufacturer David Brown in 1947.
Under Brown’s leadership, Aston Martin returned as a maker of thoroughbred sports cars, and the 1950s saw the company going from strength to strength, both on road and track, with a notable win at Le Mans in 1959. The 1960s were, however, tough, thanks to the UK’s new 70 miles per hour (113kph) speed limit harming sales of sports cars and Touring, the suppliers of Aston Martin’s bodies, going bust. In 1972, Brown was ousted from his company, which was bought for a nominal £100 by a Czech entrepreneur, Harry Pollak. It was bust again by 1974, and the Aston Martin Owners Club launched a campaign to find a buyer.
A year later they were back in business and cars once again trickled out of the factory. But there was never enough money to develop new models thoroughly enough, and the ridiculous Lagonda super saloon almost proved Aston’s undoing. That and yet another oil crisis. In 1981, the chairman of Pace Petroleum, Victor Gauntlett, came to the rescue and stayed in charge for 10 years, before brokering a sale to Ford. At long last, in the safe hands of a huge parent company, Aston Martin had a secure future and was able to properly invest in more modern production methods.
But the appointment of Ulrich Bez in 2000 was the real turning point. With ruthless German efficiency combined with huge love for the brand, Bez dragged Aston Martin into a new millennium and changed absolutely everything about the company. It even started turning a profit, and Ford ended up selling the majority of Aston Martin in 2007 to a consortium that included two Kuwaiti investment companies.
Independence from Ford has proved to be a bitter pill for Aston, now having to fight on its own while competitors continue to flourish under parent companies. But the recent cash injection from Investindustrial, along with a rumoured forthcoming shake-up at management level, may indeed revitalise this company that has easily exceeded its tally of nine lives.
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