While Ford is burdened by poor quality and productivity at Land Rover and slow sales and excess capacity at Jaguar, Aston Martin is undergoing a fairytale revival - complete with its own mock castle. Richard Feast reports.
Aston Martin, one of the great icons of British motor industry heritage, is in the middle of a revolution. Over the past four years, it has laid the foundations of a new three-model range, pioneered new materials and production techniques, and created a dazzling new headquarters and assembly facility. It is recruiting employees and dealers around the world as part of a strategy to triple annual sales. In 2005, Aston Martin will launch a more affordable model and return to its motor racing roots.
Pause for breath. The dowdy old firm has experienced nothing like it in its 90-year history. It means wholesale change for a company whose mindset until quite recently was firmly stuck in 1959 - the one year Aston Martin beat Ferrari to win the World Sports Car Championship.
Aston Martin's fundamental problem was that for most of its life it lacked stability. The company was owned by a succession of people, each of whom was beaten by a cruel cycle of high investments and unpredictable demand. Like many an English aristocrat, Aston Martin seemed resigned to an existence of genteel poverty and fading memories of great days. It had class, but no cash. That has now changed for good.
In the late 1980s, with Aston Martin making fewer than 200 cars a year, Henry Ford II was persuaded that it was Ford's duty to help the quaint little English firm. Ford bought an initial 75 per cent share, but did not take full control until a decade ago.
Aston Martin gathered momentum under Ford, but the real turning point came in July 2000. That was when Dr Ulrich Bez became the firm's chief executive. Bez, 61, was a high-achiever at BMW and Porsche before being recruited to lead the product development team at Daewoo Motor in South Korea. When Daewoo's wild ambitions imploded in the late 1990s, Bez joined Ford and was appointed Aston Martin chief executive shortly afterwards.
His vision was to turn Aston Martin into a globally recognized British alternative to Ferrari. The transformation since he arrived suggests the ambition is not as naive as it sounds. The irony is that it took a German engineer from outside the company to realise the potential of Ford's asset.
Critically, Bez managed to sell that vision of Aston Martin to the Ford board in Dearborn.
It was an easier task then than it would be today because of the astonishing ambitions at the time of Jacques Nasser. Within months of becoming Ford's chief executive in January 1999, Nasser bought the car-making part of Volvo and then Land Rover. The two brands were folded in with Jaguar and Aston Martin to form Ford's Premier Automotive Group. Its mission was a full frontal assault on BMW and Mercedes-Benz. To run it, Nasser recruited Wolfgang Reitzle, the former BMW engineering director and arguably the best product engineer in the business.
Those heady days were ultimately doomed. When other issues threatened to drag down the whole Ford group in autumn 2001 chairman Bill Ford was obliged to fire Nasser. Reitzle went a few months later. Today, as Premier Automotive Group gets steadily absorbed by Ford, there are fewer notions of Mercedes-Benz-baiting. Through all the upheaval, though, Aston Martin's strategy remained in place - because its tiny scale could make no difference to Ford's overall performance.
The thinking behind the vision for Aston Martin was inspired by the example of Ferrari. As an acknowledged benchmark for automotive technology, performance, prestige and exclusivity, Ferrari has a halo effect on Fiat, its parent group, and on Italy as a whole. With the possible exception of Porsche, the marque has had few serious rivals for most of its existence.
Bez decided it was time to change that. So did the Volkswagen group with its Bugatti and Lamborghini brands and Mercedes-Benz with its mega-money SLR. The bonus for car buyers is that, for those with the money, consumer choice in this rarefied sector of the market has never been greater.
As soon as Bez landed at Aston Martin's Newport Pagnell headquarters, he postponed the launch of the Vanquish flagship by several months because he considered it was not ready. He saw the rear-engined proposal for a cheaper Aston Martin and immediately decided the concept was wrong. As a result, the AMV8 Vantage that will be launched next year features a more traditional front engine/rear-drive layout.
After Ian Callum, the designer of the DB7, was assigned to Jaguar, Henrik Frisker was poached to replace him at Aston Martin. The Danish-born Frisker, who spent most of his career with BMW, began to create two new Aston Martins that would share a new bonded aluminium alloy chassis known internally as VH. The first of these was the DB9, the replacement for the DB7, launched in the spring of last year. A convertible version known as Volante is due on the market in 2005. The range will be rounded out by next year's Vantage, which, at around £75,000, will be a direct competitor for the Porsche 911.
New models are one thing. What Aston Martin also needed were larger and more appropriate facilities to assemble most of the new cars it planned. Newport Pagnell continues to operate as an assembly site for the Vanquish and as a service and renovation centre for old Aston Martins, but Bloxham was sold after DB7 production ended.
In its place, Aston Martin was assigned a section of the site at Gaydon, the former Royal Air Force bomber base in Warwickshire that was part of Ford's Land Rovers purchase. Today, Gaydon is a landscaped cluster of design, engineering and test facilities where future Aston Martins, Jaguars and Land Rovers are created. Nearby is the Heritage Motor Centre, a car museum open to the public.
Aston Martin's stunning new facilities, which opened last year, are distinctly more impressive than any of its previous eight headquarters and assembly sites. While the new marble and glass building, complete with faux moat and bridge, echoes the look of nearby Warwick Castle, it is unashamedly modern and minimalist. That's the way Bez sees Aston Martin: conscious of its heritage but decidedly forward-looking.
The result of all this is that Aston Martin today oozes class and confidence. Once Vantage is in production, the company expects to sell 5,000 cars a year worldwide, or about the level of Ferrari. That compares with 1,540 Aston Martins last year and mere hundreds for most of its existence.
As if to underline Aston Martin's new position on the automotive map, it decided the time is right to return to its motor racing roots. Half a dozen DBR9s prepared for private teams by Prodrive, the specialist engineering firm a few miles down the road in Banbury, will next year go head-to-head in long-distance races with the best from Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini and others.
The bill for this root and branch makeover is unknown, as Ford buries Aston Martin's financial affairs in those of Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo. It is clearly a huge amount. Whatever money was involved, though, the result is that Aston Martin is no longer the Cinderella of the premium car business.