We go up a hill in a bunch of new-era Aston Martins to see how they’re coming along after a century of getting it wrong…
The storied history of Aston Martin can either be viewed as a case study of plucky British determination in the face of adversity, or, a foolish inability to recognise the game is already over and bags should have been packed a long time ago. And yet, despite going bankrupt seven times in its first century, Aston Martin has still managed to not only persevere, but to produce some of the most iconic and desirable machinery that have enriched our automotive landscape considerably. And we should also never forget the Aston Martin Cygnet. A car which proved that a luxury automotive brand in compliance with European Union legislation could rebadge a Toyota, charge us double and give us all a chuckle. Well played Aston Martin.
However, when Andy Palmer became Overlord of Gaydon back in 2014 it was clear that some things had to change. Going bankrupt is a little unfashionable these days and gets a bit repetitive and boring when you’ve already been down that road seven times. And rebadging a crap Toyota didn’t quite hit the mark for the marque apart from fulfilling (fooling?) European Union-imposed fleet average emissions regulations. What Aston Martin needed was a proper plan and Andy ‘Planner’ Palmer was just the man with a plan for the job. After all, with a previous career spanning over two decades at Nissan, he had already served a lengthy apprenticeship under the corporate king of automotive planning strategies himself, Mr. Carlos Ghosn. Let’s just hope that’s all he learned under ‘The Ghosn Regime’ or the Andy & Aston hook-up might take on a dramatic new twist. But I digress…
Now, even a blind man riding backwards on a galloping horse would clearly see that the survival and success of any automotive brand should be to sell a few cars here and there. Surprisingly, this historically has seemingly never been an objective with Aston Martin which may explain a few things. In the first 100 years Aston Martin managed to shift about 75,000 vehicles which, to give you some sort of perspective, is about half as many first generation Porsche Panameras that have been sold. That’s right, Stuttgart managed to pawn off 150,000 examples of a car that was hated by every faithful Porschephile and universally referred to as being ugly from any angle. And it took less than seven years to do so.
Initially, Palmer’s focus was on survival of the brand while the DB11 was being developed. However, behind the scenes he was clearly burning the midnight oil concocting a plan that would lead the charge for positive change and successfully thrust Aston Martin into a new century. And he did it with the cleverly named ‘Second Century Plan’ which, only a few years since its inception, has seen Aston Martin astonishingly, ahem, becoming a successful and rejuvenated brand.
The basic concept behind the Second Century Plan is to offer a wider selection of cars (seven new vehicles over seven years) and to – wait for it – sell more cars. I swear, this Andy Palmer dude is a genius! New models have been dropping on schedule and Andy & Aston’s reward is finally turning a tasty profit, satisfying shareholders and getting more investment to develop new models. The only problem with this plan for me personally is that I have sat idly on the sidelines waiting to get a drive in one of these new era Aston Martins with no joy. Where’s the love? Was it something I said?
Okay, so maybe the last time I test drove an Aston was over half a decade ago. And I may or may not have mentioned that it looked pretty with a great engine. And it possessed the world’s clunkiest gearbox and handled like a tractor. And build quality was a bit iffy. And… some other stuff. Thankfully, the lovely folk at Aston Martin seem to have forgotten about that and myself and a few other peasant automotive journalists were invited to sample a selection of these second century Astons and briefly abuse them up and down a mountain in the United Arab Emirates. Naturally, I accepted this kind invitation purely on the basis that it would be good for me to finally familiarise myself with said vehicles.
And I must say, I like the new Marek Reichman design language across the range. Sure, they do appear variations on a theme but still maintain an individuality while balancing modernity and visual heritage. In shades of grey and silver they look especially good, like liquified metal despite being manufactured from modern carbon and composites. However, looking sexy is all well and good but if you can’t serve it up then keep it off the menu. Fortunately we’ve been served a little tasting platter which is just enough to realise how far Aston Martin has come in only a few years.
It really would be easy here to harp on about the DBS Superleggera and how fantastic the 5.2-litre twin-turbo V12 is, especially now that it’s hooked up to an eight-speed ZF transmission. But the real revelation across the range is just how beneficial Aston’s relationship with Daimler is proving. It was clear that a small luxury brand like Aston Martin would need to partner up with an industry giant to survive in the current automotive climate, but this new relationship with Daimler is a good match well made. With quality switchgear and electrical systems lifted from Mercedes-AMG, Aston Martin is finally feeling contemporary. But it’s the ‘Benz twin-turbo V8s mated to ZF ‘boxes that have really made a massive difference throughout the line-up. An Aston now goes as good as it looks and outsourcing components has benefited, not diluted, the brand.
And this relationship with Daimler will continue to beneficially aid Aston Martin in its Second Century Plan with its quest to sell more cars. Because, guess what? Selling cars is quite important and that means only one thing. Yeah, you guessed it. The next vehicle to be released in the ‘seven vehicles in seven years’ plan is going to be an Aston Martin hybrid SUV and guess where all that electrical gubbins is going to be sourced from? But possibly, for the first time in my life, I am going to be positive about a sports car manufacturer bringing out an SUV and praying that it sells like hotcakes for one simple reason. If it ensures the survival of the marque and Aston continues to produce proper sports cars like the DBS Superleggera, DB11, Vantage et all then it’s no bad thing. Add to this the continued relationship with the likes of Zagato and it’s clear that Aston Martin still holds a very unique place in the automotive landscape.
Aston Martin today is a new and invigorated brand, taking chances and making statements. You only have to look at what’s cooking with the aid of Adrian Newey to have a glimpse into its near future. Selling some cars is a great idea, I am just surprised it took them 100 years to realise that was what was needed.