Aston Plans Big Turnaround

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2005 Aston Martin DB9 by TCC Team (3/28/2004)
Very British — and very fast.

Going fast is the easy part.

Aston Martin’s automobiles have always been known for their combination of styling and performance. The new DB9 is no exception. The 2+2 will launch from 0-60 mph in well under five seconds, topping out at 186 mph. Its long, low stance is winning rave reviews — and plenty of advance orders.

But with the rollout of the DB9, the most exclusive of Ford Motor Co.’s three British brands is aiming to accomplish something it’s never accomplished in 90 years on the automotive market.

“We will, this year, break even and be profitable (in) 2005,” forecasts CEO Ulrich Bez, the German automotive veteran who joined the long-struggling carmaker nearly five years ago.

Bez has laid out a ten-year plan to transform Aston Martin into a force to be reckoned with in the ultra-luxury car segment. The DB9’s debut marks the midway point in that process. If all goes according to plan, the latest in the legendary DB series will become the most successful car in Aston history — though not for long.

Bez believes the company can sell 2000 of the nearly $200,000 coupes this year, along with 300 of the even more expansive Vanquish line. In total, that would boost sales by more than 50 percent over last year’s volume, which was itself a record 1500.

Ancient history

It wasn’t all that long ago when Aston struggled to simply stay alive, recalls general manager John Walton. At one point, in 1977, its survival hinged on the sale of a single car to a wealthy Londoner, the revenue desperately needed to cover payroll. It took several bottles of “plonk” to convince him to sign the check.

Over the decades, a procession of owners whittled large fortunes down to small ones, vainly trying to make a go of Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd.

In 1987, Ford stepped in, preventing an all-but-certain collapse. But even Ford has had a hard time setting things right. As recently as 1992, Aston built a total of just 22 cars. Two years later, that was up to 42, notes Walton, “but we bought half of them back.”

In the scheme of things, Aston is little more than a “rounding error” on Ford’s books, laughs Bez. He won’t discuss how much Ford has invested over the years, though industry sources say the figure is likely several hundred million dollars. The spending has stepped up in recent years, reflecting Aston’s current business plan. There’s a new V-12 engine, as well as a V-8. There’s the DB9, and there’s a new factory in Gaydon, where all of Aston’s future products will be built.

In the world of bespoke automobiles, Gaydon is as close as it comes to a modern assembly line. The vast bulk of Astons are custom-ordered, many with extensive individualization, so on average, it will take 200 man-hours to assemble each DB9. That may seem the snail’s pace compared to the 20 hours of labor needed for the typical Ford, but it’s down from as much as 1800 man-hours per car at Aston’s ancestral home in the village of Newport Pagnell.

As always, each car will require extensive handwork, but with the DB9, Aston has integrated some modern manufacturing methods, including a new ultrasonic welding process pioneered by Ford. Indeed, along with its cash contribution, Ford and its various global subsidiaries have provided significant technical assistance. Credit Volvo, one of the global leaders in safety technology, for DB9’s four-star crash rating.

Leave them alone

Though Ford has plenty riding on Aston’s success, Bez insists that after approving his business plan, “they left me alone.” A handful of senior executives, including Bez, Walton and chief designer Henrik Fisker, make all key decisions, operating more like a garage-based start-up than a major manufacturer. “If it fails, I cannot blame anybody (at Ford),” says Bez. “It is us.”

The hands-off strategy has made it easier to produce a car true to Aston’s heritage, asserts Fisker. His designs were not “watered down,” going through the committee process.

Now doing double-duty as head of Ford’s advanced design studio, Fisker is based in California these days, making regular trips back to the U.K. to oversee the launch of the DB9, and to keep his eye on development of Aston’s next entry.

First shown in concept car form, the Vantage will be priced to compete with the top end of Porsche’s 911 line, nudging Aston a bit closer to the mass market. Though the Vantage will be notably more aggressive in appearance than the DB9, the two new Astons will share 70 percent of their underlying components, something that should significantly hold down costs.

New product is just part of the strategy. Aston is rapidly expanding its dealer network in a bid to become a truly global brand. Until recently, Britain accounted for 70 percent of the company’s sales. With demand in the U.S. and other markets growing fast, that’s now down to 30 percent.

With three distinct models in its lineup, Bez is betting Aston can sell about 5000 cars a year, slightly more than its Italian rival, Ferrari. He quickly adds that even at volumes of 3500 vehicles, Aston would be operating comfortably in the black. For those who’ve followed the ups-and-mostly-downs of this very British automaker, that might almost seem sacrilegious.

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