In the grand panoply of automakers, none is more earnest than Aston Martin. When we spoke to him in England recently, Andy Palmer, CEO, explained the company’s chief conceit: “Our policy is to make the most beautiful cars in the world.” And if business practices “don’t come back to policy,” he continued, “it’s a waste.” Palmer promised more down the road than just good looks. We’d all been joking that Americans call a standard transmission a “stick shift” (after all, it’s not actually a stick, is it?) when I asked the question: will a manual transmission remain, even in the face of heavily computerized driving experiences?
“As long as I’m CEO of the company,” he said, “there will be a manual in the range.” That commitment to the brand’s sporting heritage is thorough, authentic, and apparent not only in conversation with Palmer, but also in every car the company has ever made.
It’s easy to feel dubious about a “manuals are here to stay” claim; after all, Ferrari officials had always promised to never make an SUV but flip-flopped on that prospect early this year — a grave sin if ever there was one. But I believe Palmer because after we spoke, I became one of the first four American journalists to drive the new Vanquish S Volante; I did so all around England. We also toured the Aston Martin headquarters and factory, where each car is still hand built. I saw with my own eyes Aston Martin Works, where new and vintage cars of all stripes are welcome and cherished, serviced, refurbished, restored, customized, reconfigured, built anew. The whole process is viscerally British: neither aggressive nor boastful, but still completely earnest. When you see these cars being formed, Palmer’s words automatically echo around in your head.
Just north of 80,000 Aston Martins have ever been made in the over 100 years since the company’s founding. That is, Palmer was quick to point out, the “same as Toyota makes in two days.” Moreover, currently “more than half are sold in the United Kingdom” — a point that makes a great deal of sense, as Aston Martin is really the last true British automaker at any scale. Scores of British people are proud of the fine cars carefully assembled in their own backyard. Even more staggering a statistic is that somewhere around 95 percent of all Aston Martins ever produced (bar napkin math equates that to over 75,000) can still be accounted for. Granted, many of those are in collections or garaged and never breathed upon by the public, but many — as I saw on my many tours — are very much driven.
And yet, the company is changing. A new Aston Martin model used to come around every dozen years or so; under Palmer’s direction, a new model will be introduced like clockwork each year. Aston Martin is indeed planning to build an SUV as well — the DBX is due in 2019. But ramping up production in the mostly whisper-quiet factory (there are no robots or loud machinery; any noise is mostly fans moving air around overhead) doesn’t mean the company’s guiding principle is changing. Hand-built, fully customizable cars will always be the name of the game, we were told. Order your dream car, and somewhere around five months later, you can be the first one to start it up as it comes off the line in Gaydon, U.K. (“Welcome to my temple,” Palmer quipped when speaking of the factory.)
That principle extends not only into the SUV market, but also the ultra luxury segment. Lagonda, which will be poised as a top-tier “super saloon” competing with vehicles already on the market (its name is resurrected from past vehicles). It is poised to “break the duopoly of Bentley and Rolls-Royce,” said Palmer. Those two brands are the current go-to for the automotive elite, but while both began as British marques, Bentley is under Audi ownership and Rolls-Royce under BMW’s. With Lagonda, fully British Aston Martin is “ready for disruption, and that’s what we aim to do.”
That’s the new. But enthusiasts and true car lovers know that the mystique, the allure, the drama and the heart of the passion is rooted in the past. Our visit to Aston Martin Works was like stepping into the middle of a Venn diagram made up of Willy Wonka’s factory, Frankenstein’s laboratory, a future spaceship’s surgery wing and a quaint yesteryear backyard garage. Here — as in the factory — workers seem to each be calmly and very happily pursuing greatness with every needle-threading and fender-hammering. Many of these folks are “lifers,” as Palmer put it, alluding to the “skills passed [intergenerationally from] father to son; mother to daughter.” He referred to their work as “world class quality,” which is plain to see from the factory floor.
Every employee I met, spoke with, observed, was genuinely invested in and remarkably modest about their work, whether it be spending literally days creating custom upholstery for a refurbished DB9 interior or hand-rolling aluminum sheets on an English wheel to completely restore a DB4. It’s clear to any admirer, but most undeniable to any insider, that Aston Martin is no normal automaker. Their competitors also make beautiful, high-performance machines, many of which I love thoroughly. But I don’t think any other can say with earnestness that they build the most beautiful cars in the world.
Aston Martin hosted us in England to tour the company’s Factory and Aston Martin Works. Opinions are that of the author.