The Name’s Martin, Aston Martin

by Michael Wynn-Williams. Used by permission.

Smooth, suave, with a license to sell, James Bond was Britain’s most secret car salesman. Without Bond’s spectacular cinematic test drives there would be no Aston Martin left for Ford to plunder. Thanks to Henry, Aston has moved out of the collection of sheds in Newport Pagnell and into stylish new headquarters in Gaydon. The cars are now a perfect blend of English charm and technological brilliance, with yearly production measured in thousands for the first time in the company’s history. The 1980s have become just an embarrassing memory. Even Bond is back on the payroll and flogging the product.

Aston Martin and James Bond were born for each other, embodying the best and worst of Britain. Both used a suave exterior to deliver a killer punch, both were lone wolves ahead of the pack. And both were based on complete fantasies. In Aston’s case the fantasy was the racing heritage. Initially this was with some hill climbing success during founder Lionel Martin’s time in races like Aston Clinton, hence the Aston Martin tag. Post-war success came at exotic locations like Le Mans, but in the 1950s new owner, tractor manufacturer David Brown, moved Aston in with Lagonda at the old Salmons and Sons coachbuilding workshops in Newport Pagnell. This meant that the company could draw on traditional skills to civilise the racing credentials of the sports cars and fabulous grand tourers were the progeny. Italian styling brought a lightness of touch that gave the cars an exotic sparkle and raised them above the hoi polloi. When Zagato transformed the DB4 into an art form it seemed that poetry really could be made in metal.

James Bond and Aston Martin first met in 1963. Apparently the producers first approached Jaguar for an E-Type but were given the cold shoulder by the paternal William Lyons. Aston Martin were more willing to put their daughter on the stage, to the extent of handing over a DB5 which was then still a prototype. By now Astons were the height of sophistication, like a good vodka martini they blended style with a knockout punch. Like the car, Sean Connery had grown up from a tough background and learnt how to civilise himself, but without losing the ruthless edge. Their on-screen chemistry was enough to link them forever to 007 fame.

Sadly, Aston Martin’s clientele were not as lean and fit as our secret agent. The racing heritage was fading into the past and no longer attracting the young and wealthy. Aston had to cater to the expanding girths and mellow sensibilities of their ageing customers with an equally corpulent design. The DBS finally shed the sports car pretensions and aimed to be a luxurious continental tourer for gentlemen. This meant more metal, more leather and a lot less style. It was not that the DBS was ugly, nor even that it was slow, but it had lost the beguiling temptation of the DB5. If you drove a DB5 to thrill your mistress then the DBS was to reassure your wife. No surprise, then, that this was the vehicle of choice for a briefly-married James Bond. With the smooth Roger Moore slipping into the role, a more exciting, racier counterpoint was needed and so the Lotus Esprit stepped into the spotlight.

While Aston were “rested” by the film world they tried to put the muscle back into their cars with a V8 engine. This engine had such grunt that the sports car could have pushed aside one of David Brown’s tractors and ploughed a field. Perhaps David Brown should have fitted one in his tractors because it was problems there that impelled him sell out on his hobby. The new owners discovered the frightening appetite Aston Martin had for cash and the firm went into receivership a few years later. Just to prove that fools are doomed to make the same mistakes forever the company was revived a short while later in 1975. At last the cars started to show some real muscle.

Aston Martin revived their high performance Vantage label, and what a monster this car was. If Isambard Kingdom Brunel had designed a sports car it would have been the Aston Martin V8 Vantage. This thing could rip a tree out by its roots just by looking at it. If you saw its brutal front-end glaring into your review mirror, you pulled over and swore never to drive again. It made American muscle cars look like big-talking cowards and Italian sports cars look like school girls at a makeover party. Its savage looks suited its barbaric power so perfectly you did not know whether to stand and admire or run and hide. It was not that you had to be a man to master it, but you certainly needed a body building course to operate the clutch.

James Bond did not get this car. Perhaps one should not expect anything else from a Bond played by someone called Timothy. A Timothy should have what his mother says he can have, and Timothy Dalton’s Bond drove a convertible Aston V8. Nice car, of course, if you are chairman of the board, but for Britain’s most famous secret agent? We thought not and The Living Daylights was not a good outing for Bond. We cannot blame Dalton for this, nor Aston Martin. Both the man and the car were fine performers, maybe even a little too fine because what we are talking about here are fantasies. Bond is beyond mere acting, an Aston Martin is beyond mere motoring. To suggest that the James Bond role needed a good actor would be like suggesting that Aston Martin needed to improve fuel consumption. You should never let rationality spoil a good dream. In 1992 a mere 43 cars emerged from the gates at Newport Pagnell.

Pierce Brosnan shows that we can still have our dream and drive it. He lacks the underlying hint of violence that Sean Connery so naturally portrayed so it is by sheer acting skill that he can exhibit such smooth style with a Walther PPK. Promiscuous as ever, this Bond dallied with BMW, even a 7 Series of all things, but he was ready to be reunited with his lifelong mate. Just as we know in the end Bond loves only Miss Moneypenny we also know that he can only drive an Aston Martin. Like the Brosnan this car had to rely on real talent to excite us, and thanks to Henry Ford’s deep pockets this is achieved with remarkable style.

It is an irony worthy of Hollywood that it has taken our American friends to help British Aston Martin be themselves again. David Brown gave his blessing to ressurecting his initials for the DB7 and it is clear why he was proud to do this. The new car was a return to the DB style, delicate yet swift, while resisting a craven retro copy of a classic Aston. It was an Aston Martin for sure, but a new one, as if David Brown had never left the helm of the company. Cynics might say that it was based on the already geriatric Jaguar XJ-S, successor to the E-Type that the Bond producers had originally failed to procure, but the public were hungry for a proper Aston Martin. When the XJ-S gave way to the XK8 in Jaguar’s stable the DB7 was cast as a woeful and overpriced anacronism, but still it sold like no Aston had before.

Aston Martin were emboldened to plan for future glories. They have a brand new factory, they have their own platform, and they have cars that are British without being quaint, a style that is pure Aston Martin without being historic/fossilised. The worry in the back of our minds is that this has been achieved by selling the company soul to Ford. The bean counters at Ford would never allow the company to be indulged like it was by David Brown and others, so surely a cheapskate Aston Martin Mondeo is just around the corner.

Dream easy. As long Aston Martin can make some kind of profit, and they can thanks to Ford’s investment of money and experience, then the company is as safe as any. The investment was relatively small, compared to a new Focus for example, so Aston is not a drag on the rest of the group. Ford claims their image benefits from the Aston Martin association, and that Aston has access to Ford resources. There is little truth in that, no Fiesta will ever wear the winged Aston Martin badge and  Ford is too busy with their own cars to have time to bother with aristocratic sports cars. Aston has their own design and engineering team and is able to pursue high technology in both design and production, which Ford can then closely observe. It is not that Aston Martin are a test case for future Ford projects, that suggests an experimental hit-and-miss approach, but they are a pilot for techniques that Ford might be interested in later. There are also possibilities for using common components, most notably with engines, but even these have to be extensively Astonised.

The truth is that Aston Martin can only succeed if they embody the fantasies of their customers, and that means they must remain British designed and made. If Ford were to interfere, they would destroy the magic of the brand and thus the only value that it has. It would appear that Ford bought the company for the same reason that we desire the cars, and if Ford is as human as we are then this bodes well for Aston Martin and for Ford.

Copyright © 2003-2005 Michael Wynn-Williams.