A-Z of marques: No.3 Aston Martin

The marque: Aston Martin, closest thing to a British Ferrari

The history: Like Alfa Romeo last week, Aston Martin lived too long on a past viewed through a rose-tinted perception. Many small boys three to four decades ago would have considered all manner of crimes if it could make them own an Aston Martin DB5 in the style of a Sean Connery-era James Bond. Usually the Corgi model, complete with ejector seat and miniature villain, had to do instead, but still the longing persisted.

Lionel Martin set up his car company in 1913 with Robert Bamford, and the following year he won the Aston Clinton hillclimb (near the Buckinghamshire village of that name) in a modified Singer car. Thus was the Aston Martin name born.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Aston Martin's handsome sports cars and saloons found a ready, if rarefied, market a notch or so below Bentley. After the Second World War, the cash-strapped Aston Martin was bought by tractor magnate David Brown and the series of "DB" Astons began.

The DB4 of 1958, with its fabulous new engine designed by Tadek Marek, lifted Aston Martin into the Ferrari league. A Le Mans win in 1959 further boosted the company's kudos. The DB4 evolved through DB5 and DB6 models, and in 1967 a new, larger and more angular body style heralded the DBS series, soon to get Marek's new V8 engine.

Then it started to go wrong. Aston Martin was living on its laurels and the cars were getting big and heavy, albeit ever faster. David Brown had sold the company in 1971 as his empire lost money, and a series of consortia took control over the next few years. Under Victor Gauntlett, who ran Aston Martin from 1981, things improved and a new car, the Virage, emerged. But it was still a dinosaur. Aston Martin had lost its thrust.

Ford bought it in 1987, a nice pairing with its imminent Jaguar acquisition. Jaguar was planning its XJS replacement and Aston Martin began work on a new, smaller, sportier car in the spirit of the old DB4. Then expediency intervened. Jaguar decided that improving its existing cars' quality should take priority, so its re-skinned XJS suddenly became the Aston Martin DB7 after some subtle visual massaging by Ian Callum (now Jaguar's design chief).

Built by TWR at Bloxham on modified Jaguar components, the DB7 was hardly a pedigree Aston and made little sense when a better Jaguar XK8 was maybe £25,000 cheaper. The later Vanquish model moved closer to that notion, though, with its supercharged 466bhp V12 engine. Today's DB7 has a version of that V12 motor, too.

So Aston Martin is back on course. The real rebirth, though, comes with the compact AMV8 concept car, a 4.3-litre coupé planned for sale in 2005. It was built in low-cost India, call-centre of the world. How times change.

Defining model: : DB5 (with or without ejector seat and tyre shredders)

They say: Britain's heritage is safe in Ford's hands

We say: A rusting reputation rescued in the nick of time

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