Small but perfectly formed

Aston Martin's chief executive has changed the company from a cottage industry into a modern powerhouse, says Richard Feast

The trio of elegant Aston Martin grand touring cars in the firm's stunning new headquarters at Gaydon make it hard to believe the 90-year-old company has teetered on the brink of oblivion for most of its existence. Aston Martin is evidently moving into the fast lane after spending decades with the bonnet up.

The trio of elegant Aston Martin grand touring cars in the firm's stunning new headquarters at Gaydon make it hard to believe the 90-year-old company has teetered on the brink of oblivion for most of its existence. Aston Martin is evidently moving into the fast lane after spending decades with the bonnet up.

None of the wealthy car enthusiasts who controlled the company over the years made it a business success. Aston Martin had an uncanny knack of parting well-meaning owners from their cash, yet somehow surviving. Quite why is a mystery, because Aston Martin was a cottage industry in an increasingly brutal commercial world.

The company punched above its weight against professional, well-funded rivals like Porsche and Ferrari. Its survival spoke volumes about the love of the marque among car enthusiasts in Britain, because few were sold outside the country.

Henry Ford II essentially bailed out Aston Martin by having his Ford Motor Company buy a controlling interest in 1987. But even after Ford completed the takeover in 1994, it took ages to get to grips with Aston Martin. It was as if the head gardener did not notice the pretty flower in the corner of Ford's vast garden because it was so small.

That sort of benign neglect is a telling comment about Ford's understanding of the value of brands at the time. The irony is that it took a German engineer from outside the company to realise the potential of Ford's asset. He was also a superb salesman, because he succeeded in selling his vision of Aston Martin to the Ford board in Dearborn, Michigan.

Dr Ulrich Bez was a high-achiever at BMW and Porsche before he was recruited to lead the product development team at Daewoo Motors in South Korea. When Daewoo's wild ambitions imploded in the late 1990s, Bez, now 61, joined Ford and was appointed chief executive of Aston Martin in July 2000.

The revolution that followed was total. Bez immediately postponed the launch of the Vanquish by eight months "because it was not ready". Then he switched the firm's concept for a smaller model from a rear-engined layout to one with a front engine and rear-drive. Henrik Frisker, a Dane who spent most of his career with BMW, was hired to design the new cars. That was just the start.

Today, Aston Martin oozes class and confidence. The £163,000 Vanquish, which finally went on sale in 2001, was recently joined by the £103,000 DB9. The line-up will be completed in the middle of next year by the Vantage V8, the smaller model that will sell for around £75,000. When that happens, Aston Martin expects to sell 5,000 cars a year around the world. That compares with 1,500 as recently as last year - and hundreds for most of its existence.

New models are one thing. Aston Martin also needed more modern premises to assemble them. The new facilities it opened last year are a good deal more impressive than any of Aston Martin's previous eight headquarters and assembly sites. Its most recent home, a group of red-brick Victorian sheds in Newport Pagnell, would not be out of place in any picture of local lads marching off to war in 1914.

Its new home in Gaydon epitomises Aston Martin's transformation. The site is a landscaped corner of rural Warwickshire from which Royal Air Force Valiant and Victor bombers embarked on secret missions during the Cold War. Today, Gaydon is a more peaceful cluster of design and engineering buildings where future Aston Martins, Jaguars and Land Rover are created. Nearby is the Heritage Motor Centre, a car museum open to the public.

The Aston Martin section of Gaydon picks up some visual themes of nearby Warwick Castle, with impressive curved walls of beige Travetine marble and a bridge over a moat-like lake to the VIP visitor centre. However, the facilities are unashamedly modern and minimalist. Glass walls and more marble form the atrium reception.

There are displays of the latest models and some seminal Aston Martins from history. The furniture in the client suites comprises black-leather-and-chrome sofas and glass tables. These nods towards history are by a company with its sights on the future.

Bez says: "When the first Aston Martin appeared, it did not hark back to the horse and cart of the past. It was modern and forward-looking. That is how Aston Martin is today."

Gaydon began producing the DB9 coupe in May. It will add the Volante convertible in November and the smaller Vantage next year. The Vanquish, which will account for around 15 per cent of this year's projected output of 2,350 cars, is hand-made in Newport Pagnell. The old plant's traditional role as a service and renovation centre also continues.

As if to underline the scale of all these changes, Aston Martin has decided the time is right to return to its motor-racing roots. The first Aston Martin of 1914 was a hill-climb special, after all. The firm achieved fame in the 1950s in international long-distance sports-car racing, most notably by winning the Le Mans 24-hours race in 1959 in competition with Ferrari and Maserati. Next year, then, Aston Martin will return to Le Mans - and other circuits - with half-a-dozen DB9s prepared for racing by Prodrive, the specialist engineering firm a few miles down the road in Banbury.

Bez is unequivocal: "I want to win. I'm not at Aston Martin to lose," he insists. It hardly needs saying. The new models, the big sales plans and the high-tech headquarters are evidence that Bez doesn't believe in losing.

Aston Martin will be self-supporting at around 5,000 cars a year, he says, able to generate profit for its parent company and to invest in new models.

The world can only take Bez's word on this, because Aston Martin's financial affairs are opaque at best. No one outside Ford and Aston Martin knows what investment was required to get this far. It was clearly a lot. And Aston Martin's accounts are buried within Ford's Premier Automotive Group, which includes the far larger Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo marques.

Whatever money was involved, though, the result is that Aston Martin's model line-up is now capable of matching the best from companies like Bentley, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and Porsche.

Aston Martin is no longer the beggar at the feast.

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