Aston Martin, in the doldrums for most of the past 20 years, has returned to its roots, and the limelight, by launching a smallish, fast and pretty sports car called the DB7. At under pounds 80,000, it is inexpensive by Aston's recent standards. The company's cheapest car is the pounds 133,000 Virage.
The DB7 is the spiritual successor to the DB4, DB5 (as used by James Bond, with ejector-seat and front machine- gun options) and DB6 Astons of the Sixties. These were created when Aston was owned by Sir David Brown, maker of the first all-British tractor. The fact that Sir David is no longer directly involved with Aston - although he was recently made honorary life president - makes little difference. No set of initials motivates an Aston enthusiast quite like Sir David's.
Less palatable for enthusiasts is the fact that the DB7 is a direct result of Ford's 1987 takeover of the little Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire, firm. Without Ford's cash, there would be no DB7, and probably no Aston Martin. Costs have been reduced by using an engine block and suspension and floorpan components from Jaguar, now part of the Ford family. The engine is a 3.2-litre straight six supercharged unit, delivering 335bhp.
The car is the brainchild of Walter Hayes, the former Ford vice-president. Less than a year after retiring, Mr Hayes, who was responsible for Ford's move into Formula One motor racing, was asked to come back to oversee Aston Martin.
'It was perfectly obvious to me that Aston had never made itself into anything approaching a business,' he says. 'I also felt that the market for expensive, high-performance sports cars was fragile. But there is a great layer of enthusiasm for cars just below these
machines. That's how the DB7 came about.'
The new car will be built at the Bloxham, Oxfordshire, factory that produces the Jaguar JX220 supercar. When production of the JX220 ceases at the end of the year the plant will be modified to accept the DB7. Production starts in April 1994 and deliveries begin two months later. Aston hopes to build 600 cars a year, a modest goal.
Should Aston reach this target, it should become quickly profitable - a rarity during the company's 74-year history. Mr Hayes said recently: 'A loyal customer and friend recently asked if he could buy a car at cost, as a favour. 'Certainly,' I replied. 'That'll be double the retail price.' '
Aston Martin is one of the few European car-makers to predict an improvement in the market this year. Volkswagen believes an upturn will not occur until early 1995, and expects the total European car market to shrink by more than 10 per cent this year. The German market, buoyant last year, should contract by more than 20 per cent.
This did not stop the mass makers from launching some of the most exciting new cars seen for years at Geneva, Europe's most important annual motor show. After years of follow-my-leader, same-again styling and engineering, the major manufacturers are at last showing some nous.
The new Vauxhall Corsa, which replaces the Nova in April, is a cute little car, available in a range of wacky interior and exterior colours.
Citroen's Xantia, replacement for the BX, boasts the most advanced suspension of any mass-made road car. It is a development of the bigger XM's Hydractive suspension, which in turn owes its antecedents to the hydropneumatic suspension pioneered in the Fifties by the Citroen DS.
Peugeot, which owns Citroen, also uncovered the 306 at Geneva. Like the 309, which it supplants, the 306 will be built at Ryton, near Coventry. It is a handsome, if cautiously styled car, looking just like a grown-up 106. Together with the 106, it will eventually replace the 205, one of the greatest cars of the Eighties.
More distinctive is the latest Lancia Delta, step one in Fiat's plans to build sportier and bolder looking cars. This fresh-looking, classy and roomy machine may, at last, resurrect Lancia in Britain. UK sales start early next year.
Porsche, like Aston Martin, has had a dreadful past couple of years, the victim of an anti-yuppie backlash, engineering inertia and its own arrogant pricing. Worldwide sales are at a third of the levels of the mid-Eighties.
Geneva saw the European debut of a prototype for a new sub- pounds 30,000 bot-
tom-of-the-range Porsche, due to go on sale in 1995. The Boxster is a small, beautifully detailed, mid-engined open-top two-seater. Like the DB7, it has a number of old-fashioned styling cues but still looks timely. This is a refreshing change for a manufacturer renowned for updating old models. It is also the most exciting Porsche since the 911, now 30 years old, and still the company's most popular model.
Geneva Motor Show is at the Palexpo (next to the airport) until 14 March.