James Bond's favourite car maker may be up for grabs. The Ford Motor Company, the owner of the famous Aston Martin marque since 1993, made another bold move in its search for long-term financial stability yesterday when it announced its most glamorous operation might be sold off.
Ford's chairman and chief executive, Bill Ford, said: "As part of our ongoing strategic review, we have determined that Aston Martin may be an opportunity to raise capital and generate value".
The review is being led by Kenneth Leet, a former Goldman Sachs and Bank of America executive, and has already mooted a possible sale of Jaguar.
However, that option looks less likely now, with Mr Ford stating: "We continue to be encouraged by Jaguar's progress and by the strength and appeal of the Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo product line-ups." By contrast, Aston Martin is "the most logical and smart divestiture choice", he said. A source at Ford of Europe confirmed that "some parties had expressed an interest" in Aston Martin.
Despite the continuing fame of Aston Martin sports cars, their role in numerous Bond films, the rave reviews they routinely generate among motoring journalists, and their high price tags (the range tops out at £177,000) Aston Martin loses money: $162m (£85m) in the second quarter.
Its disposal would bring relief to Ford's hard-pressed shareholders and would be the first tangible fruit of the strategic review.
Although no names are yet firmly in the frame, the JCB chairman, Sir Anthony Bamford, would seem a possible buyer given his very public recent interest in Jaguar. He would not be alone. Various private equity interests, the former Ford boss Jacques Nasser, Oleg Deripaska, the billionaire head of the Russian GAZ concern, and car groups from Renault-Nissan to Hyundai have been mentioned in the context of Jaguar, and will no doubt be quietly running their slide rules over Aston Martin, a fine ornament for any of them.
It may be that Ford has discovered that selling off Jaguar but keeping Land Rover is too logistically demanding, given the way the two have been so closely integrated - sharing engines for example. Aston Martin's headquarters is at the old British Leyland technical centre in Gaydon, Warwickshire where it shares facilities with Land Rover. However, because it is a much smaller, niche player, making about 5,000 cars a year, Aston Martin should be easier to extricate.
Even by the dramatic standards of the British motor industry, Aston Martin has had a chequered history, going bust and moving premises many times. It was founded in 1921 by Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford (no relation to Sir Anthony) to race cars up Aston Clinton hill in Buckinghamshire, hence the name. It enjoyed its greatest success in the 1950s and 1960s when owned by a tractor maker, David Brown, who pioneered the DB series. Perhaps JCB ownership might similarly see James Bond in his first Aston Martin JCB.