profile; Behind the wheel of a dream
Aston Martin's new boss is being paid to turn a car he loves into a winner in the US. And he has the industry mileage to pull it off, Paul Farrelly reports
Sunday 14 January 1996
Unveiled 10 days ago in Detroit and Los Angeles, the convertible is the latest and most technologically advanced Aston Martin to bear the famous DB marque, the spiritual successor to the DB4, DB5 and DB6s of the 1960s. The DB5, you will remember, sped Sean Connery dangerously through Goldfinger and Thunderball, with machine- guns, ejector seats and all.
DB, by the way, stands for David Brown, the engineering entrepreneur who united the Aston Martin and Lagonda names after the Second World War and dominated motor racing with the talents of Stirling Moss, Jim Clark and Jack Brabham.
For Aston Martin Lagonda today, though, the latest Volante is much more than just another car to die for. After a three-year gap, it spearheads the company's return to the US, the largest car market in the world. With target sales of 600 a year, the DB7 Volante and its Coupe stablemate also practically amount to mass production against the 100 or so hand-built "V cars" - Virage, Vantage and original Volante - the company otherwise sells at prices of up to pounds 180,000 apiece. It might be heresy, but with lower cost, higher volumes, modern production and Ford technology, the new Volante throws a lifeline to an endangered species.
"It's make or break for us ... this was not just launching a new product, it was relaunching the whole company as well," says the company's executive chairman, David Price, fresh back from an exhausting tour of the US.
Just 10 weeks into the job, it falls to Price, a former Ford man, to nearly double the US network to more than 20 and take dealerships worldwide close to 100 by the end of this year, from around 70 now. For this giant, 6ft 4in and nearly as broad, as befits a former rugby second-row, has cars in his blood.
Aged 52, he is also an ordinary bloke made good and now lapping up a fantasy: "What do you do for a living?" "I'm the boss of Aston Martin" - any boy's dream job. Naturally Price drives one- the pick of the bunch, with transferrable AML1 number-plate - but only on company business. They are simply too expensive to throw around the road on the one-and-a-half- hour journey each day from his Cambridge home, an old rectory complete with swimming-pool.
He was born in Chigwell, Essex, where his father - Welsh, hence Price's lifelong rugby support for London Welsh - was in insurance, his mother a housewife. He joined Ford's Dagenham factory in 1964 at 21 after A-levels and, "please don't print this, after travelling around a bit." The Ford work ethic shows through.
Missing out on university still brings slight regrets, but mainly in case his three young children, Richard, Kathryn, and Graham, aged 11, 9 and 7 respectively, chirp that Daddy didn't go, so why should they?
His career since has taken him from accounts clerk in Dagenham to engineering Escorts and Cortinas and programme manager in the late 1980s for Ford's ambitious world car, the Mondeo. Stints in the US and India came in between and, just before Aston Martin came up trumps, Mr Price found himself trouble- shooting in South America, supervising Ford's break-up of its Autolatina joint venture with Volkswagen.
"It was 5.30am in a hotel in Brazil when the call came. Friday, October 20th. You can imagine, I had to come down off the ceiling," Price says.
"I thought I was in the running. There's no company policy that says the job has to be occupied by a Brit, but it helps. Aston Martin is a wonderful job," he beams.
Ford bought the company in 1987 after more collapses and changes of owner in its 80-year history than most of its long-serving craftsmen care to remember.
Aston Martin has been building cars in Newport Pagnell - known to most of us, and to Price until recently, as just another M1 service station - since its foundation by two Oxbridge graduates, Robert Bamford and Lionel Martin, in 1913. Bamford lost out straight away to commercial reality: A comes before B in the alpahabet and all-important car listings, so Aston - taken from a Berkshire hill sprint climb - plus Martin it was to be.
The "V cars", right up to the 1993 two-ton, 5.3 litre Vantage, are still painstakingly hand-engineered at Newport Pagnell using processes pre-dating Henry Ford's earliest mass production. Each piece of the aluminium bodywork is bent and welded by craftsmen on to a steel chassis. Each engine is hand-built and comes complete with the engineer's personal nameplate. Nine hides of finest Connolly leather are cut and stitched for each car and 12 coats of paint - any colour the customer likes - perfect the finish. A labour of love taking 1,500 hours goes into each.
The latest Vantage was already in the works when Ford took over. The Prince of Wales, whose signed portrait takes pride of place in Price's office, is still driving an L-registered V8 convertible. By the frugal 1990s, the product range was looking expensive and dated, however.
In a break with tradition, the DB7 is built by 200 employees at Bloxham, near Banbury Oxfordshire, in the factory that produced Jaguar's XJ220 supercar. Conceived in 1991, it uses stamped, mainly steel panels and houses a 3.2-litre modified engine from Jaguar, also now owned by Ford.
Price is at pains, however, to assuage the concerns of Aston Martin's other 200 staff at Newport Pagnell. That site is now profitable for the first time in many years, he says, and the town - which boasts "Home of Aston Martin Lagonda" on its welcome signs - has an indelible place in the company's future.
"This business is about 50 per cent head and 50 per cent heart," Price says.
"My key plan is to establish the company as a twin-site, self-financing, fully viable operation. If I can achieve that, it will be a great thing to leave to the people of Aston Martin."
He has far more ambitions for his new charge, too. Launching a new Lagonda, a sporty four-seater to the Aston Martin's two, is just one. But Ford's pockets are by no means bottomless, so all in good time, once the DB7 delivers the goods and provides a sure footing for the future.
Sadly no Lagondas are now built, but for any buyers out there, six of the last - the pointy-nosed, 1986 William Towns Lagonda - remain in stock. The latest prototype, the Lagonda Vignale unveiled two years ago, remains for now just that, a one-off.
Still, there's a DB8 in concept, but the next James Bond film will be long gone before that hits the showroom. So what about Goldeneye, where the new Bond had to plump for a BMW Z3 convertible?
"We were asked a couple of years ago and of course we'd like to be in. But they wanted an open top, and sadly we didn't have the new Volante," Price says.
"Still, we've almost got more publicity by not having a new model in there. We have had more footage than a certain well-known competitor."
And what about the ultimate enthusiast's dream? Ford is back in Formula One with the Benetton team, but Aston Martin has been out of the circuit since 1959. "If that happened, it would be under the Aston Martin name, but if I started talking about things like that, I think I'd get into a lot of trouble," Price says.
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