It's been a busy five years for Aston Martin, thanks to divorce from Ford, worldwide recession, products such as the Cygnet and Lagonda, and an intense racing programme. CAR reader and Aston Martin Owners' Club member Garry Taylor had a one-to-one chat with Aston chairman David Richards to discuss the recent past, present and future of one of Britain's best-loved brands. Read on for his in-depth interview.
CAR: It seems almost every business has a 'five year plan' - and it's five years since we last discussed the fortunes of Aston Martin. Are all the original investors still there?
David Richards: 'John Sinders moved on at a fairly early stage. He was involved in the original investment banking purpose of the purchase, but he subsequently moved onto other things, but everyone else is all in place.'
In 2007 your target was to move Aston Martin from Ford's big company culture to a more independent behaviour. Has that been acheived?
'Certainly that was a goal at the time and it is a natural thing. Remember Aston Martin was at that time a very small cog in a large organisation. Now it is a small independent car manufacturer. By its very nature it changes the whole behaviour and culture of the business.'
How did you manage the effect of the worldwide recession?
'Well, you clearly look backwards and wish you reacted faster. Who would have guessed that in 2007 what was on the horizon was the financial crash and all the problems it gave. But all credit to the Aston Martin staff in how we have managed to cope with that change. In 2007 we were at 7400 cars, nudging towards full capacity at Gaydon and circumstances changed dramatically. During that period of time we launched a number of new models, continued development of existing products and retained an extraordinary reputation.'
Wasn't the Rapide originally planned for production in Austria?
'It has always been British designed and engineered but it will be British-built from later this year.'
Recent statistics have shown that the worldwide sports car market has fallen from 110,000 in 2007 to around 55,000 today. Can Aston Martin be sustainable as a sole sports car manufacturer in a market that is actually quite small?
'Well, you have to look at the breadth of our product range these days. Taking one extreme as the Cygnet, through the range of Vantage, DB9, Rapide and the One-77. In the old days, Aston Martin was just a one product company. We have a wide range of offerings and customers and yet still true to the Aston Martin brand itself.'
Aston sales in 2011 landed around the 4200 mark. Do you expect to see an upward surge in the sales charts soon?
'Clearly we will have to grow again in the future, and with the introduction of new markets that will happen. But we also have to be aware of the climate out there and working with our dealers so as not to overstock and match demand with supply. So it is a matter of getting the right product.'
When Dr Bez arrived, the UK was the largest market for Aston Martin. Today, is China attracting most interest from many manufacturers?
'What has happened over the past five years is the enlargement of the dealer network – not just in China, although that is important – other places that you do not even think about. So we have a far broader reach, and we are not as dependent on the UK and American markets we have been historically. Aston Martin has always been an exclusive product. We must always keep that – a luxury product. We will never do mass volume. The way to avoid devaluing by oversupplying any one market is to have that broad reach across the world.'
How do you respond to doubts raised in the motoring press and the forums as to how Aston Martin as an independent is able to generate enough profit in the medium to long term to sustain such independence, and bring out new products to be a global player?
'As an independent manufacturer we are in the fortunate position of being able to talk to a variety of parties about a range of products and ideas – this has been the case for some time and will continue. But we will remain independent, as such. It’s an important feature of the brand.'
Being an important feature, how do you protect such independence?
'It depends how you define independence. You have a relationship with a car manufacturer; a minority stake maybe; partnership with a big first tier supplier – all these things are necessary in one form an another, so I wouldn’t rule anything out other than Aston Martin being independent.'
What about rumours Aston Martin was up for sale again, perhaps even to Jaguar Land Rover?
'I won’t comment on rumours or speculation! Clearly we are not desperately seeking anything. We have a strategy and a long-term plan. We have a great management team. We are talking with everyone as everyone does in this industry; every day, every week and every year.'
Aston Martin now has a wide portfolio of models. How do you respond to the comments that each new model is another variation of the DB9 theme?
'Again, I don’t necessarily agree with that. Each model has a very distinct character and its own role. And when you have such a great product to start with, why would you want to change? It is a natural process of evolution.'
Two products from AML that are not part of the DB9 evolution are the Cygnet and Lagonda. How is the Cygnet doing?
'It has been well received. It was never going to be a car that would be embraced by all our customers, but if you live in, say, London, Milan or Paris, it is a great car. In Milan it is very popular. It is a product many are a little surprised about and people are not always aware of it, but it will last a long time.'
The motive behind the Cygnet was surely to achieve CO2 targets?
'No, it was fundamentally based on customer demand. The notion that may be our customers are conscious about their own behaviour and green aspects of their lives, and driving a car like Cygnet in the city is perfect - leaving the DB9 for a blast in the country.'
The 2009 Lagonda SUV concept appears to have gone into hiding. What can you tell us about that?
'It is a great challenge to launch a product such as Lagonda and the investment required. It is not something to be taken on lightly. It is still sitting in our portfolio of plans. It is all about how you allocate your funds. You prioritise in current products and core activities. But one day, I am quite certain we will build a Lagonda.'
Within the next five years?
'Let's wait and see!'
The V12 engine has been a key aspect of the modern range - is it bespoke to Aston Martin?
'It is not a Ford supply – it is our own engine and we own all the intellectual property rights. The supply is up to us and not Ford.'
Is there still a future for V12s in an Aston Martin?
'I am certain we will continue to make a large capacity V12 for a number of years yet, although maybe in a lesser volume of our sales. That V12 is a wonderful engine – it is something very special.'
Let's talk about Aston Martin Racing. The AMR-One was meant to take the fight to Audi and Peugeot, especially at Le Mans for The Big Win. However, within the first hour of the race, both cars were out and retired. It was a disappointment, so what went wrong?
'We tried to do something very adventurous, with not enough time, resources or money. The race team were very ambitious as an opportunity and a challenge they could take on. In hindsight, we should have been more realistic. We sat down after the race and looked at the whole programme and said “look, can we make this competitive?” We looked at the budget required to do it within the timeframe. We looked at the risk and along with the factory we came to the conclusion that the best use of the budget was to do GT racing. So we sold the tub and it is now used by the Pescarolo Team. The engine will find a home in someone else’s LMP1 car. We had to be practical about it.
'We are returning to our roots if you like. 2012 will see a campaign in the World Endurance Championship, Nurburgring 24 hrs and Le Mans. We are building up teams around the world – very competent teams – in Europe, UK and Japan. Over the next twelve months you will see a very well established global GT programme for Aston Martin.'
Is GT racing is more in tune with the public and Aston Martin brand awareness?
'It is very interesting! Aston Martin returned to the race track about eight years ago. We had success at Le Mans, but people would say “You know what is wrong with GT racing – you can never win outright!” But then others suggest “These prototypes aren’t true to the brand – you should go GT racing!” You cannot win! So both solutions are right, but given the current climate and resources, GT racing is right for now.'
Will there ever be an AMR-2, or something similar in prototypes?
'Let's wait and see. Maybe we were just a little ahead of our time. Le Mans tends to swing. A few years ago it was diesels, and now it is hybrids. When the technology is right for Aston Martin we will re-consider being back in the arena.'
With so much DNA shared between the road and race cars, is there an equal sharing of business and motorsport culture between Aston Martin Racing and Aston Martin?
'The way you approach the business of building production cars with durability and cost efficiency is very different to the way you go motor racing in a no-holds-barred, getting a win at all costs approach. They have to be managed in a separate way; you cannot confuse the two objectives. I have seen it happen so often where a company can lose control of cost and other benefits by muddling the two areas up.'
What is your vision for Aston Martin and the challenges ahead?
'The greatest challenge is to continue building great cars in the face of advancing technologies; we obviously have to keep investing in the product and meeting people’s expectations, but also being true to the Aston Martin brand. The products today are exactly where we should be and with future products to come, towards the end of the year, you will be very comfortable where we are – being true to the DB heritage, and very much cars for today.'