History suggests that small independent sports car makers will stuggle. Can Aston prove otherwise, asks Gavin Green
Henry Ford once famously noted that history was ‘more or less’ bunk. Aston Martin, now liberated from Big Brother Ford, must hope that old Henry was right. For if history is any guide, Aston Martin’s enthusiastic band of new owners have little chance of long-term success.
Aston Martin’s turnaround, from perennial bankrupt into ‘the world’s coolest car brand’, was not due to the efforts of a merry band of devotees. Rather, it was due to the vast cash and development resources of Ford – which maintains a small stake in the business – and its ability to bankroll and help engineer three excellent new sports cars (Vanquish, DB9 and V8 Vantage). And it’s due in no small part to the vision and drive of Aston’s charismatic and eccentric chief executive Ulrich Bez.
The good news is that Dr Bez is staying. He is a great car guy and a proven leader. Even better news is that Ford is still involved, though no longer in control. Its technical assistance is essential to future prosperity.
But most of the other news – if history is any guide – does not bode well. The new owners, multi-millionaire enthusiast investment bankers mostly, have been gushing in the press about their love and enthusiasm for Astons. Aston Martin does not need any more enthusiasm – there is plenty of that at its Gaydon HQ already. Rather, it needs hard-headed business nous to unlock a secret that has proved elusive – namely, how to make a small-volume premium independent car maker consistently profitable. No previous Aston Martin owner has managed it. Certainly not Victor Gauntlett or Peter Livanos or Peter Sprague or George Minden or tractor magnate David Brown (though he went closest). Neither did Lionel Martin, the founder, and the first in a long line of well-meaning optimists under whom Aston went bankrupt.
There is no successful independent UK car maker as a role model (look what happened, most recently, to TVR). If we look outside the UK, all successful low volume prestige makers are owned and assisted by bigger car companies (Ferrari and Maserati by Fiat, Lamborghini and Bentley by Volkswagen, Rolls-Royce by BMW). The only exception is Porsche. And it’s way bigger than Aston, has been consistently profitable since its post-war founding, and is now rich enough to be the largest shareholder in Europe’s biggest car company, Volkswagen.
Aston’s new owners have been talking about improved investment in new models. I find this hard to believe. The four-door Rapide, conceived under Ford’s watch, will be launched (it’s essentially a four-door DB9). Expect other variants of existing cars, such as the ‘James Bond’ DBS (a modified DB9, also created under Ford ownership). But does anybody seriously expect private backers to match Ford’s recent new model offensive? Brand new models are most unlikely for many years. The car business is just too expensive.
Instead, enriched by its recent new cars, Aston Martin will likely prosper in the short term. It’s when the current line-up fades and big investment is needed that the true mettle (and financial wherewithal) of Aston Martin’s band of car-loving brothers will be tested.
But perhaps history is bunk. Perhaps Bez and his new chairman, motorsport impresario David Richards (a clever car guy in his own right) have found a ‘third way’. It’s where the technical might of a minority-owning car giant (in this case Ford) is wed to the nimbleness of small, independent, knowledgeable management. It might just be a role model for 21st century small premium makers.
History would suggest otherwise. But, as Henry Ford went on to tell the Chicago Tribune in his famous interview in 1916, ‘we want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today’.