Aston Martin's renaissance

The look of pleasure on the faces of the Aston Martin personnel at Le Mans was good to behold. Final practice times issued on Thursday night confirmed that the Nimrod was 16th fastest overall, and quickest of all the normally aspirated cars on the track. The ground effect Rondeaus were too slow on the straight to match Ray Mallock’s best lap of 3 min 35.78 sec, and the Ford-Cosworth DFL and DFV engines were eclipsed.

“I’ll tell you something . . . we’ll finish third in the race,” predicted Aston Martin Lagonda’s Executive Chairman Victor Gauntlett. Fate did not agree, the Nimrod retiring in the 18th hour, having been as high as 12th overall, with an engine failure tracing directly back to the alternator problems the Viscount Downe/Bovis/Pace team had been experiencing since the start. Making up for this disappointment, the Michael Cane-managed Emka finished in 17th place having spent more than two hours in the pits with radiator and suspension problems that ruled out a possible 10th place. The 570 horsepower Tickford-prepared Aston Martin 5.3-litre V8 engine hadn’t missed a beat throughout the race.

Porsche’s 956 models dominated the race, no question, but what about next year? The fuel consumption, already critical for the turbo cars, will have to be reduced by 15% as the tank size is reduced from 100 litres to 85 litres, with no increase in the number of fuel stops allowed (five in a 1,000 km race, 25 at Le Mans).

The significance of this is that the Aston Martin Tickford powered cars are already running at next year’s fuel consumption, which will work out at 5.54 miles per gallon. In fact, the Nimrod — still grossly overweight despite the work of Ray Matlock and the team managed by Richard Williams, was averaging 6.7 miles per gallon at Le Mans. It was by far the heaviest Group C car to be weighed on the official scales, at 985 kg compared with 895 kg for the Emka and around 840 kg for the Porsches.

Losing 150 kg by next season would undoubtedly make the Nimrod, or any other Aston Martin powered Group C car, extremely competitive for next year’s series. Lap times of 3 min 35 sec could become a routine at Le Mans, just as the works Porsches were running this year in the 3 min 30 sec to 3 min 35 sec bracket. Next year they will have to slow down a bit. . . .

Aston Martin Tickford

Minds filled with the thoughts of a possible Aston Martin victory at Le Mans next year — the 25th anniversary of the company’s only outright success three— we headed for Newport Pagnell to talk to the men who could make it happen. First though to the Tickford operation at Milton Keynes, the sprawling industrial area on the western side of the M1 some five miles from AML’s headquarters.

Why Tickford? What has this well-known coachbuilding company’s name got to do with racing engines? We have to go back to 1980 for the answer. Five years before that the company had gone bankrupt for the seventh time in its history, to be rescued by Peter Sprague and Alan Curtis. In December 1980, when the company needed further reorganisation, control was taken by Victor Gauntlett, the man who built up the successful Pace Petroleum company, and by CH Industrials (CHI), formerly Coventry Hoods and Sidescreens and as such suppliers of folding hoods to the Midlands based British motor industry for many years.

Picking up the pieces, Gauntlett and Tim Hearley of CHI, the joint chairman, reconstituted the company later making Aston Martin Lagonda (AML) sales and service separate companies. Most significant was using the Tickford name for a new company which would sell design, engineering and related services, as well as the coachbuilding expertise which the name implies. So Tickford, now occupying three office and workshop units at Milton Keynes and soon to expand into a £1 million purpose-built premises, took over AML’s design staff and engineers, leaving AML to concentrate solely on the production of exclusive motor cars.

The first visible signs of Tickford’s new existence were in the forms of the Tickford MG Metro which was first seen in October 1981, followed by the Tickford Capri which made its debut at last year’s motor show. Both cars are intended to tap the huge market for upmarket cars which appeal to wealthy and discriminating customers.

The Capri, with a turbocharged 2.8-litre V6 powering the much-altered bodyshell to 140 mph if required, is due to go on sale from October (at the Motorfair) at a projected price of around £15,000. This will include the turbocharger which lifts the power to 205 bhp, modifications to the five-speed gearbox, suspension modifications, the fitting of disc brakes at the rear, the flared wheel arches and other cosmetics, and a de luxe interior; in other words, a complete package.

“We plan to make 250 Tickford Capris within 18 months and judging by public reaction at last year’s Motor Show, and at the Geneva Show in March, we won’t have any difficulty selling them,” says Tickford’s 29-year-old managing director Stew Rawlinson. The project started with a conversation between Gauntlett and Bob Lutz, former president of Ford of Europe, and everything was going ahead smoothly for the launch last autumn. But then the personnel changed at Ford, all programmes — including the Tickford Capri — were reassessed, “and it took Ford six months to decide not to take this one on”. As a result Tickford had to put the revised Capri through Type Approval (David Orchard is the manager of homologation and type approval for Tickford, this being one of the services the company offers), and order the parts from Ford.

“What this meant was that we had to carry the project ourselves, rather than having Ford as a client,” says Rawlinson. “It’s an expensive way of doing things for a small company, but we believed in this project and decided to go on with it. In future, we would look to have the manufacturer as a client, carrying out work like this on its behalf.” That statement rules out our next thought, that Tickford might turn their attentions next to the Sierra, for the time being at least. It is still possible, though, that individual Ford dealers could order and retail the Tickford Capris, and if a fifth of them did so the entire run of specialised cars would soon be accounted for.

The Tickford MG Metro is a simpler project, leaving the mechanical elements alone and concentrating on revised body panels and a special interior which includes a new leather-clad wrap-round dashboard. Including a stereo radio/cassette unit as standard, the Tickford conversion adds £2,500 to the price of the MG Metro or Turbo, which many people would consider excellent value.

Other work going on at Milton Keynes includes cutting Mercedes in half and adding three foot to the length, turning them into limousines. TV sets, cocktail cabinets, walnut cappings, and all the usual jet-set accoutrements appeal to the Middle East market particularly, this side of Tickford’s business being for Bob Jankel’s Le Marquis company.

All this, however, will be overshadowed in the autumn by a new and exciting Project for Jaguar. Tickford are now finishing a factory at Bedworth, “not a million miles from Browns Lane” to assemble and trim the XJ-S Convertible which is due to be launched around Motorfair time. Since Jaguar is the client Tickford cannot discuss the arrangement, but it’s on record that after Tickford made various proposals about the design and structure of the new Jaguar, they were invited to join the venture. The arrangement will suit Jaguar well as Tickford’s new factory will provide the necessary extension of working space. For Tickford themselves, it will mean taking on 20 new employees and increasing their payroll to around 100, and they will also be running the Tickford Capris down parallel lines.

One ot the appointments likely to be made soon is of a marketing and sales manager who will exploit all the skills that Tickford can offer. Steve Rawlinson believes that there is a limit to the amount of coachbuilding that the company can undertake, “perhaps five or six projects at a time”. Taking the new Jaguar XJ-S Convertible, the Capri, the MG Metro and the Mercedes limousines as four, that leaves one or two more openings. Tickford intend the new headquarters, only 200 yards away from the present suite of buildings and due to open at the end of March next year, to be their showpiece. It will house engineers, stylists, even underground test beds that can run 24 hours a day without upsetting the neighbours. Like Porsche and more recently Lotus, the idea is to offer a full range of consultancy skills such as styling, feasibility studies, prototype building, homologation, assembly, competitions projects (race and rally cars) and so on.

Turning to the Group C engine, we see that the Aston Martin Tickford V8 is already at the stage that rivals would like to be at the start of next season. For Steve O’Rourke’s Emka the V8 was shortened by five inches through repositioning the distributor, water and oil pumps, lightened by such means as casting the camshaft covers in magnesium, and strengthened to be used as a stressed member, thus enabling the chassis to be lighter. In Emka trim (and Emka designer Len Bailey was full of praise for all the modifications carried out by Tickford) the V8 weighs 485 pounds complete with starter motor, develops 570 bhp at 6,950 rpm and 450 lb ft of torque at 5,000 rpm.

“It seemed clear this year that the Cosworth engine is not up to the job for Le Mans, and we see our engine as being the alternative to Porsche — and at half the price”, says Rawlinson. Tickford will quote £25,000 for a power unit ready for racing, complete with Lucas mechanical fuel injection. The big debate is whether to freeze the design in its present, and proven form, or whether to press on in the search for more power, which the V8 could surely give without overstretching the economy requirements.

“If we developed the engine with the Lucas/Bosch L-Jetronic engine management system we would expect to see a 51/2% improvement in fuel economy”, says chief development engineer David Morgan. Four-valve cylinder heads are also under consideration, but whether these refinements will be needed for next year is another matter. The engine certainly doesn’t need to be more economical, and may not need to be any more powerful, while an expensive programme of development would have to be reflected in the price tag on the engines. So in probability these refinements will be introduced as and when the need arises.

“We certainly can’t afford to give these engines away with cornflake packets”, says Rawlinson. “It’s easy to get swept away with big ideas, and we’d love to have a full Aston Martin team at Le Mans next year, but I can’t see that happening unless a big sponsor comes along. We’d be content to build a series of engines, a dozen perhaps, and supply them to customers with a full service, back-up, rebuilding, and so on. We have to set our objectives, cost them, and then really go for them!”

We didn’t pick the best of days to call on Victor Gauntlett’s at Newport Pagnell, greeted by pickets outside the factory. Rating a few lines in a couple of national newspapers, the dispute over panel-beater’s money, and differentials, was a sad re-run of the sort of problems that beset BL not so long ago. Mr Gauntlett broke off from his discussions with the workforce to attend the interview, giving a frank rundown on the situation.

“We’ve got to solve this problem, and quickly, to survive. It’s about productivity, of course, and until that improves we can’t afford to give them all that they would hope for.”

Going back only five years, Aston Martin-Lagonda sold 200 cars on the home market in 1978, falling to 170 in 1979,115 in 1980, 35 in 1981 and 40 last year. What has been dramatic is the rise in exports, particularly of the Lagonda model, so that the current output of four cars per week, 200 per annum, is not quite sufficient to meet targets or to make real profits. Another car each week, so that the annual production rate would reach 250 units, would make a substantial difference to the company’s balance sheet.

“The Lagonda is for an ebullient economy,” says Gauntlett enthusiastically. “It’s perfect for the Middle East and for America, and we’re making about 150 a year, along with about 50 Saloons, Volantes (convertibles) and Vantages. You know, I find it amazing that this little company with 300 employees can turn out a car like the Vantage which can hold its head up in any company!”

In the UK the dealer network has shrunk to half a dozen (“all keen, individual operations”), though Mr Gauntlett’s policy of strengthening the exports markets can fairly be said to have kept the company afloat. Through several distributors in the Middle East, and through Aston Martin-Lagonda North America, 75% of all the cars made at Newport Pagnell are exported, allowing for a handful for other world markets.

Managing director of the American operation is Peter Gaydon, former racing driver, former Donington circuit director, and former Hesketh motorcycles sales director. Gaydon has a three-year contract with the US company, which is now controlled by American shareholders, and reports that the prospects are very good.

“The UK market was slaughtered in 1980/’81 and it became quite clear that we would have to export more to survive,” says Gauntlett. “After the States, Saudi Arabia is still our best market, with Kuwait close behind. But the white hope for the future has to be the United States. Peter Gaydon is doing a first-class job over there, the operation has a nice zing about it. Our target is 60 cars this year, 80 next year, and perhaps 100 the following year as the economy picks up. But we must not become dependent on America; ! would be happy to see the States as up to 50% of our market.

“The UK market is picking up now, I reckon we could sell another three dozen V8s tomorrow if we could pluck them off the production line. In this country the turnround is Aston Martin led, not Lagonda, and I can see the potential for around 60 or 70 cars next year.”

That AML should be making three Lagondas, priced at £59,500 in the UK and at 150,000 dollars in the States, for every Aston Martin off the production line is quite extraordinary, but it does not seem to have deflected AML’s future plans to produce a more affordable Aston Martin. An educated guess at the future would suggest that in about two year’s time we’ll see a smaller, lighter Aston Martin, little more than a two-seater and powered by a five-litre (sleeved) development of the current V8. Replacing the Weber carburetters by an electronic ignition/injection system could bring the unit right up to date, and the car might sell for around 330,000 at today’s values. Still not cheap by any means, but certainly the car would have wider appeal.

The V8 was designed by Tadek Maras in the mid-1960s, so by the yardstick of Jaguar’s XK engine it’s still in its infancy with a lot of development left in it. AML and Tickford are immensely proud of their power unit, which is central to almost any discussion you have with them.

After a briefing on the company’s temporary labour difficulties, thankfully resolved by the time this article went to press, it hardly seemed appropriate to turn the conversation to Le Mans, but Mr Gauntlett was as forthcoming as ever. “We cannot hope to go there next year with a three-car works team, however nice the idea may sound. But for a modest sum we could support a team that would show well. You know, 12 months of searching for a sponsor makes us realise that a pushover we (Pace Petroleum) were! We got into the Nimrod project with no intention of being the main sponsor, but that’s how it was until Bovis came along.

“The biggest frustration this year was seeing all that potential unfulfilled. The Nimrod was far more competitive, and the Emka was amazingly good for such a new design.” For the record, the Nimrod’s retirement was caused by one alternator overcharging (they didn’t have a spare). Eventually this led to the wiring overheating and burning through the oil and fuel pipes leading to the fascia gauges, leaving poor Mike Salmon with a lap full of oil and petrol! By the time the Nimrod reached the pits a lot of oil had pumped out, and the car had to run like that for another 90 minutes before the regulations allowed the team to refill the oil container. By that time the damage was done, a post-mortem on the engine revealing the blueing of the big-ends. The Emka engine was overheated too when a stone pierced the water radiator, but that kept going to the finish.

“Oh, if only we had some more money Gauntlets exclaims. “We’re going to do all we can next year, and I’m convinced that in a competitive chassis we’ll stand a good chance of celebrating the 25th anniversary of Aston Martin’s win at Le Mans. But I hope we’ll be forgiven for not having the sharp edge of professionalism that Jaguar, for instance, would need to have if they’re going to make a big return. We have been building up steadily over the past couple ot years, setting a course that could bring us success.   MLC