Andrew Frankel: “These aren’t bad headlines about Aston and McLaren, they’re human disasters”

There are, it would seem, very few reasons to be cheerful about Britain’s indigenous motor industry right now. In May, McLaren announced 1200 job losses, the vast majority coming from its road car business. In June, it was 500 from Aston Martin, followed swiftly by 1000 at Bentley. That’s just at the time of writing. Jaguar Land Rover has yet to announce any, but even that has to be seen in the context of the 4500 jobs it shed last year. This year’s sales are projected to be down by as much as 20 per cent.

For those companies, this is not good reading. For those thousands who have lost their jobs, and the thousands more in the supply chain we read about far more rarely, these aren’t bad headlines, these are very personal, human disasters. But at the same time, we must look to the future and plot a route out of the mess. The starting point must be that almost all premium British car manufacturers comprise desirable brands.

When I think of the stuff Aston Martin, Land Rover, Bentley, Jaguar and Rolls-Royce were peddling when I started in the business in the late 1980s compared to their products today, well there is no comparison. Lotus too appears to be at the dawn of a new era. When I think of the rubbish that wobbled out of British Leyland in the 1970s, I realise just how far we have come. I dare say the short-term future of most if not all of the above will be hideously hard at times, and the medium term may not look quite as imagined a few months ago, but that there is a future for them in the long term is not something I doubted before COVID-19, and I don’t doubt it now.

Of these companies, it is the future of McLaren and Aston Martin that interests me most, because unlike their rivals, neither is owned by an automotive giant. Both are independents, both funded primarily by money from the Middle East. And some say both now face similar issues. There is truth in that, but only to a certain extent. Both have built more cars than the market will currently wear, both are now dealing with the inevitable effect of that on individual markets. But look closer, and you’ll see the criticisms levelled at both are entirely different.

“The DBX appears to be Aston’s route out of troubled times”

Aston Martin has been lambasted for trying to do too much, too soon and thereby losing the confidence of the City, disastrous for a part-publicly owned company. It has three front-engined coupés in production, three mid-engined cars in the works, and an all-new SUV on an all-new platform now being produced in an all-new factory in South Wales.

McLaren Automotive, on the other hand, has drawn flak for not doing enough, thanks to the fact that every car it’s produced in its 10 years to date has been a carbon-tubbed, mid- engined two-seater powered by a twin-turbo V8 engine running to the rear wheels alone via a seven-speed double-clutch gearbox.

Whether either, both or neither got it right in the past I am no better a judge than anyone else, but what I can say is that the two companies cannot be treated in the same way: for McLaren to build an SUV now would surely be a disaster, while the full order book for the DBX is looking like Aston Martin’s route out of these troubled times.

But both will know already that the foreseeable future requires far fewer cars to be built than was previously anticipated, and it is the acceptance of that fact that lies behind the bulk of the job losses. This however does not preclude for a moment the prospect of either company returning to profit and soon, for they make some of the most desirable cars on earth.

Where should the cuts come? Aston Martin should focus on having three utterly distinct products: a front-engined super GT, a mid- engined supercar and an SUV, with detail variants of each to flesh out the range. This would mean combining the Vantage, DB11 and DBS into one car, positioned far nearer the DBS because that fits with likely volume aspirations and provides the biggest margin.

For McLaren, we will have to wait and see what the new Sports Series car will be like. I understand that it is a new car from stem to stern, the first to be powered by McLaren’s new compact V6 motor and the first standard production McLaren to come complete with a hybrid powertrain.

And I look forward to its introduction very much, probably at the end of this year or early next. But I still hope that, in addition to this replacement model, it does something else entirely. A front-engined 2+2 would get my vote. Such cars are not without their issues, Ferrari four-seat GTs always depreciate faster than its two-seat supercars, but even the presence of those rear seats, whether usable in reality or not, makes the car saleable to a constituency McLaren is not reaching at the moment. And now it can make its carbon fibre at its new composites facility in Sheffield, hopefully, the economics will have become easier, too. Think of a car with the everyday usability of a Porsche 911 Turbo, looks to make an Aston Martin DB11 feel insecure, and a driving experience to make a Ferrari Lusso seem ponderous.

No easy task I’m sure, and maybe it’s too big a punt, particularly at the moment, but if anyone could pull off such a car, I’d back McLaren to do it.