Aston and Ford's Stylish Marriage

The “downsize” Aston Martin that Victor Gauntlet has spoken of in the past three years should be unveiled by 1993 at the latest . . . but it may wear a Ford badge. The Newport Pagnell company will, in the meantime, take the wraps off the new John Heffernan/Ken Greenley designed Aston Martin at the British motor show in October 1988 and off the convertible version at Geneva in March 1989, and will announce the Vantage version in 1990. Above all, says Gauntlett in a frank interview, Aston Martin Lagonda Limited will remain in its hand-made niche, and will return to World Championship sportscar racing to give the marque fresh prominence.

Generally when a small specialist is taken over by a giant such as Ford, the principal thinks in terms of “what they can do for us.. The entrepreneurial Gauntlet, a salesman to his fingertips, has mentally taken the next leap forward and thinks aloud what Aston Martin can do for Ford: “I believe that the plan for the next 25 years should be to make Aston Martin the English Porsche. It would be wonderful for Aston Martin, damned good for Britain and spectacularly positive for the Ford Motor Company.”

The creation of a team of very highly qualified engineers, perhaps 100 to 120 in number, could “unshackle Aston Martin from its past, and seek brilliant solutions” while remaining available to Ford for specialised projects. Another of Gauntlett’s new-found dreams (perhaps not yet discussed with Ford!) is the creation of a specialist division bringing AC within the Aston Martin ambit. Brian Angliss prepares to build his Ford-based AC Ace sportscars, “but he doesn’t have a marketing organisation, and the Ace could provide an ideal ‘stepping stone’ model to Aston Martin ownership. They’re probably very compatible.”

A fact which is stressed is that Aston Martin did not seek the union, but sees nothing but good coming of it. “Only two people really knew how hard it was to run a company on the scale of Aston Martin in the highest niche . . . myself, and Bill Bannard, our engineering director. We are a specialist company at the top end of the market, and we know how difficult it is to strive to return to the days when we had a technological advantage, such as with the DB4.

“You have the whole problem of legislation to cope with, and the possibility of new forms of legislation being thrown at you, and the whole business of procurement is so damned difficult. The situation shows no signs of improving, while we have no clout. They’re a part of everyday life and the Ford arrangement gives us positive benefits in the engineering sense, in the procurement sense, and certainly in funding our requirements. At the same time they assured us of our independence; we can continue to produce thoroughbreds and there will not, absolutely not, be any badge engineering. Had that not been clear the arrangement would not have gone through.

“If anyone suggests that we’ll work on a Ford Scorpio chassis I’d say that’s absolute nonsense. It would make perfect sense, though, for us to develop a high-quality model, perhaps 3-litres, the sort of car that the DB4 was, for Ford. It could be produced at the rate of 1500 to 2000 a year. They’ve always seemed to want an upmarket sportscar in their range, and it would not be inappropriate for Astons to design and build such a car for them.”

The DB4, though produced long before Gauntlett had a shareholding in Aston Martin, clearly marks a high point in AML’s history and recurs in the conversation. “Whilst Aston Martin can continue in its niche — I don’t want to sound grandiose, but perhaps a little above Porsche because I don’t see as going as Iow as the bottom end of their market — we could build up our own team of engineers and produce a new DB4 that could be badged by Ford, but out of the house of Aston Martin.”

So clearly is Victor Gauntlett identified with the present-day Aston Martin Lagonda company that he does not see himself taking an active part in the higher-volume business. “One mustn’t underestimate the changes that would be required to establish this pool of talent, and produce a new model in higher volume. I have already made it clear to my team that what I have in mind at the moment may preclude me from being the person who leads it.

“Maybe I would still be the chairman of such a company, but I have grave reservations that I would be the right person to be the chief executive of such a company, which would be strongly engineering-led. I have a bit of a complex about these things, because I think that what went wrong with British companies in the 1970s was that we didn’t have commercial engineers in sufficent quantities. “Porsche harnessed a large degree of individual brilliance, engineering and commercial, and that’s its secret of success. What we’ve got to do is to unshackle Aston Martin from its past, having been constrained by crises for so many years, and seek brilliant solutions.

“We will want to build up Aston Martin’s engineering strength but it will take us some years to get into a position where we can rely on our own abilities, and in the shorter term there will areas where we’ll want to draw on Ford’s expertise. Our team of engineers would initially work purely for Aston Martin — they’d have to, if we’re to have a range of cars— but when we’ve got that range up and running they could do specialist work for Ford who put out a lot of work anyway. I’m not looking to set up a Tickford style of operation, but in the lulls they could work for the great Ford, for the whole group.”

Some of these statements would be contradictory, were it not for the division that already exists in Gauntlett’s mind between AML as we know it now, and the subsidiary division which could have its own chief executive and might well do wonders to a Ford Scorpio. But what happened to the “downsize” Aston Martin, spoken of since AML emerged from its last crisis in October 1984?

“The Livanos family connection has been absolutely brilliant; I couldn’t have wished for greater support in every sense. They saved the company from insolvency in October 1984, no question; I don’t think the company would have survived a second receivership. We wanted to make a smaller car in higher volume, and they’d have been very willing partners, but the plan went onto the back burner because of my unwillingness to commit £15 or £25 million of their money.

“More to the point, I found it hard to see the return. I told them, George and Peter, to wait: it was high risk, perhaps too high. For private ownership Aston Martin is perhaps at its optimum size now. We are profitable but all the figures go onto one sheet of paper; there is damage control because of the scale we’re working at.

“All that will change now, with Ford’s involvement. The stakes will rise immeasurably, and the smaller car will appear within five years . . . it’s a racing certainty. They approached us, and it was part of the discussion. I had talks in the summer with Ken Whipple and Alex Trotman, Ford of Europe, and they want us to generate ideas for Aston’s future, not the other way round. The idea is that we continue to be independent, we continue to make thoroughbred cars only, with no element of badge engineering.

“I wouldn’t be chief executive and managing director if they wanted to change things fundamentally, and they agreed willingly to the proposal that Peter and I put to them, that we should each retain 12.5% of our shareholdings, so that we have incentive, a slice of the action. The Livanos brothers are very attached to Aston Martin, and would have stayed in and supported us if the Ford deal had not gone through; there was no sort of crisis. But they have been very supportive of my plan to join up with Ford, and enjoy all the benefits that would bring the company.”

Ford’s purchase of 75% of AML, for a reputed £15-million, does not include Tickford, which is now entirely separate and is not involved in any of AML’s future plans: nor does it involve Zagato, the Italian styling company currently building coupé and convertible versions of the Vantage, in which Gauntlett and the Livanos family personally hold a 50% shareholding.

It’s not AML’s own engineers, nor Tickford, who are working on the four-valve version of Aston’s V8, but an Amercian company, Callaway Engineering in Kentucky. A personal introduction by Peter Livanos put Reeves Callaway in touch with Gauntlett, and the first engines have been tested very successfully indeed. By the end of the year there will be three racing engines as well (believed to be taken out from 5.3 to 6.0 and 6.4 litres), though the decision to race them in 1988 has not yet been taken.

‘We could have gone to Cosworth Engineering just down the road,” says Gauntlett , “but timing and money dictated against that, and we felt we were getting the package we needed from Callaway. The production 32-valve is testing now, and the power figures so far are pretty impressive.

“Where we would get 300 bhp normally we’re getting 380. That isn’t to say that we’re going to introduce that level of power because we’re going to trade some off for the emission equipment, and the prize is having a world car engine capable of very high performance, while meeting all legislations.”

The design of the Aston Martin (which will definitely not be called a “saloon”, more likely a “coupé”) is on schedule for its debut next October. John Heffernan and Ken Greenley produced a design that is “absolutely stunning” in a competition with four other British designers. Zagato was excluded, because it had to be British! “I don’t want to name all the participants because four were turned down, but Heffernan and Greenley were just ahead of Richard Oakes, and Richard made a marvellous presentation.” The five designs were produced at a “clinic” of 50 owners, enthusiasts, bankers and insurers, people who truly represented Aston’s clientele.

“We want to stay exactly in our market slot, for hand-built aluminium-bodied cars. The new model won’t be any smaller, but very similar in scale to the existing car. These spectacularly individual thoroughbreds will be produced by hand, at Newport Pagnell, in the current area of volume of approximately 300 to 500 cars a year. Perhaps 300 is the ideal figure.”

By 1992, though, when the “DB4 for the Nineties” is in production, “Aston Martin will be a totally different company with the same name. The emphasis will have changed dramatically. Newport Pagnell will concentrate on the very high-quality prestige cars, while a new factory will produce new and differently aimed models which can sit very happily alongside what we do now. That is my own view of what may happen, the target and the prize.”

In the autumn months Ecurie Ecosse was extremely hopeful of hearing an announcement of Aston Martin’s imminent return to World Sportscar Championship racing, and a new foray to Le Mans. Aston Martin eventually won the 24-Hour race in 1959, and the World Championship in that year, but the Nimrod project never seemed likely to emulate past triumphs. Hugh McCaig’s team, which won the World Championship for C2 Teams in 1986, hoped to be the entrant of the C1 programme but is now prepared to continue in C2 until Aston is good and ready.

“I’ve got to have a fairly fundamental discussion about this with Ford,” says Gauntlett, who together with Peter Livanos was the inspirator of the revived racing plan. “I think we’ve got a very exciting car — not just any old car — but it’s in scale form, the engine hasn’t run, and we have absolutely no commitment as yet to run it in 1988.

“We’ve got to be extremely careful not to damage our reputation . . . we’ve even listened to John Wyer’s wisdom on it.” (Wyer was Aston Martin’s renowned competitions manager in the 1950s, and now lives in retirement in Phoenix, Arizona). .He says, undoubtedly, that we shouldn’t race it in 1988, but then one has to acknowledge that certain aspects have changed since his time, the speed of development for instance, with computers and wind tunnels and so on.

“In an ideal world I’d like to go with Ecurie Ecosse in 1988 as a sort of test year. I think they’ll be a bit high and dry if we don’t. They’d love to have a contract signed for next year, but there’s no danger of that happening at the moment! We do want to see the engines, which are promised for the end of the year, actually running. We’d like to do some private testing, then ask ourselves if we’ve got something here that we’d like to run in 1988. I’ve got to establish that there’s sufficient enthusiasm at Ford as well.

Gauntlett is convinced that the will exists in both Aston Martin and Ford to bring the Group C project off: the only question is how soon. MLC