One of the perennial dangers of writing a monthly column is that they need to be filed weeks in advance and you therefore risk being overtaken by events and your words looking at best obsolete, at worst really quite stupid.
So if by the time you’ve read this Aston Martin has been bought in large part by Lawrence Stroll, Geely or some other mystery buyer and its current travails are already forgotten, you have my apologies. If not, the company will still be in straits that have been dire ever since it decided to sell a chunk of itself to the public for a sum of money that must now look wildly ambitious.
For myself I think the company will survive; there have been many occasions when it has found itself in hotter water, and it has always emerged, towelled itself down and carried on. I remember the late Victor Gauntlett telling me that twice during his chairmanship he went to work on what he believed to be the company’s last day. Even so there is no doubting the importance of the forthcoming DBX SUV – more in a minute.
For now however, join me back in 1994 when another new Aston is about to be launched, and this one really is make or break for the company. It may sound an odd thing to say about the DB7 given that Aston Martin had already been bought by Ford, but there were plenty of Dearborn executives who’d have been happy to call time on what they saw as a needless distraction, when Ford had more than enough troubles of its own.
Aston Martin’s bigger problem was that it had lost all its engineering capacity in the hand-to-mouth days before Ford arrived, which meant out-sourcing the DB7 in its entirety, to Tom Walkinshaw’s TWR. And how, with very little money, TWR managed to turn the Jaguar XJS into the Aston Martin DB7 with hardly anyone outside the industry either knowing or caring, is one of the greatest achievements to take place in that industry over the 30-something years I’ve been commenting upon it.
Make no mistake, if the DB7 had not worked, Ford would have shut the company down. And I don’t say this with the benefit of hindsight having finally got the key players to spill the beans many years later. At the time the opening paragraph of Autocar’s 1994 road test said, ‘the fragile future of Britain’s most distinguished marque is in the hands of this car,’ a view I support, not least because it was me who wrote it. I concluded by observing that if it failed, ‘the gates of Newport Pagnell could just shut for good.’ It didn’t, and my only sadness in re-reading the story is seeing once more the beautiful prototype we photographed now knowing it only had hours to live. Later that same day it erupted into a ball of flame at over 150mph on a private track while maximum speed testing.
“Some think Tom is a hero, others that he is closer to a villain”
Another reason I feel more bullish than most is that I’ve already driven the DBX. Not far, not that fast and in horrid weather, but enough to make me confident that Aston Martin has created at least an entirely competitive car and possibly one of the best of its kind you can buy. You’ll know already that it’s great-looking, which in a class that includes Bentley’s Bentayga and Rolls-Royce’s Cullinan, is a larger than usual advantage, to which I can add that it’s extremely fast, sounds great and has an exceptionally spacious cabin.
What I liked most about the DBX, however, was the way it rode and steered. Too many large SUVs have chassis that are nowhere near the standards of the best big saloons, but the Aston has beautifully judged ride quality that provides the body control that is essential in such cars with excellent bump absorption capability. But it was the steering I liked best, which is a highly unusual thing to say about an SUV weighing over two tonnes. Others like the Lamborghini Urus may be more powerful and a touch faster, but my strong suspicion is that for those who need a full-sized SUV but want it to be a rewarding to drive as possible, it will be the DBX to which they should turn.
Returning to Tom Walkinshaw for a minute, I wonder why no-one has written a decent biography of one of the sport’s most extraordinary characters? I know people who think he is a hero, others who consider him something closer to a villain. The stories of what his teams got up to on his behalf abound: many are hilarious, others breath-taking in their audacity. Some may even be true.
So many people must have so many great tales to tell about Tom the racing driver (he was bloody good), Tom the team principal of Group C and Formula 1 concerns and Tom the businessman, yet no one has yet compiled them between two hard covers. Why not?
I asked this question on social media the other day and got no answers at all, but a deluge of respondents saying that were such a book to be written they’d be first in line to buy a copy. I may even have said that I’d consider writing it.
And I would, but only if enough people from all sides who knew Tom were prepared to sit down and go on the record with their recollections of the man, and only if his family were happy for it to be done. But if not me, I hope someone else takes it on: so few great motor racing stories remain untold, and the life of Tom Walkinshaw is undoubtedly one of them.
A former editor of Motor Sport, Andrew splits his time between testing the latest road cars and racing (mostly) historic machinery