Going AMOL

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The last six-cylinder Aston Martin to be made, a DBS, passed through the assembly area at Newport Pagnell in 1972, at the end of Sir David Brown’s philanthropic reign. The last DB6 was made two years earlier, and it was a typically shrewd move by Walter Hayes, today’s chairman, to bring Sir David back into play as the DB7 is prepared for production.

“At the age of 88, David Brown is keenly interested in what we are doing,” says Hayes, who has hung the old man’s portrait in the boardroom and invited him to be the honorary life president of Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd. As well as being a nice gesture, Hayes also secured the DB prefix to the seventh series, ensuring that the continuity is more than visual.

Walter Hayes CBE is very much the father-figure in all of this. At the age of 69 he is a legend within the Ford Motor Company, which he joined in 1961 with responsibility for Public Affairs on resigning the editorship of the Sunday Dispatch.

Five years later he invested £100,000 of Ford’s money in Keith Duckworth’s company, Cosworth, and this yielded the most enduring Grand Prix engine of all time. The DFV (Double Four-Valve) and its DFY sibling won no fewer than 155 Grands Prix, easily the most successful unit in the history of Formula 1. Hayes – who once signed up Colin Chapman as motoring correspondent of the Sunday Dispatch – listened carefully when Chapman explained that the withdrawal of Coventry Climax would inevitably allow the continentals to pull ahead again.

So Walter prepared a plan for Ford to back the light, simple but extremely promising F1 engine envisaged by Keith Duckworth, and put it to Ford chairman Sir Patrick Hennessy. Even then, he had to persuade Ford’s now vice-president of engineering, Harley Copp, that this would be a sound investment.

The clincher, for Copp, was the fact that Duckworth would first develop a Formula 2 engine, the FVA, based on the Ford Cortina block, as part of the deal.

Such powers of persuasion did Hayes’ own career no harm. He went on to become a vice-president of Ford in Detroit, and finally the vice-chairman of Ford Europe.

Always a ‘doer’ and a ‘fixer’, he had a close relationship with Henry Ford II, and was his official biographer. Together they bought AC Cars and Aston Martin, and upon his retirement four years ago Hayes joined the board of Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd. Finally, in the autumn of 1991, he succeeded Victor Gauntlett as AML’s chairman.

Gauntlett’s flamboyant style, sometimes at odds with Ford’s more methodical procedures, is still missed by many at Newport Pagnell, people who remember that he saved the company from extinction in 1983. No longer can confidants call his personal number at six o’clock in the morning, to hear a resounding ‘Vic-tah’ ringing in the earpiece. It was always the best time to catch the former chief executive, hard at work before the larks arose.

Hayes is different. With him, it’s not so much what he knows – a prodigious amount, of course – as who he knows. Sir David Brown, for a start. Jackie Stewart, naturally, who joins the board of Aston Martin Oxford Limited. Nick Fry, who was recruited from Ford to make a thoroughly impressive job of reorganising Aston Martin’s factory at Newport Pagnell.

lan Callum, formerly with Ford, then with Ghia, now with Tom Walkinshaw Racing at Kidlington. Harry Calton, the best public relations executive in the British motor industry, who joins AML’s board.

And Tom Walkinshaw, of course, as a former Ford competitions engineer, racing driver, Jaguar entrant, and Ford’s favoured man with the Benetton Grand Prix team. If it was Sir Graham Day who discovered the word ‘synergy’ buried in the English language, it was Walter Hayes who exploited its meaning so dexterously.

When Hayes says expansively: “Aston Martin now has excellent facilities at Newport Pagnell, at Bloxham and at Kidlington,” Walkinshaw winces, then smiles. Using the Ford connection, the Jaguar connection, the TWR connection, any connection you care to name, Hayes has tapped Aston Martin into the corporate enclave in a way that Gauntlett could never have done.

A born publicist, Hayes could have made the Siege of Mafeking sound like the ultimate in safari holidays. The original Teflon man, in PR terms, he moves smoothly through the corridors of power, puffing his pipe, brown eyes blinking owlishly but engagingly through strong spectacles, with just the right word to just the right man to achieve his objective.

Now, you realise, Ford works for Aston Martin. In a subtle way Hayes is writing his name into the history book, making Aston Martin an essential component of the Ford Motor Company. At worst the Newport Pagnell company will be absorbed like Ghia, at best it will be a lustrous jewel in Ford’s crown.

“We have much greater resources today, in things like research and development and air bags, because of our relationship with Ford. The advantages are all around us,” says Hayes reflectively.

“It was always our intention to produce a less expensive model in greater volume, and it was really a question of deciding the best way of going about it. It was obvious that we couldn’t undertake the new car without a significant increase in resources, and expansion at Newport Pagnell is not feasible.

“We investigated building a new factory on a greenfield site, or getting involved in co-operative ventures with other manufacturers, so when the opportunity came along to form Aston Martin Oxford Limited as a subsidiary company at Bloxham it was the answer to our prayers!”

Hayes vehemently denies that the DB7 was intended to be a future Jaguar, although the floorpan is that of the XJS and the straight-six engine is undeniably based on the all-aluminium AJ6.

“This car, which we called NPX, has been an Aston Martin from the start,” he declares. The Jaguar F-type, I can tell you, was a 4×4. This is not it! The engine is based on a Jaguar development block, not in production, and it is highly developed with a unique supercharging system.

“We have a happy relationship with Jaguar, of course, and we work well together. When I discovered that Jaguar had no further use for the Bloxham facility after the XJ220 it gave us the opportunity to develop something new.”

Hayes continues to maintain his bridges by claiming, proudly, that: “the Aston Martin DB7 is the most significant British sports car to appear since the Jaguar E-type, in 1961. We are part of a very successful industry, and it’s nice to have the chance to show what Britain can do.

“Essentially this is a simple car. We did not reach for a very advanced design, we wanted a classic car using craft skills, but not something that would be outrageously expensive.

“The DB7 will mark the regeneration of Aston Martin as a world class sports car manufacturer, using the excellent resources of the Ford Motor Company.”

The car goes on sale next April priced in the region of £80,000. tax paid, which seems entirely realistic for such a desirable product. As Hayes says, the timing is good.

“The market will return, we know that, and when the DB7 is launched the recovery should be well under way. We have a vigorous market now in the Far East, Hong Kong and Singapore, and we have 200 orders for our V8 models. Aston Martin is in good shape, and Newport Pagnell will continue to produce our flagship cars.”

It was Hayes, soon after taking the wheel, who launched Aston Martin’s ‘Car for Life’ crusade. It was clear to an incomer who could see wood for trees that the message needed to be told.

“Aston Martin people are totally dedicated to the marque,” he says firmly. “We are now coming up to our 80th birthday. In that time we have made fewer than 12,000 cars, but between 8,000 and 9,000 are still on the road today. That is a remarkable number, which says a lot about the products and the people who buy them.”

The introduction of the DB7 will, of course, swell the numbers rapidly. It took 12 years for Aston Martin to produce 3,971 DB4, 5 and 6 models, a figure that could be exceeded in seven years if AMOL can hit and maintain the proposed level of 600 cars per annum.

The XJ220 line closes down in November, Walkinshaw continuing to insist that the full quota of 350 cars will be completed by that time, and will then be prepared for Aston Martin production.

A number of prototypes will be made (there were 10 pre-production XJ220s), and some time in April – the 12th, perhaps, Hayes’ 70th birthday? – the first customer DB7 will be driven out of the former mill.

Next year is the anniversary of the appearance of the first Aston Martin, The Hybrid in 1914, and the celebration of the first DB7 will, no doubt, be a glittering occasion, a launch the like of which we haven’t seen before. M L C