Lagonda’s latest guise

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You may have heard already that Aston Martin is planning to relaunch Lagonda. It won’t simply be the name of a new model such as the infamous Aston Martin Lagonda of the 1970s and ’80s, but once more a marque in its own right, as it was both before the war and during the early part of Aston Martin’s tenure. The official line is that the new Lagonda will offer ‘exclusive, luxurious and truly versatile products with high quality and usability’. It is hoped also that Lagonda will enable the company to widen both its portfolio and its reach, expanding the number of countries in which it is possible to buy either an Aston Martin or a Lagonda or both from the current 32 to around 100.

From the scant press details released so far, two issues stand out. Firstly, what’s not being said is as interesting as what is. Nowhere, for instance, is there the merest suggestion that the new Lagonda will be in any way sporting. Indeed by referring to Aston Martin ‘sports cars’ three times in one paragraph and in the next saying future Lagondas ‘can have a different character than a sports car’, it seems to be implying precisely the reverse.

The second question is exactly how the company plans to more than triple the number of domains in which its products are sold. Will it just appoint some dealers, throw them some Lagondas and hope for the best? It will not.

If Aston Martin, let alone Lagonda, is to survive in an ever tougher marketplace in the long term, it will need more than the backing of Kuwaiti investors who may have the money but lack the technology, knowledge and facilities to develop new products. Forming strategic alliances with big-hitters has been core to Aston Martin’s business plan ever since Ford sold almost its entire stake last year.

So who is likely to become its next team-mate? To say that Mercedes-Benz is the favourite would be to imply that there is at least one other in the running, and if that’s the case, they’re keeping extremely quiet about it. A Mercedes-Aston joint venture has been rumoured for around six months now and the inability to get anything close to a denial out of Mercedes is as telling as it sounds. Besides, it makes sense.

From Aston Martin’s perspective, Mercedes has it all: the engineering know-how, the global reach and supplier clout. This last factor is often overlooked but it is one of the most difficult problems facing small car companies.

I can still recall talking to a wide-eyed Bentley engineer about supplier attitudes before and after VW took over: “Before the Germans came in, there were some who wouldn’t even return your call. Now they’re ringing me.”

What’s in it for Mercedes? An image-building association with a blue-blood British marque (or two) to dovetail neatly with the cessation of production of the McLaren-built SLR next year. Volkswagen has Bentley, BMW has Rolls-Royce – why should Mercedes not have all or some of Aston Martin? And Lagonda.

I think we should be cautious about welcoming this marriage without qualification. Mercedes has its badge on many wonderful cars at the moment, but its recent record as a manager of other brands is rather less edifying. The merger with Chrysler was a disaster, Smart has underperformed from birth and last time I asked how many Maybachs it was selling, I was politely but flatly refused an answer. Even the SLR has not sold as swiftly as once hoped.

And then there’s the Lagonda factor. Because you read this magazine, this marque (named, I discovered, after an Ohio creek near the hometown of its founder Wilbur Gunn) may well resonate through your very being. Images of Rapides and Rapiers may already be flooding your mind along with thoughts of the 1935 Le Mans win, and how the sadly unrealised potential of W O Bentley’s V12 engine was nevertheless balanced by the wondrous success of his twin-cam straight six motor, upon which the foundations of the David Brown Aston Martin era were laid.

But you are in a tiny minority. If the name Lagonda means anything to almost anyone, it’s synonymous with the absurdly overambitious, hopelessly under-engineered and, er, unconventionally styled Aston Martin Lagonda. Among its greater claims to fame is to figure in Time magazine’s list of the 50 worst cars of all time, where it shares bragging rights with such priceless gems as the Zunndapp Janus, the Scripps-Booth Bi-Autogo and my personal favourite, the Horsey Horseless.

The point is that unless the Lagonda name is not only instantly recognisable but also for the right reasons, it’s just another name. One of not a few problems Mercedes has had with its Maybach sub-brand is that very few potential customers knew what a Maybach had once been, and even fewer actually cared. It even affects Bugatti, perhaps one of the noblest names in all of motoring: one of very few things the 252mph Veyron has proven incapable of achieving is making its parent company any money. You can point to Mini and Rolls-Royce as examples of beloved British marques that have been taken over by Germans and successfully repackaged and revitalised, but their names were never dormant, their profile never allowed to fall from public view. And, it should be said that their owner, BMW, had already made all the mistakes it could afford practising on Rover.

So while I wish Aston Martin all the luck in the world with Lagonda, I shall personally be watching its rebirth from between my fingers and behind the sofa. There are smart people working there who will be more than aware of all the obstacles that strew their path and they must have been confident before making the announcement that they knew how to steer a course through them. Either way, we won’t have long to wait: a concept of the Lagonda will be shown next year with a proper car slated to be in production by 2012. One thing is certain: the unique, often amazing, sometimes agonising history of this extraordinary company is about to take one more fascinating turn.

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