Aston Martin Factory Visit

WHEN GEOFF COURTNEY, the Aston PRO, arranged for me to drive Aston Martin’s press car, AMV 8, recently my first reaction was one of disappointment. The car, fitted with Torqueflite automatic gearbox, gave the impression of being rather sluggish in comparison with the published performance figures and did not live up to my expectations. It was fast but did not appear to be outstandingly so and the ride was not as taut as I would have liked.

Needless to say, when Geoff came to hear of my disappointment, he was very keen to demonstrate to me that AMV 8 was anything but sluggish in performance or woolly in feel and invited me to spend a day at the Newport Pagnell factory, checking the car’s performance and seeing the factory at work. 

The car still did not feel fast, but a trip in the passenger seat, with one eye on the rev counter, and the other on my watch soon convinced me that 60 m.p.h. comes up in just on seven seconds, and I began to be impressed. As a passenger, I thoroughly enjoyed our short journey, finding the ride very comfortable and the car quiet at speeds which are best not mentioned. The Vantage version, on the other hand, does feel fast – very fast: not surprising perhaps, as the car is probably the world’s fastest production car. The differences between the basic version and the Vantage seem few on paper, but the effect is startling. The engine is much uprated, with larger Weber carburetters and different camshafts, the shock-absorber settings are rather harder, and to accommodate the difference in characteristics between the Avon tyres on the basic model and the P6 Pirelli tyres of the Vantage, the steering geometry is slightly altered. A ZF five-speed manual gearbox (optional on the basic version) transmits the power to the unaltered De Dion rear axle. Otherwise, the two cars share the same specification: but they are very different cars. The Vantage simply rockets up to the legal limit in an astonishing 5 1/2 sec., feels very taut and firm and clings to even a damp road in an extraordinary manner. The basic model is a luxury car with sporting performance, while the Vantage is an out and out sports car with luxurious accommodation.

How are these cars made? The management set great store by the quality of the workmanship and the enthusiasm of the workforce throughout the factory. Rex Woodgate, one time mechanic for Stirling Moss, is the man in charge of quality control, and jokingly considers himself under-employed. Other small volume manufacturers make use of many bought out assemblies in their vehicles which necessarily lead to a number of compromises in the design of the car. Aston Martin do buy-in components, and do use one or two off-the-shelf items, but not many, and those which they do buy-in are usually made to Aston Martin design or adapted to Aston’s requirements, thus reducing the element of compromise to a minimum. The majority of the car is made, from raw material to finished article, within the factory, with hand finishing and personal inspection at each stage of manufacture.

The car starts its three-month journey through the factory with a full specification sheet, each car being built to a customer’s own requirements. Using their own presses and jigs, AM cut, bend and press all the various steel panels which will eventually be required in the construction of the car. Small items are scribe marked from templates, cut out on a guillotine or nibbler, and pressed or bent to shape by hand using fly-presses and rolls where necessary. Other, larger, panels are formed on a hydraulic press. The steel floorpan and body frame is constructed in three sections, each being assembled by hand on the appropriate jig before the composite parts are welded together. The three sub-assemblies are then united on a large jig, welded together, and very carefully checked to ensure that all dimensions are correct, that the windscreen and door apertures are the correct shape and that the welding is up to standard. The chassis number is affixed at this stage, and the rough edges are tidied up before the whole frame receives a very careful and thorough cleaning and washing. 

The suspension pick-up points are carefully masked and the clean frame is carefully coated with a zinc-phosphate primer before the underside of the frame is covered with a bitumastic underseal. The areas where the body panels will actually contact the steel frame are covered with linen tape to prevent any corrosion-inducing electrolytic action between the steel frame and the aluminium skin. The panels which form the major parts of the skin are bought-in in the form of rough pressings which are hand finished on suitable jigs to the correct shape. Smaller panels are rolled and beaten out by hand on the spot. The lower panels are undersealed before being fitted to the steel frame with pop-rivets. The doors are fitted at this stage, and the bonnet and boot lid are offered up and checked for size. The panel beater now goes to work checking over the whole car, removing any dents which may have been caused by a careless hand, tidying up the naked edges and smoothing off any roughness on the outer surfaces. A further check that the windscreen aperture is the correct size follows.

The complete body is then washed down, de-oxidised and washed down again before being sprayed with a zinc-chromate etch-primer. This is followed with two double coats of epoxy primer and a sealer, the whole body being rubbed down carefully at each stage. Four coats of the final colour are applied to the exterior and the interior is sprayed matt black, before the car leaves the paint-shop to have the mechanical components fitted.

First stage along the short production line is to fit various items of ancillary equipment to the shell and to start fitting some of the trim. Great care is taken not to damage,·the paintwork, or to put dents into the body, fibre-glass wing protectors being employed at all stages. After the door fittings, air conditioning unit, battery leads, wiring harness, wiper drive, horns and roof lining have been fitted, a start is made on installing some of the soundproofing material to the interior of the car – Aston Martin use a special foam­-lead-foam sandwich to line the floor pan, this expensive and heavy material being extremely effective. 

The next stage is to make the body shell mobile by fitting the full suspension layout and a set of dummy wheels. The De Dion rear suspension goes on first, and this is assembled alongside the production line. A Salisbury differential unit is used, with inboard Girling ventilated discs on the output shafts, and is installed into Aston’s own sub-frame. The De Dion tube is made outside the factory to an A-M design, and the suspension is located with a trailing Watts linkage. Shock absorbers are by Koni. The coil spring and wishbone front suspension is assembled directly into the car, which is held down to the floor by a massive chain while the springs are compressed. The springs themsleves are bought outside, but the wishbones are machined within the factory from forgings. Again, Girling ventilated discs and Koni shock absorbers are used.

Once the slave wheels are fitted, the car is pushed forward to receive further soundproofing material around the bulkhead, and to have the remainder of the engine bay components fitted, such as the twin servos, copper alloy brake pipes (made up on the spot), fuel lines, steering column and so forth. The engine which has been assembled to the correct specification for the car, and thoroughly tested in the factory’s testing department, sits in a cradle alongside the assembly line ready for installation with the appropriate gearbox just as soon as the engine bay is ready to receive it.

Fuel tanks, switches, instruments, yet more soundproofing, heater ducts, door glass, stainless steel exhausts, trim, windscreen and all the rest of the components to make a roadworthy car (but excluding exterior bright trim, carpets and seats) find their way onto the car in what appears to be a rather haphazard order, but which I am assured is a totally logical sequence to enable each job to be completed in the simplest way, and therefore with least likelihood of error.

A slave driving seat is fitted, and the car is made ready for its first road test. Any faults found are rectified, and the car again tested until everything functions as it should, rattles and other noises eliminated and the tester satisfied that the car comes up to the high standards which the customer will expect.

The body is then prepared for the final coats of paint, applied with great skill by operators using hand-held spray guns. Once the paint has hardened, the areas which will be covered by the exterior trim are carefully polished, and the brightwork fitted. The interior trim is completed, although the carpets in the front are not actually fitted until the customer arrives to collect the car. A final road test is undertaken to ensure that no faults have crept in during the final installation of the trim, and then some three months and 1,100 man-hours after the first steel panels were, welded together, the car is given a thorough polishing and very careful visual check before being signed out as ready for the customer.

Aside from the main production line, there are the machine shop, engine assembly shop, engine testing bay, trim shop and service department. The machine shop is concerned not only with producing the parts needed for the main production line, but also with the manufacture of spare parts for all Aston Martins going back to the DBS and 6 series. Forgings and castings are produced by outside suppliers, and parts from water-pump spindles to cylinder blocks, from connecting rods to mounting brackets and from stub-axles to wishbones are carefully machined and checked.

As is well known, each Aston Martin engine is assembled by one man, for a specific car. There are many detail differences between, for instance, engines destined for the US market, those which are to have manual transmission and those which have automatic . . . and then there is the Vantage, not to mention the Lagonda, which shares what is basically the same engine. The fitter collects one of the extremely stiff blocks from the machine shop, thoroughly cleans it, and heats it to insert the steel liners, before giving the block a pressure test to ensure that it will hold water. A matched set of Hepolite pistons is mated to a set of balanced forged rods and a Laystall nitrided, five-main bearing crankshaft is used, being very carefully balanced before installation. The cylinder head has hemispherical combustion chambers and is given the same water pressure test before it is assembled with balanced valve gear and the duplex chain-driven camshafts (made by Reece) appropriate for the specification of the engine. All the various ancillaries, such as power steering pump, air pump (to blow clean air into the exhaust manifold to assist with meeting the emission control requirements), alternator, air conditioning pump etc. are fitted, and the engine wheeled to the engine testing bay. Here it is coupled up to a dynamometer and tested for some 4 1/2 hours, checking that the power (no figures are quoted) is up to specification, that the torque curves are within limits and that the fuel consumption is as it should be. Only when the power unit meets the design performance is it released for fitting to the car being prepared to receive it on the production line.

In contrast to the noise of the machine shop, the trim room is a haven of peace, where the luxurious smell of fine hides dominates the atmosphere. Just as a customer chooses the colour of paint which will decorate his car, so he has complete choice in the shade of hide which will surround him. Eight hides are required for each car, and these are carefully matched for grain and colour before the various shapes are cut-out from master templates. Machinists stitch the seams, and upholsterers pad and shape the different items as appropriate to the specification of each particular car.

The service department caters for all Aston Martins from the DB4 onwards, and will carry out all kinds of work to a customer’s requirements, whether it be a simple service, or a major change of specification. Tucked away in a corner of the service department is the research and development area, where all sorts of interesting projects are undertaken: rather to my disappointment, but not to my surprise, I was carefully and tactfully steered away from this part of the factory, but I did see AML 1, the factory’s own Lagonda, having something done in the engine bay, and I am told there is a very special Vantage lurking in this area …. 

So that is an outline of how the Aston Martin is made. The Lagonda is assembled on a production line alongside the Aston, and the same methods of manufacture and the same degree of care are employed, although, of course, there are many detail differences between the two lines. Both are very fine cars built in the highest traditions of English craftsmanship: needless to say, such standards are not cheap, and in these rather difficult economic times, there are fewer people able or willing to purchase ultimate quality. Sadly, this has meant that the factory has had temporarily to go onto part time working. But having survived so many financial crises in the past, the current management (recently joined by Vintage Bentley enthusiast Victor Gauntlett) is determined that the joint names of Aston Martin and Lagonda should survive. I hope they do: personally, I would not be a customer for the basic (hardly an appropriate word in this context) model, but I could thoroughly enjoy losing my licence if l owned a Vantage. – P.H.J.W.