Motor Sport visits the home of a great British sporting marque, recently saved from extinction
There were times last year when the demise of one of the most famous sporting car names, Aston Martin, looked not just possible, but a fait accompli. The Newport Pagnell company was in the hands of the Receiver after the post-David Brown owners, William Willson’s Company Developments, had found their backs against the wall in respect of their small, though renowned, motor manufacturing interests. Most of Aston’s special breed of craftsmen had been laid off, leaving just a skeleton staff to control clearing-up operations and restricted spares and service facilities. All attempts to rescue the company had either failed or been rebuffed by the Receiver, including a lastditch effort made by the Aston Martin Owners’ Club at the instigation of the late Dudley Coram.
But Aston Martin is made of much more resilient stuff than surely the Receiver could have envisaged. After all, it had survived many such vicissitudes since its Lionel Martin origins (as distinct from the earlier Bamford and Martin cars) almost sixty years before. This time good fortune smiled in the shape of North American businessmen Peter Sprague and George Minden, Aston Martin afficionados both. Their first attempts were shunned; finally, an offer of £1,050,000 persuaded the Aston remains from the Receiver’s hands last June. Subsequently, further recapitalisation help came from Sheffield industrialist and well-known Aston Martin-owning motorist Denis Flather and another British industrialist, Alan Curtis. Lest we British take offence at yet another of our great traditions falling into the hands of foreigners, Peter Sprague anxiously points out that almost half Aston Martin remains British-owned.
With purchase, the new owners’ problems had only just begun. All they had was a name and a shell; no cars in production, no men to produce them, suppliers who, with fingers burned once, were interested in recommencing business with Aston only on a strictly cash-on-the-nail basis. Their one big asset, though he would be loathe to admit it, must have been the former Director and General Manager, now Managing Director, Fred Hartley, who had stayed on to work with the Receiver and provided the new owners with the essential continuity.
Whilst all the financial haggling and picking-up-of-pieces went on, there were many, myself included, who thought any such rescue attempt was doomed, all the more so when the grapevine from Newport Pagnell went quiet for many months. Communications were re-opened at the beginning of last March by Luton journalist Geoff Courtney, Aston’s newly-appointed Press and PR Officer; an open-day for the Press coincided with the first week of full production for Aston Martin Lagonda (1975) Ltd. Re-recruited workers had previously completed 40 cars from parts produced before the collapse, but that week five cars were completed from scratch, a heart-warming exercise for the by now less-cynical journalists to watch.
Since then, a five car a week average has been maintained and another visit I paid to the factory with Geoff Courtney recently confirmed that production and enthusiasm amongst the work-force is back in full swing. Fred Hartley aims for a peak of seven cars a week to be produced by the current workforce of 230, of which 50 per cent are shop-floor workers. This contrasts pointedly with the pre-collapse average ratio of six cars from 490 people! In fact the factory capacity, with an enlarged work-force, would he 14 cars per week, but Hartley believes that Aston’s success must lie in producing less than customer demand to foster that very demand, which depends so much upon exclusivity. Presumably, such a policy must ensure a less problematical cash flow, too. A 70-30 per cent export/home production ratio is being maintained, including the satisfying of an order for R0 cars over a two-year period from Japan, and the re-opened US market.
As befits something of a shrine for admirers of high performance, hand-built cars, Aston Martin’s Newport Pagnell factory has history and character, if you can call character the fact that it is split in twain by the A50 main road leading from the M1, a mile away, into the Town. On the northern side lie the Enginering, Service, Spares, Engine Test Department and the all-important canteen, while south of Suicide Alley are all the production facilities and the Edwardian black and white house containing the offices. Production has been based upon this factory since 1963, when David Brown moved it from Feltham to the premises of the old Tickford Motor Body Works. Previous to Tickford occupancy, Salmon Bros., the coachbuilders, had been established there.
What is so admirable about Aston Martin is that practically everything is produced, or at least assembled or machined, by hand by their own craftsmen in this one factory : aluminium body; steel chassis and superstructure; that beautifully-engineered, four-overhead camshaft, all-aluminium V8 engine; most of the suspension, including the hubs and the De Dion rear axle; the exquisite, hand-crafted trim. Kent Alloy supply the 7 in. wide alloy wheels, Avon the GR70 VR15 Turbospeed tyres, Coolaire the air-conditioning, Lucas the electrics, Connolly the leather, ZF the 5-speed manual and Chrysler the Torqueflite automatic gearboxes, Girling the brakes, Ad-West the steering, Salisbury the limited-slip differential, Birmid or Aeroplane and Motor Aluminium Castings the cylinder block and head castings, Hepworth and Grandage the pistons, Smethwick Drop Forgings the nickel chrome molybdenum steel forged connecting rods, to name but a few of the component suppliers who feed the craftsmen’s hands.
Though Aston Martin Lagonda (1975) Ltd. cars look identical to the Company Development cars, some subtle and useful changes have taken place beneath the skin. These have been engineered by Mike Loasby, who rejoined the reformed company last October as Chief Engineer, a post with great traditions behind it in which this comparatively young engineer had been steeped as an Aston Martin employee up to 1969 when, while Development Engineer, he left to join Triumph, latterly as Manager of Engine Design. If necessary he can call on the services of Harold Beach, the former Technical Director, who is retained as Engineering Consultant. Loasby found much over-engineering in the existing car, particularly in the chassis area, to the detriment of production costs and ease and cost of servicing. For instance, as somebody who has never worked, nor paid for work, on an Aston I was astounded to learn that the rear seat trim and a metal panel have to be removed to change the pads on the inboard rear discs! The new Chief Engineer has re-sited the calipers on future production cars so that the pads can be changed from underneath.
The basis of an Aston Martin V8 (“DBS” went out when Company Developments came in), the only model in current production, is a 16-gauge sheet-steel platform chassis upon which is welded an integral box-section steel superstructure. The “production line” starts at the sheet-steel stage; this is guillotined and hand formed into the multiplicity of separate chassis parts, which are welded together by arc and gas upon an assembly jig. The complexity of construction is painfully apparent, another challenge for Loasby, who says, “I’m trying to get rid of this complexity, trying to make bits and pieces fit accurately instead of filling holes up with weld, which takes hours to do. I’m trying to avoid the time-wasting hand production of tiny metal parts, too. The floor-pan structure alone took 60-65 hours to make. I’ve taken about 25 per cent out of that.”
From the assembly jig the floor-pan goes to an inspection jig, after which the superstructure is welded up and closed over, by which time no less than 97 hours have been expended upon the chassis. Until Loasby took over there were different chassis for the UK market and the US market, the latter having a modified floor to take the emission catalyst in the exhaust system. Now the chassis, symmetrical in any case, before steering columns and pedal boxes are added, are identical, to US pattern. Small panels are pressed out on a rubber press.
From the jig, each chassis goes to a spray booth to be rust-protected and sprayed with a black finish. Then, almost magically, the black lump of steel complexity takes on the shape of an Aston Martin as pre-assembled front and rear aluminium panel structures are riveted on, clenched around the doors and welded on to the screen pillars. Fred Hartley pointed out that a great deal of money has been spent on specialised arc-welding equipment for the 16-gauge aluminium, to avoid the re-activation of fluxes which used to be a problem on Astons: “We shan’t save initially with this equipment, but we shall save on warranty work.”
Perhaps the most fascinating part of Aston Martin production is the hand-forming of those gleaming silver, aluminium body panels, watching the virgin alloy take curvaceous shape around the confidently smiling grille aperture and the thirstily open-mouthed bonnet power bulge. This is craftsman’s work indeed, typified by the oldest of the panel-beaters, Bert Brooks, who started work in the same premises for Salmon Bros. in 1929, stayed when Tickford took over, worked on aircraft production during the War and has worked in this factory ever since, save for a brief and disillusionary period with Rolls-Royce between last year’s collapse and the new company’s formation. During my first visit, Peter Sprague had been quite eulogistic about Bert Brooks’ craftsmanship on some cowls for acrobatic aircraft commissioned by the aeronautically-bent Director, Alan Curtis, adding that the company would probably produce more complicated aerofoil structures if these aerobatic aircraft proved successful: “We’re looking for diversification if it will bring in money, but this won’t be allowed to interfere with our main aim of Aston production. And micro-processing machines can’t replace craftsmen in our sort of work.” Sprague, it should be said, produces micro-processing machines in the States, amongst many other interests. Indeed, this tall, affable and modest man, a truly Quiet American with an obviously genuine enthusiasm for Aston and all it stands for, has a fascinating background; his multi-lingual capabilities include fluent Russian, a reminder of his journalistic career with the United Press in Moscow in 1959/’60. Most of Sprague’s time is spent running his businesses in the States, but his flying visits to Newport Pagnell for Board meetings and policy decisions are frequent. He’s a sort of less flamboyant parallel to Jensen’s former boss, the Californian Kjell Qvale. I wish Peter Sprague more success with his British motor industry venture . . . George Minden, equally quiet, but Canadian, the Aston Martin importer to Canada with an undisguised admiration for Ferrari too (and why not?), has settled in Britain where he spends at least three days a week on Aston business. As Ferraris are occasionally “chopped in” against Astons at the company’s own London retail outlet in Sloane Street, he can happily indulge in driving both his fancies.
But this is digressing. Once body panels have been fitted, the chassis/shells are pushed on trolleys to one of two spray booths, one a new gas-heated one from Air Industrial Developments and the other a Lee-Beesley, for spraying with primer and a first top coat. Up to 20 coats will have been applied by the time the finished car has been finally road-tested. The paint, from General Industrial Paints, is sprayed on with hand-held guns and each coat is baked on in the aforementioned ovens. Always-exacting standards are being improved still further under the new regime, for Fred Hartley spotted areas for improvement.
From the spray booths the shells head for the assembly lines, little more than two long pits in the floor. Along the first south-pointing pit the car acquires its suspension, slave wheels, brakes and numerous sundries. At the southern tip lies a most impressive bench-full of four-cam V8s, some with twin emission air pumps, denoting American emission engines, which will also have catalytic units in the exhausts, others single air pumps, destined for the less stringent British and Japanese markets. All have an exciting array (before being hidden by the air filters), of four, twin-choke, downdraught, 42 mm. Weber carburetters. Designed in the ‘sixties by Tadek Merck, the then Manager of Research and Development, firstly as a 4.8-litre unit, uprated to 5-litres for racing use in the two Le Mans Lola-Astons in 1967, it was productionked at the end of 1969 as a 5,340 c.c. unit, initially on Bosch fuel injection. This engine apparently copes easily with American low-lead fuel because of the alloy cylinder head construction with valve-seat inserts. Lower compression ratios are used on American and Japanese engines. Mike Loasby claimed proudly that the engine’s power is such that it does the entire American emission test cycle on the idle cycle. The ratio of automatic transmission to manual vehicles is 60/40 on average, but, “Occasionally we’re taken by surprise and suddenly most Americans want manual again,” said Loasby.
Once the engines and transmissions have been lowered in by block-and-tackle, the cars are pushed in a northerly direction up the parallel assembly line where trim, instrumentation and what-have-you are added gradually, “gradually” being a euphemistic substitute for “with painstaking thoroughness”.
Once the final details have been checked out, oil, water and fuel added, the bonnet fitted and a slave driving seat and slave steering wheel fitted, to match the slave road wheels and tyres, the car is ready for road-testing by one of a team of four testers supervised by Bill Milliard. Each car is tested for a minimum of 50 miles, sometimes rising to 120 miles if problems arise, on a variety of road types in the Newport Pagnell area. Once the car has been signed off as mechanically A1 it is checked finally for detail flaws, receives a final coat of paint if necessary, has its correct seats, steering wheel and road wheels fitted and instantly adopts the shining grace of a £15,000 motor car. Such perfection will have taken no less than 10 weeks to achieve.
While the bulk of the car takes shape, other smaller assemblies are built up alongside the main track. The De Dion tube is built up, the Salisbury differential is mated to its inboard ventilated disc brake assembly and then the whole axle assembled, and the front wishbone suspension prepared for mounting on the car. Talking of suspension, the Armstrong lever-type rear shock-absorbers are shortly to be replaced by telescopic versions; a kit will be available to convert existing cars. Also alongside the track is the trim shop, where the all-leather trim is meticulously crafted, the recently re-designed front seats around frames supplied by Deciform of Luton. Interestingly, there is a service for rebuilding seats for older Astons to original specification in this trim shop, a refurbishing facility which is duplicated for mechanical parts by the Engineering Department.
Astons rely on a general purpose machine shop, their multifarious demands making special purpose machines impractical. In here, where Mike Loasby has employed a planning engineer with the intention of cutting production time by 10 to 15 per cent overall, practically everything for the car is machined. An £80,000 Dixi transfer machine machines the blocks, which then have iron liners installed and other precision machining is carried out on such things as con-rods, hubs, wishbones, bearing caps.
In spite of the fascinating activities elsewhere in the works, the enthusiast’s main altar on his visit to this shrine must be the engine shop. Three long-serving engineers, Fred Waters, Sid King and Fred Osborne (the man in the Duckhams advertisement has left) build all the engines from the hare block upwards, each man responsible totally for an individual engine. One marvels at the exquisite sculpture taking shape laboriously on each engine stand, built to racing standards and capped proudly by four Aston Martin Lagonda cam covers. Once built, each engine is shipped across the A50 for testing by Charles Haycock on a couple of old Heenan and Froude dynamometers. During three hours of running-in and testing, each engine is run up to 4,500 r.p.m. after two hours and to maximum revs for a full power reading at the end of three hours. Full power? Like Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin refuse to quote power outputs, even in confidence, but I see that Dudley Gershon, Aston’s Deputy Managing Director until 1972, quotes 345 b.h.p. at 5,800 r.p.m. for the earlier Bosch injection engines in his fascinating book Aston Martin 1963-1972 (Oxford Illustrated Press 1975). If rectification is needed, the engine’s own builder makes it before the unit is finally signed off after 55 hours of work. Sadly, Peter Sprague scotched the legend that Aston’s engine tester can tell which man has built it just by listening to it.
The vast size of the service department reflects its vital importance, “One of the most important facets of the Aston Martin image”, says Gershon, in his book. Most owners insist on factory servicing, especially for more comprehensive work and prefer the personal contact with the factory. This was obvious during my last visit from Aston V8s bearing number plates from as far afield as the Middle East, Portugal, Switzerland, Spain and the USA. From Aston’s point of view the practice is not only profitable but ensures a direct feed-back from owners. A service is offered for all post-war Astons and Lagondas, while an occasional pre-war example is tended, such as the 1936 Lagonda I saw on my last visit, which was in good company with Peter Sprague’s mint, supercharged 4 1/2-litre Bentley. Of equal fascination was the last factory-built racing Aston, Project 215, which had arrived for conversion to road use (without detracting from originality, I must add) for its present owner, Malcolm Calvert, an Isle of Wight hotelier. This was the Phil Hill/Lucien Bianchi 1963 Le Mans car, reputed by Geoff Courtney to be the first car to exceed 300 k.p.h. (186 m.p.h.) on the Mulsanne Straight, though I have been unable to confirm this. Perhaps readers can? The car retired from Le Mans after two hours with its rear-mounted gearbox broken.
So far I have made no mention of production Lagondas. In fact only eight of the fourdoor Lagonda V85 introduced at the 1974 London Motor Show were produced, the last one in the first week of March whilst I was there. That one was to be taken to the Acrobatic Championships at Kiev in August by Messrs. Sprague and Curtis. Apparently there were too many production engineering difficulties to make this Lagonda viable for production. But the name Lagonda is not being allowed to die: wait for the Motor Show for details!
A rather ugly, white, fixed-head sports car observed from a distance proved to he not an Aston prototype, but one of the ill-fated, Canadian-built Bricklins, on which Aston have been carrying out a £15,000 evaluation contract for the New Brunswick Government, to decide whether the bankrupt company is worth rescuing.
Peter Sprague and his co-directors have no intention of either following their Acton predecessors or Bricklin down the yawning chasm of financial disaster. Nor have they any ulterior motive such as asset stripping. “We’re doing it because we believe this car and name should never die. We’ve acquired a tradition and have a responsibility to see it go on.” That the tradition does and should live on was obvious from my tour of this fascinating factory, where visitors are welcome by prior appointment. I am not the biggest fan of the current product, though I am of its pedigree; but to see the quality of construction has left me with overwhelming respect—C.R.