Having returned to service as James Bond's official vehicle, and consequently, our consciousness, Aston Martin is preparing to leap out from being just a peripheral player to a more prominent independent sports car manufacturer.
The marquee is no longer content to hide in niches, hiring seasoned executives like Dr. Andy Palmer (former Nissan Chief Planning Officer) to be its CEO, and more recently, Maximilian Szwaj, (former Head of Innovation and Body Engineering in Ferrari) as its Vice President and Chief Technical Officer, for the battle ahead.
We chat with Aston Martin Chief Marketing Officer, Simon Sproule (former Tesla VP of Communications), to talk about what’s coming up for Aston Martin and why we should be excited.
Inigo Roces: Aston Martin has been changing hands between large car companies for some time. What's it like to finally be independent?
Simon Sproule: I think the Aston brand has woken up. There’s a big push from Aston back in the early part of the decade with a new generation of cars.
IR: Which companies make up the ownership of Aston Martin now?
SS: We have three shareholders. 65% of the company is owned by a Kuwaiti investment fund and they bought it from Ford. In 2012, they sold a portion of their shares to an Italian private equity fund, InvestIndustrial. They bought Ducati and turned it around and sold it. They’re in a number of luxury companies. The third shareholder is Daimler with 5% of the company.
IR: I understand you came in more recently, following Dr. Andy Palmer (CEO of Aston Martin, pictured above). Is it a big change from Nissan?
SS: Andy joined two years ago and I joined one month after. What Andy inherited was a product plan that was DB11, Vanquish replacement, and Vantage replacement. We looked at the plan and it was clear it wasn’t enough. That plan was funded, shareholders invested, they were rolling along.
IR: So what’s in the cards for Aston Martin?
SS: We’re at the end of Act 1 going into Act 2 of a 3-Act play. Our headquarters is close to the birthplace of Shakespeare so I guess that explains the affinity for plays.
The first two years (the first act) is stabilization; getting the company restructured and forming a new product plan. We’re just finishing. The company’s shares have been going down steadily. We have aging cars. There’s been a loss of confidence. The cars are too old.
The second act is a 6-year plan. So we’re returning the company to profitability and been at a loss situation the last few years because of investing in new products.
The third act is to expand the portfolio and bring in the upcoming crossover (DBX) and Lagonda (luxury saloon). Today, we have four cars. By the end of the plan, we’ll have seven cars and two special vehicles every year. We will have a new car every 9 months for the next 6 years.
IR: So where does that put Aston Martin versus other performance and premium brands?
SS: If you look at our market, Rolls-Royce and Lamborghini produce about 5-6,000 cars a year. Ferrari caps it at 8 or maybe 9,000. Bentley looks like much higher, 20,000. McLaren is somewhere below 10,000. We will sit nicely in the middle between 10-12,000 cars.
IR: That’s a lot of cars to build. Will it all come from one factory?
SS: One factory, Gaydon, will produce 7,000 sports cars a year. We’re looking to do the SUV and need a new factory. We found a military base in St. Athan, Wales, Cardiff. We’ll build capacity similar to Gaydon. We will keep all the large hangar doors and cool military shit and it will look and feel just like Gaydon. We start building cars in 2019.
IR: So are all hopes pinned on the upcoming SUV?
SS: I think customers want an Aston Martin for every day. It'll be much more sporting and crossover style. Less truck and more sport. Also, it’s where the market is going, that’s the growth area. We still remained anchored as a company famous for sports cars but I think we can still be very proud of an SUV. People want more luxury and premium cars as well as SUVs.
IR: With this new SUV coming up, can we expect it to be the first diesel Aston Martin?
SS: We decided not to go diesel. The future for us is a different powertrain line up but we want to retain large capacity V-engines in the future. It was decided V8 and V12 was the right one for Aston.
IR: Wasn't 'an Aston Martin for every day' the same pitch behind the Cygnet? That didn't turn out so well.
SS: The Cygnet was before my time. It was Toyota Aygo-based, painted in Gaydon, same as the sports car — really nice car. The irony is that they are in such high demand now. We built like 800 and it stopped. It was an interesting idea. The product was well executed, the business case was not. In the end, I think it’s right that it went away so we can focus on proper luxury.
IR: So back to sports cars and luxury, how important is the DB11 to Aston Martin?
SS: The DB11 is four years in development and a lot of people involved. As we were developing the next generation of cars, we were already independent. There were several decisions needed to be made for the DB11 and the cars to follow.
It needed a more sophisticated structure, new tech, powertrain… so we invested in a new V12. For the cars that follow, our current V8 in the Vantage was not gonna meet emission requirements. A major subsystem was the electrical architecture and it’s a different set of needs: infotainment, safety, connected car, etc. For a company of our size, developing one is a massive investment. We needed a new solution. We started looking around.
As it happened, Daimler could offer us a very good solution with the Star 2 system in the S-Class and an engine they could adapt: the AMG 4-liter twin turbo. With a supply arrangement, they agreed to take 5% of the company.
IR: Wouldn’t the customers react negatively to having a German engine, turbo no less, in a traditionally British, naturally aspirated car?
SS: Turbocharging is often seen as not right. I think the reality is, with today’s increasingly stringent emission requirement, the ability to achieve power and fuel economy and emissions, the only way to deliver that is with turbocharging.
It’s how you execute it. You don’t hear induction roar, there’s no startup noise, that’s our character. Our engineering guys have done a good job.
IR: The DB11 also sports a brand new design language. Is that something we’ll be seeing in future models?
SS: There’s a few things we’ll change in design. Each car will be highly differentiated. The range will diversify in terms of look. Today, the cars look alike. In the future they’re all instantly identifiable as Aston but you’ll be able to tell at a glance what it is. The form of an Aston stays the same. The challenge Andy Palmer gave our lead designer, Marek Reichman, was “My Mum has to be able to tell the cars apart”. Tough job.
IR: That’s a lot of changes. Are you keeping anything from the old Aston Martins at all?
SS: We’ll always have a three-pedal car in our lineup. That will be in the Vantage. The strongest demand is from the US -- a market where it’s known for automatics. So, that gave us the confidence to put the manual back into production. I think it’s the only manual V12 in the world. We’ve now committed that we will always have a manual in one of our cars.
Our manual is dogleg deliberately. Shifting from 2-3 and 4-5 are in straight planes. Those are the gears you use most in the race track. The car is so torquey, you can start in 2nd anyway.
IR: Speaking of track use, you’re also creating limited cars more frequently now.
SS: Every manufacturer is doing a limited run vehicle. We’re being careful and doing two a year max and at low volume. 2015 had the GT12 Vantage and Vulcan, 2016 has the Vanquish Zagato and GT8 Vantage.
The uber special car is the Aston Martin Red Bull 001 (AMRB001): US$3M each, 150 road cars, 25 track, that’s it. We have 600 people who want the car. It’s our first mid-engine car. That gives us an architecture that we can take to future products as well. 001 isn’t the end of the story.
A lot of collectors that have come in for the AMRB001 have never had an Aston before. With this type of car, you’re getting into collections that have not got a modern era Aston.
IR: How did this partnership with Red Bull come about?
SS: Our involvement in F1 is as a technology partner. It came about as a product of the AMRB001. Adrian Newey has long declared he wanted to do a road car. You saw the Sony Gran Turismo roadcar they did. Both me and Andy knew Adrian and Christian Horner from previous dealings.
When Renault bought their former team and Infiniti went with them, then Red Bull was free from ties with any other automaker. We were interested to design our next ultra car. Planets aligned. We were kicking around ideas and it really accelerated in January this year.
We got together in a pub and said, “Adrian’s got ideas, we got ideas, let’s put them together.” So bringing the two together was a match made in heaven.
IR: You've got some great plans underway. Will it be dampened a bit by Brexit?
SS: I don’t think very much. It’s a weird time. Good for export actually. The Pound is going up.We have a short term benefit because of the pound. The European Union (EU) is not happy with the UK. There could be trade barriers when importing into the EU. We just don’t know. No one knows what’s going to happen.
EU is 18% of global sales, it’s big but not everything. We will grow China, Japan, America, Central Asia and Middle East. Europe will still be big but not everything.
Euro car manufacturers will be hurt most because they import cars into the UK. We buy parts from Europe and pay more for them. Our engines come in from Germany. You get it back when you sell the car. So it swings around.
IR: All this activity sure makes for a lot of work. Is it all worth it?
SS: With the expansion of the road car side, it feels like a busy place, it’s fun. With the new generation of cars — DB11, Vantage, hyper cars, specials — people are interested in us now. It feels great.