Aston Martin: a brand apart
In the lead up to this year's Geneva Motor Show, Aston Martin CEO Dr. Andy Palmer discusses disruptive automotive technology, the reasons behind launching its first crossover model and why no matter how cars evolve, Aston Martin's future is assured.
When Top Gear's erstwhile presenters decided to create a social media platform for car fans, it's not for nothing that they called it Drive Tribe. Few things can divide opinion, or generate lust and loathing in equal measure like a love of cars. Ferrari fanatics tend to have an equal, opposite emotional response to Porsche. Camaro drivers wouldn't be seen dead behind the wheel of a Mustang and in Australia, aligning with Ford or Holden is for many a rite of passage.
And yet, for 104 years, Aston Martin has been the exception: the marque everyone loves.
"I think it's because Aston is the under-dog," offers Palmer as an explanation. "I've never waited more than two car lengths to be let out of a junction in an Aston. People wave at you. Aston puts a smile on people's faces. You don't get this reaction driving other brands."
Aston Martin Lagonda. Photo: Aston Martin Lagonda Limited
Considering the company's chequered history, underdog is an understatement. But every time it's been knocked down, it gets back up, dusts itself down and starts again. This is the company that, fresh from near collapse in 1976, returned to market with the Lagonda, the most technologically advanced car in history. Even recent setbacks, such as Ford's selling the company off in 2007 and its subsequent need for extra investment and technical partnerships (that are still on-going), simply strengthen this tiny, independent company's resolve and its focus to keep going toe-to-toe with the world's automotive heavyweights.
In fact, when asked about the mood at the company, Palmer says it's never been more positive.
"Finally we see your place in the market -- making low volume, hand-made beautifully British cars." What's more, demand at the highest end of the automotive spectrum has moved into overdrive. "It's never been hotter than right now," explains Palmer and points to its new £2 million hypercar, the AM-RB001 as proof. "All 150 units are sold out and there's a long waiting list."
The Am-RB001 - side view. photo: ©Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd
But the AM-RB001 isn't coming until 2018. Approaching much more quickly is the Geneva Motor Show, the event where Aston has become an expert at landing a knockout blow. It was there that it introduced the world to its track-only 700hp Vulcan supercar, the DBX all-electric 1000hp crossover concept and in 2016, the Aston Martin DB11 -- the first car in its history to use Mercedes-Benz technology.
The Aston Martin Vulcan. Photo: Aston Martin Lagonda
"Aston Martin is a small auto-maker so to make a noise at a big auto-show then we have to do something surprising," says Palmer. "There will be a couple of announcements in Geneva that I'm sure will create a smile for most and a few tears for others," he offers, refusing to elaborate.
Still, the smart money is on a replacement for the V8 Vantage complete with an AMG-sourced turbocharged engine.
But Aston being Aston, it could just as easily be the production version of the DBX, a car that could get purists in a twist. Can a crossover legitimately carry the Aston badge?
The Aston Martin DBX Concept. Photo: Aston Martin Lagonda
"Well yes, as long as the car is beautiful," answers Palmer. "Gen Y sees the SUV as the normal proportions of a car. It feels safe. This change is exacerbated in countries like China where the SUV is the norm. So we have set about to make the next generation GT car that happens to be an SUV."
Adding a crossover to the range is essential if the company is to continue adapting to meet market needs. The same is true of electrification. Aston will soon need an all-electric car too and that can be a huge challenge to a small company.
"[We have] no big brother to take care of our advanced engineering. So we have to be smart on how we do these developments," concedes Palmer, before adding, "Fortunately I led the development of the Nissan LEAF, so we have a head start!"
And while crossovers, plug-in electric drivetrains and autonomous vehicle technology will have a hugely disruptive impact on the automotive industry -- some companies could very soon disappear if they can't adapt -- Palmer is supremely confident of Aston not only surviving, but thriving.
"[We are] well positioned as the traditional sports car where you can escape to," he says. But this future is only assured if the company doesn't forget its mantra. "Beauty. Everything we do is for the love of beautiful," explains Palmer.