First Strike: The Wild, Limited-Edition, Track-Focused Vulcan Heralds A New Era For Aston Martin
Aston Martin’s factory is built on the site of an old Royal Air Force base, RAF Gaydon. At the height of the Cold War, Gaydon was home to one of Britain’s nuclear-capable first strike squadrons, known as the V-force because of the three bombers they flew: the Vickers Valiant, the Handley Page Victor, and the Avro Vulcan. The thundering, delta-wing Vulcan played a starring role in the opening scenes of the 1965 James Bond film, “Thunderball,” a film that also marked the second appearance of Bond’s gadget-laden Aston Martin DB5, the most famous movie car of all time. Now Vulcan is the name of the loudest, fastest, most extreme Aston sports car in history. Oh, and Aston’s new CEO, Andy Palmer, went to school in a small village barely a mile from the southwestern end of RAF Gaydon’s main runway. How’s that for six degrees of separation?
Palmer left school at 16 to become an apprentice at a nearby automotive components manufacturer, but attended night classes to get a management degree, and then went to work for British automaker Austin Rover. He joined Nissan in 1991, rising to become global product chief and chairman of Infiniti, reporting directly to Carlos Ghosn. His departure from Nissan last year was sudden and surprising. What happened? “It was clear the top job was locked out,” he says bluntly. In other words, Ghosn wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry. And that didn’t fit with Andy Palmer’s personal timetable.
“I set myself targets: that I would be a director by the time I was 35, and a chief executive by 45,” Palmer says in a profile in the Aston Martin magazine AM. The profile also reveals his parents gave him a leather briefcase for his 21st birthday with a note that read: “Thought this might be useful for a chief executive to carry his board papers in. Hope you make it to the top.” Palmer kept the briefcase unused for 30 years, until he attended his first board meeting as Aston Martin CEO. He was only six years behind schedule.
“There are fewer zeros on the end, but the basics are the same,” says Palmer of the transition from Nissan to Aston Martin. “Developing a new car costs a lot of money, and the main difference is we have to justify our existence to external investors.” Sold by Ford in 2007 after almost 20 years of sometimes aimless ownership, Aston Martishareholders include European and Kuwaiti-based investment firms and Daimler, which last year increased its stake to 5 percent.
The relationship with Daimler is crucial, says Palmer, who knows the German automaker’s chief, Dieter Zetsche, very well through a Renault-Nissan-Daimler joint venture project to share small car platforms and powertrains. Daimler will provide new powertrains and electrical architectures for Aston Martin, two elements of vehicle development that would otherwise be beyond the company’s financial capability.
Palmer brushes off suggestions that Daimler’s decision to increase its stake last year is a precursor to an outright purchase of Aston Martin. “We will always have a big relationship with a big company, but they don’t have to own us,” he says. “And we don’t particularly want to be part of a big company,” Palmer insists, saying big company systems and procedures would hobble Aston’s ability to be fast and nimble.
With Ford money and a disciplined, strategic approach to product planning, former CEO Ulrich Bez put Aston Martin, which has lurched on the brink of bankruptcy several times in its 102-year history, on a relatively stable footing. But Bez’s clever VH architecture, which underpins all Astons, from V8 to Rapide, is now more than a decade old. And Bez’s insistence on a strong family resemblance across all models has led to criticisms of “cookie-cutter” styling.
All that is about to change. An all-new vehicle architecture is being developed to underpin the next generation of Aston Martins. And while beauty will remain a core Aston value — “we will not necessarily be the fastest cars in the segment, but we will always be the most beautiful” — there will be greater design differences between the pure sports cars, the GTs, and the sedans.
Palmer wants to be producing 10,000 Aston Martins a year by the mid-2020s. That’s more than double its current sales and more than Ferrari currently sells each year, and it means adding more Aston models to the lineup. “I want to expand the portfolio,” Palmer confirms. He’s tight-lipped on the detail, but one of his ideas is to create an Aston Martin that will attract more women drivers to the brand. Bez categorically refused to consider a mid-engine Aston Martin, but Palmer takes a different view: “I wouldn’t rule it out.” And he hints at a new performance flagship for the brand: “In our sports car range we need something to take on the Ferrari F12.”
Consider the $2 million-plus, 225-mph, track-focused, limited-edition Aston Martin Vulcan a first strike. Look out, Ferrari.