With a wide array of Aston Martin’s cars on track at Goodwood we managed to squeeze in a quick chat with the company’s CEO, Dr Andy Palmer.
For those not in the know (where have you been?), Palmer has been highly praised by the business press and credited for turning around the fortunes of a struggling premium brand in Aston Martin in little more than four years. He was also the man to steer the company into profit for the first time in a decade. No small feat, and one that affirms Palmer’s impressive track record as a business leader.
Interrupting a quintessentially British high-tea within Aston Martin’s trackside hospitality suite, we get a quick lowdown from the man at the top on future plans, and the importance of heritage motoring in today’s markets.
“As you know we're in the midst of a growth plan called the Second Century Plan. We're calling it Second Century, because we had a First Century, which was very relevant, and the lessons learned in that century are important for the Second Century.”
Makes sense. And you get the impression, Palmer is a man that loves a structured plan. As was seen during his successful 23-year-career at Nissan.
“For example, the artistic direction of the company is very much generated from the First Century, having established the magic formula. The magic formula is the golden ratio. Marek Reichman, who is our Chief Creative Officer and a Professor of the Royal College of Art has turned those proportions into science.
“Whenever you look at an Aston, whether it's a new one or an old one, you'll see a 3rd, 2/3rd, 3rd, 2/3rd relationship going on. One of the reasons you have the timelessness of an Aston is because you have these visual, artistic relationships”.
Palmer’s eagerness to explain the details is infectious, as he commandeers my pen and notepad to quickly scribble down an impression of an Aston. He says it’s rubbish, but that’s far from the case, with his 3rd and 2/3rd equation creating the lines of a beautiful Aston Martin body in blue fountain pen ink with consummate ease.
“What we've done is taken that maths and created beautiful motorcars with a timeless feel, because your brain is telling you, that's the most beautiful thing from nature due to these very specific dimensions.”
“We've taken those learnings of history, because those heritage cars were so important to us, and we're using that to drive the future, minus the things that didn't work, such as the finances. We're not copying that bit.”
He makes the last point with a smile as he leans back on his chair, but we know he is being deadly serious. It’s believed that Aston Martin, a mainstay of the British motoring industry, went bankrupt at least seven times in its first 100 years. So, it’s no surprise Palmer is on a mission, and succeeding, to stop that part of history repeating itself with his Second Century endeavours.
“Second Century is really important. It has to celebrate the past. But it also has to learn from the past and ask what went wrong. Seven cars in seven years; that's about putting cadence and tempo back into the company. I'm sure if David Brown could create the portfolio and afford that tempo, I think we'd be looking at a very different company right now. But I don't think we’re doing anything he wouldn't approve of, because we're still creating, I hope, the most beautiful cars in the world”.
Beautiful indeed they are, but at the 2018 Revival, some of the brand’s heritage track weapons have been doing the business around the circuit too. Notably, Aston Martin’s factory driver Darren Turner taking his first ever win at the event in a 1950 DB2 during the Fordwater Trophy on Saturday. A point that Palmer reacts positively to.
“I think Astons were always built to be driven. While they've always looked beautiful, they've always driven beautifully as well. Even today, when we sell cars like Valkyrie, or the Zagato, we always try and allocate them to people who really drive the cars”.
It’s something Paul Spires passionately spoke about as he talked us round the DB4 GT continuation car. Aston Martin still want to deliver motorcars for real drivers, petrolheads, and people that have a genuine appreciation for the heritage associated to the brand.
“The demonstration of that is that people come here with very, very expensive classic cars, yet they're racing them like the stole it. A few people have asked me to drive! I said ‘you've got to be crazy. You want to put me in a multi-million-pound car and go racing? I can't do it, I can't do it’. It's challenging here. It's a great track, but there's not much room for error”.
You get the impression that error is not a word Palmer has had much experience of, and it seems the iconic premium automotive brand is in a very safe, and diligent pair of hands.
“On the new car side the next car out is the SUV, and there's lots of very exciting things happening in terms of stabilising the company. In our plan, you've got the seven cars, then every year you've got two specials, like a GT8 or a GT12, and then you've got one heritage revival. So, you've seen DB4 GT here this weekend. We've just announced DB5 Goldfinger, which incredibly, is already sold out. It costs £2.75million. There's 72 people, last time I looked, that have placed an order, and there are only 25 cars…”
“It breaks my heart to say no to the 50 people who didn't make it! We keep honest on those numbers though. There won't be any more made. If people trust us, then they'll invest in the brand.”
For a final tease, Palmer shares an exciting update on what else to expect from Aston Martin in the future.
“We always try to look for something significant. And there’s an anniversary coming up soon. I won't tell you what it is, but there's another good reason to have a limited run of a certain classic car."
Hmmm, curious. We’ll let the Aston Martin geeks sift through the history books to try and work out what Palmer is nodding to there, and if we’re lucky he’ll will be here to show it off at a Revival in the future.
“I get to go to lots and lots of events during the year, and lots of motor shows. This is the best. Even from a personal point of view, I just love coming here. It's an opportunity to interact with our customers, or our potential customers on a very informal basis. Just wearing the vintage clothes just lowers the barriers for everyone. This is the one where I get to slip the lead of the PR people and get the chance to disappear for a couple of hours to enjoy everything that's going on.”
And with that, we take the hint and leave the easy-going CEO to enjoy the rest of his tea and his day. It sounds like the next 12 months are going to be busy.