Car that dreams are made of
Ford’s purchase of Aston Martin in 1987 seemed like the end of an era.
But the partnership has borne beautiful fruit, says Kevin Eason
The Times
October 29th 1994
courtesy and copyright of The Times

Henry Ford II would have liked what has happened to the company he bought only 28 days before his death.

In a world in which car companies are ruled by accountants, the last member of the Ford family to run the worldwide empire still had enough passion to buy Aston Martin Lagonda in 1987. But it still seemed as though another piece of British motoring history was about to be flattened by the corporate steamroller.

Nothing could be further from the truth – and if doubters want evidence, they only have to look at the new Aston Martin DB7.

This is the car that Aston Martin should have built years ago, instead of the muscle-bound monsters that came to dominate the company’s output. Yet it took a couple of outsiders to understand the philosophy of the marque and plenty of Ford money to make sure that it reached the showrooms.

The result is a blisteringly beautiful car with performance that could knock the red skin off a Ferrari. It could even be the start of a Ferrari-like dynasty in which Aston Martin ceases to be just the maker of James Bond cars but becomes a manufacturer which can help shape style and technology for the world motor industry.

A substantial debt for the transformation is owed to Walter Hayes, a newspaperman turned Ford executive who chivvied Henry Ford II into buying the business.

In his autobiography of Henry Ford’s first grandson, Mr Hayes recounts how the idea of buying Aston came to him while watching Prince Michael of Kent driving a DBR2 in Italy’s legendary Mille Miglia trial. Mr Hayes went back to Detroit and told the boss that Aston, which had teetered between debt and bankruptcy for years, was up for sale.

Mr Hayes had retired from Ford but was persuaded to return to head Aston. And he went about the task like a terrier, ripping into the tradition that lingered at Aston’s quaint headquarters at Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire. The factory was so outdated that body shells had to be pushed on little carts across the main road through the town for painting and then back to have engines and interiors fitted.

What Ford could provide was manufacturing know-how. Mr Hayes recruited Nick Fry, a 38-year-old sales and manufacturing expert who had headed teams working on the Fiesta and Mondeo.

His first job was to iron out the faults and inefficiencies of the V-cars, the huge Virage and Vantage coupes and the Volante convertibles that Aston produced.

It did not need a genius to understand that selling about 100 cars that cost upwards of £130,000 each every year left the business wide open to the vagaries of fashion and the economy. Mr Hayes went on a raiding mission around the Ford empire to find a way to build the Aston Martin of the future: a cheaper, smaller, lighter car. Ironically, he found what he wanted among the cast-offs at Ford’s other English acquisition – Jaguar.

Jaguar had scrapped its long-time project to build an F-type sports car, allowing Aston to fill the void and pinch some of Jaguar’s materials. The floorpan from the XJS became the basis for the DB7 and Jaguar’s straight six-cylinder engine the building block for a new Aston powerpack.

There was also a move away from Aston’s traditional home and into a Jaguar factory, at Bloxham, near Banbury in Oxfordshire, where the limited run of the XJ220 supercar had been built.

Within two years, Mr Hayes had achieved what once seemed impossible: convincing Ford to part with the millions of pounds Aston needed for development and assembling the essential ingredients of a supercar.

He was also wise enough to understand what the name of Aston Martin meant and returned to the principles of the period when the company was at its most successful. The DB cars produced in the postwar period when the company was at its most successful. The DB cars produced in the postwar years when Sir David Brown owned the company were its most famous products. Sir David was invited back to watch the development of the new car and before he died last September he saw the DB7.

It must have been an uplifting moment to see the famous winged badge attached to such a beautiful shape…and to see the clamour for the car. Aston has virtually sold out the first year’s production and is now getting ready to increase assembly from 600 cars a year to around 800.

Mr Hayes, now aged 70, has retired again. Behind him, he has left a team with as much enthusiasm and dedication to the cause. John Oldfield, the man who pioneered the Mondeo for Ford, is now chairman. “We are very keen to re-establish Aston Martin as a name people identify around the world with desirable cars,” he says. “We want Aston Martin back on the racetrack – something that could happen within a year or so – and we want a range of cars that covers every aspect, from sports cars to the most sophisticated models.”

That range could change within four years when the V-cars effectively reach the end of their useful lives. Their massive 5.3 and 6.3 litre engines defeated by tighter exhaust emission laws.

Instead, Newport Pagnell seems certain to become the centre for a new Lagonda, a radical four-seater saloon. Its 12-cylinder engine shuts down cyclinders automatically to save fuel during town driving, yet offers sumptuous luxury and high performance.

When the Lagonda arrives, the company should be making about 1,200 cars annually- just enough to keep demand high and ensure exclusivity.

Snorting beast is real pussycat

FEAR is the best word to describe my feelings on being handed the keys to a sleek, £78,000 new sports car and being sent out on to the racetrack.

One mistake could mean a lot of bent metal and ignominy for an embarrassed motoring correspondent. But there was no need to worry because Aston’s new DB7 is as user-friendly as a Ford Fiesta, even if its vital statistics paint a picture of a snorting beast.

As the Aston’s long nose nudged out on to the test track at Goodwood, West Sussex, confidence oozed through the responsive throttle and a chassis and suspension set-up that meant the car barely seemed to notice the corners that flashed by.

Even with the throttle hard to the floor, the DB7 was unruffled, the only indication that we were heading through three digits on the speedometer coming from the howl of the supercharger on the car’s 3.2-litre engine.

If the track was fun, the open road was where the DB7 gave the most pleasure. This car is easier to control than a Ferrari, less obviously a tarmac-burner than a Porsche and more beautiful than either.

Overtaking, even from low speeds in a high gear, is breathtakingly easy – particularly when the driver in the front has just swivelled his head out to see what it is that is howling past.

But the ride allowed me to enjoy the creature comforts of the armchair-like leather seat, the inimitable wood panelling that only the British seem able to produce properly, and the sophistication of the handling.

Aston Martin has gone the route also favoured by Jaguar (any coincidence here among Ford stablemates?) for supercharging the engine. This means the car gets a small, relatively light engine but with power boosted by the supercharger ramming air into the cylinders to give a peak 335bhp. The power starts at low revs so that acceleration is regular- and electrifying.

With a car at this price, I could nitpick at details, like the boot lid arms which swing down to reduce already negligible storage space or the hint of wind noise at high speeds.

But what would be the point? Within two hours, I had made my mind up on the DB7. Now I only have to wait for that nice man Littlewoods Pools to turn up with my cheque so I can have one.