The Birth of The DB7
Aston, issue 3, December 2001
courtesy and copyright of the Aston Martin Heritage Trust
from a 1995 interview with David Burgess-Wise
For one reason and another, we had known Aston Martin quite well for a very long time. Henry Ford and David Brown had been very good friends for many years. Both liked fast cars and beautiful women and during the Total Performance years at Ford, consideration was given to buying Aston Martin.
Carroll Shelby was very much the catalyst. After he co-drove the winning Aston Martin at Le Mans in 1959, he went back to the United States with the burning idea of putting a Ford V8 in a European sports car chassis. Of course, the chassis he wanted was the Aston Martin, but David Brown didn’t take the idea seriously- so I went off with Shelby to AC – and the Cobra was the result.
When Ford wanted to look beyond the Cobra, Don Frey (a key Ford executive at that period) asked Aston Martin’s general manager John Wyer whether David Brown would sell the company. Wyer was really quite enthusiastic about selling Aston to Ford, but David Brown was still some way from feeling that he needed to step down. However, Ford did get John Wyer to run the GT40 program as General Manager of Ford Advanced Vehicles.
Twenty years later came a second chance to buy Aston Martin. I and my wife Elizabeth had been down to Italy in the spring of 1987 with Victor Gauntlett’s Aston Martin DBR2 in the Mille Miglia.
After the event was over, the Prince drove Elizabeth to the airport in an Aston V8 Volante. ‘What a marvellous car’, she said to me when we were back home. ‘You should think about buying the company!’
By that time, Henry Ford II had retired, and was spending an increasing amount of time in England, where he had bought a country house near Henley-on-Thames. I was a regular visitor and, chatting over coffee, Mr Ford asked me, as he always did: ‘What shall we do today?’
‘We could always buy Aston Martin,’ I laughed, and told him about the Mille Miglia.
‘It’s terribly funny you should say that,’ Mr Ford replied, and said that he had been shooting at Biddick Castle, the Northumberland seat of Viscount Lambton. Another of the guests had been George Livanos, whose family effectively owned Aston Martin; he thought the company could not [Picture of an engineer with two engines] with the accompanying text: Left: Though the supercharged six-cylinder engine of the DB7 is built in larger numbers than any previous Aston Martin power unit, everyone of them receives the same craftsman care and attention that has been a hallmark of the company since its very beginning.
Survive without the protection of a big brother and would be an ideal purchase for Ford.
Henry Ford rang Alex Trotman (then President of Ford-Europe) and asked him to investigate the possibility of buying Aston Martin.
This was in May 1987, and we bought the company the following October. The sad thing was that Henry had died in September, but there were many reasons why Aston Martin should have come to Ford.
Henry was a great Anglophile; his intention was simply to save a name that was going under. He believed that big companies could learn from small companies, for there are small things big companies can’t do because they couldn’t afford them- like small volume limited editions. He also felt that the company needed a place for concept development. Henry Ford was never a trivial person and there was no way this was a casual idea. An offer was made, a condition of which was that Victor Gauntlett would continue as Executive Chairman for the foreseeable future.
Early in 1989 when I retired from Ford, I was asked to join the board of Aston Martin.
We approved the new Virage, which Victor Gauntlett had been keen to do: that was the first Aston where Ford assistance started to show.
Ford provided some computer-aided design facilities, and it was the most sophisticated development car that Aston Marin had ever had.
The classic car market was enjoying a boom in that period. The principal topic of discussion at the board meetings of early ’89 was how we could increase production at Newport Pagnell from five to six cars a week, because quite clearly the demand was there.
The company was not losing money when Ford took it over (it wasn’t making a lot of money either, but it was profitable). Then all of a sudden the world just stopped and towards the end of ’89, far from going to six a week, the question became how long they could maintain five: it was a dramatic recession!
In October 1990 Victor Gauntlett told the board that he felt it was time to step down and pursue his other business interests. I was invited to succeed Guantlett as chairman and presented my strategy for the future of Aston Martin to the Ford board in March 1991.
I concluded that the company needed to expand its appeal with a more accessible superlatively sophisticated but user-friendly sports car which any reasonably competent driver could get into and feel immediately at home. The target price was £80,000.
There was no way Aston Martin could have built such a car in the rarefied atmosphere of Newport Pagnell. The
Virage engine alone cost £19,100 to build, the car took 56 hours to paint and used ten full hides for interior trim.
The Jaguar XJ220 was coming to the end of its life and Jaguar had no use for its custom-built factory at Bloxham. So I went to see Tom Walkinshaw, whose TWR company was as partner in JaguarSport, which had built the XJ220: I was looking towards my new ventures and had recruited designer Ian Callum from Ghia, which pleased me greatly. I was shown some clays of potential Jaguar vehicles which the TWR studios had produced, including an estate car.
Jaguar also allowed me to look at their proposed ‘F-Type’, which was no good to us, because it was a 4×4 and the shape wasn’t right. And neither was anything that Walkinshaw had. I wanted what the DB6 would have looked like if David Brown had been doing it now. We sent Callum a DB5 and one of the Sanction cars [a limited edition reprise of the classic DB4GT Zagato] and stuck lots of photographs of the early DBs in his studio. I said the new car had to have features like the same shape air intake and I wanted to get on with it quickly.
I knew exactly what type of engine I wanted: I wanted a straight six because the DB6 had a straight six, but we couldn’t afford to do an original block. I talked to BMW and Mercedes, then Jaguar said we could use their straight six block, which was suitable for superchargers- I have never believed in turbochargers…
I was conscious that I was trying to repeat history, but I was determined not to engage in pastiche. If you do not respect the mystique and the extraordinary nature of Aston Martin, then you aren’t fit to go anywhere near it!
One of the very earliest things I did in my new role was to lunch with David Brown, an old acquaintance. I asked Brown if he had a portrait that could be hung in the Newport Pagnell boardroom. He was astonished; he thought he was out of favour at Aston Martin. ‘You are our patron saint,’ I reassured him.
Having seen the preliminary drawings of the new car, David Brown said he’d like to look at the clay. He was delighted: ‘You must call it the DB7,’ he insisted. ‘Don’t be nervous about pastiche; I was going to do a DB7, but only got as far as designing the badge.’
Then he paused: ‘If I’m going back to work, I’d better have a title.’
‘You can be honorary life president, David!’ I laughed. Brown was delighted. He made some valuable suggestions. He was a vigorous and wiry old speedster until his last days- at 89 he complained that his catamaran wouldn’t do more than 34 Knots, took the engines out and sent them back to Germany!
What had become the DB7 project progressed rapidly. When the top management of Ford came over the following March, I was able to show them a running prototype. It was all funded on faith and petty cash, with tremendous commitment from Walkinshaw.
Aston Martin were given a million pounds to complete the prototype work and presented the finished vehicle to the full Ford board of directors that June and got approval.
In the interim, we had introduced the Vantage, because if you are introducing a new crown prince, you should let everybody see that the King is alive and well…and I believe that Aston should have an ultimate vehicle!
The convertible was in the DB7 program from the very beginning: The American dealers said that in the United States market the coupe would be fine but the convertible would be finer. But when they saw the coupe they ended up having both!
Ford were hugely helpful- they gave us test facilities, they gave us pieces of equipment that we could never have afforded.
I expanded the Aston Martin board as soon as the DB7 was approved and put Jackie Stewart on it. Everybody was very much part of this activity which was important because nobody at Ford has ever gone on beyond 70 and my days as a full-time executive were numbered.
I used to joke that on my 70th birthday, 12 April ’94, I would drive the first DB7 off the line and disappear into the distance.
However, that proved not to be possible because launching a new car and a new engine and a new factory simultaneously has always been a major problem for companies large and small. But the car did come off the line on 1 June, so we only missed the target by six weeks, and that was quite remarkable!