So Aston Martin is 100 this year. The many who imagined the Newport Pagnell firm only came to life with James Bond, may be surprised to discover that the company has such a long heritage. I’ll admit, I was. Besides James Bond this may also be because Aston Martin has been through quite a lot of owners during that 100 years. At times it was difficult to work out whether it was still going. But one thing has remained the same – the company has always been a low volume manufacturer of bespoke, hand-built cars for discerning buyers. An Aston is a distinctly British purchase that is about more than just an international man of mystery with a four letter name. Here’s my potted Aston history and my model highlights. The centenary of Aston Martin finds the company in pretty rude health. Sure, sales were down last year but finally back in independent hands and with a new slug of capital behind it, Aston Martin remains relevant and competitive in its rarefied marketplace. Along the way to 100 years Aston, like many low volume car manufacturers, has had some significant highs and some similarly low lows. After near half its lifetime Aston really started to come into its own, offering the world a succession of gorgeous grand tourers that started with the DB1. This followed the acquisition of the company in 1947 by David Brown (hence DB). Mr Brown was a successful tractor and transmission manufacturer and had the vision and resources to build Aston into a brand that appealed to the newly post-war rich. The company progressively improved and changed its basic design, culminating in the gorgeous DB4, DB5 and DB6, all of which wore increasingly evocative bodywork over basically the same engine, transmission and chassis. By the mid-1960s, thanks in part to patronage from James Bond and The Beatles, Aston Martins were the car to be seen in, the pinnacle of British motoring.
Undoubtedly the DBs 4-6 were and are gorgeous cars. Nothing on the UK high street had quite the glamour of an Aston, which is true as much today as then. But it would be a little remiss to describe them as great all-round cars. Astons are cars that look great and drive quite well, they’ve never aspired to be the last word in driving sophistication. But what a DB misses in ultimate driver feedback it more than makes up for in terms of kerb appeal. After the prolonged honeymoon of the 1960s there was a sort of prolonged wobble. David Brown sold out in 1972, ushering in an era of non-DB badged cars with a different flavour – the fastback V8 cars of the 1970s. These cars were popular but not quite so rarefied as the earlier cars. Which is a shame really because in the V8 Aston finally offered a car that was as sophisticated in its engineering as it was attractive. Aston endlessly fiddled with the William Towns design, but in its purest and original DBS 6 cylinder form it was a genuinely game-changing design with lots of clever detailing.
Throughout the 1970s however that focus on design tended to slide somewhat. Aston struggled and with no money for new cars had to make do with making over its existing ones. At one extreme this included the astonishing Lagonda four door saloon, which was essentially a four door V8. At the other extreme Aston resorted to Mustang-like bonnet cowls to beef up the V8 coupe. In the 1980s, under new owner Victor Gauntlett, Aston went a little off the rails. Inevitably money was tight so the company fiddled around the margins, updating, if that’s the word, the V8 with spoilers and body kits that were very LA, and offering its expertise to Ford and Austin Rover with Tickford versions of bog standard cars. There was even a short-lived plan to buy MG and makeover the MGB. By the late 80s Aston was furrowing an increasingly narrow rut and had replaced the V8 with the ungainly Virage. But there were glimmers of sunshine on the horizon. Gauntlett had renewed the association between Bond and Aston and had set in motion plans to build the DB7. All of which laid the groundwork for the introduction of Ford and the rejuvenation of the Aston Martin name.
The relaunch of Aston really dates back to the DB7 which was launched in 1993. Although essentially a Jaguar XJS in fancy designer clothing, the DB7 nonetheless looked so good that it couldn’t really be ignored. Ford investment resulted in a closer alignment with Jaguar and platform sharing. The arrival of the DB9 and the V8 Vantage secured Aston’s future.
The company once again changed hands in 2007 with the arrival of David Richards, formerly of Prodrive. Ford still provides a lot of the engineering for Astons including its engines, which are built in Cologne. It would be easy albeit churlish to argue that Aston has traded on perhaps 15 good years from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s when it produced the DB4, 5 and 6. That and the Bond association of course. There is probably some truth in that. But like Jaguar, who have arguably done something similar until recent years, eventually even the most illustrious history has to be re-written. The DBs, like contemporary Jensens, were high performance trucks with pretty basic engineering clothed in luscious bodywork. Modern Astons are far removed from that – they have stayed true to the heritage of the brand but moved the game on to suit a modern audience. A modern Aston can easily compete on a level playing field with a Porsche yet is more distinctive and rarefied. Aston may not be quite out of the woods after 100 years but it has the makings of doing so. Few car brands are so desirable and whether you drive a DB6 or a DB9, nothing quite says ‘I’ve arrived’ as subtly as an Aston. Here’s to the next 100. Great Escape Classic Car Hire has the largest fleet of classic and modern Aston Martins to hire in the UK. Prices start at £299 for 24 hours and can be hired from several UK locations. To find out more call 01527 893733 or visit http://www.greatescapecars.co.uk. Mention this article and we’ll take 10% off the total hire price.