As­ton work­shop

Bring­ing great as­ton martins back to life – that’s what the as­ton work­shop, based eng­land, in the north of is all about. we paid them a visit

VANTAGE - - Contents - Words richard meaden Photography gus gre­gory

We travel north to meet the team at one of the UK’S top As­ton spe­cial­ists

as lo­ca­tions go, County Durham and the his­toric vil­lage of Beamish in the far north of Eng­land is one of the less likely places to find one of the world’s largest and most suc­cess­ful As­ton Martin sales and restora­tion busi­nesses. But as you ar­rive out­side the sprawl­ing, 26,000ft premises you quickly ap­pre­ci­ate that the As­ton Work­shop is not your typ­i­cal marque spe­cial­ist.

Founded in 1988 by Bob Foun­tain, the As­ton Work­shop’s story is the very def­i­ni­tion of that popular busi­ness term ‘or­ganic growth’, though the phrase doesn’t re­ally do jus­tice to the quar­ter of a cen­tury of hard graft, sleep­less nights and brave, en­tre­pre­neur­ial rolls of the dice that Foun­tain must have made to de­velop his one­man band into the pow­er­house that the busi­ness has be­come. Foun­tain – still the com­pany’s sole owner – re­mains ac­tively in­volved, but spends a sig­nif­i­cant pe­riod of the year abroad, con­tent to leave the op­er­a­tional du­ties to his trusted lieu­tenant, man­ag­ing direc­tor Clive Dickinson, and the 40-strong team of highly skilled tech­ni­cians, me­chan­ics, fab­ri­ca­tors and ma­chin­ists in their em­ploy.

It’s Clive who greets us upon ar­rival. Sport­ing fash­ion­ably cropped grey hair, black leather jacket and designer denim, he’s as atyp­i­cal of the As­ton Martin scene as the As­ton Work­shop’s un­ortho­dox ori­gins and lo­ca­tion, yet his style and man­ner set the per­fect tone for what is clearly a dy­namic, en­er­getic and con­ven­tion­chal­leng­ing busi­ness.

‘We try to of­fer a com­plete ser­vice,’ ex­plains Clive. ‘We’ve got the parts sup­ply side, which we do over the in­ter­net to peo­ple do­ing sel­f­restora­tions around the world. We’ve got the paint and body cen­tre where we can do ev­ery­thing from fresh­en­ing-up a car with a few stone-chips to full crash re­pair of any car, in­clud­ing all the mod­ern mod­els. How­ever, I’d say that the real core of the busi­ness is the sales, restora­tion and be­spoke mod­erni­sa­tion of the clas­sic As­tons. That’s what we’re about.’

Walk into the huge show­room and the sheer quan­tity, va­ri­ety and qual­ity of the cars for sale quite takes you back. From a se­lec­tion of im­mac­u­late DB4S, 5s and 6s to bruis­ing V8s, a com­pletely orig­i­nal and won­der­fully pati­nated DBS, chis­elled orig­i­nal Van­quish and nu­mer­ous Gay­don-era mod­els (plus a few ex­otic Ital­ian in­ter­lop­ers taken as trade-ins), the As­ton Work­shop lit­er­ally has some­thing for ev­ery­one. Ac­cord­ing to Clive it’s a de­lib­er­ate strat­egy, and one that has seen an ex­am­ple of al­most ev­ery model that As­ton Martin has ever made pass through the show­room, restora­tion shop, paint booths or ser­vice bays.

Sit­ting front of house, the show­room’s size and daz­zling ar­ray of in­ven­tory cre­ates an en­vi­able first im­pres­sion, but it’s when you walk through to the ad­join­ing ser­vice bays (fully au­tho­rised by As­ton Martin), parts stores and restora­tion work­shops that the scale of the op­er­a­tion truly hits you. There’s a sep­a­rate park­ing area for ser­vice cus­tomers, to­gether with a ded­i­cated ser­vice re­cep­tion and wait­ing area, which makes a clear distinc­tion be­tween sales, ser­vice and restora­tion with­out sug­gest­ing cus­tomers are treated with any­thing less than equal care and at­ten­tion.

‘We buy cars spec­u­la­tively to partly re­store, fully re­store or, if it’s some­thing unique like the DBS barn find we had re­cently, then we just want to cel­e­brate it for what it is and at­tempt to find a buyer who loves its patina, but also wants to make it drive per­fectly. By con­trast we’ve got a DB6 for com­plete restora­tion that’s so de­crepit

‘it took a quar­ter of a cen­tury of hard graft to turn a one-man band into the pow­er­house the busi­ness has be­come’

you only need to touch it and an­other bit dis­in­te­grates! No mat­ter how many times I’ve seen it, when one of th­ese wrecks comes in and goes through the process of a to­tal restora­tion, then leaves us as a bet­ter-than-new car, I have such a sense of pride and sat­is­fac­tion.

‘We also of­fer a store and sell ser­vice, whereby we sell on be­half of a cus­tomer. It takes the has­sle out of the process for the ven­dor, and more of­ten than not re­turns them a bet­ter price than were they to try and sell pri­vately. As its our rep­u­ta­tion on the line, we’re al­ways trans­par­ent about any is­sues the car might have, and can ad­vise buy­ers of what they are and the likely cost of rec­ti­fi­ca­tion. At the end of the day a busi­ness like ours is built upon trust and qual­ity, so our aim is al­ways to en­sure ven­dors get the best price and buy­ers get the best car.’

So what about the far-flung lo­ca­tion? Given As­ton Martin has never put down roots fur­ther north than Gay­don, it’s per­haps nat­u­ral that so many of the marque spe­cial­ists are based in the south­ern half of the coun­try. With so much wealth cen­tred upon Lon­don and the South East, there’s also the per­cep­tion that you need to be where the money is, but ac­cord­ing to Clive that’s no longer the case.

‘As a re­sult of new mar­kets open­ing up, and thanks to the in­ter­net, the busi­ness has be­come much more in­ter­na­tional in my time here. In fact I’d say it’s now truly global. Our mar­ket­place is the world. It’s cer­tainly not Beamish! I know that this is per­haps against ex­pec­ta­tions, but our lo­ca­tion ac­tu­ally works very well for our main­land Euro­pean client­base, as once they get their heads around it they re­alise we’re easy to get to, with great travel links via New­cas­tle Air­port. Even if they’re trav­el­ling from fur­ther afield – as they of­ten do – then one long-haul flight and air­port trans­fer is much the same as any other. Get­ting to us is cer­tainly much eas­ier than go­ing through the pain of get­ting into Greater or cen­tral Lon­don. And once they’re here there are some stunning roads to en­joy.’

The more you ex­plore the premises, the more you ap­pre­ci­ate their scale and the high stan­dard of pre­sen­ta­tion. Clive’s pre­vi­ous life as a pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher has helped in de­vel­op­ing the Work­shop’s brand iden­tity, and while that might sound pre­ten­tious, in the highly com­pet­i­tive world of As­ton Martin sales and restora­tion it’s in­creas­ingly im­por­tant. For Clive, the key is a blend of old and new meth­ods. ‘We mar­ket our cars quite ag­gres­sively in or­der to achieve high visibility, and in a style that dis­tin­guishes us from other As­ton spe­cial­ists. We also use the in­ter­net to spread the word, not just through our own web­site –which we are con­tin­u­ally de­vel­op­ing – but by sub­scrib­ing to other sites who pro­mote our cars.

‘Bob [Foun­tain] has made some great con­tacts over the years, of­ten by tak­ing part in in­ter­na­tional ral­lies. There’s no bet­ter way to pro­mote your­self than get­ting out there and

‘one db6 in for

restora­tion is so de­crepit, you only need to touch it and

an­other bit dis­in­te­grates’

meet­ing peo­ple, build­ing re­la­tion­ships and, ul­ti­mately, friend­ships too. Web­sites and ad­ver­tis­ing are es­sen­tial, but word of mouth will al­ways be an in­valu­able mar­ket­ing tool.

‘We also pro­duce a huge amount of lit­er­a­ture to pro­mote our ser­vices and dif­fer­ent as­pects of the busi­ness. It’s also nice to cre­ate some­thing artis­tic, and to give some­thing back to our sup­pli­ers and cus­tomers. There’s a high-qual­ity cal­en­dar, lav­ishly pro­duced cof­fee-ta­ble books, plus the parts cat­a­logue, brochures cov­er­ing our be­spoke restora­tion ser­vices and the more regular main­te­nance and crash re­pair info we leave with our cus­tomers as po­lite point­ers to the ex­tent of what we can do. For cus­tomers who have com­mis­sioned a restora­tion, we pro­duce a de­tailed build book that doc­u­ments the en­tire process. It’s a fab­u­lous record of what they’ve cre­ated and a great thing to be able to show friends and fam­ily.’

When we fi­nally en­ter the main restora­tion area, we’re joined by work­shop manager John Gray. Softly spo­ken, with a calm­ness and quiet con­fi­dence that comes from over­see­ing count­less metic­u­lous restora­tions, John takes us on a tour of the ma­chine shops, body­work bays, spray booths and build ar­eas that form the heart of the As­ton Work­shop. What typ­i­fies ev­ery sec­tion – and there­fore ev­ery part of the restora­tion process – is an in­dus­tri­ous, fo­cused en­ergy. There are dozens of cars, from early pre-war mod­els, through the typ­i­cal ar­ray of hand­some DB4S, 5s and 6s to the in­creas­ingly popular (and valu­able) DBSS and V8s. They’re all in var­i­ous states of dis­as­sem­bly and res­ur­rec­tion, some clearly at the start of a long jour­ney, oth­ers poised to begin a new life with their doubt­less chuffed own­ers.

‘The ma­jor­ity of our clas­sic restora­tions go into north­ern Europe,’ says John. ‘The Dutch, the Ger­mans, the Bel­gians and the Swiss are re­ally into their clas­sic cars. Not so much the Ital­ians, at least not when it comes to Bri­tish clas­sics! They’re born car en­thu­si­asts, but they seem much more pa­tri­otic and stick with Fer­rari, Lan­cia, Maserati and the like.’

‘We do have many clients in the rest of the world,’ Clive adds. ‘We’ve nearly al­ways got a car in-build for the US. We’ve done a num­ber of cars for Ar­gentina. We’ve got a fair few cus­tomers in Hong Kong, of­ten ex-pats who love the idea of driv­ing a quintessen­tially Bri­tish car in an un­likely coun­try. It’s an ex­ten­sion of who they are, I sup­pose.’

In one of the ma­chine shops we see the hugely im­pres­sive CNC line bor­ing ma­chine and the crank bal­anc­ing rig. It’s state-of-the-art pre­ci­sion equip­ment that’s used at the high­est lev­els of mo­tor­sport. The tol­er­ances to which they can work make the hu­man hair look like a piece of spaghetti, so it’s no won­der to­day’s re­built en­gines (which in some cases are built from freshly cast blocks) are smoother and more re­li­able, yet also more pow­er­ful. The As­ton Work­shop cer­tainly isn’t alone in work­ing to such high stan­dards, but the level of in­vest­ment in such high-tech ma­chin­ery is im­pres­sive.

Like Clive, John sees ad­van­tages in the County Durham lo­ca­tion. ‘The North East has a tra­di­tion of en­gi­neer­ing, so we al­ways have peo­ple who are steeped in the trade. We’ve got a great team of spe­cial­ists with lit­er­ally hun­dreds of years of ex­pe­ri­ence be­tween them. Mostly lo­cal lads, a num­ber of them are ex-as­ton Martin em­ploy­ees who moved away from the re­gion, then came back, so we’ve got real depth of au­then­tic knowl­edge that dates back to when to­day’s clas­sics were new cars. As some of those guys ap­proach re­tire­ment they’ve been able to pass on their ex­per­tise to the younger guys here – some of them ap­pren­tices taken from a nearby au­to­mo­tive col­lege in Gateshead – so the se­crets and know-how aren’t lost.’

Walk through the dif­fer­ent work ar­eas and whether you ob­serve a time-served vet­eran or fresh-faced young­ster there’s a shared sense of pur­pose that only comes when peo­ple are to­tally en­gaged in what they’re do­ing. The pace is steady and me­thod­i­cal: bet­ter to do some­thing right once than rush it and waste time on rec­ti­fi­ca­tion. The skills are won­der­ful to be­hold.

Leav­ing John to pa­trol the thrum­ming, bustling restora­tion area, we walk back to­wards the show­room with Clive. On the way we pass a DB5 that’s be­ing prepped be­fore be­ing sent to its over­seas owner. Though it takes a trained eye

to spot, this car fea­tures nu­mer­ous mod­i­fi­ca­tions to make it more use­able and more suited to for­eign climes: air-con­di­tion­ing, power steer­ing, up­rated brakes, im­proved en­gine cool­ing. There’s even a spe­cial fold-down rear bench so the cus­tomer’s dog is more com­fort­able! It’s a beau­ti­ful car for all the ob­vi­ous rea­sons, but also be­cause the car is so clearly one that’s driven reg­u­larly and treated more like a mod­ern car than a mu­seum piece.

So-called ‘resto-modding’ is an in­creas­ingly popular – and con­tro­ver­sial – area of the clas­sic car scene (and one we ex­am­ine else­where in this is­sue – see pages 80-88). Those who com­mis­sion (and con­duct) the work swear by the re­sults, say­ing they en­joy their cars more and cover many more miles in them as a re­sult.

For the As­ton Work­shop it’s a sig­nif­i­cant part of the busi­ness. ‘The en­hance­ment side of the busi­ness is good for us, es­pe­cially with main­land Euro­pean cus­tomers as they’re very keen on our left-hand-drive con­ver­sions. The work is done just as it would have been at the fac­tory, so there’s no com­pro­mise in the end re­sult. The mar­ket for clas­sic As­tons is far larger in left­hand-drive mar­kets, but As­ton Martin built very few left-hand-drive cars, so there’s ter­rific de­mand. That’s re­flected in re­sale val­ues. We’re find­ing a con­verted left-hand-drive car won’t be worth as much as a gen­uine fac­tory left-hooker, but they tend to com­mand higher prices than right-hand drive in Europe, the US and emerg­ing re­gions like China.

‘We also get cus­tomers who are new to the clas­sic scene. They’ve owned plenty of mod­ern sports cars, maybe sold their busi­ness, have al­ways wanted a DB2 or a DB6 or what­ever, and come to us for a good orig­i­nal spec­i­fi­ca­tion car. When they drive it they are of­ten quite shocked or dis­ap­pointed by how they feel to drive. By of­fer­ing en­hance­ments to the brakes, en­gine, chas­sis and com­fort-ori­en­tated up­grades such as power steer­ing and air-con we’re sim­ply bring­ing the best out of the car. That way we can give cus­tomers the beau­ti­ful car they’ve fallen in love with, but also one that com­pares with a mod­ern driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

‘The thing to re­mem­ber with our per­for­mance and com­fort en­hance­ments is that they’re in­vis­i­ble and re­versible. We’re not ir­re­vo­ca­bly chang­ing the cars, as they can be put back to orig­i­nal spec if that’s what a fu­ture owner de­sires. Cus­tomers who have cars re­stored to orig­i­nal spec­i­fi­ca­tion tend to be col­lec­tors who rarely, if ever, drive their cars. I un­der­stand the de­sire to have a car that’s ab­so­lutely as it was, but I think it’s great that so many of our cars in­cor­po­rate en­hance­ments, be­cause it means they’re go­ing to be driven. There’s noth­ing bet­ter than bring­ing th­ese great old cars back to life and see­ing how much their own­ers en­joy them. It’s what As­ton Work­shop is all about.’

V

Clock­wise from top right pre-war Lagonda m45 un­der­go­ing full restora­tion is owner bob foun­tain’s ‘cam­paign car’ for his­toric ral­ly­ing; db1 (cen­tre) is an­other full restora­tion job; air-con spe­cial­ist rob ken­mir at work on a db5 con­vert­ible; man­ag­ing di­rec

Clock­wise from far left Stripped and shot-blasted chas­sis in the bodyshop’s ded­i­cated ‘steel bay’; DB2 drop­head and DB6 in the main work­shop; trim spe­cial­ist Colin Brown strips a trans­mis­sion tun­nel; and work­shop manager John Gray out­side the bodyshop’s a

From the top As­ton work­shop is an of­fi­cial ser­vice cen­tre for mod­ern As­tons, here neatly book-ended by a DB7 Van­tage and rapide; a DB4 straight-six and V8 in the en­gine shop hav­ing been re­built and dyno’d in-house

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