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
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.’