IN­SIDE STORY: ST ATHAN

Over the next 18 months, these ‘su­per hangars’ at St Athan will be trans­formed into a state-of-theart car­mak­ing plant – to build cars like the DBX

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In­side the hangars that will house As­ton’s sec­ond car­mak­ing plant

BACK IN 1954, when David Brown fa­mously landed his he­li­copter in the small Buck­ing­hamshire town of New­port Pag­nell and signed the pa­pers to turn the old Tick­ford coach­works into a new As­ton Martin fac­tory, town and car­maker be­came in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked and have re­mained so for more than 60 years. If all goes to plan, the phe­nom­e­non is about to be re­peated, only this time at a vil­lage in south Wales.

Un­til a year or so ago, most of us hadn’t even heard of St Athan (pop­u­la­tion 4495), though some might have been aware of the nearby Min­istry of De­fence site to which it gave its name, and whose three ‘su­per hangars’ are now be­ing trans­formed into a state-of-the-art car­mak­ing fa­cil­ity. When As­ton Martin Lagonda chose this location ahead of 20 other sites across the globe, it en­sured that fu­ture gen­er­a­tions will for­ever link St Athan with As­ton.

It’s some­thing to pon­der as I nav­i­gate my way along the nar­row coun­try lanes that lead to St Athan, 15 miles to the west of Cardiff. Ac­cord­ing to Wikipedia, the vil­lage has three pubs, a skate park, a Post Of­fce, a Londis, a laser and tat­too re­moval ser­vice (sic), a phar­macy and a petrol sta­tion. The last of those should be do­ing good busi­ness in years to come. It’s a nice enough place, just a mile or so from the coast, and com­pletely dom­i­nated by the MOD site.

The perime­ter road around the fenced base seems to run for miles, but even­tu­ally I lo­cate what are now known as the As­ton Martin Gates and I’m di­rected to the vast con­crete apron be­side the three hangars, where dozens of cars are ar­riv­ing. Govern­ment min­is­ters, As­ton top brass, mil­i­tary men and women – the great and the good (and a bunch of mo­tor­ing writ­ers) are all here for the for­mal han­dover of the site from the MOD to As­ton Martin.

To­day marks the start of the sec­ond phase of the St Athan project. Phase one in­volved cre­at­ing the ad­min of­fices, re­cep­tion ar­eas, staff restau­rants and so forth. Now, just a few days af­ter to­day’s cer­e­mony con­cludes, ar­chi­tects, en­gi­neers and con­struc­tion work­ers will move in to be­gin the mam­moth job of turn­ing the site into a fully func­tion­ing car plant.

So what do we know about the fac­tory? What will be built here? And what does it all mean for the fu­ture of As­ton Martin?

St Athan will be AML’S sec­ond plant, com­pletely in ad­di­tion to the cur­rent Gaydon HQ and its as­sem­bly lines. Most of the new plant will be con­tained within the ex­ist­ing struc­ture of those three ad­join­ing su­per hangars. The first model built here will be the DBX, the com­pany’s first SUV, on course to be launched in late 2019, and that will be joined sub­se­quently by two new Lagonda-badged mod­els – un­der­stood to be a sa­loon that will launch in 2021 and an­other SUV, a Bent­ley Ben­tayga ri­val, due to come on stream the fol­low­ing year. These Lagondas wil give AML true lux­ury ri­vals to the likes of Bent­ley and Rolls-royce. So the plan is for St Athan to pro­duce the SUVS and sa­loons, Gaydon the sports cars and su­per­cars.

For As­ton, it’s a very big deal. The new plant takes the lion’s share of a re­ported £200 mil­lion in­vest­ment pro­gramme and is fun­da­men­tal to Andy Palmer’s drive to more than dou­ble pro­duc­tion over the next five years. The plan is for St Athan to pro­duce 5000 cars a year when it’s in full swing, lift­ing to­tal an­nual sales to around 12,000. Con­sider that last year AML pro­duced 3700, and you can see how au­da­cious this is. St Athan is also key to ful­fill­ing Palmer’s vi­sion of a seven-model range – DB11, Van­tage re­place­ment, Vanquish re­place­ment, new mi­dengined sports car, DBX, and the two Lagondas.

For the Welsh econ­omy, and for the lo­cal com­mu­nity, hav­ing AML take over the site is a ma­jor coup. It means the cre­ation of 750 new jobs right here, and many more, po­ten­tially thou­sands, across the sup­ply chain and among lo­cal busi­nesses, with ini­tial con­tracts worth over £60 mil­lion up for grabs. That’s why the politi­cians are here to­day, and why we’ve been in­vited along to wit­ness the han­dover.

SO YOU’VE HEARD ALL ABOUT the ‘su­per hangars’, but noth­ing can quite pre­pare you for step­ping in­side. Wow. Never mind an as­sem­bly line, you could fit a foot­ball sta­dium in here. Two, pos­si­bly. And this is just one of three; the to­tal floor area is 50,000sq m.

I no­tice tyre-marks, long ones and lots of them, on the painted floor – clearly some­one has been en­joy­ing them­selves. All be­comes clear a few weeks later when AML re­leases a short film of rac­ers Dar­ren Turner and Nicki Thiim and chief test driver Matt Becker putting a num­ber of As­tons through their paces (mostly side­ways) in the empty hangars and on the aprons out­side. If you haven’t seen it al­ready, go to Youtube and search ‘As­ton Martin St Athan’. At the very least it’ll give you a sense of the scale of the place.

We’re in­vited to take our seats as the for­mal part of the pro­ceed­ings be­gins. On a raised stage, Sec­re­tary of State for De­fence Sir Michael Fal­lon an­nounces the hand­ing-over of the site to As­ton Martin, and CEO Dr Andy Palmer gives his re­sponse. We also hear speeches from the Sec­re­tary of State for Wales, Alun Cairns, and the Welsh First Min­is­ter, Car­wyn Jones. For his part, Palmer stresses how grate­ful he is for the sup­port AML has re­ceived from the politi­cians, par­tic­u­larly from the Welsh First Min­is­ter who, he says, ‘has worked side-by-side with us on this pro­gramme from con­cep­tion’.

Over the years, tens of thou­sands of RAF en­gi­neers have trained at St Athan, and among the au­di­ence are a cou­ple of dozen young men with ser­vice hair­cuts. I won­der how many of them will now con­sider a ca­reer build­ing As­tons

and Lagondas. Watch­ing them lis­ten in­tently makes it all very real. Car­mak­ing hasn’t been seen in Wales since the Gil­bern sports car com­pany – ac­tu­ally based not far away in the vil­lage of Llantwit Fardre – closed in the early ’70s. For a new gen­er­a­tion of lo­cal men and women, their fu­ture is wrapped up in this place. The first in­takes of the new work­force are al­ready in train­ing at Gaydon, learn­ing their skills on the DB11 line.

Af­ter the cer­e­mony, photo op­por­tu­ni­ties and the chance to min­gle with AML di­rec­tors. A group of us are given an au­di­ence with Andy Palmer, who is, as ever, re­fresh­ingly can­did and per­son­able for a car com­pany boss.

Palmer tells how he first vis­ited the site two years ago and re­calls his first im­pres­sion: ‘Same as ev­ery­one else thinks when they step in­side… it’shuge!’ He’s un­der no il­lu­sion about the scale of the com­pany’s am­bi­tion, and how much is rid­ing on the mas­sive in­vest­ment in St Athan.

His vi­sion, he says, is to turn a mod­est-sized maker of sports cars into a world-lead­ing lux­ury brand. ‘Our en­try into the SUV mar­ket will be piv­otal to that. To­day As­ton Martin makes three sports cars. By 2022 we will be pro­duc­ing at least seven very dif­fer­ent prod­ucts.’

Of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two plants, he says there will be some over­lap. ‘If we’re al­ready mak­ing com­po­nents in Gaydon that are needed in St Athan there seems lit­tle point tool­ing up all over again. But in prin­ci­ple I like the idea of hav­ing two com­pet­ing plants, par­tic­u­larly as one is in Eng­land and the other in Wales. It pro­motes healthy com­pe­ti­tion and each will drag the other up.

‘We will have an engi­neer­ing cen­tre here, and it is also likely to be where we do the bulk of our elec­tri­fi­ca­tion work. Also, we will have our cy­ber se­cu­rity de­part­ment here. All the talk these days is of au­ton­o­mous drive but very few peo­ple are talk­ing about how to make sure these cars can­not be hacked, and in many ways that’s a more dif­fi­cult chal­lenge than au­ton­omy. Un­til the cars are se­cure, they can­not be au­ton­o­mous.’

The DBX will, of course, be key to it all. The con­cept car – which is all we’ve seen so far – was con­ceived as an all-elec­tric, four-wheel-drive SUV, in­tended, in As­ton’s words, to chal­lenge con­ven­tional think­ing about lux­ury GTS. The pro­duc­tion ver­sion will see changes. The de­sign is now com­plete and is said to be ‘ loosely in­spired’ by the con­cept. One ma­jor dif­fer­ence is that it will have rear doors. We know that it will be of­fered in both petrol and elec­tric forms, that it will have a bonded alu­minium con­struc­tion, and that four-wheel drive will fea­ture – the first de­vel­op­ment prototypes will be run­ning next year – but be­yond that ev­ery­thing is spec­u­la­tion. Apart from one thing: when the first cars come off the line in late 2019, they will carry a plaque never be­fore seen on an As­ton Martin. It will say: ‘Hand-built in Wales.’

V

‘DBX DE­VEL­OP­MENT PROTOTYPES WILL BE RUN­NING NEXT YEAR’

Above and right DBX Con­cept is cur­rently be­ing trans­formed into the pro­duc­tion ver­sion of AML’S first SUV, just as the hangars at St Athan, for­merly used to ser­vice mil­i­tary air­craft, are be­ing trans­formed into a car­mak­ing plant. The As­ton SUV will be the first ve­hi­cle to be built here, with the first ex­am­ples due to roll off the line to­wards the end of 2019. St Athan will also man­u­fac­ture two new Lagonda mod­els

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