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
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.’
‘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