IN­TER­VIEW: ANDY PALMER

The As­ton boss opens up about fu­ture plans, in­clud­ing F1 and elec­tric As­tons

VANTAGE - - Contents - WORDS JOHN SIMISTER PHO­TOG­RA­PHY AS­TON MARTIN

Andy Palmer has put Van­tage’s in­ter­view slot back from 11.30 to mid­day. Fair enough; he’s been in the air all night, on his way back from a visit to the US, which in­cluded rac­ing a Van­tage GT8 in the 24 Hours of Cir­cuit of The Amer­i­cas.

And very nearly win­ning. The GT8, shared with bak­ing big-shot Paul Hol­ly­wood, Ra­dio Le Mans com­men­ta­tor John Hind­haugh and this year’s Nür­bur­gring 24 Hours class-win­ner Paul Cate, led the SP3 class for a while but lost time in the pits after con­tact with an­other car. So sec­ond place had to do.

Palmer en­joys rac­ing, when he gets a chance. He’s done a few AMOC races in a Van­tage GT4 and has com­peted in other cars in the past. It’s good to see the boss rac­ing the firm’s cre­ations; his pre­de­ces­sor, Ul­rich Bez, was of sim­i­lar mind. But ul­ti­mately more im­por­tant is the day job (some­times all 24 hours) of run­ning the whole As­ton Martin en­ter­prise. That’s why I’m here, to find out how it has been go­ing, how it will go and what’s bub­bling under.

The Gay­don HQ is a busy place to­day. A group of cur­rent own­ers is hav­ing a fac­tory tour and a se­cret look at some not-yet-launched mod­els. This shows the com­pany cares, it keeps the own­ers in the loop and it may even lead to some sales. I’ve never seen the place as buzzing as this be­fore.

Now I’m in Andy’s first-floor of­fice, COTA tro­phies newly placed on con­ve­nient hor­i­zon­tal sur­faces. How is the new St Athan fac­tory in South Wales com­ing along, I ask by way of an open­ing. Far too in­ci­den­tal a question for Palmer, whose brain con­stantly as­sesses the big pic­ture while mon­i­tor­ing all the thumb­nail images on his men­tal screen. The shift of time­zones doesn’t seem to slow down this abil­ity in

the slight­est. To­mor­row, per­haps, when the jet­lag kicks in. But I doubt it.

‘I’ll ex­plain where we are with the busi­ness. That’s the best way to start.’ Straight to the point: an open­ness, straight­for­ward­ness and trans­parency not al­ways ap­par­ent with Palmer’s mer­cu­rial, some­times in­fu­ri­at­ing pre­de­ces­sor.

‘As you know, we have our sec­ond-cen­tury plan, which started in 2015 and fin­ishes in 2023. It’s di­vided into three sec­tors in time, with some over­lap. The first, which we fin­ished in the first quar­ter of 2017, was about stem­ming the flow of cash and en­sur­ing the sur­viv­abil­ity of the com­pany. It started with rais­ing the equity to do the whole plan, re­fi­nanc­ing the busi­ness at a lower in­ter­est rate, get­ting the com­pany fit. The most re­cent ac­counts show we’ve con­sumed very lit­tle cash.

‘The sec­ond sec­tor is the core re­build­ing of the prod­uct range. We’ve al­ready had the DB11 and the new Van­tage, with the Vanquish to come [seven dif­fer­ent mod­els in all, in­clud­ing con­vert­ible de­riv­a­tives]. It started at the end of 2016 and com­pletes in 2019.

‘That’s where we’re at to­day, in the sec­ond sec­tor. The third is port­fo­lio ex­pan­sion, with four new cars. There’s the DBX, the mid-en­gined sports car, then two Lagondas. Three of these will be built at St Athan.’

Those three are the DBX SUV, a Lagonda SUV and a Lagonda saloon, all based on the same plat­form. The idea is to ex­pand As­ton Martin Lagonda into parts of the mar­ket its ri­vals al­ready reach, and which AML can’t ig­nore.

‘Think of Chanel,’ Palmer sug­gests. ‘It’s a brand within a group. We want to be more like a group, more like LVMH for ex­am­ple.’ LVMH owns Louis Vuit­ton, Hen­nessy, TAG Heuer, Veuve Clic­quot, Thomas Pink, Chris­tian Dior, De Beers, DKNY, Princess Yachts and many more. You get the idea.

‘So, with cars, we think there are seven clus­ters of cus­tomers so we need seven car mod­els. You can com­pare this with what Fer­rari does.’ But Fer­rari doesn’t have an SUV, and has said it never will. ‘Of course Fer­rari will. You have to have an SUV.’

It’s worth not­ing here that As­ton Martin has re­cently taken on some new top-end tal­ent, all of it ex-fer­rari, as well as some skilled new­com­ers at lower lev­els. The three key catches are Max Szwaj as vice-pres­i­dent and chief tech­ni­cal of­fi­cer, Jo­erg Ross as chief en­gi­neer of pow­er­train, and Si­mone Riz­zuto as chief en­gi­neer of ve­hi­cle dy­nam­ics.

There has been no culling of ex­ist­ing staff, no forced im­po­si­tion of a new guard; some peo­ple have re­tired, oth­ers are in new roles – longserv­ing en­gi­neer­ing guru Dave King is in charge of the spe­cial projects and the rac­ing, for ex­am­ple – and the com­pany sim­ply needs more brain­power. And, Palmer ex­plains, to un­lock the pro­fes­sion­al­ism in a work­force al­ready en­er­gised by the prod­ucts and the pres­tige of As­ton Martin.

Seven mod­els won’t cover ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing, though. ‘So we’ll at­tack the smaller clus­ters through spe­cials, two ev­ery year as we do now, and be a one-stop shop for all lux­ury cars.’ The Za­gato Shoot­ing Brake (p16) is a good ex­am­ple of this, with all 99 sold within a week of its ap­pear­ance at Peb­ble Beach.

NOW, SOME FIG­URES, fi­nan­cial ones. ‘ Our best-ever year for sales was 2007 when we sold 7200 cars and earned £92m. But in 2016 we earned £101m from 3600 cars. Those are the EBITDA fig­ures, the earn­ings be­fore in­ter­est, tax and de­pre­ci­a­tion – all the things that ac­coun­tants try to lose. They are the true fig­ures, so we’ve dou­bled our op­er­a­tional ef­fi­ciency since 2007.’

This is look­ing good for the sec­ond sec­tor of the sec­ond-cen­tury plan, then. And yet… ‘To­day,’ Palmer says, ‘we have spent 80 per cent of the cash [gen­er­ated by the plan] and have launched two of the cars.’

That sounds wor­ry­ing, with five more to come. ‘No, it’s fine. We saw the re­sult of the plan in the last quar­ter of 2016, and we’re now prof­itable on the bot­tom line. In four months’ time we will be har­vest­ing, if you like, the DB11 Volante and the Van­tage. The Van­tage will be our high­est-vol­ume car, and it’s im­por­tant for pay­ing the fixed costs of the com­pany.’

As­ton is set to launch one new model a year un­til the plan is com­plete, with the DBX ar­riv­ing at the end of 2019, the mid-en­gined car a year after that, then the two Lagondas at the end of 2021 and 2022. The mid-en­gined car is es­pe­cially in­ter­est­ing, given that Dr Bez canned a sim­i­lar idea back in 2000. Will it be a Porsche Cay­man ri­val? A Fer­rari 488 ri­val? The lat­ter, it seems.

‘We think there are seven clus­ters of cus­tomers, so we need seven car mod­els’

‘We haven’t thought about a name yet, but it might well be some­thing in­volv­ing ei­ther the DB let­ters or a name be­gin­ning with V, although we’re in dan­ger of run­ning out of those. “Valkyrie” was good, though, don’t you think?’

The mid-en­gined car – DB8 might be a suit­able iden­ti­fier – will have a unique plat­form but will make use of the ‘two-and-a-half Mec­cano sets’ on which As­ton Martin will base its seven mod­els. DB11 and Van­tage are es­sen­tially the same in their struc­ture apart from the lack of rear seats in the shorter-wheel­base Van­tage, as was the case with the pre­vi­ous Van­tage and its longer DB9 brother, based on the old VH ar­chi­tec­ture. (The new struc­ture has many more, and more com­pli­cated, alu­minium press­ings, like a modern Jaguar’s.)

The DB11 is no­tice­ably larger than a DB9, and the Van­tage will be sim­i­larly broad. Have they got too big to be en­joy­able on Bri­tain’s nar­row, twist­ing B-roads, like too many su­per­cars now? That has hap­pened with the DB11 in my own view, but Palmer is hav­ing none of it.

‘With Matt Becker [ex-lo­tus] run­ning chas­sis dy­nam­ics and Marek Re­ich­mann run­ning de­sign there are al­ways go­ing to be con­flicts and ten­sion, but that’s a good thing. We get a good com­pro­mise. I’ve got the most beautiful car in the seg­ment and the best-han­dling one, too.

‘But, yes, the mid-en­gined car will be smaller. It will take some of the de­sign cues of Valkyrie but evolved into a more el­e­gant form.’

ONE OF THE BIG CHANGES for the fu­ture, of course, is elec­tri­fi­ca­tion – some­thing not con­sid­ered for the DB11 and Van­tage fam­ily but im­por­tant for the St Athan cars – and, ul­ti­mately, for the next gen­er­a­tion of ev­ery­thing. Palmer says the an­nounce­ment of the plan to ban sales of new petrol and diesel cars from 2040 was mis­han­dled. ‘In the morn­ing the state­ment said that all cars will be elec­tric,’ he says, ‘which was lu­di­crous. Then in the af­ter­noon it was clar­i­fied to re­fer to “an elec­tric mo­tor”, and hy­brids would be al­lowed. So it was a non-story, be­cause all that will al­ready have hap­pened.’

As­ton Martin is mak­ing a point of keep­ing in­house V12 en­gines at the top of the range. ‘Com­peti­tors down­size but we don’t, so we have to find an off­set [to meet the whole-range emis­sions rules]. In 2019 we’ll have the Rapide EV, 155 cars and we choose the cus­tomers. We’ll choose ones who want to work with us, so we can learn how the cars will be used. No-one knows this yet.

‘So we’ll make the V12 and the elec­tric pow­er­train, with the en­gines in be­tween com­ing from AMG. And from 2025 or 2026, each model will have a hy­brid op­tion – which means the next gen­er­a­tion of DB11 and Van­tage.’

This is the path As­ton Martin is obliged to fol­low, but Palmer de­spairs of the way politi­cians dic­tate the tech­nol­ogy rather than sim­ply stat­ing aims. ‘The buy­ing pub­lic is now con­fused,’ he says. ‘Diesel sales have plum­meted but no-one wants an EV that does only 100 miles. Let en­gi­neers en­gi­neer the tech­nol­ogy.’

He points out that a hy­brid is 50 per cent en­ergy-ef­fi­cient, but so is a For­mula 1 en­gine. And this, con­ver­sa­tion­ally, leads to the dip­ping of As­ton Martin’s toe into F1 wa­ters.

‘The cus­tomer clus­ter for the mid-en­gined sports car fol­lows For­mula 1,’ Palmer ex­plains. ‘Why would they buy an As­ton Martin over a 488 or a Mclaren? So we started with a halo – two types of Valkyrie de­signed by Adrian Newey – fol­lowed by greater in­volve­ment in the F1 team with As­ton Martin Red Bull Rac­ing.

‘That’s a spon­sorhip deal, but step three is the en­gine. It will be a gen­uine As­ton Martin en­gine. We might col­lab­o­rate with Cos­worth [which makes the Valkyrie en­gine] but it’s noth­ing to do with AMG and Mercedes.’

AND, DARE I ASK, BREXIT? ‘So far, it’s good. It de­presses the pound, so with 80 per cent of our pro­duc­tion ex­ported we make more money. Fifty per cent of our sup­plies come from out­side the ster­ling area, but the sales more than off­set that. So it’s nice for us. If there are tar­iffs in the fu­ture we’ll cope, but the question is con­sumer con­fi­dence. We can’t control that.’

Right now, though, things are look­ing good. ‘The ca­pac­ity here at Gay­don is 7000 cars a year. We’re cur­rently on 8500, with run-out cars and ramp­ing up the new ones. We’re over­speed­ing the line.’ And that is surely some­thing no As­ton Martin CEO has ever been able to say be­fore.

‘From 2025 or 2026, each model will have a hy­brid op­tion, which means the next DB11 and Van­tage’

Left Palmer the racer: a reg­u­lar in the AMOC’S GT Chal­lenge, and sec­ond in class in the 24 Hours of COTA with team­mates who in­cluded baker and As­ton racer Paul Hol­ly­wood

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