INTERVIEW: ANDY PALMER
The Aston boss opens up about future plans, including F1 and electric Astons
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