It’s been a remarkable week for Aston Martin, voted the world’s coolest brand, ahead of a list of 100 of the world’s biggest names. Managing to come ahead of Apple is a remarkable achievement for a tiny British company building a few thousand cars annually in the Warwickshire countryside.
But, according to the industry jungle drums, Aston’s future is not as secure as you might expect. In 2009, after the credit crunch, it spent just £13m on research and development. In 2010 it sold just 4250 cars.
Aston’s negotiations with Mercedes have, according to the German press, come to nothing. The deal was supposed to be that Aston’s design team would help out with the ailing Maybach brand, potentially building future models in the UK, while Mercedes could supply the Brits with new-generation engine technology and other electro-essentials such as modern infotainment systems.
Aston boss Ulrich Bez has been quite open about wanting to find a big-brother automotive partner. However, he claims to be quite relaxed about the future, having ‘refinanced’ the company until 2017 and paying for its new model development out of cash flow. However, Bez is perfectly aware of the fact that even with huge cash injections, Aston cannot develop the fundamental technology it needs to survive. It needs a partnership.
Most important is an engine supply deal, because the current V8 and V12 units are ageing and future pollution and fuel economy regulations are very challenging. Hybrid technology is also practically a requirement for premium-brand vehicles, especially in the US.
There are also rumours about the long-term viability of the company’s aluminium VH platform. Indeed, some say that Aston was mindful of such a possibility and had an eye on borrowing the Mercedes SLS architecture as a basis for its new-generation models.
And Aston cannot rely on selling its way to prosperity because the booming markets such as China and India have not, so far, adopted supercars.
At the recent Frankfurt show, JLR boss Ratan Tata was shown around the Aston stand by Bez himself, leading to inevitable speculation. Surely Jaguar and Aston Martin are a marriage made in heaven?
Jaguar needs to build more models on its aluminium XK platform, with the CX-16 roadster just a beginning. Jaguar is also working on a new-generation supercharged V6 engine and hybrid technology. JLR is also about to open its specialist Infotainment R&D centre.
Blending future Aston Martin models into this mix would be remarkably straightforward. The Aston HQ and factory is even on the same Gaydon site as JLR’s engineering and design centre. JLR can provide the cutting-edge technology that Aston needs to survive beyond 2020.
Bez, who is understandably keen on the autonomy of running an independent supercar maker, has been quoted in the UK press as saying that a controlling interest in Aston Martin would probably cost £2.5bn, a price JLR owners Tata would never pay. I know brand value is an important part of any company valuation, but even the world’s coolest brand cannot value itself so highly when last year’s profits were well under £10m.
For my money, Aston Martin needs to look closely at forming - at the very least - a close technology partnership with Jaguar. Especially with the world poised to go through another economic mega-shock. The alternative is the world’s coolest brand finding it very hard to stay afloat in an automotive world dominated by technology-rich heavy-hitters.