Yesterday, the wide open spaces of the former MOD site at St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan and the three ‘super hangars’ that will on Monday morning start being converted into Aston Martin’s newest production facility provided an apt metaphor for the future the company intends for itself.
There were a few Aston Martins dotted about, indeed examples of its most famous models from over a century of production were there, but, in total, they still seemed almost lost in this enormous facility. The message from Aston was clear: all we have seen so far is just the tip of the Aston iceberg, and within two years, not only will these buildings will be full, but, no less interestingly, Aston will have figured out what to do with all the other structures at its disposal on this 90 acre site.
CEO Andy Palmer’s stated aim is to turn Aston Martin ‘from a manufacturer of sports cars into one of the world’s most respected luxury brands,’ and the terminology here is interesting and important. Car manufacturers like car magazines can no longer live by traditional means alone; brands must be leveraged, push, pulled and prodded in as many different directions as they can be persuaded to go if maximum value is to be extracted. But the replacement of the word ‘sports’ with ‘luxury’ is instructive too and even more significant: this is Palmer broadening Aston’s horizons, not just to provide space for the DBX SUV that will be built here that some might struggle to describe as a traditional sports car, but also to give himself room to manoeuvre on another front: Lagonda.
From a field not exactly short of candidates, to me, the plan for Lagonda is the most interesting thing happening at Aston Martin right now. A name that has lain largely dormant for almost 60 years, only sporadically jerking its head off the pillow to appear on a few interestingly styled saloons or concepts before nodding off again, is about to get the wake-up call to end them all. Palmer confirmed yesterday that two Lagondas will be built here starting early next decade and while he wouldn’t say what kind of cars they’d be you don’t need to be a genius or, indeed, do more than read our exclusive in last week’s magazine to expect these cars to be an ultra-luxury saloon and SUV aimed directly at Rolls-Royce and Bentley.
It’s the simplicity of the idea that appeals most to me: Aston Martin makes the sporting cars while Lagonda makes the luxury machinery and you have the entire top end of the market covered using the same architecture but without any overlap in the showroom. As for the Lagonda name, because it has not faded entirely into obscurity as did Maybach, leading to all sorts of problems when Mercedes tried to revive it as a marque in its own right, nor acquired any undesirable image-related connotations, it seems ripe for revival. I also happen to think it’s a beautiful sounding name, even if it was taken from a creek in Ohio local to where its American founder, Wilbur Gunn, grew up.
On the financial side, Aston Martin says its plan is fully funded and such is the market’s confidence in that plan and the company’s ability to deliver on it that it has been able to massively reduce the cost of borrowing the money needed to make it a reality.
And now we have St Athan. So often in the past, Aston Martin has gathered all its strength and dragged itself into the present day only to slip back again, lacking the wherewithal to maintain that momentum. Truly this does not feel like that. St Athan is not Aston Martin focussed on the here and now, it is Aston focussed on its long-term future and the money markets at least believe that future has never looked brighter. On the evidence of what we learned at St Athan, it would be hard to disagree.