Why Aston Martin needs mid-engine supercars

At the start of my Geneva slot with Andy Palmer I admit that he's always one of my favourite interview subjects, which sounds smarmy but also happens to be true.

"Yes, that's because I say too much," he rejoins, triggering some slightly nervous laughter from the attendant PR minder. Well yes, exactly.

Behind his affable demeanour, though, there is steel inside Palmer. He is one of the motor industry's self-made men, a guy who left school at 16 to start as an apprentice for AP Brakes and worked his way up to become Nissan's global head of product development. Then, five years ago, he left to take the reins at Aston Martin, with the scale of the company's subsequent product offensive summed up by the fact it has no fewer than three concepts at Geneva - the AM-RB 003 giving a view of what will become the brand's second mid-engined model, the Vanquish Vision a further-out glimpse at the third and also a Lagonda All-Terrain concept which will morph into the company's second EV (after the electric Rapide.)

Although still some way off - we won't see the Vanquish until 2022 - both it and the Lagonda were part of the seven-car plan that Palmer thought up for Aston's future while he was on gardening leave from his Nissan job. "Back in September 2014 in my garden in Japan," he admits, "it's amazing what happens when your worries are removed and you have time to think."

Not that the sailing has been universally calm between there and here, with some increasingly choppy waters in recent months. Aston's share price has been sliding since its much-publicised IPO last year, with a 20 percent slump last week after it announced an annual loss on the back of the costs of the floatation itself. While I'm here for the cars rather than the business case, Palmer is still happy to explain his confidence things will get better.

"Last wear we spent £340m more-or-less on R&D. The year before £380m. We intend to be around that, £350m year-on-year, and that allows us to do one car a year," he says, "if we follow through then obviously the cost of new cars starts to come down, because the DB11 is a complete new Meccano set, the DBX is one and Vanquish will be another - those sets will last for at least two generations."

So, in layman's terms, R&D spend is set to stay flat while - the plan is - that revenue continues to rise on the back of increasing sales.

But why is Aston dispatching tanks to the lawns of other luxury players in an all-new part of the market? The Valkyrie and what will be the production version of the 003 have been done with Red Bull, but the mid-engined Vanquish will be a full Aston Martin aimed squarely at the McLaren 720S and Ferrari F8 Tributo.

"It is a very crowded market, but it is the epicentre of luxury sportscars," Palmer admits, "it's where credibility is formed, it's where the linkage to Formula 1 is formed... If you want to be like [luxury conglomerate] LVMH then you have to go to the epicentre."

The desire to be seen as a valid player in this all-new part of the market is also why Aston is taking on the considerable cost of developing a new turbo V6 engine which, working with hybrid assistance, will power both the 003 and Vanquish but which Palmer confirms will also ultimately appear in some of the brand's front-engined cars as well. "A big part of Ferrari's story has always been that the engine is the heart of the car," he says, "we're not the same as Ferrari, but I agree with that - I wanted an engine that reflects the brand, one that needs to sound and feel like an Aston. And it's not so easy if you're not in control of everything."

The V6 layout was chosen for packaging reasons, its shortness will help when it comes to finding room for the integral hybrid bits, but don't expect to see it in conjunction with charging ports, certainly not in its sportscar applications. "Unless legislation forces us to, we won't do a plug-in hybrid," Palmer says, "to me it's perverse to have all the costs and weight of the electric motor and battery as well as the petrol engine, and generally speaking the petrol engine sounds terrible."

He is also keen to stress that the new V6 won't be replacing the AMG V8 or Aston-developed, Ford-built twin-turbo V12 in the line up, rather it will become an additional option. Palmer confirms Aston will continue to sell the twelve-cylinder for as long as its able to, but suggests it isn't an obvious candidate for hybridization.

Next, manual transmissions. Palmer has promised one for the Vantage, but given his enthusiasm for DIY shifting is there any chance we'll get one with a mid-engined car; given the rising value of late manual Ferraris there could be a nice gap there?

"I wouldn't discount it. Obviously, I like manual gearboxes, I've said that many times, and interestingly the customer - especially the American customer - likes it as well," Palmer says, "our next application with the manual is Vantage and you'll see that relatively shortly. But I'm not discounting the possibility of having it with a mid-engined application."

Things turn a bit more serious when I ask about Brexit; I see the PR wince from the corner of my eye as I drop the question. Palmer has been outspoken on the risks to the wider motor industry of a crash-out, although he stresses that Aston has made provisions to protect itself .

"It's a big problem for car making in the United Kingdon, a much bigger problem than it is to Aston," he says, "in the case of a hard Brexit, inward investment - the Japanese, the Germans, the Indians - will leave the country because the total delivered cost of the car will go up. Pure rationality says you're not going to make a car in the UK any more... we can live with it, we're a luxury company and we can charge it through, but over time the bigger issue is suppliers."

"Is Aston ready for a hard Brexit? We've already assumed it. We've no choice, we work on a 12-week order lead time and that already takes us well past April 1st. My modus operandi is that we have a hard Brexit and that if we come up with a deal in the next week that's good news. But I can't assume that will happen."

My time is nearly up, but there's enough for one last question. "Where do you want the company to be in five years?" might be a bit of an underarm chuck, but it seems a good way to lighten the mood. Yet it seems to put Palmer into a reflective frame of mind.

"I don't know when I retire. I'm 56 years old at the moment, but five years down the line I may or may not be here," he says, "I want my legacy to be, wherever I am, that I walked away from a business that has a tempo... There wasn't a tempo in the company I joined, and that has been my dream - basically to leave something to a successor so they don't have the trouble I had. Last year we talked a lot about succession planning for Dieter [Zetsche], Carlos [Ghosn] and Sergio [Marchionne] not knowing that, as we sit here today, they'd all be gone or going. That's part of creating a sustainable brand, you have to think about who will lead it."

Which is a bigger answer than I was expecting. So who will follow Palmer? "I already know my successor," he admits."Does he know?" I ask. "Who said it's a he?" Palmer responds, with a huge grin.

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (13) Join the discussion on the forum

  • oilit 08 Mar 2019

    The initial message was deleted from this topic on 08 March 2019 at 18:40

  • Nerdherder 08 Mar 2019

    Haphazard very, this article is.

  • ayman82 08 Mar 2019

    Interesting article.

    The paragraph just before the rear of the 003 picture, it states 'United Kingdon' instead of United Kingdom.

  • samoht 08 Mar 2019

    Thanks, enjoyed that and it gives a decent insight into their thinking. I'm not sure that Aston Martin has had a 'tempo' for a long time; rather like Lotus, they seem to decline, then focus and come up with a 'hit' which strengthens them again, which they then leave to wither on the vine without adequate replacement, and decline again. (Esprit and Elise for Lotus, DB7, DB9 and Vantage for Aston). I guess the DB4/5/6 sequence established some sort of tempo back in the old days perhaps. It certainly seems to be a worthwhile thing to be working towards, it's probably a requirement for a sustainable business.

  • smilo996 08 Mar 2019

    Article written by Yoda, it was.

    Love what Palmer is doing, bold and ambitious.

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