Over the past hundred years Aston Martin has won worldwide fame as a great British brand that oozes class, sophistication and performance, but what goes into building a supercar worthy of James Bond in the 21st Century?
This is Money's motoring correspondent Lee Boyce was invited for a behind the scenes look at Aston Martin's factory and headquarters in Gaydon, Warwickshire, to see how the cars are built and designed as the manufacturer celebrates its centenary year,
He found out how new technology is helping cut costs and the time it takes to create Aston Martins but not their renowned quality, as the firm plays its part in Britain's car industry renaissance.
Build quality: The clean and crisp Aston Martin production line was quite a surprise for This is Money's Lee Boyce
Like many of Britain's great car-making names Aston Martin has changed hands numerous times over the years, however, it has not been plain sailing for Aston in recent years.
At the tail-end of last year, takeover talk dominated after a slowdown in sales. Kuwaiti groups Investment Dar and Adeem Investment Co bought Aston Martin five years ago for around £500million from US car giant Ford, which had controlled the brand since 1987.
In December, it received a £150million cash injection from European investment group Investindustrial, giving it a 37.5 per cent stake in the business. The arrival of the Italian-based investment group followed news that Aston Martin’s sales had tumbled 20 percent to 2,520 vehicles in the first nine months of 2012.
That stands in contrast with fellow British luxury brands Jaguar Land Rover, Rolls Royce and Bentley, where sales are booming.
Aston Martin said the money would help deliver on a bright future tapping into rising global demand for luxury cars and, ‘proceed with its extensive and exciting plans for long-term growth and take on rivals like Porsche and Ferrari’.
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Aston Martin's shiny, bright and airy HQ houses approximately 1,600 staff, with Jaguar Land Rover sat just a stone's throw away. If there is more trouble on the horizon, the signs are well hidden.
The Aston Martin factory, which is also attached to its offices, is open 39 hours per week and can build approximately 4,000 cars a year.
This doesn’t sound like many but it means an unprecedented amount of love and attention goes into building each one, all the way from the design team to the production line giving it a stamp of quality.
Design process: Aston Martin is now only using Autodesk design software - rather than a blend of different packages
As we were led through the offices space, I stopped to watch the designers in progress. This is a major reason why This is Money was invited – Aston Martin has recently changed its design process to make it smoother and combine its heritage of quality with a future making state-of-the-art cars.
It is embracing mobile computing, enabling designers to quickly sketch ideas straight into an Autodesk SketchBook Pro app on their iPads, which is all very 21st Century.
Previously, the creative and production teams within the Aston Martin design digital group studio were using separate design software.
This meant that it took two weeks to design a wheel spoke, for example. That has now been cut back to a day.
NEW ASTON MARTIN CONVERTIBLE
When I visited its factory, Aston Martin hinted that it was set to launch a new model.
A few weeks later, it announced a blistering £200,000 flagship soft-top.
It describes the new Vanquish Volante as a 'no compromise' car - the 'ultimate convertible super GT' and the first with an alllightweight, but super-strong, carbon-fibre body.
Its new 6-litre 565bhp V12 engine linked to a six-speed Touchtronic gearbox takes it from rest to 60mph in 4.1 seconds with a top speed of 183mph.
With designers working closely together and often on each others models, Aston Martin said it made sense to switch to one tool, Autodesk Alias, an industrial design software that helps designers capture ideas digitally.
Now it says there is a seamless flow of surfaces all the way from the designer's initial sketch to production.
That accelerates the design process and saves money.
For example, its Vanquish and One 77 models were fully designed on Alias, while its new process means every part of the car design is now quicker.
The design wizards entrusted with coming up with sports cars the world will lust over and the looks and performance to encourage wealthy buyers to open their wallets are a highly flexible team of 50 members across a range of disciplines.
They revealed how computer trickery has become so advanced that many of the cars you see printed in adverts nowadays are not real, but in fact images.
Design process: A computer numeric control mill busily continues work on sculpting its latest prototype
Yet designing a car also means drawing on the arts of the past.
I was shown how clay artists still mould models at a small scale, so designers can run the rule over every curve.
In a separate part of the design studio, a computer numeric control mill - essentially a programmed robot - was busy chipping away at its next prototype. This is the next process once designers are happy with the smaller scale model and digital model.
It delivers a full-size clay model, which is only built once and costs £200,000 in a process that runs 24 hours a day until completion, taking roughly a week.
It is then viewed both inside the design studio and is wheeled outside, so designers can see how the car would look in natural light.
New technology is moving swiftly into the real-life modelling part of the design process, however. I was also shown alloy wheels and steering wheel prototypes been made using 3D printing – built to make the model look as realistic as possible.
Lovingly-crafted: Lee Boyce takes a look at a completed dashboard
Although the car maker is now foreign-owned and its engines are built in Cologne, Germany, all Aston Martins are hand-built on its production line - apart from a robot that lays down an even layer of adhesive for gluing the body panels.
Before I entered the production side of things, I visualised a dirty, noisy and frankly dangerous factory.
Instead, it was bright, airy and felt like how you would imagine a production line for Apple's next product not one for fast cars.
It’s clear it takes exceptional care and attention to hand-assemble each customers’ car. For example, one member of production staff will make all the seats for the same vehicle, one will do all the intricate stitch work and another the dashboard.
It takes approximately 200 hours to assemble each model and around 50 of those hours are spent in the paint shop.
As a point of contrast many best-selling cars take less than 50 hours to build in total.
Paint job: The production line spends as much time on the paint job as many other manufacturers do to build an entire car
The process means each member of production staff can see the car come together and know they have had a huge hand in building it.
The current model range is all assembled at Gaydon and is made up of the V8 Vantage, V8 Vantage S, V12 Vantage S, DB9, Vanquish, V12 Zagato, Rapide S and Cygnet.
So who is buying these Aston Martins and where will the painstakingly crafted cars end up?
As with much of the renewed Made in Britain car manufacturing success story, it is the overseas market driving things forward, especially when it comes to our special luxury brands.
Aston Martin is a brand with worldwide appeal, with 145 dealers in 41 countries.
According to data, 25 per cent of Aston Martin's sales are in the UK while 75 per cent are exports. Anecdotally, I was told that 40 per of vehicles are sold in Europe and Britain, 30 per cent in the US and 30 per cent in the Far East.For those who are lucky enough to be able to afford to fork out six figures for an Aston, wherever in the world they hail from, there is a consolation for the hefty price tag - you get what you pay for.Buyers get a vehicle that has been expertly hand-crafted by workers who take their time and get it done right, all the way from the design team to the production workers. The question is can Aston Martin turn that luxury success story into a major money-spinner?
Production line: Staff work on one car - for example, all the stitching for one model is done by a single worker
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