Farce Majeure

History repeats, first as tragedy, then as farce. 

(c) motorauthority

In a week where the massed ranks of the world’s motor business and the press pack who report upon them were to have crammed themselves into three preview days at Geneva’s Palexpo, they have instead been required to stay at home with nothing to show for themselves but a sick-note bearing two portentous words: Force Majeure.

We’ve been subjected to this term rather a lot throughout the week; so much so, it has become somewhat tiresome. But it’s easy to understand why writers have employed it so liberally. As a piece of terminology, it has an pleasingly ambiguous, yet portentous ring to it. Anyway, mere Acts of God have become embarrassingly passé.

It has been said that those the gods wish to destroy they first make mad. Therefore, spare a thought if you will for troubled upper-crust carmaker, Aston Martin. While you’re there, consider for a moment whether there has been a period in its recent past (which lasted longer than five minutes anyway) when that adjective was not superglued in front the storied Newport Pagnell nameplate. Certainly, alongside Alfa Romeo, has there ever been as pedigreed a brand that has as consistently failed to reward its backers by making a buck?

The current situation is doing an excellent impression of dire. Sales of the core product have stalled. The DBX crossover, which management are counting on to reverse the sales slump is not due to go on sale until later in the year and is, like everyone and everything else currently at the mercy of, you guessed it, Force Majeure.

Earlier this year it was announced that in time-honoured Aston Martin tradition a Canadian billionaire businessman is set to become a good deal more impoverished by injecting large amounts of liquidity into the embattled carmaker’s sorely depleted coffers. Mr Lawrence Stroll, he of the large bank balance and racing ambition, has through his Yew Tree Overseas consortium, taken a 16.7% stake in the cash-strapped AML business.

Meanwhile, the majority of Aston’s shares remain held by the Kuwait-based Adeem/Primewagon group, while the Strategic European Investment Group, part of the Italian private equity group Investindustrial, maintains around a one-third holding. All of which sounds like an awful lot of chiefs for such a small business.

Given the current state of the AML finances, the less than rapturously received product actions of late, not to mention the brace of limited-run models said to be in the pipeline (going by the names of Valkrie, Valhalla and Vanquish), one might have imagined Mr Stroll might have decided upon a more gimlet-eyed focus on core competencies and the jettisoning of unicorns, but it appears not.

And so to Geneva that wasn’t, where Aston Martin’s leadership remains not only committed to the errant Dr. Palmer, but also to its full cohort of mid-engined V-bombers. But the madness doesn’t end there. It was also announced that the cash-burning carmaker will enter the 2021 F1 championship as a full works equipe, under a rebranded version of Stroll’s own motor racing team. Success, one imagines, will duly follow.

But given that it’s showtime and important to (a) show up and (b) have something sexy to show, a new model was an imperative. Hence the world debut at Gen… sorry I mean Gaydon of the Aston Martin Speedster, a puristic (their words) V12-engined Vantage-based two-seater, inspired, it seems by jet-fighters of which, in the hyperbole-free words of AutoCropley staff writer, Lawrence Allen, “Just 88 models will be forged by British firm’s ‘Q by Aston Martin’ bespoke arm, each costing £765,000.

Finally, the source of Aston Martin’s travails emerges into sharper definition. And to think that it was so simple – after all, forging cars is not only hugely time-consuming but considerably more costly than simply building them like most people – even at over three quarters of a million quid a pop. What on earth was Andy Palmer thinking – or was it a case of Forge Majeure?

In perhaps the most unlikely and irrational of brand tie-ups ever, Aston Martin has, well, let’s allow them to explain: “the V12 Speedster has been shown in a conceptual specification that is inspired by the legendary F/A-18 and will be available for customers to order. Born from an exciting new collaboration with Boeing and created by the brand’s bespoke customisation service ‘Q by Aston Martin’, this striking livery takes the legendary fighter jet for inspiration and is finished in Skyfall Silver, with contrasting satin black on the exhaust tips, vent grilles and vanes.

Leaving aside the whole Boeing nonsense, isn’t all this Bond iconography starting to wear a tiny bit threadbare? Q by Aston Martin. Skyfall Silver. How much does the average Aston Martin customer need to be beaten across the face and neck by her majesty’s secret service’s best known fictional operative? Is not this the primary rationale for buying one in the first place?

There might have been a time when the Bond franchise could have existed without Newport Pagnell’s finest as product anchor, and indeed for a period it did. But the inverse has never been the case at Aston Martin – its continued existence being inextricably linked to 007 and his exploits. However, a case can be made that now, the two franchises are entwined in a mutually dependent death-grip.

Yet if Aston Martin was a superspy, he would be the most costly, dipsomaniac, failure-prone, chaos-inducing secret service operative extant. Yet one who almost despite himself, prevails. Sound familiar?

Force Majeure. It’s almost a plausible title for a Bond movie – possibly a superior one to that of the forthcoming episode, which I read has now been delayed until the autumn. Why? Surely I don’t need to spell it out for you?

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

14 thoughts on “Farce Majeure”

  1. It is extraordinary how apparently astute, hard-nosed and successful individuals and businesses can still be charmed by the glamour and charisma of the Aston Martin name. “Investing” in company that has been bankrupt seven times in its history and has brought little but grief for a succession of owners sounds like the very definition of madness. Laurence Stroll is just the latest in a long line to be seduced. It’s a brave person who would bet against history, but that’s exactly what he has done.

    Aston Martin enjoyed a brief period of stability and apparent progress in the mid-noughties, thanks to Ford’s largesse. The excellent and highly flexible VH platform that arrived with the DB9 in 2004 underpinned all of Aston’s Martin’s for more than a decade. Likewise, Henrik Fisker’s beautiful design was reprised successfully across the company’s range.

    However, a look at Aston’s historic global sales data shows that any progress was fleeting and Ford was right to get out in 2008:

    2019 2,590
    2018 2,296
    2017 2,484
    2016 1,508
    2015 1,623
    2014 1,559
    2013 1,853
    2012 1,829
    2011 2,363
    2010 2,315
    2009 2.308
    2008 3,301
    2007 3,963
    2006 3,809
    2005 2,701
    2004 1,064
    2003 709
    2002 796
    2001 763
    2000 691

    Throughout the 1990’s, the first decade of Ford’s ownership, annual sales were more or less flat in the mid-hundreds. The launch of the DB9 caused a sharp uplift and Aston recorded its best ever year in 2007, selling 3,963 cars. The global financial crisis of 2009 hit the company hard, but what is more worrying is that sales in 2019 were little better than a decade earlier, in the depths of the crisis.

    Perhaps the DBX will do for Aston what the Cayenne, allegedly, did for Porsche? (although the success of the 1997 Boxster meant that the company was already in much better shape when the big SUV was launched in 2002.) If not, then Mr Stroll is destined for heartache.

    1. One minor correction Daniel. The external designer for the Aston DB9 was Wayne Burgess, overseen by Ian Callum. The design was complete when Fisker took over as design chief and therefore any input he might have had on the DB9’s exterior was, to my understanding, minimal.

    2. Thanks for that, Eóin. That’ll teach me to trust Wikipedia!

  2. I’ve just looked up Wayne Burgess on the internet. I hope for Geely’s sake that he isn’t true to my personal apopthegm that a man who chooses to be photographed with an electric guitar is to be neither trusted nor liked. Chartered accountants and quantity surveyors are particularly given to that sort of nonsense.

    1. My chuckle for the day in the midst of general doom and gloom. Thanks, and I agree with your sentiments.

  3. There is another sub-plot in the emerging Aston Marin plans, as explained in a report in Car and Driver of 5 March of an interview with Andy Palmer.

    The big news is that the Mercedes AMG engine collaboration will end. A-M give the reason as the Germans’ move to four-cylinder units for future AMG powertrains.

    In place of the bought-in V8, A-M are developing a hybrid V6 from their V12, which is presently built by Ford in Cologne. Which means that they are reverse-engineering a V6 from a V12 which was created by doubling up an early ’90s mass-market Ford V6.

    Ford will cease manufacturing the V12 in Cologne and the tooling will be brought in-house to the UK by Aston Martin. Palmer is quoted as saying:

    “I hope the V-12 is around for a good while longer,” Palmer said. “You can see in the longer term it won’t last, but certainly over the next few years we can continue to produce V-12 engines and we can make them more CO2 friendly. It will be a sad day when we see the V-12 engine disappear from an Aston.”

    https://www.caranddriver.com/news/a31251261/aston-martin-engine-changes-keeping-v12/

    I suspect that Ford won’t miss the work. In the past it would be seen as good publicity and corporate citizenship. In these ‘mobility provider’ days it’s just a drag on the balance sheet, a non-core activity. I note that as of this year Ford are no longer a supplier of engines to Morgan, a relationship which lasted 65 years.

    1. AML received a cash injection of GBP 50 million the second the ink of Mr Stroll’s signature had dried. If the cashflow of a business the size of Aston Martin’s is in such dire need of a cash injection, one simply cannot underestimate the urgency involved.

      Investindustrial have completely written off their investment/stake in AML, by the way.

      In a way, Aston Martin could almost be seen as a Marxist entity, given its success a relieving the rich of significant chunks of their wealth. As hobbies for the extremely well-off go, keeping the lights on (and hundreds/thousands employed) at AML is certainly among the less revolting pastimes. So best of luck to Mr Stroll.

    2. Investindustrial must have got a lot of cash back from the stock market flotation, no?

      They can probably afford to be more relaxed about their continuing stake.

      This limited edition Speedster is entirely predictable, although the forced ‘association’ with an American fighter plane is a little desperate. Are they hoping Trump buys a handful to decorate his golf club foyers?

      The bigger question is what went wrong with the core Vantage model. Yet again, a UK car company has seemingly no idea how to follow up a hit product. The old Vantage was a beautiful and very appealing car. The current one is way more expensive but a lot less desirable.

      Dr Palmer presumably got the top job on the strength of his reputation for product… I’m sure ‘Nissan Quashqai’ got mentioned a few times at the interview stage. If Aston Martin had successfully replaced the Vantage and DB9 then their current troubles would look a lot less serious.

    3. If the current car looked as good as it’s allegedly to drive, AML’s troubles wouldn’t be as grave. Or if the previous car had been as good to drive as it looked.

      Personally, I’m convinced that the current Vantage’s main problem is its appearance, which just isn’t appealing at all. The cabin is decidedly unimpressive too, both in terms of appearance and perceived quality. In that context, I’d argue that the Jaguar F-type – despite being basically a cut & shut job – looks quite a bit more expensive (at least from the outside) and a lot more elegant (to this set of eyes at least) than the Vantage. Which is a problem, regardless of Matt Becker’s magic touch.

      I wonder how and why Aston seem to be unable to pursue a business model similar to that of McLaren, who appear to be doing just fine. Given @AndyAtAston’s pedigree, it doesn’t come as a surprise at all that he’d be chasing volume, despite his numerous claims that Aston (just like Ferrari) are purveyors of luxury goods, rather than a mere car maker. We’ll probably find out sooner, rather than later whether the DBX and the St Athan factory will prove to be Aston’s saviour or undoing. As not just Ferrari, but McLaren and (pre-current management) Rolls-Royce prove, limited sales with high profit margins per unit sold are a sustainable business model.

    4. Christopher, I agree about the F-type. I am no great fan, but if for whatever reason I was denied a Porsche and forced to choose between Jaguar and Aston Martin, I would go for the Jaguar.

      I am surprised the AMG V8 is now for the chop… no doubt Aston Martin is too, given that the DBX is built around it. I understand Mercedes are under pressure to reduce their fleet average CO2 emissions, but I would have thought that the V8 will be available for some years to come in higher end models.

    5. I was going to mention this “new” V6 from AML, but chose to first thank you for the chuckle in the post before this one. Then I read this post.

      There should be a fair bit of experience lying about as to how to hop up the old Duratec 30 V6, because Noble turboed it and got 425 horses out of it.

      OTOH, Ford has a much newer nice DOHC twin turbo 2.7l V6 in the US which they stuff in various things like trucks and SUVs. In cooking trim, it utilizes both direct and port fuel injection (since 2018) and makes 325 horsepower and 500 Nm of torque. It certainly moves the AWD Mondeo (Fusion Sport) my pal leases along with some authority with what sounds like a V8 soundtrack. Palmer wants that V8 sound from his V6, he says.

      This much newer Ford than the Duratec 30 produces 400 hp in Lincoln 3.0l trim. It’s an intriguing engine with a two-piece engine block, bottom half-alumin(i)um and top half Compacted Graphite Iron around the cylinders like a good quality diesel or VW GTI, so it’s light and strong. It also has integrated exhaust manifolds in the cylinder heads, variable displacement oil pump, built-in stop/start — the lot. It moves 2300 kg pickup trucks along quite fast as well, because it’s no shrinking violet. And it seems reliable after almost five years on the market with owners of less than fastidious maintenance procedures. It should be gooseable to 600 or so horsepower in 3.0 litre form for James Bond, because no more than a tune gets you 370 hp at the wheels of a 4wd truck.

      It’s what I’d go for over a geriatric V6 makeover, but then I’m not Andy Palmer who’ll have to pay for a new cylinder head design at the very least on the old engine. I mean, just order the 3.0l in by crate from Ford Performance and modify it yourself. Cheap as chips – the all aluminum 3.5l tt engine is only $7647.99 at retail, but the 3.0l is not yet listed. Order a couple of dozen and they’ll hop right to it, I’m sure, and for a lot less each than $7500. They sell a fair few Astons in the US, so why not use a local engine? In Europe, it would be as exotic as any other V6 DOHC twin turbo, and with no mean and raspy Mercedes AMG four cylinder sound.

      https://www.caranddriver.com/reviews/a15108008/2015-ford-f-150-27-ecoboost-4×4-test-review/

      https://www.motorreviewer.com/engine.php?engine_id=146

    6. “I wonder how and why Aston seem to be unable to pursue a business model similar to that of McLaren, who appear to be doing just fine.”

      I am totally, utterly, completely uninterested in contemporary supercars in any sense – aesthetic, performance, technology, engineering. This applies across the board (unless someone is willing to back my purchase of a reborn Stratos, in which case, lunch is on me.)

      However.

      While I consider most supercars made today a totally pointless waste of resources that could be more productively employed making microwaves, I will say that McLaren’s offerings are definitely a cut above the rest – and I say this as someone who had not paid them any attention whatsoever until I found myself at a hotel last year with some time to kill and a couple of McLarens parked out front. The thing that really impressed me about them is the attention to detail and quality of finish, which is exceptional – you would think this is universal at this price level, but having spent more than a few hours crawling over various specimens of supercars at motor shows in a previous life over the years, this is most definitely NOT true. I have also come around on the styling, which over the years has gone from rather generic to forging an interesting look its own. Anyway, needless to say, the bottom line is that McLaren is able to shift cars (well, maybe not this week) because because they feel like, and presumably are, quality products. The Aston lineup simply doesn’t, or even come close, to be frank.

  4. Bill – that Nano V6 does sound a bit of an unsung marvel. It’s hard to imagine A-M making something better, given their limited resources.

    They do however have history weighing heavily upon them. Their Tadek Mark V8 was an automotive national treasure, a world-class all-British V8 when the likes of had been seduced by American power. The case is weakened by the adoption of a soon to be superannuated Jaguar straight six for the DB7 and various mongrel creations before the ultimate indignity of an AMG-Mercedes “crate engine”.

    Perhaps the point is the old adage that “if you don’t make your own engines you’re not a real car manufacturer”.

    If survival is the measure to apply, it seems to be true. Bristol, AC, Sunbeam, Jensen, Gordon-Keeble, Iso, De Tomaso, Monteverdi are all gone. Aston Martin, Rolls Royce, Bentley, Lotus, Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Maserati are still around, mostly as trophy brands for huge conglomerates.

    Make of that what your wish.

  5. I originally heard this one recounted by The Broadcaster Whose Name Shall Not Be Mentioned around these parts, so take it as you will, but I shall repeat it since it’s a good tale either way. As history may or may not record, shortly after the DB4 was launched, a friend of David Brown’s dropped by the factory. He had a look around; inspected the car; inspected the premises; decided he was indeed keen to buy one. But he thought the £4,000 asking was a touch steep. Could he have one at cost price? Certainly, replied M. Brown, always willing to oblige. That would be £5,000…

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