Last Monday, an English racing mogul, a car-collecting Texas tycoon and a gaggle of Kuwaitis bought Aston Martin. While Ford’s retained a stake in the luxury automaker, The Blue Oval Boyz no longer have a say in Aston’s future. The press spun the deal as a sad but inevitable move: a sign of FoMoCo’s willingness to face financial facts. Well, here’s a bit of Inside Automaking: Ford didn’t put Aston Martin up for sale. Aston Martin jumped ship.
From its inception in 1913 through 1987, Aston Martin was a poster child for bespoke luxury automaking– and “hobby trading.” Before Ford bought 75% of Newport Pagnell’s finest, Aston Martin had lost its numerous owners numerous millions. Under Ford’s management, Aston Martin achieved something akin to a miracle: profit.
Last year, Aston made an indeterminate amount of money (Ford has always refused to separate Aston’s finances from those of the Premium Automotive Group). Aston reprised its role as James Bond’s steed of choice (both old and new) in Casino Royale. And the company unveiled the Rapide, a four-door luxury sports sedan with a built-in chess set and champagne cooler.
This year, The Times estimates that Aston Martin will earn $74m on worldwide sales of some seven thousand cars. While that’s a cause for celebration for Aston fans, the production run represents roughly 0.1 percent of Ford’s 6.5 million annual vehicle sales. Even if Aston Martin beat their best estimates by 50 percent, it wouldn’t do squat for Ford's finances.
In 2006, Ford’s Premier Automotive Group (PAG)– Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo– dropped $327m. PAG sales were off just one percent, but their bottom line was beaten down by unfavorable exchange rates and warranty accrual adjustments at Jaguar and Land Rover. So Ford cancelled the Aston Martin Rapide.
This decision did not sit well with Aston’s management. Although John Walton, General Manager of Aston Martin North America, emphatically and repeatedly asserted that Aston was not for sale, someone forgot to tell its managers. Led by engineer, speed demon and Aston CEO Ulrich Bez, the execs made a bold move of their own: they started looking for new owners.
Discretion being the better part of valor, Aston Martin began quietly reaching out to potential suitors; by invitation, as it were. They found a willing conspirator in David Richards. The founding chairman and chief executive of ProDrive, a motorsport and automotive technology company, was already plenty cozy with Auntie Aston. Since 2004, ProDrive has been running Aston Martin’s FIA GT racing team. The UK company also prepares the GT1 DBR9 and the GT3 DBRS9 race cars for well-heeled privateers.
Richards liked the idea of owning Aston, but, sensibly enough, preferred to use OPM financing (Other People’s Money). Enter Houston energy investment banker, car collector and race team backer, John Sinders. Oh, and two Kuwaiti investment companies: Investment Dar and Adeem Investment Company. Despite the backroom maneuvers, or perhaps because of them, ProDrive’s proactive $848m offer found fertile soil in Dearborn.
Apparently, not everyone was in the loop on this one. At a recent press conference, AM’s US GM described Aston’s separation from Ford as “bittersweet.” Looking dapper in a navy blue pinstriped suit and perfectly enunciating the Queen’s English, Walton said that his longtime friend, Bill Ford, called him post-sale to ask, “Are you celebrating?” “Are you?” Walton said he replied. “No,” said Ford. “Nor are we,” Walton responded.
While Walton may be royally pissed that he was kept in the dark, he’s being something of a drama queen. The Aston sale resurrects the Rapide, a model crucial for Aston’s expansion. Also, as Top Gear’s recent Aston vs. Jaguar article demonstrated, Aston Martin needs to develop its models’ gearbox, handing, ride and engines. As EVO magazine’s review of a ProDrive modded Vantage demonstrates, the company has both the spirit and the technology for the job.
The deal also assures access to Ford’s international resources. Remember: Aston relies on Ford for everything from its V12 to its Volvo air vents to its switchgear. With Ford’s $77m stake in the biz, the “new” Aston Martin can continue to dip into The Blue Oval’s parts bin and gain access to mission critical research, manufacturing, safety and legislative expertise.
All of which means Billy Ford’s tears were of the crocodile variety. Although billed as an exit strategy, the Aston “sale” isn’t so much a matter of cutting deadwood as a tacit admission that the domestic automaker simply can’t afford to fund its former British subsidiary’s ambitions.
Bottom line: the corporate mothership is no better or worse off for jettisoning Aston Martin. But Aston Martin will be far better off with someone else taking the majority of the risk, and reaping the lion's share of the rewards.
[Side note: You can now also find The Truth About Cars at www.ttac.com]