At a business function in London in 1968, David Brown was approached by an old contact and friend, who asked him if it would be possible as a favour to purchase a new DB6 at cost price. It was common knowledge that sales were going through a slow patch at the time.
David Brown replied that he would be delighted to oblige, and several days later the friend received an invoice for £1000 more than the published list price for the car. Embellished story or not, it is certainly true that in this era, craftsmanship took priority over profit.
That’s the legend of Aston Martin, straight from the company website. You can’t beat it; it positively drips with British charm. There’s Sir David Brown himself, the brilliant and driven man who combined hereditary wealth and self-made ambition. There’s the clubby atmosphere of Ye Olde England, neatly evoked with the image of an old school or business “chum” asking a “favour”. The Kamm-tailed DB6 itself, the deliberate evolution of the mass-market popularized DB5 into something a bit more refined and interesting. The anecdote ends with the brilliant revelation that Brown lost money on each one! What could be more fascinating, more desirable, more wonderful than a monstrously expensive automobile that still lost money for its maverick namesake? It’s a brilliant, lovely, immensely charming tale — and it might even be true.
Those days, however, are long gone. Thanks to the recent news of Aston’s accelerator pedal recall, we all now know that the legend of David Brown’s labor of love was long ago replaced by a Chinese-manufacturing nightmare straight out of the Banksy-directed opening for “The Simpsons”. Corners were cut. Profit was maximized. Mistakes, as they say, were made. And now comes the reckoning.
Some time ago, I wrote about disposable luxury in the context of Porsche’s current product lineup. At the time, I cited the Hublot “Big Bang” as the ultimate in luxury ephemera, meaningless cost without quality, prestige without provenance, flash without substance. The current lineup of Aston Martin products, however, gives Hublot a run for its (considerable) money.
The older I get, the more I fret about the distinction between fake and real. Note that I didn’t use a word like “authentic”; that will take you down a hipster rabbit hole where you end up deliberately consuming the worst junk of a previous era because it is somehow “genuine”. Real is a proper enough word for what I seek. It will suffice. With regards to products, it simply means that you are getting what is promised — by the marketing, the promotion, the brochure, the legend, the rumor, the image, whatever. If that is the case, then I consider the item “real”. Otherwise, it’s “fake”.
Examples. If you buy a chicken from a local farmer, kill it yourself, and eat what you cut out of it, that’s real. A Chicken McNugget is mostly fake, filled with (admittedly tasty) junk. Rolex, for all their arrogance and ridiculous advertising and deliberately constrained production, is real. They make their own movements or openly use a supplier’s, the firm’s ownership is descended from the founders, and the manufacture of the watches is undertaken in-house. The quick-bake “reboot” watchmakers, from Hublot to Bovet, are mostly fake. They sell deliberately obscured mystery-meat products with a frosting of sickeningly sweet prestige marketing and faux exclusivity.
In the world of clothing, Kiton is real and Kenneth Cole is fake. One company produces what it sells; the other farms out generic designs to dimly viewed overseas production facilities. As expensive as a Kiton jacket or suit might be, it’s easy to see where the cost comes from: high-end materials sewn by Europeans earning a living wage. With Kenneth Cole, the price mostly reflects the expense of marketing the product, which arrives in containers from Asia at a cost that, compared to the in-store retail, is essentially negligible.
For most of its existence, Aston Martin was an automaker whose reality, if you will, was beyond question. Owned by people like David Brown and Victor Gauntlett, the firm produced Astons in an inefficient but admirable fashion. To the people who believe that a product is valuable in proportion to the effort lavished upon it, there was nothing quite like an Aston Martin, unless that something was a Bristol. Even Ford’s purchase of Aston Martin seemed vaguely aristocratic, connected as it was with the introduction of the splendid and ambitious Vanquish. True, the V-12 seemed to have some relation to the Ford Contour, and the engines came out of the Cologne plant that was once infamous for (under)powering the Mustang II, but wasn’t that a traditional aspect of British engineering, making do?
The DB7 was probably the first warning sign. Not because it was a “Jag in drag”. Quite the contrary, that was the kind of lash-up which gave us GM transmissions in the Silver Shadow and Japanese electronics on Triumph motorcycles. Needs must when the devil drives, and all that. Rather, it was the subcontracted assembly that rankled, the idea that this junior Aston was really an Aston in name and appearance only, that “real” Astons still came from Newport Pagnell and the DB7 came from Bloxham. The DB7 could have been sold by another company under another name, had that firm been first with the money. It wasn’t engineered in-house, it wasn’t built in-house, it shared almost nothing with its predecessors. The whole thing felt just a little too clean-sheet, like a recently de-pledged fraternity house re-colonizing with a bunch of people who wouldn’t have made in through the last rush.
When Ford found itself overdrawn at the luxury bank, Aston was shuffled off to a coalition of anonymous investors, mostly Kuwaiti fellows apparently. The Newport Pagnell plant was shuttered in favor of the clean-sheet Gaydon facility, cranking out an indecent number of V8 “Vantages” every day. The average transaction prices of the cars dropped, even with high-end fluff like the DBS and the One-Whatever for the oil-rich markets.
If you’ve been watching faux-luxury brands of all types over the past twenty years, you know what had to happen next. There was a publicity barrage, of course. James Bond found himself back in an Aston Martin in a product-placement tie-up that was as depressing and morbid as the movie surrounding it. As the actual cost of producing Astons fell through the floor, dozens of them appeared in press fleets. I don’t attend Aston events but I have enough autojourno friends on Facebook who are friendly with the company to be frankly shocked at the kind of press program they have. It’s the sort of program you can only have when you’re swimming in cash and the product doesn’t cost very much money behind the scenes. There are full-page advertisements in luxury publications, watch tie-ins, an endless parade of the sort of frippery that would have made David Brown’s old chum turn his nose up in unfeigned disgust. All of it costing substantial sums that seem difficult to easily distribute among even the Vantage-inflated sales numbers of today.
Now we see how it was done. How the press programs got so massive and indiscriminate, how the advertisements became so pervasive, how the publicity machine seemed to have limitless juice. In a sadly ironic reversal of the David Brown story, it would appear that the “cost” of modern Astons has been substantially reduced below retail through the introduction of lowest-bidder Chinese components, right down to the second-most-important interface between the driver and his $200,000-plus Aston DB-Whatever: the accelerator pedal.
There’s nothing expensive about an accelerator pedal. Toyota and Honda don’t even bother to have them made in China; American suppliers like the infamous CTS knock ‘em out for pennies. Surely there was a facility in the UK that could have made them cheaply, that would have been accountable for flaws, that wouldn’t use “counterfeit plastic”, whatever that is. What level of cost-cutting could possibly be going on when it’s necessary to use a cheaper grade of plastic in a part, just to win the bid for an Aston Martin contract? Now that the Toyota Camry’s CTS pedal has been cleared of wrongdoing despite being constructed without bushings to save cost, couldn’t Aston have used those? Isn’t a pedal designed to be profitably installed in a $17,000 Toyota good enough for a DBS?
No, it wasn’t. It was too good. Aston Martin, the luxury prestige brand that launched a thousand Robb Report advertisements, needed something cheaper and worse than what a Camry gets. Consider the numbers: 17,500 cars affected. How much money was saved by going to China? It couldn’t be ten dollars a pedal, because I doubt a CTS pedal costs ten dollars. Retail on some CTS pedals is under sixty, after all. Perhaps it was five. That’s a savings of under $100,000 over a production run of cars with a likely total price of $2,187,500,000 or more.
To put that in perspective, a back-cover ad in the Robb Report costs about $45,000. So for the price of two back-page advertisements — or, rather, to make two back-page advertisements feasible — Aston’s current ownership knowingly compromised the cars. And only the most optimistic fool on Earth would think the accelerator pedals was the only parts where this kind of devil’s bargain was made.
Saving money on parts so you can buy full-page ads or send compliant journalists to Europe is the accepted way to build and promote “luxury brands”. Expecting anything else is probably naive. Yet it needs to be said — must be said — that Aston Martin was once better than that. A Chinese accelerator pedal and a full-steam assault on the media might be the modern way, it might be the MBA way, it might be the shadowy Kuwaiti investor way. But it wasn’t the Aston way. It wasn’t David Brown’s way. It’s the triumph, yet, again, of the fake over the real. Which makes it a tragedy for anyone who might ever purchase an Aston Martin, and for all of us who never will, too.