By on August 2, 2011

Ian Callum, designer of the Aston-Martin DB7 (along with the new Jaguars and numerous other gorgeous things) is a really, genuinely nice guy. But even nice guys have their limits, and having seen his groundbreaking Aston design evolve with the morphological dynamism of a sturgeon over the last 17 years, Callum appears to have reached his. Bloomberg reports:

It’s still that same old basic design,” Ian McCallum, who designed the DB9 and is now design director at Tata Motors Ltd. (TTMT)’s Jaguar Land Rover unit, said in a July 27 interview. “Some will argue that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But you do get to a time when you have to move on.”

Sadly, there are a few factual distractions to deal with here before we dig further into Aston’s predicament. First of all, though a Scot, the man’s name is Callum, not McCallum. Also, it’s not clear how much of the DB9 was styled by Callum, and how much was finished by his successor, Heinrik Fisker. Clear? OK, back to Aston…

The problem facing Aston is summed up by Andrew Jackson of the research firm Datamonitor:

The models are starting to have a slight whiff of Sunday dinner being used in sandwiches later in the week. It leaves the impression of a company stretching itself as far as it can. In the industry that they operate in, with their competitors, they really need to be cutting edge.

The stuck-in-time, across-the-line styling is part of the problem. A platform that was the talk of the enthusiast committee in 2003 is the other part. A resurgent, Callum-designed Jaguar lineup doesn’t help. Plus, split-the-difference “new” models certainly don’t mask the scent of death well, nor do Toyota rebadges. The prosecution rests.

And what of the defense? Well, all Astons may look the same and be technologically outdated, but they’re still pretty damn good looking. Also,

“All the projects that we are doing have to make a profit,” Chief Executive Officer Ulrich Bez, 66, told journalists at the company’s Gaydon headquarters. “We can’t afford a project that is just a marketing tool.”

The strategy has pushed up the average price of Aston Martin cars 49 percent to 104,000 pounds last year from 70,000 pounds in 2007, the company said at the July 6 briefing.

By recycling technology and using engines from Ford, Aston Martin can keep costs and development times down. That’s secured Aston Martin a profit margin of about 20 percent, nearly double Mercedes’s 10.7 percent return on sales in the second quarter.

Twice the profit margin of Mercedes? That’s nice, but how long will it last when

Daimler AG (DAI), the parent of Mercedes-Benz, plans to spend about 5 billion euros ($7.1 billion) this year on research and development. That’s more than eight times the Gaydon, England-based company’s revenue of 509 million pounds ($830 million) for the 12 months ended March 31.[?]

The sad irony of Aston’s flirtation with over-the-hill, passé status is that it still hasn’t held an IPO, but is waiting for “the right window” (i.e. when the market comes back). By the time that happens, could it be too late for the last independent global British sportscar brand?

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28 Comments on “Ask The Best And Brightest: Is Aston-Martin A Bit Old Hat?...”

  • avatar

    Aston Martin’s are the most beautiful cars out there. They may not be the fastest or most technologically advanced, but I don’t think anyone else has a lineup that looks that good. Hopefully they can keep going.

    But, forget that ugly thing in the lower right corner. Kill that one with fire.

    • 0 avatar

      To be fair to the Cygnet, tenders are rarely as striking as the yachts they service.

    • 0 avatar

      @Steven02: Agreed. The only thing sexier is the Maserati GT.

      What you’re seeing here is just the Seth Godin -style graph of fasionability.

      We got the biggest bump in the Aston line with the Vanquish in “Die Another Day”.

      Then the V8 Vantage intro, then the DBS in “Casino Royale”

      A short while ago, nobody except for Real car guys and James Bond fans knew what the hell an A-M even Was.

      I think it’s also/mostly because their finances are so here-today/gone-tomorrow.

      In that environment, you are absolutely trying to dance on the head of a pin; -each and every single day.
      –>So: I COMPLETELY understand their reluctance to screw with ANYTHING.

      Their best shot to IPO was 4 months after Nielsen, but before Dunkin Donuts;

      Watch the quality of the IPO market (per Benjamin Graham’s advice) and look for the real crap stuff; that will usually signal the end of the current bull-run.

      Even if AM initiated the papers This Instant, they probably couldn’t get it done properly before Q1 ’12.

      +and Porsche. -agreed there; except AM’s don’t look like smashed Beetles.

  • avatar

    AM does not the the economies of scale to able to justify the R&D budget that is required to be a big player in this market segment. However, that is nothing new – Astons haven’t been cutting edge for decades and that will probably not change in the future so they will continue to be a niche player trading on their looks, heritage and exclusivity.

    The question is what will happen when the rising fuel economy standards will catch up with them. They can’t afford to follow BMW down the i8 route so it is most likely that they will license technology from a larger automaker or be back on the market as the ultimate trophy for a Russian petro-billionaire, an up-and-coming Chinese auto firm or someone from the Saudi royal family.

  • avatar

    I don’t understand the attitude that cars’ looks have to change every few years. Aston Martin has cars that look practically perfect. Any change would be making them worse.

  • avatar

    I don’t think familiar styling or older platforms are a problem for Aston Martin.

    Lamborghini and Porsche have used certain styling cues for nearly their entire existence. Porsche in particular currently wants to make everything look like a 911 (which hasn’t exactly been given a complete sheet metal makeover with every generation)

    Bentley still sells the Continental family and Arnage-based vehicles. For Maserati, the Q-porte and GranTurismo are on a platform that debuted in 2004.

    Daimler is a full-line automotive empire. They make a lot more than just the SLS, Black Series, and Maybach. I would hope their R&D budget is above that of Aston Martin.

    I think the problem with Aston is that they are an independent luxury GT car maker. That’s pretty much a guaranteed money loser. It seems that if you are a niche car maker, you need a large parent company to be ensured survival.

  • avatar

    Aston’s platform was partly engineered by Lotus and is flexible in terms of wheelbase and track. The Callum era AMs are indeed some of the most gorgeous pieces of automotive art that exist, and they’re not badly performing cars, if not quite at supercar performance levels. I don’t know if they have the money to develop a new engine, but they could get by with the current platform for a while yet with a new motor, and new sheet metal that still evokes traditional AM styling including Callum’s work, while going in a new direction, much like Callum did with the AMs the went before him.

  • avatar

    Bond…James Bond.

    That’s all I have to know about Aston-Martin – and the fact I’d love to be able to afford to own one!

    • 0 avatar

      Bond may be the marketing hook, but when it comes to the actual folks that are buying AM’s these days, “Bag… Douche Bag.” seems to fit the recent Aston Martin owners that I happen to know (i.e. all two of them).

  • avatar

    Does A-M really need to offer 15 models?

  • avatar

    I think it’s HENRIK Fisker.

  • avatar

    I still think the AMs look good, I would certainly take one. Perhaps they can evolve the styling gradually while still being recognizable as an AM. Jaguar had to update, their designs were old fashioned, in comparison AM looks futuristic.

    I agree with the 911 comments – I can’t tell them apart aside from dropping or non drooping headlamps.

    They could update powertrains and improve the interiors but keep the basic shape intact.

  • avatar

    Aston Martin has a full model line-up of 15 models. If your math teacher is Porsche.

    Alas, I suspect the best engineered vehicle in their line-up is probably the Cygnet.

  • avatar

    It is a bit old hat. At least they started incorporating new nav systems recently, but the engines aren’t modern enough and the styling, while beautiful, is getting just a tiny bit old. The DB models and the V8 all use basically the same platform that was developed with Ford R&D money and I wonder if Prodrive and those middle eastern fellows can come up with the kind of cash to create a completely new platform.

    That said, it’d be interesting to know how much of Mercedes’ R&D budget gets spent on a car like the SLS. They could easily spend 1bn on a new E or S Class but to do the same for the SLS would be throwing money away cause aside from marketing purposes they’d never recuperate that on the small amount of cars sold. Maybe the rumors that they cribbed the chassis from the would be new Viper were right…

  • avatar

    I’ve always found the Aston lineup to be absurd.

    Mostly because Clarkson has some serious major for Astons, and every time they tweak the fender flairs and increase the engine stroke by 1mm and slap a new name plate on their platform to make a “new” car, Top Gear needs to do a bit about it like AM invented something new.

    The best is when they line up 2 or 3 Astons next to one another for the inevitable lap/race/comparison, and the “Old” Aston and the “New” Aston look exactly the same. It makes me want to grab Clarkson by the neck through my computer screen and say “JEREMY – THIS IS THE SAME FLIPPING CAR WITH DIFFERENT TUNING!”

    Yet, Top Gear never seems to call Aston out on this fact.

    Really, what they need to do at AM is simple:

    Pair down the selection of vehicles to 6: Coupe, Convertible, Sedan.

    Offer each in a “Sport” trim (stiff suspension, little aero details on the body work, stickier tires, CF/suede interior) and a “GT” trim (better ride, quieter, luxury materials).

    Consolidate running gear, ICE, interior structure across the lineup.

    Instead of developing new models, work on a yearly or bi-yearly refresh cycle that integrates the latest technology and subtle design details.

  • avatar

    Interesting article…

    I’m with Callum on this point. AM had a great opportunity to develop and continue a theme with their sedan, but took the absolutely laziest, most conservative approach possible, and simply stretched a DB9. I read an interview with the so-called ‘designer’ of this copy and his comments on the sedan’s style were pure corporate BS, and absolutely laughable…

    And really, while Porsche is developing leading edge green tech with the 918, AM is fooling around with a restyling a Toyota; how is that anything but a silly short-term stop-gap? And then there is the ‘Emotion Contol Unit’ or key as we say everywhere else, and the graphic announcing ‘Beauty, Passion, Soul’ or whatever when you start the car…

    When EVO tested a then new DB9 they had huge reservations about its dynamics and even structural integrity. After their test was published CEO Bez chewed out the authors – a couple years later AM introduced the sport pack DB9 which addresses almost all of the questions over the original – clearly demonstrating, among other things, that a few journalists understood the car better than the CEO.

    I think AM is still a great company and hope someday to own a Vantage (with the 4.7 engine), but the decay is starting to set in, and as always, it starts at the top and trickles down.

  • avatar
    V-Strom rider

    Why change what’s perfect? Give me a V8 Vantage and I’ll never look at another sports car again.

    Re economies of scale, there’s a lovely story about former Chairman David Brown – the “DB” in the old model names. He gave a Hollywood movie star (Clark Gable, I think) a tour of the factory. Gable said he enjoyed the tour and really liked the car and wanted to buy one, but in view of the publicity Aston Martin would get he felt he should pay cost price for it. Brown replied “That’s very generous of you – most of our customers pay about two thousand pounds less than that!”

  • avatar
    beach cruiser

    The v8 Vantage IS automotive perfection. To my eye it is rolling sculpture to be owned and cherished for your own personal enjoyment regardless of what anyone thinks. My father in law owns a 2005 Jaguar XKR which looks somewhat similar to the Vantage. It drives well and is a competent enough car, but whenever I see a Vantage the Jaguar pales in comparison. It is high on my bucket list for sure.

  • avatar

    It seems odd to hear this kind of talk coming from Ian Callum.

    He has nothing to lose by talking like this from his new perch with Tata motors, and so maybe he’s rubbing it in a bit just because he can get away with it.

    But when he designed the DB7 he did everything he possibly could to make it look like an Aston, and succeeded famously.

    Indeed, this became the styling template for virtually every new Aston right up to – and especially for – the Rapide.

    And styling is still the key reason that anyone would buy a one, I think.

    How could you change it to look like something else and yet still an Aston?

    If the overall direction they might consider would be something like the One-77, I for one would hope that they would reconsider, as I find the styling of that one to be forced at best, and in certain details bordering on tortured.

    For whatever else it might be, it certainly is not elegantly beautiful like most other Astons are.

    And here is a good example of what happens when you take a very recognizable design and then try to change certain elements of it.

    Porsche suffered it to a certain degree with the 928.

    It ‘looked like’ a Porsche, but the proportions were not quite right, and it was successful enough for a while; but, then as now, Porsche styling is still mainly spelled 9-1-1.

    Part of the problem for Aston from a sales standpoint is there are enough of them around now that one can get a used one and save a bundle, and he won’t be missing out in any great way on the technological front as compared to a new one, except perhaps for updated electronics.

    I am fortunate enough to see them now and then, and coming upon one at curbside is always something special, as it is with any rare exotic. They are works of art and can be studied and appreciated as such.

    So if A-M were to branch out into new styling territory, which way would they go?

    I think another good example of the danger of this is with Porsche again, with the 914.

    Even when the initial sales were slowing up a bit and they finally put the six in it, customers still stayed away in droves, and instead opted for the only slighly more expensive base 911 – a ‘true’ Porsche. . .?

    So this type of badge engineering and blurring the lines is very risky with icons such as these and it seems to me that an Aston will always be desirable as long as it looks like one.

    Remember the Lagonda?

    I actually thought that was a very interesting looking car, and I believe it started the trend to the kind of piched-faced front facia that was prevalent in many of the downsized models from manufacturers during the 80’s – especially GM.

    And what can one make of the Cygnet?

    Is this not a move of desperation to some degree, making a caricature of the signature Aston grille by slapping it onto the front of a cheezy little Toyota. . .

    Sacrilege if ever there was!

    Of course, part of its existance has to do with the draconian regulations, especially around London, with all of the reduced C02 levels that have to be met and whatnot.

    And what happened with the Rapide?

    It seems that they blew it trying to keep up with the Germans here; and although the Rapide is stunningly good looking, you can’t really cram big adults in the back and have them fit comfortably. And if not, then why go to all of the trouble of making four doors?

    The last I read the sales for it were not good.

    The Mercedes CLS can get away with it because it costs far less, is a semi mass-produced item, and still looks as good in its own way.

    But the Panamera, which everyone still seems inclined to bad-mouth merely because of its styling, actually achieves the goal of being supremely accomodating of four full size players.

    It was designed from the start with this as its chief goal.

    Porsche has already sold more than 10,000 of them, and they tried as hard as they could to make it look like a 911, and this time it was a hit.

    I see Panameras all the time, and there is something mildly exotic about them while at the same time practical.

    They are big, and the rear end is somewhat bulky, but the car has an air of quality and purpose about it that few others do.

    And then there is the Cayenne, but this is an entirely different type of vehicle, and it has plenty of detractors too, but it is far and away the company’s best seller.

    But it is unlikely that Aston would – or could – try something as drastic, risky, and expensive as this, and so maybe part of the problem ends up being, if you’ve seen one Aston, you’ve seen ’em all.

    They’re really just great looking and comfortable cruisers, and it seems that anyone looking for serious tire-smoking performance and other cutting edge speed tech to go along with their dose of visual appeal will look elsewhere.

  • avatar

    The DB9 and V8 vantage are sculpture with a soundtrack. I can see why they’re doing what they’re doing, after all how many 911 variants are there? It is as close to my perfect vehicle as exists (I use the nav on my phone anyways).

  • avatar
    Robert Gordon

    Yeah, Callum was heavily involved with the DB7, but it is grossly unfair to Keith Helfet to suggest that it was Callum’s design.

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