NEWPORT PAGNELL, ENGLAND -- Aston Martin Lagonda, the British prestige auto maker acquired by Ford last month, has never learned the lessons that launched Henry Ford's auto empire three generations ago.
At the Aston Martin works here 60 miles north of London, they still make cars the old-fashioned way, by hand, much the way that cars were built before Ford introduced the assembly line and mass production.
Every day they turn out another car. Some days it is a $110,000 Aston Martin Saloon, others a $167,000 Lagonda. One a day, five a week (most weeks), 230 last year -- $25 million worth of 150-mile-an-hour motoring for the likes of James Bond, Elizabeth Taylor, Prince Charles and the Sultan of Brunei.
There is no assembly line at Aston Martin. The 180 workers labor in a plant no bigger than some American auto dealerships, where they have been making Aston Martins since the days of the Model T Ford.
Each Aston body panel is molded by hand. Two men roll a piece of aluminum sheet back and forth between rollers until it's curved precisely. The hood alone takes 40 hours of this painstaking work. The wiring process takes 90 hours. Painting -- 20 coats in all -- takes 11 and a half days.
In an era of Japanese just-in-time auto making -- when the parts to make a car can be delivered the day they're needed and the car may be shipped as soon as it's done -- assembling an Aston takes 16 weeks.
The end of the 60 hour process of building the engine comes when the builder affixes a plaque bearing his name. Customers are encouraged to visit the plant and watch their car take shape.
The final product, with its interior of leather, walnut and thick Wilton carpeting, is as cozy and opulent as any touring car. But with its sleek profile, racing-style independent suspension, 5.3 liter engine and maximum speed of 175 mph for the V8 Vantage, it is undeniably a high-performance machine.
Acquiring Aston Martin moves Ford onto the prestige rungs of the world auto market. Also, for Aston Martin, which five years ago was staring bankruptcy in the face, it makes possible a major expansion.
Aston Martin produced cars for more than 60 years without a sustained period of profitability. Since racing enthusiast Lionel Martin began making cars named for the once-popular Aston Clinton Hill Climb, Aston Martins have won races and lost money. Martin sold out after five years and his company passed from one auto enthusiast to another, winning prestige, if not profits.
The recession of the early 1980s nearly finished the company. It threw sales into a decline that reached 85 percent by 1982 and drove out most of the major shareholders. Luckily for Aston Martin, minority shareholder Victor Gauntlett was willing to pick up the reins.
Gauntlett, 45, was not only an auto enthusiast, but also a successful businessman. Starting from nothing, he built his Pace Petroleum Company into a 300-unit gas-station business by 1980.
He overhauled Aston Martin, investing in machinery and creating a labor climate that allowed for more flexible work practices. Productivity improved dramatically. The production level needed to break even fell from six cars a week to 3 1/2.
On the sales side, he took advantage of the general economic recovery to boost the price of a car to a minimum of $110,000 for the basic Saloon, and began Aston Martin's first U.S. advertising and public relations drive.
"There was not one particular secret to our success," said Gauntlett. "What was a cozy company has become a very commercial, quite aggressive producer and seller of motorcars."
From 1985 to 1987, Aston Martin has enjoyed three years of steadily increasing profits. This year's earnings, predicts Gauntlett, will come in at around $800,000, on a gross revenue of some $25 million.
The Ford purchase, for an undisclosed sum believed to be in the region of $25 million to $30 million, gives the U.S. auto maker 75 percent of the company. Gauntlett and other investors share the remaining quarter.
Gauntlett stressed that Ford has guaranteed him complete autonomy in running Aston Martin. There will be no "badge engineering," that is, putting the Aston name onto Fords.
"Those are fundamental tenets as far as we're concerned," said Gauntlett. "Quality, exclusivity and that flavor of tradition is what we're all about. It doesn't take much tinkering to destroy that aura."
Next year, Aston will introduce a redesigned model of its basic Saloon, the first new model in a decade. Soon after, a redesigned convertible Volante and high-performance Vantage will appear. The new models were scheduled before the Ford purchase.
Although no decisions have yet been made, Gauntlett said he foresees Ford's cash resources leading to the construction of a new Aston production site, somewhere in Great Britain, which could bring production up to some 5,000 cars a year in a decade. Gauntlett sees the company becoming less elite, but still making cars that sell for well above anything Ford currently produces.
"When I talk about less expensive," he said, "I'm talking about getting down to say
40,000 ($56,000-$64,000), making a car that is only partly hand-built, for example using a pressed steel body in much the same way as Rolls-Royce does.
"If in 25 years, we were a slightly more upmarket British version of Porsche, that would make sense from Ford's point of view."
Ford of Europe officials were unwilling to talk about their plans for the new subsidiary. The company had been studying the top end of the market for some time. Only three weeks after the Aston deal, Ford announced the acquisition of AC Cars, another small British maker of high-performance cars (the AC Ace).
All the car majors have taken an interest in upscale sports cars in recent years. GM acquired British producer Lotus Cars Ltd. Fiat bought Ferrari, and Chrysler acquired Lamborghini. Gauntlett pointed to these deals as evidence of a fruitful working relationship between the two very different kinds of producers.
"It's a fact," he said, "that if you scratch a major, you'll always find he's got a complex about making a specialist upmarket performance car, and every specialist maker always has dreams of trying his hand at larger volume.
"As far as we're concerned," he added cheerily, "after being constrained in our thinking for so long, it's wonderful to be able to start thinking in terms of the first half of the next century now, instead of the first half of next year."