One of the few remaining enigmas in the automotive world is Aston Martin Lagonda Limited. With its headquarters located in Newport Pagnell in the UK, around 60 miles north of London, it really should not exist. It has consistently defied the laws of automotive economics throughout its life and yet, against this background of financial constraint and hand-to-mouth existence, has produced some of the most desirable machines ever made. However, not only does it still exist, but under Ford's careful ownership for the last 13 years, it has positively flourished.
The basis for the re-emergence of a brand that looked doomed to whither away in the 1970s and early ‘80s is the fabulously successful DB7, more of which have been sold than all previous Aston Martin models put together.
Produced in a purpose-built plant at Bloxham near Oxford, some distance from Newport Pagnell, its very success seemed a pointer to the future, one in which increasing automation would play a part at the expense of the craftsman and the hand-built car. However, this is very decidedly not the case.
|Aston Martin still produces some of the most striking cars on the road.|
Benefiting from an investment to the tune of $3.5-million over the last three years, the Newport Pagnell facility—one hesitates to say "plant" for a series of small buildings that straddle the town's high road—remains the heart of the operation. Not only are all the Vantage and Virage models built there, but it is also the centre for a busy and fast-expanding service and restoration operation. However, it is now in the process of ramping up for what promises to be one of the most exciting Aston Martin models ever produced.
Every inch an Aston Martin, the new V12 Vanquish, penned by designer Ian Callum, is being introduced as the top-of-the-range flagship model in spring next year. At the heart of the model is the 6.0-liter V12 engine that is found under the hood of the Vantage 600 and the DB7 Vantage, but with a lighter, albeit stronger crankshaft, new design inlet manifolds, camshafts, valve gear and exhaust system. Developing 450 hp, it now has a top speed of over 190 mph, can accelerate to 60 mph in less than 4.5 seconds, and then reach 100 mph in under 10 seconds.
While the new model will be hand-built as would be expected by its clientele at the rate of 300 a year, it nevertheless is benefiting from some innovative design and manufacturing processes that have been co-developed with the Ford Research & Vehicle Technology (RVT) Group and Ford Research laboratories. Other partners in its development have included Nottingham University, which offered solutions on the braiding process, Hydro Aluminium, Superform Aluminium, Magneti Marelli, and Lotus Engineering.
The main body structure—including the floor and the front and rear bulkheads— are formed from extruded aluminum sections bonded and riveted around the central transmission tunnel which is constructed entirely from carbon fibre. Single-piece composite inner body side sections with carbon fibre windscreen pillars are also bonded to the central structure to create a high-strength safety cell that Aston claims is equivalent to a Formula One car.
Continuing a relationship that goes back to the 1970s is Aston Martin's association with Superform Aluminium. All the exterior body panels including the roof, hood, boot lid, front and rear wings, and doors are constructed from aluminum with each individual panel hand-tailored to the central structure to ensure a perfect panel fit. Superformed aluminum panels offer the advantages of low-cost tooling with stable, repeatable sculptural forms with class A surface finishes. The flexibility of the process makes it ideal both for lower volume production vehicles and also prototype development of high-volume vehicles.
At the front is a deformable composite structure that incorporates the mesh air intake grille as a stressed member while providing additional crash protection. It also accommodates the engine, transmission and air conditioning radiators and intercoolers. Rear crash protection is aided by the composite floor, parcel shelf and side rails of the luggage compartment that have been designed to deform in a controllable way together with the extruded aluminum side impact beams located in the doors. A completely flat surface has been developed for the underbody, enabling air to be channelled into a venturi section at the rear to assist high-speed aerodynamics—results from wind tunnel tests showed that a 12 degree angle at the rear beneath the bumper helped minimise rear end lift at over 150 mph.
The front and rear suspension feature forged aluminum wishbones while the front suspension uprights are made of cast aluminum while the engine and transmission are carried in a steel, aluminum and carbon fibre subframe.
Aston Martin is also very proud of the engine and transmission control systems which presented one of the toughest nuts to crack. While Visteon supplied the overall electronic control system, Magneti Marelli and Ford RVT co-developed the advance paddle shift gear change. It was Aston Martin engineers, though, who masterminded the matching of the electronics to the hydraulics to facilitate instant gear changes. The challenge they had to overcome was to ensure that the two engine management systems were in sync while simultaneously maintaining a dialogue with the transmission. During development there were several seven-way audio conferences between engineers in the US, UK, Germany, and Italy before a solution was finally achieved.
In the most intensive test program ever devised for an Aston Martin, 50 prototypes have been put through their paces in different parts of the world covering more than a million miles. With special emphasis placed on verifying the integrity and durability of the bonded body structure, it has been subjected to extensive environmental wind tunnel tests with temperatures ranging from -40°C to +81°C.
"The wealth and abundance of expertise and technology which is now available to Aston Martin is reflected throughout this new model," said Ulrich Bez, Aston Martin's new chief executive. "However, it is technology which is appropriate to an Aston Martin and complementary to the unique individual skills and expertise of our craftsmen. It is all technology which is targeted and tailored to provide positive benefits to all our customers."