Of the 70,000 or so Aston Martins built over the 102 years of the company's history, from the pre-war Ulsters through the DBR1 that conquered Le Mans to 007's various playthings, more than 90 per cent are still on the road. In the mind of Andy Palmer, the company's new chief executive, that statistic represents a confirmation of the value of a brand for which he has big plans.
Palmer left Nissan, where he had spent 24 of his 51 years,
to take over at Aston Martin's headquarters in Gaydon, in the West Midlands, last September. He has a sweeping mission for a company whose future prosperity will require a combination of vision and pragmatism. But the traditions of a company famous for making fast cars for James Bond and the Prince of Wales remain a cornerstone.

It takes little encouragement to get Palmer reflecting on the vital role still being played by the old works in Newport Pagnell, where the great six-cylinder cars were built between 1955 and 2007. It is there that owners can still take their classic models to be restored and refettled or simply laid up over the winter months, looked after by staff who understand every nuance and detail of the machinery. "A brand is basically a mark of trust," Palmer says. "You can't measure it by price or volume. And it's not something, unless you're very lucky, that you can get overnight. What's being done at Newport Pagnell represents everything that Aston Martin is – the epitome of craftsmanship."

The challenge for Palmer is to rejuvenate a company with an illustrious heritage but an unhealthy balance sheet. An injection of funds from Aston Martin's owners – a consortium including Kuwaiti investors and an Italian private equity fund as well as Daimler AG, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz – will allow him to update a range of well-regarded but now aging models while increasing sales in untapped markets, notably China and Japan. "The brand is at a difficult point in its history," Palmer says. "If we're being very honest, most of the 102 years of Aston Martin have been very difficult. What I'd love to do in the 15 years ahead of me is to use that tenure to make the next 102 years much more stable – and create something great. We're going to replace the portfolio of cars, and extend it."

In the short term, starting at the Geneva Motor Show in March, the headlines are likely to be provided by models produced in limited numbers by the company's Special Projects department. The DB10, built in an edition of 10 for Specter, the next Bond film, caused a stir last year, as did the Lagonda Taraf, a new luxury saloon reviving a marque long associated with Aston Martin.

Further ahead lie more profound changes to the basic lineup, clarifying the distinctions between the present hierarchy of Vanquish, DB9 and Vantage, with their assortment of V8 and V12 engines. "We need to give greater degrees of separation," Palmer says, "so that it's apparent to more than the connoisseurs of the brand who already understand the differences."

A more scientific approach to the task involves creating a series of fictional but rigorously researched customer identities. "For the next generation of DB9, it's a gentleman by the name of Philippe. We know who Philippe is, we know where he lives, we know how much he earns, where he is in his life and what his lifestyle and basic needs are. When it comes to the difficult decisions and trade-offs that you inevitably make, we ask ourselves, 'What would Philippe want?' "Then there is Mark, who is our proxy customer for the Vantage. Mark is a little younger, he has a more adventurous lifestyle and tends to enjoy more action-type sports. So eventually you have a portfolio where that allows all the people who admire the brand to understand the differences."

That product ladder will be extended at both ends. To a question about persistent rumors that Aston will launch
an SUV, Palmer gives a guarded response: "An SUV in the classical sense? I don't think so. An SUV is a very utilitarian type of vehicle. There are ways and means of transforming the traditional sports car and GT market without making an SUV."

At the other extreme is a prospect to delight enthusiasts stirred by the appearance last year of a virtual mid-engined supercar design called the DP-100 Vision, created by Marek Reichman, the company's chief designer, for a video game. Palmer's words hint that something like it might become reality: "Do I think the brand deserves what we might call a 'halo' supercar? My answer would be yes - when we've got the portfolio moving in the right direction." Hybrid powerplants will eventually make an appearance, helped by the company's new partnership with Daimler, who will supply engines and electronic systems. "You can't be in the car industry of the future and not address the issue of low-emission technology," Palmer says. "But it's extraordinarily expensive, and the relationship with Daimler gives us access to it. It's interesting not only for fuel consumption but for supplementing power, which is what you'd expect from Aston Martin."

Last year the company produced just under 4,000 cars, about half the factory's flat-out capacity; (Bentley, by contrast, sell around 10,000 cars a year, Ferrari about 7,000). Palmer aims to increase sales – he will not be specific, but perhaps by around 50 per cent – before imposing a cap. Women customers represent another area of potential expansion. "Less than 4 per cent of our customers are female," he says, which will not surprise those who think of Astons as the epitome of an understated but self-confident masculinity. Women love them, Palmer adds, but mainly through the warmth of their approval when their husbands or partners acquire one. He plans to change that. "The empowered female is the biggest car segment in the world, and the opportunity is huge. But it's not a marketing exercise. It has to be reflected in the cars that we deliver."

"It's not about painting them pink and adding a hook for a handbag. That's demeaning. Women are looking for a car that invites them in, that has the right ergonomics. It's also about making sure that the cars are not intimidating to drive – or to buy. If a couple go in and a dealer talks to the guy but not to the woman, automatically we're going to alienate her from the brand." Is he at the stage of identifying a Philippa or a Marcia, to match the male customer archetypes around which product decisions are made? "Yes, I am. She's the profile of the customer for one of the cars that I've got coming in the future. Her name is Charlotte."

Not Kate, then, although probably the most celebrated example of a woman in an Aston was the newly wed Duchess of Cambridge, driven away from Buckingham Palace on a fine spring day in 2011 by her husband, who had borrowed his father's one-owner DB6 Volante Mk II convertible for the occasion, its navy blue convertible coachwork buffed to perfection. The next time a famous woman appears in an Aston Martin, Palmer would like her to be in the driving seat.

Richard Williams has written several books on motor racing including Enzo Ferrari: A Life and The Last Road Race.

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