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Inside the Aston Martin factory

Making speed a solution

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It’s a two-hour car ride from Heathrow Airport to the small village of Gaydon in Warwickshire, England, home to Aston Martin’s headquarters. The company plans, designs, and build its cars in this office park enclave, down the road from Jaguar Land Rover headquarters, and only a short 45-minute drive from Silverstone, where Formula 1 development thrives. It’s an ideal location: it’s connected to the M40 motorway, an artery that threads together London, Birmingham, and Oxford, the heart of the UK car industry.

Inside its small factory, under high ceilings supported by white metal beams, Aston Martin workers bustle. There’s an undercurrent of pulsing energy as the Aston Martin line runs at a steady, measured pace. At a mass-market car company, the takt time, or average amount of time between the start of each new car, is a matter of seconds. In contrast, a new Aston Martin is started every 26 minutes. It’s a meticulous production process, which explains why the factory floors stay a gleaming gray and white. Each car is scrutinized before it moves along the 200-hour build process in order to pass final inspection, sometimes conducted by the CEO himself. In a high-stakes business like this one, there’s no room for hasty mistakes.

The DB11, Vanquish, Rapide, and Vantage models are made at the Gaydon factory. A new factory site will be constructed where the first Aston Martin crossover, the DBX, will be built. Though the Gaydon facility opened in 2003, the way they do things in the British Midlands is a bit of a throwback to another era, when hand assembly was a skilled trade mastered by humans over machines. Many of the apprentices are second- and even third-generation skilled tradespeople. The company celebrated its centenary in 2010 with a grand display of its entire model lineup at a park in central London. It was a moment steeped in British motor history, a full embrace of its posh heritage, James Bond and all.

But the company couldn’t survive if it only focused on the old way of doing things. Computer screens flash a few feet from tailors hunched over sewing machines, as they stitch together seats from a computer-generated pattern. In the body shop, slabs of aluminum are heat-treated and bonded, which transforms the structure components.

The buzzy workshop-like atmosphere lends itself toward a performative element, as if the assembly process is theater. Everyone on the floor is on a stage as a steady stream of customers visit while I’m there, greeted in a chic lobby where super luxe Aston Martin merch is sold. Customers travel from around the world to get an up-close look at their Aston Martin being assembled. It’s a unique perk of investing in a six-figure car that is common among the super luxury brands.

I met with Aston Martin CEO Andy Palmer (or, as he is known on Twitter, @AndyatAston) after visiting the headquarters, the imagery of the shiny factory etched in my mind. We spoke about how Aston Martin has doubled down on plans for its future: bringing the limited edition $3 million Valkyrie hypercar to life; a path toward electrification through the battery-powered 2019 RapidE; and the first SUV in the lineup due in 2019, which will be available as a hybrid. But first, we touched on where it is in the present: releasing its flagship vehicle, the DB11, with a more efficient V8 engine option, which is made by Daimler’s AMG group and modified by Aston engineers.

He was insistent that process of hand-building cars isn’t at odds with Aston Martin’s investment in high-tech processes. “They’re not mutually exclusive. Handmade doesn’t necessarily mean lack of technology,” Palmer says.

“Handmade doesn’t mean lack of technology.”

But what handmade does mean is a limited number of cars, and that’s the way Aston Martin wants it. When asked about ramping up to include more robots in the factory, Palmer bristled. “We make 5,200 cars a year and every one of them is different. And you can't program a robot if you try to work out the number of end items that is everything that goes into a car. It's infinitesimal. Computers are incapable. AI eventually might get there. But the complexity of putting 10,000 parts together in a car factory where couple of hundred of those will be different to every car. Today only a human can do that.”

But even Aston Martin is using automation to take away some of the more taxing elements of manual labor. (Just don’t call them robots. Palmer prefers “assistors.”) “The principle is no robots, but now we use robots particularly for the structures in, for example, the application of the glue. It's only the repetitive strain injury issue that we’re avoiding by putting them in there,” he says. And from what Palmer says about efforts to recruit capable apprentices, this process won’t change anytime soon.

Even as Aston Martin gears up to double sales when it launches its crossover, and lends its name to real estate developments, yachts, and Red Bull Formula 1 racing, the plan is to stay a small car company. No one needs to drive an Aston Martin; its entire model line delivers a pleasure principle and serves as an unapologetic status symbol. The leathers and woods are real, and making it a thing of beauty isn’t an adjective, but a prerequisite for design chief Marek Reichman.

Aston Martin is in the business of building cars that are a luxury. And because, more than ever, time is the most valuable luxury, Aston Martin is also in the business of managing time. It’s a tricky problem that’s befuddling the auto industry. Driving for joy isn’t what it used to be. In 2016, a Washington Post report found the average commute time was at its highest ever, and presumably most of this travel occurred on overcrowded roads. When asked about solving the problem, Palmer suggests that our transportation woes all come down to 30 minutes. That’s the maximum amount of time he says we’re wired to travel at a time for our daily routines. “If you can liberate that time in one way or another — whether it's high-speed trains, hyperloop, drones, better highways, whatever it is — if you calibrate that, then you get people to have a better quality of life and live in less congested areas with better air quality,” Palmer says. “That's what we're asking for, isn’t it? That's what humanity is looking for. Today, speed is seen as the demon, where potentially it’s a solution.”

Even as change occurs, Aston Martin cars are made for drivers, not machines. Palmer doesn’t see autonomy as the solution to society’s transportation woes. “The hypothesis of the moment is I can do my emails and I can use my time in a better way. I personally don't subscribe to that hypothesis.” He argues that people want to get where they are going in a timely way. “I think the unintended consequence is one of speed,” Palmer says.

Palmer uses characteristic British self-deprecation to poke fun at his own ideas that belies his accomplishments. “Your time is the most important. We say that every five years,” he says. A throaty chuckle follows. Palmer speaks in rapid phrases, at times tripping over his words, in an effort to paint a large, sweeping picture and to emphasize his point. He has blond spiky hair and looks most comfortable in loose-fitting suits, collar open. His cheeks turn flushed after he gives a speech to a group. He has none of the airs of a high-brow executive. His manner makes him come across as straight shooter who speaks his mind freely, and unlike most CEOs, he doesn’t seek approval from his communication team for his talking points.

Aston Martin CEO Andy Palmer
Aston Martin CEO Andy Palmer
Photo: Aston Martin

“I mean, I'm 38 years in this business. It's probably the most exciting time because simply the pace of change and the level of uncertainty,” he says. He’s worked his way up from being an apprentice to a PhD and previously served as chief planning officer at Nissan Motor Co. and chairman of Infiniti, before the Aston Martin board tapped him to lead the company in 2014.

It’s a dicy time to make hard decisions about the future as change comes hard and fast to the auto industry. “You can’t work in a bubble. You can’t operate in isolation and say, ‘I’m not going to do a connected car,’ and completely rule out the idea of an autonomous car, because to some extent that's defined by the technology that the massive premium brands are bringing to market. Some might say we want to be in front of or behind, but you can't be in isolation,” he says.

As a solution, Aston Martin settled on a partnership with Daimler to do all the connected things it can’t. Daimler owns a 5 percent stake in the company. In exchange, it produces all electronics and engines for some models. “Part of the reason I came to the company was because of Daimler. They’re one of the companies that spends the most on R&D, and they're certainly at the cutting edge of autonomy,” Palmer explains. “The decision to take and embed the S Class electrical system, which is a fundamental decision to all of our new cars, means that we’re absolutely no longer a laggard when it comes to the electrical system.”

But the partnership doesn’t mean that Aston Martin will follow in the footsteps of Mercedes-Benz product lineup. “What we're doing is we're simply connecting black boxes to cables to make it do different things. We're able to select those that we're interested in,” he says.

Palmer errs on a conservative approach toward autonomy for a myriad of reasons. Where he is especially cautious is on matters of security. “If you're going to put your car in the hands of software, then you better make sure that it’s protected,” he says. “Because what you don't want to do is to have it in the hands of somebody else. I am a huge believer that comes from the defense side of things where I’ve studied: the more systems you use, the more redundancy that you need to build into the system. Think about an airplane.”

He’s firm that safety issues need to be addressed in autonomous tech, and worries about chances taken in the sprint to achieve full autonomous driving. “The whole house of cards comes down if someone comes up with a system that’s not safe. Don’t beta test your customers,” Palmer says. “This is not an industry that has ever allowed people to beta test their customers. That’s where I talk about the arms race. We have to make sure that when we introduce it, we have as many safety systems as possible.”

“Don’t beta test your customers.”

But Aston Martin is still proceeding toward making cars capable of self-driving, albeit with caution. “Even if you accept that the Aston Martin is your escape where you go and drive with a manual transmission, there are just some things you have to have,” he says. “Connected is an obvious one. Autonomy, or automated valet parking. Even if you didn’t want to go all the way to full autonomy, there are times where the customer will want that.”

The next hurdle for Aston is its bet on electrification, driven by its business in China. “We started out with the electric program working with a company called LeEco, and subsequently we decided to part with the company. They were the guys that were behind Faraday Future. It’s all rather gone tits up.” After this, he laughs and says his team will explain the English colloquialism. He says the partnership with LeEco was driven by a desire to align itself with China and the way it’s driving technology.

In order to stay competitive in the world’s most promising luxury car market, it’s a matter of constantly adjusting. At the moment, that means zeroing in on China, and bringing the RapidE to market. “What you're seeing in China is basically a leap being taken by the domestic Chinese manufacturers. It's going to influence the rest of the world,” he says. “If you’re a manufacturer that’s manufacturing in China, then you have to use a Chinese-sourced battery, so it’s a very protective market in a joint venture that has at least 50 percent owned by Chinese companies.”

It’s a constant shifting business proposition: making desirable classic British sports cars in the present and anticipating what those cars need to do to remain desirable in the future. Like anything well-made, the skill is in making the pursuit and performance of beauty appear effortless. The upcoming models, starting with the Vantage will test their progress. “There are people alive today that would in theory be able to remember the transition from the horse to the car and are now seeing a transition from the car to the pod,” Palmer marvels. “Isn't that quite incredible?”