The day-to-day business of running Aston Martin dictates that Andy Palmer spends more time at his desk, in meetings or travelling than he does behind the wheel of an Aston Martin.
Yet Andy made an early decision that a crucial part of his schedule would include regular drives in Aston Martin’s prototypes and newest models, as well as the occasional race. “The great thing about driving is that it clears your mind. It’s like flying, you go into a zone; it’s an almost Jedi-like ‘Feel the force’ experience — you become one with the car,” he says enthusiastically, “I also love the fact that you are off-line, whether you are evaluating road cars or racing, you just concentrate on driving and that’s it.”
Andy particularly enjoys the 40-minute drive to work when he often takes the opportunity to evaluate the company’s latest models: “I just love driving. It’s my ‘man cave’ — a retreat I can go to.”
The Aston Martin CEO has been evaluating cars since he was 18, when he carried out brake testing as part of his job as an apprentice. He has held a Proving Ground Licence at the highest level for more than 10 years. But five years ago he decided it was time to mix business with pleasure and he obtained his racing licence. This was a perfect fit for his subsequent role at Aston Martin. “I needed to up my driving game,” he says.
Andy is clearly at his happiest when he is behind the wheel of an Aston Martin, or in the company of his engineers, designers and technicians discussing the details of the latest models. His interest in engineering goes way back to when he was a young teenager, when his father gave him an old A Series engine to rebuild. From that point on, he was hooked on cars and what makes them tick. “I rebuilt that engine on numerous occasions until I understood everything about it. You need to know what you are doing and have an understanding, both theoretically and practically, to gain a sympathy with mechanical things.” Andy quickly progressed from the mechanics of a car to actually driving; his first experience behind the wheel was driving a friend’s Morris Minor in a field a few years later. This was quickly followed by his first drive on tarmac when he took his father’s Alfasud on an airfield runway, where he was given a lesson on power shifting.
Andy’s first purchase was a moped, a Yamaha RD50, but he made the transition to four wheels when he passed his test first time and bought his mother’s old Mk 1 VW Polo He smiles when he admits he had his first accident in the Polo: “I was driving in a country lane in thick snow, practising handbrake turns, when I spun around and into a snow drift.”
He has come a long way since those early days and running Aston Martin is clearly an all-consuming passion. He says that 2016 was a year of extremely positive results with the arrival of the new DB11, the end of the first chapter of the company’s business turnaround and restructuring phase of the Second Century plan. Andy has also been encouraged by the success of the “special edition” models and particularly the fact that they have all sold out, often before they have even officially been announced.
"Customers know that these models will always be rare, you won’t see another on the road, they have a genuine exclusivity. We don’t cheat on numbers, we keep them small and we don’t increase the allocation, even though we have waiting lists." Andy says the only problem is choosing the customers who will receive the special editions, even though he has created a bespoke pre-selection algorithm to whittle down the list of prospective customers, citing the example of the AM-RB 001 hypercar as how tough this conundrum can be, with over 600 expressions of interest for only 150 cars. “Choosing the special edition customers is one of the toughest tasks we have and one I take very seriously,” he says.
Another big change for the company in 2016 is the growing number of plaudits for the quality of the marque’s management team. “It’s extremely important because every good car company is about a great management team.” He points to the arrivals of senior executives from Ferrari and Lotus as further evidence of the growing allure of Aston Martin.
Andy Palmer sees 2017 as “turning the page on the company’s uncertain past” and a year that will showcase Aston Martin as a “confident company with a long-term future”. That future includes the initial development work at Aston Martin’s second manufacturing facility at St Athan in Wales, where the company’s first ever SUV will be built. The factory and the car are further evidence of the diversification of Aston Martin into a more balanced and stabilised company, which will enable it to cope with unpredictable economic ups and down.
“If you rely solely on making sports cars, you are also susceptible to the cyclical nature of your model range,” he says. “By having an SUV we will be joining the fastest growing sector in the automotive world.” Andy reminds me that the company also has “very significant plans” to continue its resurrection of the Lagonda brand, as well as the arrival in 2018 of its first electric car, the RapidE.
It is not only Aston Martin’s new cars that point to a bright future: the recent collaborations between the company and partners in the world of powerboats and property illustrate the growing global appeal of the brand. However Andy is keen to reassure customers that any partnership has to be authentic.“We will not be slapping our badge on just any product and we will always have creative control. These projects will demonstrate that, as well as being a maker of beautiful cars, Aston Martin is a marque of things of beauty and can transcend the normal product divide.”
One thing is certain: Aston Martin has a very bright future.