Keeping the past alive is difficult enough; making it relevant to the future is seriously pushing the boundaries. But that is exactly what is being achieved at the Aston Martin Works and Heritage site at Newport Pagnell. The site may not be the birthplace of Aston Martin, but many consider it the company’s spiritual home, where, for over 63 years, thousands of great Aston Martin and Lagonda cars were built.
Today, the site is as important as ever, with the intricate, hand-building skills of the past kept alive and relevant, breathing new life into the cars themselves — and, in some cases, bringing them back from the dead.
Classic cars are big business, especially for a brand with the history of Aston Martin Lagonda. Owners are willing to pay millions for the right cars, which makes Newport Pagnell a flourishing asset for the company. At auction, a sale of the legendary 1961 Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato “2 VEV” in July this year saw the car reach £10.1m — a record for a British car sold at a European auction.
This particular record-breaker has been rebuilt three times. A full restoration of a classic Aston Martin can cost up to £500,000 and take between 24 and 30 painstaking months to strip down to the bare metal and then rebuild and refurbish every component from scratch.
The finished cars may be the jewels of Newport Pagnell, but it is the skilled craftsmen and women who are its beating heart, artisans who wield their tools and machinery with the delicacy of a surgeon with scalpel in hand. The workforce is a fascinating mix of ages — some with over 30 years of experience working alongside young people who are just beginning their careers.
It is something of a global magnet for talent, which is how 30-year-old Australian Dan Kostakakis found himself a member of the Aston Martin family. It’s a long way from Melbourne to Newport Pagnell and he certainly had no idea Aston Martin would be a key part of his life as a teenager, admitting that he knew very little about the company. His real fascination from an early age was with metal, fuelled by an arc welder bought for him by an uncle at the age of 10.
Kostakakis first used the welder to repair a broken frame on his BMX bike, then at just 12 years old, his parents bought him an old Mini to work on, and his passion for working with metal and cars began. He became an apprentice auto body repairer at the age of 17, working in a local hot rod shop, where his first job was building a grille surround for a 1923 Austin 18. As he recalls: “I knew then that working with metal was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I used to work from 7.30am and stay in the shop until 10.30 at night.”
He progressed quickly and gained his first experience of business when he went into partnership with a local panel repair shop. However, his crucial breakthrough came at the age of 23, when he reached the finals of the WorldSkills Australia Autobody Repair competition, a biannual initiative that brings 4,000 entrants together to demonstrate their abilities. As a result, Kostakakis was offered a four-week scholarship with Aston Martin, working on the fabrication of parts, followed by a week’s trial at Newport Pagnell. They liked what they saw and so began his new career.
Now an integral member of the Panel Shop team, Kostakakis epitomises the passion and dedication of Aston Martin’s workforce. He has a real love of the craft he has acquired, but is keen to stress that he is still learning. “The Panel Shop is like a classroom where you constantly add to your skills,” he says. “There are some incredible craftsmen working here to learn from. And, of course, you are working on beautiful cars.”
The tools of his trade include the English Wheel, the simple low-tech device that moulds and shapes aluminium panels into the sculptured lines of an Aston Martin body. “When I first saw one I just fell in love with it,” he recalls. “It is a machine that can help you create whatever you want — an amazing piece of kit.”
I knew that working with metal was what I was going to do for the rest of my life
From a flat piece of thin aluminium, the wheeling machine consists of two wheels mounted at the pinch point of a large metal frame. The metal is inserted between the flat upper rolling wheel and the domed bottom anvil wheel, and manipulated by hand to bend and curve it, making it thinner and more rigid as the form takes shape. It is a hugely skilled process, with all references back to the original template or master form done by eye, introducing myriad subtle variations between the forms.
Artisans such as Kostakakis also make many of their own tools to solve problems that arise when they are restoring cars. In addition, he has over 30 different hammers in his tool kit, which resembles a large doctor’s bag. “The hammer is a precision tool, from the weight to its feel,” says Dan. “It is a delicate instrument that is like an extension of your body when you use it. With experience, sight and touch become very sensitive — it’s not just about a visual sense, it’s about feeling it, too. Sometimes you can feel what’s needed even when you can’t see it.”
Kostakakis is clearly immersed in his trade and finds Newport Pagnell an inspiring place to work. “There is a definite aura about this place — you can feel the history and the great cars that have been built here. You also see things from start to finish,” he adds. “ I like how authentic everything is and hand built, and the lack of technology. Things are raw, the work is not easy, but ultimately it is very special knowing that the car you have helped to make is going to an owner who will be as emotional and passionate about it as we are, someone who will enjoy driving it.”
Craftsmen like Kostakakis are keeping traditional processes alive and relevant. His colleagues include 55-year old Senior Trim Shop engineer Chris Brewer, a man with over 30 years of service at Newport Pagnell. Brewer shares the same enthusiasm and dedication for his craft. He began his career as a coach trimmer with British Rail, where he worked on the Royal Train, before moving to Aston Martin. “Newport Pagnell is where you can showcase your skills,” he says. “I love the variety — no two cars are the same, which means every day is a different challenge.”
After three decades, Brewer has also had the pleasure of working on the same car that he originally helped build. “It is a strange feeling when see your initials on the leather trim of an Aston that you trimmed 16 years earlier and you are re-trimming your own work.”
The attention to detail hasn’t changed — it can take 40 hours to complete two front seats for an Aston Martin. “Everything has to be perfect on a restoration project; everything has to be authentic,” he says. “Our customers want perfection.”
Newport Pagnell inspires commitment. Dominic Bridger, Manager of Heritage Restorations and Provenance, joined the company earlier this year, but he has already seen enough to know that he has found a “job for life”, he says.
Simon Bench, meanwhile, is the Marketing Manager at Aston Martin Heritage and Works. He believes that the site is an integral part of the company’s future. “At Newport Pagnell, we make it clear where Aston Martin came from,” he explains. “The place has charm, character and a real aura about it. Inside the workshops, there are sounds and smells from a different era and it is like going back in time. Our customers love coming here.”
Gaydon may be the bustling high-tech modern face of Aston Martin, but Newport Pagnell continues to shape its soul and character, underpinning the unique authenticity of the brand. “We are re-creating and re-engineering the past to make it viable today,” says Bench. “We are also using original drawings and building everything from scratch. And we are doing it on the same site where the cars were originally built. Heritage is seen by some as a thing of the past, but here it is very much an integral part of our future. The cars are coming home.”