As Aston Martin’s Chief Creative Officer Marek Reichman leads us along the glass corridor into the design studios at Gaydon, there’s a palpable feeling that Aston Martin is embarking on perhaps its most audacious adventure yet. In addition to the Vantage and DB model lines, plus the upcoming DBX, a new mid-engined bloodline is in development — and we’re about to see the first results. How did Aston Martin translate one of the most feted and admired design languages into an entirely new automotive realm?
First, a history lesson. In the world of automotive design, Giorgetto Giugiaro is the maestro — what his countryman Ennio Morricone is to the art of the film soundtrack, or Michelangelo was to elaborate ceilings. So forgive me for beginning with an observation Giugiaro made to me last year. We were talking about something to which he has made an incalculable contribution: beauty. Most car designers at work today would cite one of his creations among their inspirations. But as the list includes cars such as the Volkswagen Golf and Fiat Panda, Giugiaro’s approach is perhaps more pragmatic and less philosophical than you might think.
“Design cannot only be an emotion — it must also express the functionality,” he told me, pencil hovering over a sheet of clean, white paper. “From the aesthetic point of view, of course it needs to be as interesting as possible, but you have to deal with the functionality. I take a mathematical approach to form — it doesn’t deceive.” Giugiaro then extolled the virtues of a car that had at that point only just been unveiled. “The Aston Martin Valkyrie is the result of designers striving for something different,” he mused. “Nowadays, automotive designers are forced to invent something more extreme. It is about creating differentiation. Is the Valkyrie beautiful? In this context, yes.”
Reichman has a CV that positions him squarely as a latter-day Giugiaro. Admittedly, it’s vastly more difficult this deep into the 21st century to design a car that packs anything near the emotional wallop that Italy’s artisans managed 50 or 60 years ago. Don’t forget that Touring of Milan was substantially responsible for the form of Aston Martin’s DB4, 5 and 6 models, so those quintessential British sports cars actually wore Italian suits. Back then, however, no-one thought too much about crash safety or aerodynamics. Aside from the one-off Bulldog in 1980 — along with the Lagonda in the 1970s, an epic footnote in the company’s history — there’s never been a mid-engined Aston Martin. Now the Valkyrie hypercar is set to sire not one, but two all-new cars of that configuration.
So there’s Aston Martin Valkyrie and the wild variant Valkyrie AMR Pro. Now meet the yet-to-be-named AM-RB 003, which will run to 500 coupes only, with an all-carbon fibre chassis and a proposed cost of £1m. The other car we’re shown is the Vanquish Vision Concept, formed mainly from aluminium. Both cars will use an all-new V6 engine, hybridised in major and minor forms, in the now established supercar idiom, whose characteristics permit low-end torque-fill to enhance performance and driveability, as well as improving emissions and consumption. This engine is still under development and details have not been released.
Crucially, however, this engine will be Aston Martin’s first built in the UK since Tadek Marek’s V8 appeared in the late 1950s (some useful additional trivia: the last V8 to be made at the historic Newport Pagnell facility left the line in August 2000).
This visit is more of a design session, in the midst of preparations for the big Geneva unveil. It’s perhaps the 10th time I’ve been to this studio, the place in which Reichman, Director of Design Miles Nurnberger and the other members of the team have delivered their own version of shock and awe over the years. Watching the wraps come off a new car long before it’s shown in public is a fantastic buzz, but it’s a nerve-shredder, too. Today, though, is one I’ll never forget.
With Aston Martin’s CEO, Dr Andy Palmer, implementing a product plan that aims to secure the company, grow volumes and insulate it from the car business’s tricky cyclical nature, there’s scope here for unparalleled creativity.
Reichman is a no-nonsense man, but today he’s positively evangelical. First, he leads us to a mood-board. An image of David Bowie and Concorde relates to the continuing evolution of Lagonda (that’s another story — see page 32). Then we see sketches and CAD renderings of an unfamiliar-looking sports car. Honestly, it’s one of the most instantly fabulous-looking things I’ve ever seen. Its connection to the extraordinarily extreme Valkyrie is perceptible, but not overt. Remember Giugiaro’s comment about context; the Vanquish Vision Concept operates in a different one to the 1000bhp V12 hypercar, which has allowed something else to enter the equation. What’s the word? Oh yes, beauty. This thing is
“The Valkyrie is an insect. An ant doesn’t have any excess on it. It’s a beautiful thing when you examine it closely, but it’s insect-like,” Reichman says. “We’re in awe of what it can do. Now take the ant and add shape and volume to it. It doesn’t need 1800kg of downforce, it doesn’t have a naturally aspirated V12. You relax the ant, if you like — you relax the capability so you can get beauty into the form.”
The Valkyrie’s shape is defined as much by what isn’t there as what is; every surface is required to contribute to that monumental level of overall downforce. Its packaging is so extreme to allow the air to flow under and over it in a way that mimics the latest generation of LMP1 endurance racers, forging a contract with the forces of physics that means it can lap Silverstone with F1 pace while being road-legal. Aston Martin, working closely with the Red Bull Racing team and its aero wizard, Chief Technical Officer Adrian Newey, is actively charting the unknown here. Now these findings are being explored and exploited on the two new mid-engined cars. A second design studio has even been opened in Milton Keynes, close to the F1 guys to maximise the potential.
Design cannot only be an emotion - it must also express functionality
“We’ve learned about crash structure, packaging engines amidships, downforce, things we didn’t have in our company, from simply the best in the world,” Reichman continues. “It’s not been easy, but if it was everyone could do it.” He pauses for emphasis. “The fact is, it’s not been easy and that’s why that car [points to Valkyrie] performs the way it does. There is a direct bloodline, you can see it visually, but there’s an engineering story that sits below it, too. We’re not being excessive with the aero, we’re being efficient with it.”
We sit in a foam buck of AM-RB 003’s cockpit, a surprisingly sturdy construction complete with an adjustable steering wheel — shaped like the one in an F1 car —and evocations of front wings. Although there’s obviously no actual windscreen, we can still tell what the view ahead will be like on the real thing and it’s fantastic. If the Valkyrie is necessarily tricky to get in and out of (and asks the occupants to sit in a wildly recumbent position) the AM-RB 003 is spacious and comfortable while still utterly fit for purpose. Amazing what you can tell from a large piece of milled foam…
“We call those ‘Becker points’,” Reichman says of the visible front wings, “because he insists on those to help you in terms of positioning the car on the road. This will be an extremely high-performance car, but we want you to be able to park it at Waitrose, too.” As Chief Engineer, Matt Becker is Aston Martin’s chassis and vehicle integrity expert; few if any people in the business know how to make a mid-engined car ride and handle better than him.
Reichman then whips the silver cover off the Vanquish Vision Concept. Apertures and certain details will alter as the car nears production and, indeed, there are no door shut-lines on this mock-up, but it’s still an exquisite evocation of a 2020 super sports car. Its windscreen sits dramatically far forward and the area where the front wheel-arch abuts the door features a striking aero device. It should jar but it doesn’t. Then the eye continues its journey along and up over a sculpted rear end. Although its requirements are far less extreme than the Valkyrie’s, the Vanquish Vision Concept is still a masterclass in reconciling aerodynamics with aesthetics. Reichman talks me through the process and the challenges of taking customers — and brand fans — on a different journey.
For a mid-engined car, the shape is performance driven. It's about pure emotion - everything is there for a reason
“We worked hard on the break point between the windscreen and bonnet, so you can get much more of a single surface. The language of the face is Valkyrie reduced, but it comes from Aston Martin Vulcan and Vantage. Vulcan supplied the race heritage face, took you away from brogues and a Savile Row suit. Vantage picks up on that and questions the traditionalist view. But it’s still related to a sports car, it’s the model we take WEC racing, the one we’ll win with at Le Mans hopefully,” says Reichman. “And now we’re evolving that thinking into the mid-engined cars. Your mind fills in the blank at the bottom of the front section because you recognise the upwards inflexion. Every 14-year old will recognise that now as the face of Aston Martin.”
The man helping shape these forms is new Chief Exterior Designer Tobias Suehlmann, currently unwrapping new bits of kit and allocating desks at the shiny new Milton Keynes Studio that he oversees. The 40-year old German designer studied at Pforzheim University and has spent almost his entire career to date within the Volkswagen Group, culminating with a stint with its flagship brand, Bugatti. At Aston Martin, he has effectively been handed the keys to a brand-new space and tasked with overseeing the exterior forms of AM-RB 003 and Vanquish Vision Concept. “Good design and emotion always go together,” he explains. “For a mid-engined car, the shape is performance driven. It’s about pure emotion — everything is there for a reason. There are no decorations. Good design doesn’t need that styling. Every line is always important.”
Suehlmann’s most important job is to distil the essence of Valkyrie, translating a hypercar into a supercar. “This is a family of mid-engined cars — the Valkyrie will always be our halo car,” he explains. “The Vanquish Vision Concept is the son of Valkyrie, while AM-RB 003 sits right in the middle.” Given Aston Martin’s established design language of muscularly beautiful GT proportions, Suehlmann describes it as a “big challenge” to translate this to a new layout. “Our task was to shape a mid-engine car in the Aston Martin way — beauty and performance go together,” he says. “You have open surfaces where you need to get air in, for example, but you also still have the shaped bonnet lines that surround our grille, as well as an evolution of the side strake.”
Back at Gaydon, Reichman ensures every aspect of his vision is realised. “I have to be relatively autocratic,” he admits, “but Miles is a check on that. We don’t follow the world’s design theory, we’re creating our own. And within that I want to be my own biggest critic. I’m driving a Vantage at the moment and I love it. OK, people question whether it should have a traditional Aston Martin grille. No! That’s what the DB11 is there for. Buy one of those instead.”
The move to mid-engine is a new phase and as such it’s bound to cause controversy. Because Aston Martin matters so much to so many people, that’s just part of the deal. Reichman has seen it all before and put in the hard yards. With the DBX SUV due later this year, the Valkyrie taking the very concept of high performance to epic new levels and these two mid-engined cars expanding the science that’s enabled that quantum leap, Reichman and his team have been left to draft the desire. “An Aston Martin shouldn’t be contrived, it should just be… wow,” he enthuses. “When you step into the car, you know it’s going to perform as it looks. That’s what Aston Martin stands for: confidence.” More than ever, that’s unarguable.