Aston’s new hot shot in the hot seat
UK Motoring Editor Andrew English asks if Aston Martin's new boss has got what it takes
Aston Martin’s new boss, Andy Palmer, hasn’t let the grass grow before embossing his personal style on the 102-year-old carmaker. His spin doctors have placed interviews and thrown informal dinners where this former Nissan executive has aired his thoughts.
Then, at this month’s Geneva motor show, Palmer introduced three new concepts, the last, an electric-powered DBX crossover, a complete surprise to the world’s media.
Over a cuppa and endearingly old-school custard creams, Palmer enquires after the DBX unveiling: “We discussed doing this for months. It’s nice to get some surprise back into the motor shows.”
And how has his experience been so far, compared with running a big car company such as Nissan? Again his reply is telling.
“I don’t know,” he says, “because I never ran a big company, although in some respects a car is a car is a car; you find the same language and the same acronyms crop up, although clearly the scale is very different.”
Palmer joined the industry as an apprentice at Automotive Products, followed by a stint with Austin Rover and then 23 years with Nissan.
He was part of the team of Brits who turned Nissan’s Sunderland operation into one of the most world’s most efficient car factories. He rose up the ranks after Nissan was rescued by Carlos Ghosn and partnered with Renault.
Palmer is part of a slew of scarily gifted managers who have been let go by Ghosn recently, Palmer after being told he wouldn’t get the top job at Nissan.
“I’d got myself into a position where I could get up in the morning and convince myself I was running [Nissan luxury brand] Infiniti,” he says, “and that it was my passion, but that was completely disrupted when the [Aston Martin] shareholders came along and said, ‘How do you fancy running a real car company?’
“There are only a few real CEOs of real car companies out there, which aren’t offshoots of something else,” he says, “and Aston Martin is just five miles from where I went to school. I’m 50 years old and hopefully have 15 years in front of me and an opportunity to try to keep this company independent and turn it into something the UK doesn’t have — an independent car company.”
Palmer’s track record stands him in good stead. With his schoolboy enthusiasm for the job, he’s already done good things: negotiated a recovery plan outlined in Geneva involving two new model lines and secured an additional US$1.5 million ($2 million) investment on top of the US$500,000 already in place.
What about the DBX SUV. Except it isn’t.
“The DBX is not an SUV,” says Palmer. “It’s an expression of a GT sports car; a DB crossing over into that useable space.”
Hum. SUV or crossover, it’s a sector soon to be joined by Jaguar, Maserati, Rolls-Royce and Bentley. Whether it’s a new generation redefining sports luxury or more women in the market, the market for luxury SUV/crossovers is burgeoning.
As one industry expert put it: “If you’re not in it, you’re standing at the front door throwing £50 notes at the competition.”
But what exactly is an Aston Martin?
“We’re not about the ultimate in acceleration, or speed,” Palmer says. “We are about sophistication, beauty and when you’ve grown up (and that can be at the age of 19 or 70 years) and you appreciate fine wine and fine food and fine craftsmanship, that’s when you are ready for an Aston Martin ... ”
The motor industry is full of jargon. “Headwinds” are another company’s “challenging environment”, but Palmer faces the lot: money, feisty shareholders, rebuilding and expanding the range and environmental legislation.
He is adamant that he wants to keep the current 6-litre V12 engine in the range and asserts that “I think I have enough experience to put together an electrical car”, referring to the DBX’s electric driveline.
But with environmental pressures pushing even Ferrari to adopt smaller turbo engines, the engine supply relationship between Aston and Mercedes is only going to become more dependent, isn’t it?
No, says Palmer, saying the co-operation at present is only for a V8 engine and the electronic architecture.
He points to the sharing of engines and components by Rolls-Royce with its owner BMW and the similar situation at Bentley and VW.
“Does the customer really care about the software protocol that’s flashing around the CAN Bus? Does the customer even know what the CAN bus is?” he says. “The rest of it is pure Aston Martin and nobody makes sports like us.”
CAN Bus is a system to connect individual systems and sensors as a more compact, lighter and less complicated alternative to conventional multi-wire looms.
For the moment, Mercedes-Benz is in accord. At Geneva, its CEO Dieter Zetsche asserted there was no takeover plan.
“A small, 4000 to 5000 unit operation being taken over by a big gorilla like us?” he said. “We’d flatten it. No, the situation is currently perfect.”