The first time Lionel Martin saw a moving car, probably around 1900 as he cycled home in England from university, it ran him off the road.
“I saw the monster approaching and I threw myself and ‘iron’ into the nearest ditch, counting myself lucky to escape with my life,” he recalled many years later.
He was hooked. He bought himself a motorcycle, then a succession of cars that he raced and worked on with his friend Robert Bamford, a talented engineer. The two of them founded a London auto dealership, Bamford & Martin Ltd., and decided to build their own car.
When Martin won the 1914 hill climb at Aston Clinton in Buckinghamshire driving a Singer, they named their new car “Aston Martin” and the legendary British marque was born.
The partnership was short-lived, however, since both men signed up to fight in the First World War and Bamford did not want to return to the business after the war. The company built a handful of cars and competed successfully in European races before it ran out of money and was sold to a group of investors in 1926.
In the 100 years of Aston Martin’s existence, there have been two constants: racing, and a lack of money. It’s the same even now.
This Saturday morning, March 16, there’ll be two upgraded Aston Martin Vantage GTEs on the grid at Sebring for the season opener of the American Le Mans Series. Next month, there’ll be four Astons at the opener of the World Endurance Championship at Silverstone in the U.K., with a fifth car promised for the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans in June.
The company calls this its most ambitious motorsport program ever. Much of it is thanks to selling 37.5 per cent of its stock last December to an Italian private equity fund, which came with a promise of a billion dollars in much-needed new investment.
Aston Martin may be a quintessentially British brand, based in the U.K. and representative to almost everyone of suave James Bond style, but it’s now majority-owned by a Kuwaiti investment fund. Its struggle for money has been an undercurrent to most of its 100 years.
The initial investment that bought out Lionel Martin was used to develop race cars with some success, including a podium sweep at Le Mans in 1933, but the company kept failing, only to be saved each time by consortiums of investors, both British and foreign.
Martin lived to see the cars win at racing and struggle in the showroom, but died in 1945 before its next chapter of success. He was killed while out cycling in a collision with a car.
After the Second World War, British industrialist billionaire David Brown, who had made his money making tractors, bought into Aston and finally invested enough to develop some groundbreaking cars, all of them expensive and bearing his “DB” initials in their model names.
Easily the most famous is the 1964 DB5 that James Bond drove in the movie Goldfinger — the one with the ejector seat and machine guns. It’s considered to be the first deliberate product placement in moviemaking, though the concept was unknown at the time and the producers had to pay for the two cars used for filming. They were given a good deal, but Aston just couldn’t afford to supply them for free.
The James Bond relationship stuck and despite attempts by BMW to break into the franchise, the Aston Martin and 007 brands are inextricably linked. The silver DB5 was just reprised — and destroyed — in last year’s Bond movie, .
However, after Brown sold the company in 1972, the brand’s popular image couldn’t make up for a succession of poor-quality cars over the next 15 years. Aston’s ownership changed several more times as it struggled with a lack of investment capital until 1987, when Ford bought in and provided the capital needed to introduce the successful Virage, and then in 1993, the even more successful DB7.
Ford sold Aston Martin in 2007 when it needed the money to fight off bankruptcy, but its investment had developed the gorgeous DB9 and DBS and renewed faith in the company. The Aston range now has a reputation for power, reliability and — of course — British style.
“I get all the James Bond comments from my friends,” says Yelian Garcia, a Toronto doctor who took delivery of his first Aston Martin last month: a $180,000, 2013 Vantage Centenary Edition. “I love the brand, I love the exclusivity. I love the name and what it represents.”
He says he was thinking of buying a custom-built Porsche, but decided against it when he looked out the window of his gym and saw three 911s in the parking lot.
“The last thing I want, after everything I’ve done, is for people to look at me and say, ‘there goes another douchebag in a 911,’ ” he says.
The new Italian promise of investment, and the potential for racing success in its centenary year, bodes well for Aston Martin. However the Vantage GTEs perform today, it will be the start of a new chapter for the storied company.
Me and Aston
Perhaps the reason I love Aston Martins so much is because I’ve never really driven one. I’m not sure I want to, either — the love affair might end.
It was Easter Monday 10 years ago that I drove an Aston Martin Vanquish. The $360,000 car was the grand prize in the Princess Margaret Hospital lottery, and three of us squeezed into it for a quick pose around town.
Wheels correspondent Nika Rolczewski was writing the story, photographer Dave Cooper was taking the pictures and I talked my way along for the ride. Which meant I had to sit in the back of the 2+2, my head crammed against the booming Linn speaker. It was beautiful, but it was not comfortable.
Once the photos were taken and we dropped Dave off at the subway, I convinced Nika that I should drive the Aston back to its home. Somewhere on Avenue Rd., with the 450 hp 6.0L engine roaring from all 12 of its cylinders, we passed a parked police cruiser. The cop was up a nearby tree, rescuing a cat. He was so surprised by the noise of the Vanquish that I watched him in the mirror tumble from the branches.
The following January, Aston’s new DB9 was introduced at the 2004 Detroit Auto Show. Somewhere in the archives of the Star, there’s a photo of me hugging Aston Martin chairman Dr. Ulrich Bez in gratitude for its beauty.
It was another seven years before I sat behind the wheel of another Aston, this time a $200,000 Vantage S convertible. Absolutely gorgeous. But it was for a stunt to promote the upcoming Yorkville Run in which I was “racing” an Olympic marathon runner in city traffic.
He trounced us up Bay Street without breaking a sweat. I handed back the keys 11 minutes later without ever exceeding 40 km/h.
That’s not how an Aston Martin should be driven. It should roar and rage and race. And then it should be parked and polished, and appreciated for the work of art it is. It’s not just a car, you know.
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