Advancing technology the Aston Martin and Prodrive way

  • 13-Jan-2010 10:01 EST
Richards, David AM One-77_01.jpg

Under test in late 2009: Aston Martin's high-technology One-77. Only 77 will be produced.

As Chairman of Aston Martin and Chairman and CEO of Prodrive, David Richards occupies a special position within the European motor industry. He has a deep understanding of the commercial and technological benefits that Motorsport can bring to the broader automotive world and is convinced that it will continue to do so.

A former rally co-driver, he is also convinced that emerging manufacturers will exploit the opportunities it offers.

“We are now seeing those companies in Korea and China," he observed. "They will need to differentiate themselves from other commodity products in the marketplace, and one of the few assets they could have would be the use of Motorsport.

"I believe that a Chinese manufacturer will want to do something serious in Motorsport in the next few years," he said, "because apart from those companies operating on a truly vast scale, the only way money will be made from car manufacture in future will be through brand differentiation.”

Richards said the changes that effectively transformed GM and Ford into smaller operations demonstrated this.

“To achieve real margins now requires the creation of a brand that is desired and coveted by people, and I believe that Motorsport will have a valid role to play in the minds of the buying public,” he said.

Subaru had a relatively low public profile until, in partnership with Motorsport and technology specialist and consultancy Prodrive, its cars demonstrated their capability and dominance of world rallying, with six World Rally Championships (WRC) to its credit.

Prodrive has also won five British Touring Car titles with BMW, Alfa Romeo, and Ford and class wins at Le Mans with Ferrari and Aston Martin.

Although Aston Martin is involved in sports car racing, it is Formula One that is in the vanguard of public awareness. But with memories of Jaguar’s costly and hugely disappointing foray into F1 still vivid, Richards takes a cautious and pragmatic view of any Aston Martin involvement.

"I do not rule out the possibility of an Aston Martin F1 team, but I do not think the company is ready to establish one in the immediate future," he opined. "In three to five years, though, it could be quite feasible, but we need to be very convinced before we would embark on that route." He noted that while F1 has not been part of Aston Martin's heritage, sports car racing has been and is.”

Product development and manufacturing at Aston

With the arrival this year of the four-door Aston Martin Rapide, plans to introduce the Cygnet city car based on the Toyota IQ, and the medium-to-long-term possibility of a follow-up to the technologically exotic One-77 (only 77 will be built, and 50 of those have been sold), the company is going to be busy.

However, the possibility of advancing the Mercedes-Benz GL-based Lagonda crossover concept seen at last year’s Geneva Motor Show has been placed on the back burner. The project is not deemed right for the current economic environment, although Richards said the company aims to revisit it.

Production of the Rapide, though, has started at Magna Steyr’s Graz, Austria, plant. Although Aston’s potential production capacity is 8000-9000 units per annum, sales in 2009 dropped to 4000 units as the financial crisis deepened.

The decision to outsource the Rapide's assembly to Magna was taken in 2007 (about the time Ford relinquished ownership) when sales were moving upward and production flexibility was needed to ensure that future orders could be met. Also, Aston would have had to compromise the other production lines at Gaydon to accommodate the program.

When the recession hit, it was too late to change to U.K. production and the Magna partnership went ahead, although Aston did consider extending its Gaydon factory or finding an alternative facility in the U.K., confirmed Richards.

“But getting the Rapide to market quickly was essential and we have an exceptional partner in Magna," he noted. "I have no doubts that quality standards will be equal to those at Gaydon.”

With regard to future powertrains, Richards said there would definitely not be a diesel Aston Martin (although the company’s race team would like one to combat Audi and Peugeot diesel sports racing cars). However, there will be a continuing move toward smaller capacity, turbocharged gasoline engines.

As for Prodrive, the company plans to return to the WRC in 2011 but has yet to announce the manufacturer with which it will be teamed.

Some of Prodrive’s technology developed for use in the Subaru WRC cars has now cascaded into emerging markets. Already with established engineering operations in China and Australia as well as the U.K., Prodrive has a presence in India. It recently formed a partnership there with Opti Engineering, a company that provides a range of engineering capabilities including mechanical and electronic design, analysis, and supply chain expertise.

Prodrive executives acknowledge that Indian vehicle manufacturers want to own their own IP (intellectual property) that underpins the salient technologies in their vehicle systems.

The company is working with other Indian manufacturers, and its AMT (Automated Manual Transmission) — originally developed for use in Subaru Impreza rally cars — has recently been applied to various vehicle types, ranging from scooters to trucks.

The AMT improves driveability and fuel economy at minimal additional cost, said Prodrive Managing Director Tony Butcher.

“We help our clients through the challenges of applying unfamiliar technology," Butcher said. "They gain technical independence and the insight to adapt each technology to their specific market requirements.”

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