How English is an Aston Martin if it's built in Austria?
Think of the quintessential American sports car and chances are you'll come up with either the Ford Mustang or the Chevrolet Corvette. Unapologetically powerful and politically incorrect, they are the very embodiment of the American dream for most young men in that part of the world. But would it be the same if they were built in Europe? Wouldn't they lose their essential American identity?
Does it really matter where a car is built in the 21st century? After all, the days when vehicles were hand crafted from sheet metal are long gone and now it's a case of piecing together components supplied, in the main, by other companies. So, in theory at least, Corvettes and Mustangs could be built in Paris, Oslo or Kuwait and nobody would spot the difference. It's a fact that a number of companies have their cars built, not only in other countries, but in factories that are not their own. Mercedes, Chrysler, Porsche - they all outsource some of their production, and now Aston Martin has joined the list by having its new four-door sports car, the Rapide, built by a facility in Austria known as Magna Steyr.
An Aston not built in Britain isn't an Aston, surely? There is only one way to find out and that's by seeing for ourselves exactly what the set-up is and whether it has an effect on its very Britishness. Aston Martin, like many manufacturers, enjoyed rapid, massive growth before the grip of global recession turned everything on its head. Its old factory at Newport Pagnell, where cars were lovingly created by hand from raw materials, has given way to a hi-tech plant at Gaydon in Warwickshire, and this enabled production of DB9, DBS, V8 and V12 Vantage models. But there's only so much capacity there and building the Rapide was simply impossible given the restrictions regarding space and painting facilities. So the company needed to outsource and, thanks to its cast iron reputation for quality, Magna Steyr was chosen to build what could turn out to be the most important model ever to wear an Aston Martin badge.
As it stands, Magna Steyr already builds Chrysler 300Cs, Mercedes G-Wagens, and the bodies for the new SLS supercar. Porsche was supposed to have their Boxsters and Caymans built there starting in 2012, but it pulled out of the deal after Volkswagen became the major shareholder. Arriving at the factory gates in the pretty city of Graz, everything looks a bit grey, bleak and, well, industrial. It's a nondescript, utilitarian series of buildings without the merest hint of glamour. That's until we catch site of the Aston Martin area. What we have here is modern sophistication. A previously scruffy part of Magna's facility has been covered in very clever cladding material that lifts it to give an instantly familiar look and feel to anyone that's ever visited the Aston factory in the UK. Carefully tended areas of grass and beautifully laid out landscaping make it stand out from the rest. How very Aston Martin.
This is important as it's where customers will come to spec their Rapides and they'll feel right at home here. "Right from the outset we viewed this as simply an extension of our UK facility," says Nick Miller, who is overseeing the entire operation. "It might be a thousand miles from home but it was vital for everything to tie in with our strong corporate image." Leaving behind the polished terrazzo tiled floor and walls of the beautiful showroom where there's a Rapide on display, it's straight through to the factory and, instantly, there's a strong sense of déjà vu. I've toured the UK factory and this is, at first glance, simply a carbon copy of the production line there.
It's been a massive investment, this, but it's one shared between Aston and Magna Steyr. Although it's no secret that none of this would have been possible without the deep pockets of the Investment Dar, Aston's Kuwaiti shareholders. The relationship with Magna Steyr is already paying dividends with both companies sharing their very particular ways of doing things, resulting in advancements to the build process that would otherwise have gone undiscovered.
Aston Martin's cars are perfect marriages between tradition and technology. While craftsmen and women hand stitch the sumptuous leather that forms its interior, space age aerospace techniques are used to bond together the car's structure. There's a hushed tone to the place with staff in Aston uniforms lovingly piecing together each section in a harmonious 45-minute production cycle. Approximately 2,000 Rapides will roll out of here each year and customers are queuing up - hardly surprising when you catch sight of one. It is, without doubt, the most beautiful four-door car on the planet and a test drive in an almost production ready example on the mountainous roads surrounding Graz confirms it's a sports car in the truest, purest sense.
One question nags away in my head as I leave, however: Why, if the company has nothing to be ashamed of, will every Rapide bear a final inspection plate in front of the engine with the inscription "Hand Built by Aston Martin" instead of "Hand Built in Austria"? Every other model tells you it's "Hand Built in England". With this little detail, Aston Martin will inadvertently propagate the myth that it really does matter where a car is pieced together, and that's a real shame. firstname.lastname@example.org
Published: December 26, 2009 04:00 AM