In the past few years, Aston Martin has launched or unveiled massively capable track weapons like the Valkyrie and Valhalla that create sporting credibility for the rest of the lineup—not to mention the Mercedes-AMG-powered Vantage and the manual transmission Vantage AMR. Much of the credit for this renaissance can be attributed to Andy Palmer taking over as CEO in 2014. Palmer has led the charge toward a new, more diverse generation of Aston Martin vehicles (ahem, Lagonda electric SUVs, anyone?), exploring new territory away from the grand touring segment in which Aston Martin had taken up residence.
We had a chance to chat with Palmer one on one at Aston Martin Beverly Hills, and took the opportunity to ask him about Valhalla, Nürburgring lap times, and what’s next for the automotive industry. Yes, he choked on a cookie during the interview, but luckily we didn’t have to put our Heimlich training to the test.
Let’s talk about the future of Aston Martin. You guys have some very exciting plans coming up. Is the hope still to match Ferrari and Lamborghini? To exist in that space?
AP: No, if I had a piece of paper, I’d draw it for you, but—
[I hand Dr. Palmer my notebook and a pen]
Oh, OK. So if you draw, this [horizontal] line would be versatile and focused, and this [vertical line] would be emotional and rational.
We traditionally played more or less here [high emotion, leaning toward versatile, less focused; GT cars], which is your Vantage, your DB9, and your Vanquish. The problem we had was they were clustered and they were all cannibalizing each other. It was really hard. You saw a Vantage and say, “Is that a DB9, or is that a Vantage, or is it a Vanquish?” And, clearly, your 52-year-old was buying the Vantage, your 54-year-old was buying your DB9 and your 56-year-old … they were cannibalizing each other. So, what I said was, “Look, that’s clearly an Aston. Let’s just do that with DB11.” So, DB11 with a V-8, a V-12, an AMR, and a Volante. That could fill that space and let’s just do that really, really well. Which means then let’s just use the rest of the portfolio to go and play elsewhere.
Go play with Porsche, too?
AP: The 911 is there [focused and rational] somewhere. So, OK, Vantage has got to go after 911s so to do that, again you’ve got the coupe, the Volante, the roadsters … [Palmer briefly chokes on a cookie bite but quickly is back on track] … but also, things like the manual transmission. So you try to push it to extremes. It becomes a much more focused car, it’s in an area we haven’t traditionally been. [The new Vantage] is the hardest car we’ve ever done because it’s got to be as good as a 911, and a 911 is awesome.
There’s [also] a segment up here [high emotion, split between versatility and focus], which is the super GT class, the Ferrari 812. So very clearly that segment is Ferrari and we’ve pushed the DBS into that space. So, 715 horsepower is less than the 812, but it’s 900 newton-meters of torque [664 lb-ft] which is more than the Ferrari. But then we look to where else, there’s a huge market, a potential market over here [highly versatile, range of rational and emotional]. This is your SUV market.
So that’s DBX.
AP: That’s DBX. You’ve got [Lamborghini] Urus, which is quite emotional, not very versatile. You’ve got [Bentley] Bentayga, which is quite versatile, but rational, a bit boring. What we’re looking for is an Aston Martin that is reasonably versatile but very emotional.
Can you tell us anything about the powertrain on that car yet?
AP: Not yet. Short answer, isn’t it? So that’s the first time we’ve done an SUV. Where else? Very clearly there’s bunch over here [highly focused, highly emotional], which is Lamborghini, Ferrari, McLaren. That’s where we put our mid-engine car.
AP: Well, Valhalla is here [top-right corner, highly versatile, highly focused]. Because there’s nothing else like it. You’re creating the credibility for that with 001. You know, with the Valkyrie.
Because you’ve got two more segments left, that’s basically Rolls-Royce and Bentley, and that’s where Lagonda goes. So that’s your Lagonda SUV, that’s your Lagonda sedan. And what you’ve done there is you’ve covered about 70 percent of every customer.
The ones that are left are your specials that you do two a year. So we compete with Ferrari, Rolls, and Bentley, Porsche. We admire Ferrari; it’s the closest company you can use as a comparator especially if you are in a particular stock market. But Ferrari isn’t going to make a three-box sedan any time soon. In that sense, who does the best three-box saloons? It’s a Rolls. Who does the best SUVs? Well, it’s probably Porsche, but Bentayga in this case. Who does the best sports car? It’s probably a Porsche.
What you’ve got now is a very robust portfolio, which is capable of withstanding recessions and global conflicts and the rest of it, and that’s what I’m trying to build to.
Let’s talk Valkyrie. I’ve heard rumors of a Nürburgring lap.
AP: What I actually said to the journalist was, “We actually don’t need to do a Nürburgring per se.” The car is so quick that I don’t need a specially prepared, refined, race-going version to get the fastest lap. If I take a box-standard car—say I’m one of the customers of Valkyrie, right?—I could take my car or, not me, because I’m not a good enough driver, but I could put an awesome F1 driver in my car and they would have a fabulous lap.
Does it matter to the company? Not really, because it’s not what we are trying to say. In somewhere like China it’s a kind of useful message. We’ll probably end up doing a lap, but what I think makes it really interesting is it probably wouldn’t be a specially prepared car. It would be my car or a development car on standard tires, standard tire pressures, straight off the line, no preparation. I think what makes it compelling is then, of course, you get a great time. Everyone goes, “Whoo-hoo,” but it’s more impressive because it hasn’t taken three months of a race engineer preparing it.
Right. Well, I know with the Lamborghini SVJ, the current record holder, that very few non-Lamborghini drivers have been able to produce similar performance.
AP: Yeah, you know, I did the GT-R Nismo around the Nürburgring. I think 7:09 was the time.
You drove the 7:09?
AP: I didn’t. I drove 7:20.
That’s still a properly quick lap.
AP: I’ve got a picture of it with the clock. It took me five or six laps. It’s got the times coming down written on my arm. The difference between 7:20 and 7:09 is huge. I mean, that track is scary and unforgiving.
I would love to drive it one day.
AP: Take plenty of practice. Lots of time on the PlayStation, in my experience. It’s interesting, actually. The PlayStation tells you which way to go. You learn the braking points and stuff, but I have what is called a Level Five license, so I can test at the Nürburgring. What’s interesting is you become much more detailed so little marks in the road, little patches in the road, that you use as your markers for turn-in. You can never get that from a PlayStation. One of the corners there’s this square patch where the tarmac is a different color to the rest. You want to get the car on the center there and that marks your turn-in point. It’s little things like that you use as markers, which you can never get off a simulator.
In a recent interview with Business Insider, you said that the future you see is car companies coming together and working together, versus facing that billion-dollar development cost.
AP: The slightly extreme hypothesis—it builds on Sergio Marchionne’s “Confessions of a Capital Junkie”—is that it’s crazy that we’ve got 20 or 30 major car companies spending billions of dollars effectively creating the same thing. At a time when the emerging technology … it’s just amazing, around electric cars, connected cars, or autonomous cars. Each of those companies individually can’t afford to spend that money. They’ll not get the return on it. The margins are becoming extremely tight, often negative, especially on electric cars. A new car, a billion dollars for no return. That story doesn’t go on very long before you start to get companies in distress.
Inevitably, you’ll get consolidation. Absolutely. It’s a question of survival. You see it already, Renault talking to Fiat. That becomes even more compelling if you take autonomy to its natural conclusion. Autonomy in its natural conclusion means your form of transportation isn’t something that’s exhilarating anymore. It’s simply a commuter. It’s getting you from A to B.
You’re using interior space for other things. Sleeping, talking, meetings, video conferencing, whatever, and the best way of doing that is a cube, because that gives you the most space for your footprint, right? So you end up with a pod. If you’re producing pods, a square box looks like a square box, looks like a square box. There’s not much you can do about it, so brands really don’t mean anything anymore, because the unit has become the commodity. If you bought a washing machine, do you care whether it’s a Zanussi or Bosch or Siemens or whatever? In many cases, they are built in the same factory.
So where does Aston Martin fit in?
AP: You are going to get to a point where there’s going to be a few companies that do these pods really well. That means a lot of companies consolidated. I’m not talking tomorrow. I’m not talking next year. I’m talking 10 years from now. In that context, where does a company like Aston Martin exist? Who cares whether you’ve got a handmade pod? It’s just an expensive pod then, right? It’s a period of time not so dissimilar to a hundred-odd years ago when the horse was displaced by the car. Did the horses die? No, the horses became luxury. My hypothesis, actually, the reason for not producing more than 15,000 cars is very much to stay in that luxury arena. I see that as the way for the company to exist for another 100 years. We become much more focused on the lifestyle of the individuals, the playtime of the individuals.
D: Speaking of lifestyle, I know you guys have an apartment building going up in Miami. Is that a one-off project, or do you see that in more cities?
AP: I’ve just seen it yesterday. Amazing. The 28th of June they start pouring the concrete. Not just the States. I mean, first of all, you’ve got to prove that you can do it and prove that it’s interesting. Again, we are learning things on that side, right? Already, half the apartments are sold. I’m told that’s really good.
Before we’ve poured the concrete it seems like it would be good. The question is, can you get the other 50 percent sold? Is it compelling? It’s partly an experiment, but it’s also an interesting expression as we move into that lifestyle of luxury of which your car is a part. Where you live, how you spend your spare time, how you eat, how your hobbies look, it all becomes a part of that chart. The boat fits in that chart. Submarine fits in that chart. [Palmer’s assistant Grace jumps in, correcting both of us and pointing out that the watercraft in question is a “submersible,” not a submarine.]
Submersible. Sorry, she’s telling me off. Ultimately the—you can tell me off again here—but the drone we have, what do you call it? [Grace: Vertical takeoff and landing vehicle.] You know, the hypothesis of it is if you do want to go from A to B autonomously, why do it on the road? Why not go direct? If you are going to commute into Los Angeles every day, wouldn’t it be better if you didn’t have to live in Los Angeles? Wouldn’t it be great if you could live in, I don’t know … Where’s 200 miles away? Napa Valley.
[Actually, that would be San Luis Obispo, but at this point, who’s counting …]
You talked about autonomy and electric, and, obviously, the new Lagonda is an all-electric brand. How long do you see Aston Martin sticking with the internal combustion engine?
AP: Oh, I think, it’s a long time out. I mean, we are delivering a brand-new V-6 engine. We’re investing in engine technology. Aston goes hybrid, Lagonda goes electric. That’s fundamentally how we split. Probably over a long, long period of time we’ll consolidate towards electric in some way, but in the next 10, 20 years, there’s still a role for a gasoline engine. Maybe diesels aren’t around anymore, but we don’t use diesels anyway.
In terms of the emotion that you get out of an engine, I think that’s still relevant. Legislation forces us to downsize, forces us perhaps to change fuel types. Electrification helps us bring back the power to a smaller engine. We’ll pay our CAFE requirements by having the Lagonda doing the pure EV. That’s fundamentally where the strategy started is we’re going to keep having the V-12s in the future, then we need to have something that offsets the V-12.
You’ve said that from a very early age you wanted to be the CEO of a car company, correct?
D: You’ve been CEO for five years now. Does it live up to the dream? What do you think of it?
AP: Oh, you know, being a CEO … it can be a pretty lonely job sometimes. There aren’t any shoulders you can go and cry on when it’s not going well. Sometimes, well, it never goes to the plan. You can have rough days, but how would I describe it? F—ing awesome.
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