Perhaps this isn’t quite how Sir David Brown made the announcement but in 1955 Aston Martin moved from Feltham in West London to Newport Pagnell, a small and sleepy market town 50 miles north of London. This was before modern motorways so Aston Martin’s new home really was in the “back of beyond.”
Newport Pagnell is now the home of Aston Martin Works, the sales, service and restoration arm of the business where the amazing Goldfinger DB5 Continuation cars are made. Between 2003 and 2007 production of modern Aston Martins moved from Newport Pagnell to Gaydon in Warwickshire on the site of a former RAF cold war V bomber base. This has a certain symmetry because in the 1920s when Aston Martin moved from Kensington in Central London to Feltham it was to a factory that had previously been making aeroplanes.
I recently met Paul Spires the current President of Aston Martin Works at Newport Pagnell and was given the privilege of a guided tour of the Works together with Aston Martin heritage communications manager Scott Fisher.
I ask Paul how it all started.
“Sir David Brown bought Aston Martin in 1947 and shortly after he acquired Lagonda. In 1955 he bought Tickford coachworks based at Newport Pagnell and as they already built bodies for Aston Martin it was a logical move.
He had been a keen motorcycle racer in the 1920s and was reserve rider for the Douglas Racing Team at The Isle of Man TT. Unfortunately, once his father found out he was forbidden to ride and sent to South Africa to learn more about the family business. After successfully running tractor and gear manufacturing enterprises Sir David Brown bought Aston Martin. His competitive streak was still burning brightly and being a keen racer he naturally thought he would drive one of the team cars at the 1950 Le Mans 24 Hours. This idea was stymied by the RAC Competitions department who thought he didn’t have enough experience to race at Le Mans, probably to the relief of the racing team manager, John Wyer.”
Paul Spires is also a keen racer and I was interested to discover more about his career.
Paul explained: “I’ve had a strange career path as it’s been done in reverse, I was managing my own business dealing with Aston Martin, then I joined a dealership and was there for about 20 years. Then Aston Martin invited me to come here and set up the sales side. When the MD retired they kindly asked me to take over. In racing I had my own team in the ‘90s and also did a bit of BTCC (British Touring Car Championship). In 2004 I was approached by a team to help them to the next level and we did Le Mans. I would have liked to have driven, but that wasn’t going to happen. I did drive again in GT4 racing and did quite well. Then, just before Covid, I raced a DB4 GT Zagato Continuation down at Paul Ricard. You have to be quite focused when racing what was then the world’s most expensive production car, I didn’t want to have to phone our CEO to tell him I’d stuffed the car!”
Paul is in good company because there is a common thread that runs through Aston Martin’s history of competition that goes from the boardroom to the workshop. Most of the greatest drivers from the 1950s drove for Aston Martin and their team manager, John Wyer, went on to run race-winning GT40s and Porsche 917s at Le Mans.
How many restorations are you working on at the moment?
“Six or seven. The lovely thing is that we do everything on site, paint, chassis and mechanicals. Most other manufacturers don’t have the same level of artisan skills and provenance in their restoration department., one of our trimmers is working on cars he built first time around! We have the three Ps. People, place and process and we’re keen to bring on youngsters. Together with traditional skills we use modern techniques like digital scanning, but our people are the key. There is a great future for anyone coming to Aston Martin, it’s a good place to be. Our parts stock is fantastic and we have an enormous stock for heritage Aston Martins. The reason we keep a full inventory is our Continuation models.”
The Continuation cars aren’t just mobile works of art, but fully functioning and built to modern standards.
“There had been no new ZF gearboxes since 1972 and we needed 30 gearboxes for our continuation cars. ZF retooled to manufacture, I won’t tell you how much that cost but on the back of it we now have a stock of gearboxes with the correct ratios.”
Only 25 DB5 Goldfinger Continuations are being made, each one an exact replica of the car James Bond drove, complete with bullet resistant screens and smoke ejectors. I’m not sure they have functioning ejector seats but imagine that those unhappy with their partner would like the option.
Scott: “You can’t underestimate the value of three little numbers, zero, zero, seven.”
Paul: “We are not the James Bond Car Company but we are the James Bond car company. Initially, when the film company came to ask for a car Aston Martin said no. They went away, thought about it and decided they really did want an Aston Martin. We lent them a DB4 GT Series 5 prototype and after they had finished filming we repainted it red and sold it as a demonstrator. It’s disappeared, probably never to be seen again.”
No one could have imagined the tremendous success of the Bond films and the effect it would have on Aston Martin. Of course, Aston Martins have been used many times on screen. A DB3S was used in School for Scoundrels and called The Bellini Special, Peter Sellers used his own DB4 GT in Long arm Of the Law, Roger Moore playing super suave Lord Bret Sinclair drove a DBS in The Persuaders (what else could a peer of the realm drive?) and of course James Bond has been driving an Aston martin since 1963.
Scott: “It wasn’t just because of films, though. There was something ‘cool’ about us in the mid-1960s that has continued.”
Paul: “If you read the build sheets from the 1950s it was very much like a who’s who of the aristocracy with dukes, lords, princes and earls but, in the 1960s, you have The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Twiggy- all the iconic names of the 60’s had an Aston Martin.”
As we walk and talk two things become really apparent, the first is the level of cleanliness in all the workshops, the second is Paul’s relationship with his staff. Everyone is greeted with warmth and he takes an interest in what they are doing, there is a tremendous sense of mutual respect. Perhaps this is a style of management that many in industry could do well to study.
We’re greeted with smiles as we enter the trim shop which Paul describes as an artisan’s heaven. Paul: “Everything is done by hand. We use two types of leather, Connolly for our restoration and Continuation cars and Bridge of Weir for the modern cars as they use different tanning processes. We are particularly proud of our CAD design. If you are thinking of computer aided design then think again, in this case it means cardboard-aided design. All the interior panels and seats are cut from old card templates. This is without doubt the most experienced trim shop you’ll find.”
Paul: “When you retrim the seats of a DB5 we know the exact amount of wadding for the seat flutes, we only use calico, we don’t use foam. Before you do any work on the suspension you have to make sure the driver’s hip point is in the right place, you drive these cars through feel, it’s really important to get it right.”
Chris, one of the trimmers, produces a ledger with handwritten notes of every car made by Aston Martin describing the type of seats and carpet each car left the factory with.
Paul: “We had a car here with green vinyl seats, we’ve never, ever, trimmed a car in vinyl – the car had been badly restored. The owner insisted the car was right but we were able to show him using the ledger that his car actually left the factory with red leather. It’s fascinating we have the ability to do this, one moment we are retrimming a car the next we are making a set of matching luggage.”
Will: “If someone wanted to accelerate the restoration process could you do things more quickly?”
Paul: “No, the process is the process, you can’t speed it up without compromising quality, it’s an 18-month process, about 4,000 hours work, we treat all our customers the same.”
Scott: “Prior to Covid there was an 18-month wait as well. Customers are happy to do this as they know the car is being restored where it was built” (and possibly by the same people).
Will: “Are cars worth more if restored here or is it just easier to sell at the other end?”
Paul: “Both The quality of what we do is exceptional and people understand that a car restored by The Works has a different price point.” This is a confident claim but the quality of their work is exceptional and if you were lucky enough to own an Aston Martin what could be better than to have it restored by the same people who built it in the first place?
Paul: “As each department finishes their part of the restoration the work has to be signed off by the manager of where it’s been and by the manager of the next department it’s going to.”
We move on to the body shop where, again, the rapport Paul has with his co-workers is apparent. A DB5 is being dismantled ready for inspection and the final Goldfinger car is being built.
Paul: “If you had seen this DB5 when it got here it looked bright and shiny but once dismantled we realised it had been subjected to an awful restoration. It’s easier to restore an original if rusty car rather than fixing a badly restored car.”
Alongside the DB5 restoration, the final DB5 Goldfinger Continuation car is being built complete with bullet resistant screen and revolving number plates. Paul shows me the new buck for the DB5 body where the Goldfinger cars are formed and explains how each piece of the wing is made then welded together. Believe it or not you really can’t see the joins, it is sheer artistry in metal.
Paul: “We’ve invested massively and this enables us to make a much higher quality body part. Each DB5 front end takes 400 hours to make, it’s all done in the traditional way.”
Our next stop is the paint shop where the first thing I see is a light booth that illuminates the car at three times natural daylight to show minute imperfections you wouldn’t normally see. Calling it a paint shop doesn’t do justice to the operation. Try to imagine a clinically clean, odourless brightly lit laboratory with a spotless floor and you’ll get the idea.
Will: “Do you use cellulose as well as modern water-based paint? “
Paul: “We have special dispensation from the local council to use a small amount. We only use it on cars that were originally painted with it and only for small repairs. We are very environmentally aware, our chimneys outside the paint shop must give zero emissions and cellulose doesn’t give that.”
It might sound like a scene from a Bond film but as we walk through the paint shop Paul explains: “We can’t cross this beam, we can go no further.” This is because there is a tiny chance of contamination from the silicones present in modern deodorants and soaps. On the left there are four spraying booths and on the right four preparation booths. “The paint booths are on a four-week cycle. They are completely stripped and power washed, this way we don’t end up with silver cars with black bits in the paint.”
It really did feel like a high-tech Bond film set, hopefully next time I’ll get to see Q’s department as well.
As my tour ended I asked Paul and Scott if there had ever been a time when Aston Martin could have just folded like many of the other great British marques.
Paul: “We’ve been on a journey. Aston Martin is very fortunate to have had some incredibly clever and dedicated senior managers, some of the greatest names in the auto industry have led with passion and dedication, they’ve kept Aston Martin going. None of them would have packed up at 3:30pm on a Friday afternoon.”
Scott: “You might know this – but just over 95% of all Aston Martins ever made are still on the road or are capable of being put on the road.”
I know that while Paul and his team are at the helm then Aston Martin Works is in safe hands.
C William Lansbury 15th June 2023
Original article first published here