How Aston Martin Is Using Modern Technology to Improve Its Oldest Cars
The old ways aren’t always the best ways.
At Aston Martin, the pace of development, partnerships, and new models is perhaps more feverish than at any time in the company's century-plus-long history. Much credit for the renaissance must be given to Andy Palmer, who was hired as CEO in 2014 at a time when the supercar maker's engines and cars were all aging and growing more uncompetitive by the moment. But a trio of exciting new models have hit the streets recently in the DB11, new Vantage, and DBS Superleggera, development of electrified powertrains has been prioritized, and the firm will launch its first-ever SUV within the next couple of years. With all of this being front of mind, it was somewhat surprising to receive an invite to go behind the scenes of its Aston Martin's Heritage division.
We started our visit to Aston HQ in the production facility for the DB4 GT continuation cars, alongside the president of Heritage, Paul Spires. The facility is located in a screened-off area of the Newport Pagnell dealership, and at the time of our visit housed three DB4 GTs that were undergoing final preparations before being readied for shipment to their lucky owners. Here, Spires is in his element, reeling off factoids and figures about the DB4 program.
For example, each of the 25 planned chassis takes around 4,500 man-hours to complete, as each is hand-assembled by a team of highly skilled engineers and craftspeople. The cars have a base price of approximately $2 million, however each of them—and they're all spoken for—end up costing in the region of $2.5 million once the customers have their say regarding various customizations and options. Just four DB4 GTs will remain in the U.K., with the rest headed overseas, the vast majority to the United States. According to Spires, "The DB4 GT continuation is a perfect demonstration of the capabilities we have here at Works, and a testament to the timeless appeal of Aston Martin's illustrious classics."
The Past-Present Paradox
It's not all nostalgia and heritage preservation, though, as the team employed some of the most modern and high-tech techniques in executing the DB4 GT project. Body-panel schematics were difficult to come by in the Aston archives, so vintage cars were 3D-scanned to provide templates. Engine blueprints were similarly scarce, so the team had to reverse-engineer a new design from an existing example.
To do this, they put the finest example of an original DB4 engine they could find through an X-Ray Computed Tomography (CT) machine. Essentially the same technique as when a human is CT-scanned in a hospital to achieve a medical diagnosis, this 3D X-ray procedure gives a non-invasive look at the internal structure of a given sample. To illustrate what sort of images this can produce, we got our hands on a scale-model DB4 and used a CT scanner to reproduce the process performed on the engine.
When a conventional X-ray is performed to diagnose a broken bone, it produces a single image called a radiograph. However, as can be seen here, a CT scan 'stacks' these images sequentially to build a 3D representation. The primary difference is that, in a hospital, the person lies down and the machine orbits around them; in Aston's case, the machine was stationary and the sample was rotated. This allows for better resolution and less blurring due to sample movement.
During scanning, the team found that there were some areas for improvement, and Spires was palpably excited as he shared some of the things uncovered by the scans. For example, one of the oil channels cast into the original engine using a cord—it was pulled out after casting—was revealed to have poor flow optimization and possible blockages. Spired also explained that the original engine had a persistent oil leak issue around a tapped connection on the side of the block. The CT scans showed the underlying cause; during its initial manufacture, the hole was drilled and tapped too deep, and breached an oil cavity. Discovering these issues allowed the team to fully optimize the new engine.
Restoring the Classics
Those not lucky enough to be selected to receive one of the 25 DB4 GTs can still have any existing Aston Martin fully restored through the Heritage-approved restoration program, albeit at an eye-watering cost. The process is thorough, of course, and any restoration project is fully stripped to a bare chassis and examined for integrity. Any corrosion issues are rectified using period-correct techniques, and the car is then reassembled from the ground up, including paint, brightwork, the interior, and more. Dotted around the factory are cars at every stage of the process. A freshly arrived DB6 has been stripped to bare metal; a Lagonda is midway through; and a second DB6 is finished and gleaming in baby blue paint, ready for delivery back to its owner in France.
The factory takes the term "heritage" to the extreme. Everything from chassis welding and forming body panels to painting and finishing is done in-house at Newport-Pagnell. New DB4 GT front ends are beaten from sheetmetal around original wooden forms that have been in the company for generations, and these same traditional panel-beating techniques are used to restore other customer cars. Any forms showing their age are replaced with new forms made from—you guessed it—a 3D scan of the original.
A Taste of the Past
Seeing all these wonderful classics would have been the ultimate tease if we could only look and not touch. Luckily, Spires and his team had a drive planned and the chosen cars were very special indeed. First up: a 1971 DB6 MK2 with a price tag of around $800,000. Never before have I been so nervous to drive somebody else's car.
Within yards, I realized that I needn't have worried. The DB6 is remarkably easy to drive, and surprisingly potent for such an old car. The thin, wooden steering wheel is a definite throwback, and you can't help but beam with joy as you move it back and forth to keep your trajectory true. The speedometer needle bounces around between plus or minus 10 mph from your true velocity, and the cabin is filled with the familiar scents of oil and fuel. All of these factors create a most endearing and exciting automotive experience, and the DB6 is tactile, pleasant, and incredibly special to drive.
After the DB6 comes a 1987 V8 Vantage X-pack. Being 16 years the DB6's junior, the Vantage produces far more power, making it a different beast to pilot. The transmission is still manual, but this time with a dogleg box as can be found in the previous-generation V12 Vantage S.
The V8 Vantage exudes '80s charm with its deep shag carpets and purple-ish piping on the cream leather seats. However, the main selling point of this car lies under the hood. The naturally aspirated V-8 pulls hard and sings as I stir through the gears. It's the first time that I've driven a dogleg 'box, and I'm pleased to say that it's remarkably intuitive. You seldom need to use the first ratio when driving on back roads, so having second gear at the top and third directly below just makes sense.
The Grand Opening
The cars that I drove were to take center stage at the formal launch of Aston's new London showroom. Once just a brand and lifestyle shop in the high-end Mayfair district, the location was overhauled to be entirely Heritage focused. The showroom has room for two classic cars inside, but 'my' classics were parked on the street outside next to a current Vantage.
With a handpicked selection of prominent buyers and brand supporters congregating behind the expansive glass storefront, Palmer emerged from the crowd to give a keynote. His emphasis is surprisingly grounded, and relates to new talent and the passing on of period skills and craftwork. The entire event makes it clear that the brand appreciates its history as much as it is excited for what is to come.
On the heels of the initial DB4 GT program, Spires and the team have already started building the 25-unit run of DB5 Goldfinger edition cars. They will certainly be equally sought after, and serve as further proof that well-heeled customers don't just want the latest and fastest hypercars, they also want characterful classics. For these buyers, Aston Martin Heritage is ready and willing to serve.