At first glance, Aston Martin Lagonda North America Inc. could be seen as getting in over its head.
The company, a long-time minor player in the world's quintessential luxury market, has been defined since the 1960s more by its connection with James Bond movies than perhaps anything else. Despite its loyal buyer base, world-beating dealer body and rich racing history, if it weren't for agent 007 and his gadget-laden DB5, Aston might not even be in the U.S. market.
There soon could be a lot more Bond wannabes on the road, as a major volume spike and a whole new class of buyers are sure to greet the new stick-shifting V8 Vantage when it hits the market later this year with the following resume: A price tag in the $100,000 range, 380 hp and the same sculptured aluminum silhouette that has long-defined the Aston range.
Currently, the British sports-car maker sells a pair of high-priced models in the U.S. — the $265,000 Vanquish S and the $160,000 DB9 — neither of which have many competitors.
Buyers traditionally have more than one car, and usually don't drive their Aston daily. That model is about to be shattered.
“When you go to the V8 Vantage, those cars are much more everyday drivers,” says John Walton, head of North American operations. The Vantage is positioned squarely as a Porsche 911-fighter, with global volume expectations pegged at 4,000 units annually, 1,800 of which will be exported to the U.S. Dealers who saw between 15 and 40 deliveries in 2004 soon could be handing off as many as 100 units annually to customers, according to some dealer estimates.
For context, Aston delivered as few as 200 units globally in 2000 and just over 600 units in 2004.
The auto maker is poised for rapid expansion, with its highest-volume car playing in a market saturated with competition. At least 17 high-end sports cars are sold in North America with price tags between $81,000 and $120,000 from the likes of Maserati SpA, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche AG, BMW AG, Acura and Jaguar Cars.
Aston's V8 Vantage shouldn't have a problem netting buyers. Walton says a 2-year waiting list has accumulated, and dealers report strong interest in the car among Aston loyalists and, more importantly, potential newcomers to the family.
However, a Bond-sized challenge remains: Maintaining the white-glove atmosphere currently cultivated by Aston's 35 U.S. dealers, where customers unflinchingly dish out mortgage-size car payments to be in the club and are treated to the finest customized service money can buy.
Walton scoffs at media reports referring to the forthcoming V8 Vantage as a “cheap Aston.”
“Anyone who thinks that $100,000 is cheap, please step my way,” he says. “This is a new Aston Martin at a different price point, but it is not a cheap Aston Martin. The quality of service and experience you get isn't going to be downgraded.”
The auto maker is looking for help from its dealers in reiterating its commitment to all buyers and, so far, it is getting it with many committing to multi-million-dollar dealer redesigns or entirely new facilities.
John Eagle, CEO of Aston Martin of Dallas, tells Ward's his newly built dealership gives buyers the sense they've acquired an expensive piece of jewelry or rare work of art.
“We spent a lot more money on it than we probably should have, although now I'm happy we did,” he says, referring to the list of amenities loaded into his dealership.
Topping the list: An Aston buyers-only club on premises. The club, complete with library and card tables, is accessed by appointment only and is introduced to customers when they take delivery of their car in a huge glass box while sipping a glass of champagne.
For New Year's Eve, a professional basketball player booked the room for a holiday party. Another time, a high-ranking Fortune 500 executive needed a quiet place away from the public eye to interview a new president for the company. He chose Dallas Aston's private lounge.
Eagle says Aston's move down market actually encouraged him to make the pricey upgrades.
He is impressed with Ford Motor Co.'s “support without interference” of Aston Martin. He sees enormous potential for the brand and says “people who want to be different,” with an understated level of refinement, will continue to be attracted to the Aston family, even as it grows to include less affluent buyers.
Joining the list of dealers in taking the experience to the next level is Galpin Aston Martin in Van Nuys, CA. Galpin Motors Inc. is known for providing a personalized or, “Galpinized” experience at its dealerships, most of which sell Ford products.
Galpin Vice President Beau Boeckmann promises Aston buyers an experience fit for 007 himself.
Entering the dealership, one encounters a massive 8-ft. bank vault door, behind which only buyers can go. Behind the vault, owners take delivery of their cars, an experience which Boeckmann says should set the dealership apart in Southern California's sea of high-priced showrooms.
There are eight Aston dealers alone in California, not to mention the hundreds of other luxury dealers.
“Being that we're in L.A., frankly the difference between buying a $20,000 car and a $200,000 car isn't that different,” he says. “How do you exceed the expectations of a billionaire?”
If Galpin's vault doesn't do the trick, the in-dealership bar, stocked with a kitchenette full of hors d'oeuvres and cocktails probably will. The bar doubles as the area where buyers customize their cars.
“It's like having an auto show in your house,” Boeckmann says.
Not all dealers have introduced the necessary upgrades to their showrooms, but all are expected to, Walton says.
Aston Martin of Troy, MI, is breaking ground on a new facility that will rival the world's top Aston dealerships, General Manager Molly Padovini says.
The 2-story facility will be within eyeshot of a dual Rolls-Royce/Bentley dealership and a Hummer store now under construction.
Padovini promises the new Aston facility will be the “showpiece” of the lot, complete with a members-only club, much like the Dallas operation. The dealer is working with Ford architects and Aston officials to make sure the new facility fits the bill.
Each Aston dealership must include travertine-lined floors and walls, Barcelona chairs and black carpet for lounge areas, shiny glass and chrome office furniture, flat-screen computer monitors for desks and plasma screens for the customer ordering process.
Walton describes the desired atmosphere as the equivalent of the Savile Row of auto dealerships, or an automotive art gallery.
Sales people, trained for a week at Aston's Gaydon, U.K., headquarters at the dealer's expense, “should be able to introduce the person to a lifestyle and understand how to do that and more importantly understand why people spend $150,000-$275,000 on a car and what that's going to mean to them,” he says.
Buyers visiting Aston dealerships (many have a dealer representative come to them) don't necessarily test drive what they want to buy.
Instead, they sit down in front of a case full of carpet squares, paint schemes, wood samples and leather surfaces, in addition to an exhaustive list of options, and begin to configure their vehicle much like they would go to an interior decorator's office and select home furnishings.
Once the vehicle is in possession, owners call the shots, Walton says.
“The day you come out of your home and go to start your car and the battery's gone flat because you left your trunk open — this doesn't need to be a drama,” he says. “You make one phone call and it's dealt with, and it may not go directly to the service guy. It may come directly to the sales guy, and all he (the customer) wants to hear is ‘don't worry, it's taken care of.’”
Says Walton: “The last thing our buyers want to hear is excuses.”