When Aston Martin listed on the stock market two years ago, then chief executive Andy Palmer summed up his philosophy to investors: “We don’t make cars, we make dreams”.
That dream, which included a strategy based on a string of new models, quickly turned into a nightmare for everyone involved. Sales fell, the shares tanked, questions were raised about hefty fees paid to bankers for the float, fresh debt was raised at eye-watering levels, and new equity eventually had to be injected to save the business.
Palmer was ousted in May, having spent the previous year and a half under fire from investors and the press about what had gone wrong as news from the luxury car maker, 007’s marque of choice, went from bad to worse.
Speaking with the Telegraph as he re-enters the automotive world as vice-chairman of battery developer InoBat after five months out of the limelight, Palmer is quick to recall a previous encounter with this newspaper. “You asked me when I was going to have had some good news to announce,” he says. “Well, this is it.”
Palmer seems a changed man: energetic, less combative and sunnier in outlook. Perhaps his escape from Aston, and the extra time that lockdown provided, has changed the man who once listed his hobbies as “listening to punk rock and running by necessity”.
“Believe me, the last 18 months aged me,” he says. “Since then I’ve lost 14kg and managed to turn around my diabetes. So coronavirus somehow saved my life.”
He won’t be drawn on his experiences at Aston, which he joined from Nissan in 2014, claiming he “has no regrets at all” about his time there. “[My] conscience is clear. I sleep at night.”
InoBat, a Slovakian company that uses artificial intelligence to develop more efficient and bespoke batteries for the booming electric vehicle (EV) sector, isn’t Palmer’s only job. Days before his appointment, he took board role at Falcon Group, an inventory finance company. In July, after five years on the board, he quietly stepped up to become chairman of Optare, the bus-maker owned by the billionaire Hinduja brothers.
His new roles continue something he started at Nissan: making cleaner vehicles. Palmer says he was “plucked from a middle management engineering role” at the Japanese giant by its controversial boss Carlos Ghosn, who eventually put him in charge of the introducing the Leaf, the first mass-market electric car.
He’s got a lot of respect for Ghosn, saying the now fugitive from Japanese authorities “taught him what was good and bad about management”, but also “gave me air cover to essentially sell the dream of going electric”.
“Everybody was laughing at us,” he says. “Questioning whether it would work, whether we would ever make money from it. Nissan was a relatively conservative company changing its way forward.”
The Leaf was a success, making electric motoring affordable. Until recently, it was the world’s top selling electric vehicle, having been eclipsed by Tesla. Elon Musk’s electric dream was “cleaner and easier to sell” as it wasn’t confused by the company also producing internal combustion engine cars.
Palmer adds: “I hope people will remember me as a products guy who was responsible for some awesome cars, including the DBX [Aston’s first SUV], but perhaps front and centre will be the Leaf, the eNV200 [Nissan’s electric van platform] and the hidden gem of what was the Aston Martin Rapide E [an electric Aston that was shelved as the company hit financial trouble].”
Although he’s proud of his sojourn into the fuel-guzzling world of Aston’s V8 and V12 engines, Palmer says his latest roles are returning him to environmentally friendly driving.
“I’m trying to centre myself around this lofty ideal of the democratisation of net zero carbon travel,” he says. “I’m trying to evolve what I started with the Leaf. I’ve got unfinished business.”
It’s justified when Palmer says that with 41 years in the automotive industry in very senior roles, he has “experience” barely any other Brit has. “I want to do something good for the planet with that.”
While InoBat will develop batteries, Optare’s electric buses will help cut pollution in city centres. “Think about the particulates in Westminster,” Palmer says. “The biggest creators of those are buses and taxis. If we can solve buses and taxis, that’s basically a big improvement on the air we breathe.
“Creating better batteries is going to help that democratisation of EVs, so it’s there I see the twilight years of my career.
“I’m 57 and not getting any younger. I’ve got a few more years in front of me and I want to make them count.”
How the automotive world transitions from burning hydrocarbons to cleaner transport is complex. Governments dictating the industry must move to EVs isn’t necessarily the answer, according to Palmer. “Politicians should define the problem and engineers should define the solution,” he says, calling other approaches such synthetic fuels, fuel cells and hydrogen “interesting technology”.
But focusing solely on EVs will only bring trouble for the automotive industry, Palmer believes. “If a government takes a myopic approach, it’s just setting itself up to be beaten by other countries that have alternative solutions. We are in a global environment.”
He also warns that if Britain is to have a viable car industry in the future, the country needs large scale battery production, something the UK is yet to get off the ground, despite pleas from heavyweights such as Jaguar Land Rover’s Sir Ralf Speth.
“A key point of manufacturing electric cars is that you need a short supply chain,” Palmer says. “You’ve got to have your car factory near your battery factory.”
He starts to say the UK does not yet have a battery factory, but catches and corrects himself, remembering he oversaw setting up such a plant at Nissan’s Sunderland site.
He continues with a warning: “If the UK is not investing in batteries, then ultimately the UK car industry has to decline. Industry has to go to where the factories are. And as long as other places are building them, that’s where the manufacturing of cars will end up.”
Once that hurdle is cleared, Palmer says manufacturers should be left alone to work out how to deliver the low emission vehicles the world needs. “Set engineers free to explore all of these channels and you’ll get a Darwinism effect. I have no doubt the dominant technology and future will be EV, but I’d like to see exploration around synthetic fuels because that’s a technology you could take racing.”
Racing is a passion of Palmer, with one Aston insider describing him as “an automotive caveman who just wants to go racing at the weekend”, hinting this contributed to the company’s troubles when he was chief executive.
Synthetic fuels are the get-out clause for Palmer as he talks about his “lofty ideal”, adding that he “only races V8s” as if that’s an excuse for turning hydrocarbons into speed, noise and pollution.
Palmer’s keen to get back the wheel and at full throttle, but he hasn’t raced since 2019. His spare time has since been taken working on his charity, which aims to steer youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds into apprenticeships. “It’s important,” he says. “I’m an ex-apprentice.”
For all the troubles he’s gone through over recent years, Palmer’s a pretty good advert for where apprenticeships can lead to: an Aston Martin driving racer who’s now trying to change the world.
Perhaps he’s a better role model than 007.