Five hard years and an undisclosed amount of investment, including £18 million from the Welsh Government, paid off in part yesterday when the first production Aston Martin DBX luxury SUV drove gently off the production line.
Covid precautions meant that the number of people was limited and it was a sober and muted ceremony in front of a few media and the workforce at St Athan. But the pride in achievement was palpable.
“It’s been a Herculean effort,” said Scott Ward, director of manufacturing at the factory in St Athan, a former Ministry of Defence service facility in the Vale of Glamorgan. No pun intended, although the three massive hangars, purchased by Aston Martin in 2016, previously serviced the RAF’s fleet of C-130 Hercules transport aircraft with their 40-metre wingspans.
“We said we’d do it by 2021 and here we are in 2020 with the first ones,” Ward added.
Actually, St Athan has so far produced up to 150 pre-prototype cars, ramp-up and test vehicles but this example, finished in Stirling Green and destined for a customer in Europe, was the first one for which it will be paid.
It’s a ray of sunshine for the troubled British GT maker, which lost its mercurial chief executive Andy Palmer and most of the board before lockdown after a catastrophic collapse in the share value and dramatically falling global sales in the last financial year, not to mention the furloughing of virtually all its staff at its headquarters and factory at Gaydon in Warwickshire.
Aston Martin has also announced that it will be laying off more than 500 staff in the coming months, though none at St Athan, which currently employs 500, with plans to raise that to 600 when full-speed production gets going.
The DBX will underpin what is hoped to be a sharp turnaround in the company’s fortunes and will represent at least half the firm’s output in future. It will also form the basis of a number of other vehicles, including a revival of the Lagonda name on an all-electric car. St Athan has a peak capacity to produce up to 4,000 DBXs a year and Aston claims it has more than 2,000 advanced orders.
It takes three weeks to complete an all-aluminium DBX. Currently the plant is producing cars gently while inevitable glitches are ironed out. That’s mostly with just one shift of workers, although there are two shifts working in the bonding-oven facility (in which the aluminium sections are glued) and the paint shops.
“Each car has over 2,000 part numbers,” says Ward, who admits there have been issues with suppliers “who are going through the same process of coming out of the Covid lockdown as we are.”
Working in the heated former hangars is hard work, especially for the staff who have to wear masks while on shift which are hot and confining and make clear speech almost impossible. It’s a relief to get out in the open air after a few hours masked and gloved in the plant.
And this first DBX is also a welcome breath of relief for the Welsh Government, which hasn’t had unalloyed success betting taxpayers’ money on car-making to maintain an industrial heritage and jobs in the country.
Earlier this week the Jim Ratcliffe’s Ineos company, which had planned to assemble next year’s new Grenadier 4x4 in Wales, announced that it will pull out of the deal with the Welsh government for a plant next to the soon-to-close Ford engine factory in Bridgend. Ineos is now determined to base itself entirely at the old Smart car plant at Hambach in Moselle, France and is negotiating with Mercedes-Benz to buy the site.
There’s also the embarrassingly slow preparation of the former Techboard factory at the Rassau Industrial estate in Ebbw Vale, for Les Edgar’s reborn TVR sports car venture, into which the Welsh government invested half a million and lent £2 million.
And before any of that there was the controversial backing from the Welsh Government for a motor racing venue, the Circuit of Wales in the Head of the Valleys site. Although the idea has not been entirely disbanded, the previous scheme was rejected two years ago when the Welsh Government voted against a taxpayer-funded guarantee of £210 million for the development as too risky.
Not that Aston Martin is out of the woods by any means. In April it was announced that the company had raised a rights issue of £536 million underpinned with £260 million of new capital from Yew Tree Consortium – which is a group of investors led by billionaire and Formula One team owner, Lawrence Stroll, who is now executive chairman, a very hands-on position.
Yet in spite of this cash injection, which allowed the company to press ahead with the DBX plant, there have still been concerns that it will lack working capital to keep going in the year ahead.
And is a £158,000 4.0-litre, twin-turbocharged V8 SUV really what the world is waiting for right now? While the company waits for its new chief executive, Tobias Moers, who has been headhunted from Mercedes-AMG, to join in August, Marek Reichman, Aston’s long-standing chief creative officer, held the reins at the ceremony for the first DBX.
He’s done this before as Aston has an unfortunate habit of losing its chief executives at little notice. Aston Martin has gone bust seven times in its 117-year history and it’s never been strong enough not to bet the firm with each new model, but Reichmann was heartfelt when he said that the opening of St Athan was “a critically important landmark”.
So, we asked, will the DBX accommodate the new Mercedes-AMG straight-six hybrid drivetrain?
“Well if it will take a V8 it will certainly take a straight-six,” he said, adding “but of course we don’t talk about future product.”
These are troubled times for car makers with the old order being turned over in favour of new and more environmental cars and marques – history doesn’t count for much with the rich young blades of the Far East, especially if their battery-electric vehicle (EV) will outpace any combustion-engined car you care to mention.
In spite of the hard work and evident pride in South Wales this week, if the famous winged Aston badge is still going to feature on the bonnets of new cars in future, there’s going to be a lot of hard work ahead – not to mention a generous slice of luck.