The need for speed

When Dr. Ulrich Bez took over Aston Martin five years ago, the company was heading for bankruptcy. Today, profits are rolling back in. The German professor takes Anil Bhoyrul for a spin in the new V8 Vantage to explain how he turned around the former loss maker.

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By  Anil Bhoyrul Published  September 18, 2005

The need for speed|~|200-car.jpg|~|SPEED: The new Aston Martin V8 Vantage goes from 0 to 100km/h in five seconds|~|THE MEETING WITH DR. ULRICH BEZ, the boss of Aston Martin, gets off to an unusual start. I am waiting outside the Relais Borgo Scopeto Hotel in Sienna, Italy, when a man dressed in a beige suit, white polo-neck T-shirt and French Connection shoes wanders past, followed by a blonde woman. They climb into a brand new Aston Martin V8 Vantage, and disappear into the mountains of Sienna. Half an hour later, the car re-appears, with the woman now having disappeared. The automatic windows wind down, and Coldplay’s latest CD is blaring out. “It’s your turn,” the driver says. When I explain that I am waiting for Dr. Bez, the 62-year old flamboyant genius who has single handedly re-invented the mystical car company, he looks mystified. “That’s me. I do all the driving around here. I do everything,” he says with enthusiasm. Moments later, we are touching 180 km/h, pounding across Sienna’s mountains. “I’m a bit of a boy racer you know. In fact, I used to drive Indy 500 cars. They say that this car goes from 0 to 100km/ph in five seconds. But I can do it in 4.7 seconds. What do you think? Shall we try?” asks the German born professor of physics? There is no time to answer. Indeed, Dr. Bez has rarely stopped to answer the many questions that clouded Aston Martin when he took over the company five years ago. In its rocky 91 year existence, the company has gone bust seven times, made just 20,000 cars — at one time averaging just 62 a year. On Dr. Bez's arrival at the firm in 2000, Aston Martin had just one model, which sold 600 a year. It was built out of an old coachworks factory in England, with only 20 engineers on the payroll. This year, 5000 cars will be built. Parent company Ford will actually see a profit for the once troublesome subsidiary, and there is a magnificent new state of the art factory to show off, in which 200 of the world’s best car engineers (all handpicked by Dr. Bez) now work. The DB9 and V12 Vanquish cars finally have a third member of the Aston Martin family amongst them: And if you want to buy one of his new V8 Vantage cars, priced in the UAE at around US$130,000, you will have to wait up to two years given record demand. “I look at where we are now, and I can’t complain. We are doing very, very well. But when I took this job, I have to admit I didn’t know much about Aston Martin. I mean, let’s be honest, it was an irrelevance. I was working before this for Porsche and BMW. There was no need to worry or even think about Aston Martin, they were doing nothing,” he says. “But there was something mystical about the brand. Something that attracted me to it, so I came on board. And I came up with a five year plan to re-generate the company, and now we have reached the five years. And I feel very good.” So he should. The new V8 Vantage is the culmination of that five year plan – a more affordable version of the V12 Vanquish, but no less luxurious or sporty with a top speed of nearly 300km/h. As Dr. Bez is eager to point out, it is a “driver’s car” — one made for driving on the edge, and built by a man who is addicted to driving on the edge. He takes the corner of one of Sienna’s many winding roads at 110km/h in second gear, charges up to 190km/h within a few seconds, and as he approaches the back of a Vauxhall Corsa, shows no intention of breaking. “I heard that the speed limit in Italy depends on how many people are in the car. There are just two of us so we can go as fast as we like, I think. Don’t worry about the car in front, it's like being in a F1 race. These cars are like back markers. When they see an Aston Martin in the rear view window, they just pull up and let you through,” he explains, before adding: “I don’t know why you are acting hysterical. I’m an experienced driver.” That he certainly is: Dr. Bez personally undertakes all the final car tests in the company, and has himself driven over 2000 miles in the V8 Vantage. “I do that so I can understand the needs of the market. I need to get the exact feel of the car, and make sure everything about it is absolutely perfect before it is ready for the market. I know I will have driven this car more than anyone else in the world — that’s part of my job. If I don’t feel good about the car, then we make changes. Right now, I feel very good,” he says. With a thrusting 380bhp at 7000 revs, there is a lot to feel good about. The new V8 is being seen as a serious competitor to both Ferrari and Porsche – unthinkable even two years ago. The car’s slick design has already made it a must have for a string of Hollywood and sports super stars. It is a touch over 14ft long, just over 6ft wide, with an interior designed liked the cockpit of a fighter jet – including a push button starter. The boot is big enough for three fully loaded golf bags, and the car stereo with a built in six-CD deck puts most top of the range music systems to shame. Aston Martin’s current car range, from the DB9 to V12Vanquish, has a price spread of US$200,000 to US$350,000. For the first time in its life, Aston Martin is racing into Porsche territory. And at first glance, there is still a sizeable gap. Porsche’s iconic 911 range starts at US$120,000. But adding some of the extras already on the Vantage narrows the gap considerably. And at US$180,000, the Porsche 911 Turbo, in comparison with the Vantage, looks distinctly pricey. Dr. Bez himself says: “I think we are an alternative rather than a threat to them. This is something unique we are offering.” Before arriving at the company, Dr. Bez served his apprenticeship with Porsche, where he developed one of the best 911 models of all time, the 993. He also worked with BMW and Daewoo, where he developed the Matiz, showing talent for superminis as well as supercars. “That’s where I learned a lot about the industry, the nuts and bolts of it. A lot of my ideas today come from some of the things I learned then. I don’t think you can just become chief executive of a car company after running say a television company, or a printing firm. "This is a very specialised job, you have to know what you are talking about. You have to be a car man. It has to be in your blood,” he says. The German is the latest colourful car boss to attempt an Aston Martin revival. In the late 1970s, it was a consortium including Alan Curtis, the suave, slightly Bond-like property tycoon, whose assets included Farnborough airfield. In the early 1980s, it was the late Pace Petroleum owner Victor Gauntlett. Both found, like others before them, that making a small fortune out of upmarket cars mainly requires starting with a large one. And more than often, that large fortune soon dwindles. In 1987, Ford bought three quarters of the company. By the 1990s, Ford was the outright owner and intent on putting Aston Martin on a firm financial footing. But it has been no easy ride: the company is part of Ford’s Premier Auto Group, which last year announced a series of cost-cutting exercises, which included ditching its US$300 million Jaguar Formula One racing business. Dr. Bez says: “Ford are not in this just so we can make some nice looking cars. We have to make money, and I can assure you that this year the company will make a profit. I told Ford I needed five years, they gave me five years and I delivered, so everybody is happy.” He can say that again. ||**||

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