An undisputed member of the peerage of the automotive aristocracy, Aston Martin automobiles boast a history going all the way back to 1913. The company was founded in England by Robert Bamford and Lionel Martin as Bamford & Martin Ltd. to sell cars built by Singer and service models from GWK and Calthorpe.
Looking about, you may find some sources assert Aston Martin was actually founded in 1914. This is because the brand name Aston Martin was formally coined that year, after one of Bamford and Martin’s cars competed successfully in the Aston hill climb in Buckinghamshire with Martin at the wheel. The first true Aston Martin car was built and registered in 1915. Its chassis was from a 1908 Isotta-Fraschini and it ran a four-cylinder Coventry-Simplex engine.
Aston Martin automobiles are truly phoenix-like, in that the company has gone bankrupt and been reborn several times throughout its history. Passing through the hands of a number of different owners over the years, Aston Martin vehicles have always risen again, much like that mythic bird.
That said, the first World War immediately interrupted Bamford and Martin’s momentum. Upon cessation of hostilities, the two got back together and designed a new car. However financial problems soon mounted, Bamford left before the car was produced, and an investor was brought in to keep the company afloat.
Bamford returned in 1922; from this renewed collaboration the pair established a number of world speed and endurance records with Aston Martin racing cars. They also built some 55 road cars before the company went bankrupt in 1924. Another wealthy investor was found in the personage of one Lady Charnwood, but the company failed again one year later in 1925. The factory subsequently closed in 1926. This time, Martin left the company too.
A consortium was soon put together to resurrect the brand. With Lady Charnwood’s renewed backing, two new engineers led the company, Bill Renwick and Augustus Bertelli. The duo had originally planned to build and sell engines to other automakers, but soon realized there was considerable brand equity in the Aston Martin name and set about building cars to carry the nameplate.
This lasted until 1932—when the company went broke again.
This time, L. Prideaux Brune bought it and flipped it to Sir Arthur Sutherland in 1933, and in the process Brune became the first owner to actually make a profit from Aston Martin autos. Sir Arthur made the decision to focus on road cars and managed to build 700 of them before the second World War started.
After the war, Aston’s second iconic owner, Sir David Brown got control of the company in 1947. He also acquired Lagonda that same year, to gain ownership of its 2.6-liter engine (designed by W.O. Bentley—yeah, that W.O. Bentley). Brown’s stewardship was the longest period of continuous ownership in the company’s history. During Brown’s tenure, the era of the legendary “DB” (David Brown) series of Aston grand touring coupes was born. Brown also established the iconic Newport Pagnell Aston Martin factory.
The 1958 Aston Martin DB III is credited with establishing the styling language the company follows to this day. Producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli, for the first James Bond movie, chose the 1963 DB5 as their protagonist's car. In so doing, Aston’s most enduring popular culture association was gelled and in the process Aston Martin cars became a household name.
In 1972, Brown sold Aston Martin automobiles to a consortium called Company Developments—led by William Wilson. Bankruptcy soon followed and two Americans; Peter Sprague and George Minden picked up the company. Expending considerable effort, expertise, and capital expenditures they turn the company around. The two hired a raft of new employees and ushered Aston Martin vehicles through the 1970’s, largely as a profitable company. During this period, the company produced its first V8 models (the early DB series cars ran inline sixes) the V8 Vantage, the convertible Volante, and the Lagonda four-door sedan.
However, by 1980, the ghosts of Aston’s past had risen once again and new financial woes set in. This time, thanks to the worldwide financial recession of the early 1980’s. Through a rather complex series of transactions, industrialist Victor Gauntlett wound up in control of the company through the 1980’s. Gauntlett was responsible for getting Aston Martin autos back into the James Bond business after an absence through much of the 1970’s. Gauntlett also oversaw the introduction of the Virage model range and got Ford interested in owning Aston Martin in the late 1980s.
By the way, up to this period, Aston Martin automobiles were always built entirely by hand.
Uh, well, no.
By 1991, Ford was in full control of the company and automated manufacturing techniques were applied to Aston Martin cars for the first time. Production was ramped up and the company delivered what was then the largest number of vehicles in a single year in its history—700. Over the 20 years between the 1970’s and the 1990’s Aston Martin produced only 5000 cars. By 2004, the company had the capacity to produce that many engines in a single year—still by hand, using a single technician for each engine.
Under Ford’s ownership, the cars were modernized considerably. In addition to being produced more efficiently, they were engineered to be more reliable as well. Aston also returned to motor racing and the brand was revived once again. Unfortunately, financial issues arose (big surprise—right?) and Ford sold a majority stake in the company in 2007 to a business consortium led by David Richards, which closed the Newport Pagnell works that same year. Some 13,000 cars had been built there since 1955. The Austrian company Magna Steyr builds Aston Martin cars today.
As of this writing, Richards, along with investment banker John Singer and two Kuwaiti companies (Investment Dar and Adeem Investment) own the company—along with Ford.
However, if past is prologue, it’s only a matter of time before the company sells again.
No need to worry though, like the phoenix, Aston Martin cars always rise again.