In the grand panoply of automakers, none is more earnest than Aston Martin. When we spoke to him in England recently, Andy Palmer, CEO, explained the company’s chief conceit: “Our policy is to make the most beautiful cars in the world.” And if business practices “don’t come back to policy,” he continued, “it’s a waste.” Palmer promised more down the road than just good looks. We’d all been joking that Americans call a standard transmission a “stick shift” (after all, it’s not actually a stick, is it?) when I asked the question: will a manual transmission remain, even in the face of heavily computerized driving experiences?
“As long as I’m CEO of the company,” he said, “there will be a manual in the range.” That commitment to the brand’s sporting heritage is thorough, authentic, and apparent not only in conversation with Palmer, but also in every car the company has ever made.
It’s easy to feel dubious about a “manuals are here to stay” claim; after all, Ferrari officials had always promised to never make an SUV but flip-flopped on that prospect early this year — a grave sin if ever there was one. But I believe Palmer because after we spoke, I became one of the first four American journalists to drive the new Vanquish S Volante; I did so all around England. We also toured the Aston Martin headquarters and factory, where each car is still hand built. I saw with my own eyes Aston Martin Works, where new and vintage cars of all stripes are welcome and cherished, serviced, refurbished, restored, customized, reconfigured, built anew. The whole process is viscerally British: neither aggressive nor boastful, but still completely earnest. When you see these cars being formed, Palmer’s words automatically echo around in your head.
Just north of 80,000 Aston Martins have ever been made in the over 100 years since the company’s founding. That is, Palmer was quick to point out, the “same as Toyota makes in two days.” Moreover, currently “more than half are sold in the United Kingdom” — a point that makes a great deal of sense, as Aston Martin is really the last true British automaker at any scale. Scores of British people are proud of the fine cars carefully assembled in their own backyard. Even more staggering a statistic is that somewhere around 95 percent of all Aston Martins ever produced (bar napkin math equates that to over 75,000) can still be accounted for. Granted, many of those are in collections or garaged and never breathed upon by the public, but many — as I saw on my many tours — are very much driven.