Anyone who has visited the old Aston Martin factory at Newport Pagnell can tell you that it was something out of Dickens: A grimy old place with wizened panel beaters and pale young apprentices, all wearing leather aprons, pounding out aluminum body panels on filthy old shot bags with 100-year-old hammers, with just enough light to work by, coming in through the wavy glass windows and the smell of cigarette smoke everywhere. Nonetheless, they made beautiful cars this way for eight decades.
It has taken nearly 15 years of hard work on both sides of the Atlantic, but now it looks like Ford Motor Company and its luxury sports car subsidiary, Aston Martin, are finally on the same page. With the introduction of the new DB9 coupe, the company that used to beat and shape and hammer aluminum fenders and door skins and roof panels into proper British sports cars has been dragged into the 21st century to stay.
This is the first Aston Martin in history to be designed, engineered, proved out and virtually crash-tested using the latest in computer-aided design, engineering and manufacturing, and computational fluid dynamics software and work stations (although both tape drawings and clay models were used by the design department). In the real world, a handful of very expensive prototypes went to northern Sweden, to the Ford test track at Lommel, Belgium, to California's Death Valley, to Ford's Desert Proving Ground in Yucca, Ariz., to Las Vegas, and to the UK industry proving ground at Millbrook, in every environment from -30C to +48C, from 0- to 100% humidity, on every known type of road surface.
This new 2+2 will be built in a completely new, ultramodern 467,000 sq-ft assembly plant in Gaydon, Warwickshire, in the British Midlands, not far from Ford's Jaguar and Land Rover operations, and its V12 engines, with castings by Cosworth, will come back to England assembled from a separate engine plant in Cologne, Germany, Ford's European headquarters.
The strikingly beautiful DB9, designed by Danish design whiz Henrik Fisker to have as few cutlines and openings as possible, will be 185 in. long, on a 107.8-in. wheelbase, some 5.8 in. longer than a DB7's, for more interior room and more stable handling. At 73.8 in., it's almost 2 in. wider than a DB7, for more shoulder- and hiproom.
It will be built like no other mass-produced sports car before it, using a combination of aluminum stampings, aluminum extrusions, aluminum castings and magnesium castings, affording it one of the lightest curb weights in its small class. It will not be welded together in the traditional way of auto body welding, but rather it will be welded, bonded and riveted and bolted together into a gorgeous whole of a sports car for the discriminating few. All of the frame's internal spaces are filled with foam to increase rigidity and control noise.
Aston Martin's German managing director, ex-Porsche engineer Dr. Ulrich Bez, said that the DB9 is the key to the company's future expansion: "A sports car with GT levels of comfort and cruising ability, a car you can drive from London to the south of France." He said, "We are the smallest of the small car companies. We have made a key step into the future, and we will continue to be the most prestigious sports car brand in the world."
The DB9 coupe uses a combination of composite fenders and decklid, an all-aluminum body and hood and an aluminum frame. Aston Martin is the first car company in the world to use the ultrasonic welding process, which yields no heat and uses only 5% of the energy needed by conventional electric welders, joining parts together at a molecular level.
The new DB9 is by far the stiffest, strongest and lightest Aston Martin sports car ever built, coming in at a mere 1,710kg or 3,762 lb. While the DB9 is 25% lighter than the DB7 coupe, it is twice as stiff and twice as strong
The new DB9, which takes the place of the DB7, due to go out of production at the end of 2003, will be Aston Martin's volume car and will enable the company to stretch its total annual volume north of 5,000 units, about as many F-150s as Ford makes on one shift.
The gorgeous new sandstone edifice that is the Gaydon headquarters and plant is big-bigger than any previous Aston Martin facility anywhere (the company has had eight different homes in 89 years), but it is not a car manufacturing plant, it's an assembly plant. Its small staff will hand-assemble the DB9 from an aggregation of parts shipped in every few days from a network of suppliers all over Europe and North America.
Hydro Automotive Structures, based in Worcester (although it is a Norwegian firm), will supply the main chassis and body panels already bonded together by its processes. There are additional extrusions from Hydro and body castings by the British firm, Sarginsons. The new Gaydon plant has but a single robot, and its job is to apply the red stripes of adhesive that hold most of the interior panels together, a job more easily, accurately and quickly done by robotics than by hand. The wiring harnesses come from Leoni, the switchgear from Methode, the leather-swathed seats from Recaro and all the interior substrates from Trelleborg.
The DB9 will be powered by an evolutionary version of the Aston Martin dohc 48-valve V12 engine, which itself started out as two Ford 3-liter Duratec V6 engines, from the Ford Contour, welded together.
In the DB9, it will be rated at 450 bhp at 6000 rpm and 420 lb-ft of torque at 5000 rpm. While this figure pales in comparison to some of the engines available from the DB9's prime competitor, the M-B CL coupe, the DB9 is about a 1,000 lb lighter than the Mercedes. Aston Martin says the six-speed manual will do 0 to 60 mph in 4.9 sec., and the automatic will do the same run in 5.1 sec.
In either case, the transmissions of the DB9 are mounted at the rear of the car, driven by a carbon-fiber driveshaft mounted inside a hugely strong and stiff aluminum torque tube cast by HPC that acts as the structural backbone of the car. The ZF six-speed automatic is a completely drive-by-wire transmission and thus has no conventional shifter, either on the steering column or in the floor console. It is instead operated by a row of large "PRND" buttons in the dashboard, with magnesium shifter paddles mounted onto the back side of the steering wheel for manual-mode driving.
The Italian Graziano six-speed manual transaxle is said to shift with speed and ease of greased lightning. Mounting the transmissions at the rear with the differential yields the perfect 50/50 front/rear weight distribution for race-car handling prowess in this relatively lightweight package. The transaxle final-drive ratios will be 3.15:1 for the automatic and 3.54:1 for the manual.
To get the DB9 stopped, AM uses new, grooved aluminum-caliper 14-in. Brembo four-piston disc brakes up front and 13-in. Brembos at the rear, in a chassis fitted with all the modern conveniences: ABS, electronic brake force distribution, brake assist, dynamic stability control and traction control. There will be several Speedline wheels to choose from, all mounting specially designed Bridgestone high-performance tires, sized P235/40ZR19 up front and P275/35ZR19 at the rear.
Suspending the DB9 is a combination of Canadian Multimatic (Dynamic Suspension) coil/shock units, Lemforder control arms, Stampal knuckles and ZF servotronic speed-sensitive power rack-and-pinion steering, worked into a system by Aston Martin's suspension lads under the direction of development boss Jeremy Main.
The sinuous, sensuous DB9 exterior design, with aluminum body castings by Lemforder and aluminum body panels supplied by Mayflower, the same company that builds the famous London black taxis, has a minimum of panels and joints and no separate front or rear bumper protruding to screw up the lines. It is designed to reflect all of the time-honored DB design cues dating back to the DB2 of the 1950s, and it is a stunner, perhaps the most beautiful of all the DB series. The doors rise gently as they open, in order to clear high curbs and add a bit of visual interest.
The leather, chrome and wood interior features Scottish Bridge of Weir leather (from Aberdeen Angus cattle that average 3 years of age, not 15 years, like some of the tired, old dairy cattle used in some automotive interiors) in 20 colors and three different woods-walnut, mahogany and the particularly adventurous bamboo-in an instrument panel design that Fisker says affords the car "the biggest piece of wood in the industry," wood that will age and glow as the car ages. The sounds will come from a high-end Linn six-CD stereo system. A new Motorola four-band phone, the first one in the world, will be offered, with an Aston Martin logo, DB9 motto and V12 engine ring tone built in. Other options include an alarm and immobilizer system, navigation, cruise control and tire-pressure monitoring system.
Each DB9 will get a total of 50 hours' worth of paint shop time, 25 hours of prep and 25 hours to lay on nine coats of the best automotive paint money can buy. In total, it will take about 200 hours to assemble one DB9, in sharp contrast to the previous model, the DB7, which took 350 hours, a 43% reduction-assembly time that will afford Aston Martin higher profits and higher volumes than it has ever had before.
The handbuilt DB9 comes to the U.S. in a few months' time at a price in the range of $150,000 to $170,000, depending on currency fluctuations. After Mr. Ford and Mr. Bond get theirs, then they'll be happy to build one for you. After that, there will be a convertible version, and then a performance derivative, perhaps with bodywork bearing the Zagato Z. Whatever and whenever it comes, the DB9 should be the hottest-selling Aston Martin of all time.