The Drive Interview: Aston Martin CEO Dr. Andy Palmer
The charismatic CEO on leaving a mark, why V-12s can survive another decade, and how America is saving the manual transmission.
Aston Martin was teetering on the edge. Decades of listless stewardship had rendered the British marque impotent—even 007 himself swapped his traditional armed DB for something built in Bavaria. Five years ago, with everything hanging in the balance, a new CEO assumed the helm. Most believed it’d be a fool’s errand. Dr. Andy Palmer, a proud son of England, didn’t question Aston Martin’s future for a right second.
Palmer grew up in the West Midlands, where two professions dominate the landscape: Tourism and engineering. At 16, Palmer wound up as an apprentice for a major auto parts manufacturer. And while others studied for their exams, brandished their favorite footballers' jerseys, and chased their preferred sex, Palmer scrutinized the details of the engineering he was lucky enough to behold firsthand. That apprenticeship sparked a lifelong obsession with the car industry, one that saw him rise from a low-level manager at Nissan in 1991 to executive vice president and quasi-second-in-command to former Renault-Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn. It's stunning to compare their career tracks since then.
In going from Nissan to CEO of Aston Martin, Palmer left the mass-market world and took command of a global luxury brand that in his mind “builds the most beautiful cars on the road.” Success was anything but guaranteed. Kneecapped by the recession, past corporate mistakes, and a dated product line, Aston Martin was still hemorrhaging tens of millions of dollars a year (and an equivalent amount in cultural capital) when Palmer grabbed the wheel in 2014 and steered the company back into the black en route to a 2018 IPO on the London Stock Exchange.
Palmer’s telling of the situation is far more modest—a character trait you immediately pick up on after spending time with him. But his task was further complicated by both the media and his colleagues. Reporters and executives alike believed the challenge of revitalizing the Aston Martin brand was nearly insurmountable. Those same voices laughed And when Palmer announced his landmark Second Century Plan in 2016, which entailed launching seven new cars by 2021, comparing it to the lofty goals of others that ultimately fizzled in the wind. The name Dany Bahar—the former head of Lotus who wowed Geneva one year, only to become known as the man who almost killed the brand—was parroted often.
Three years later, with the seven-car onslaught on track and the publicly-traded company making record profits, Aston Martin’s charismatic CEO is clearly looking further into the future than anyone could have believed. The doubters have been silenced, for now. The Drive met up with Dr. Palmer ahead of Pebble Beach—where it’s been hinted we’ll see the production DBX SUV debut—to chat about his life, career, and after all he’s accomplished, what he still wants to do.
The Drive: You’re known for your attention to detail, working late into the night and personally inspecting the first 1,000 DB11s. Was that exacting attention something that was missing at Aston Martin in the past?
Andy Palmer: I spent an awful lot of time at the factory. I mean, I don't have a bed though.
TD: Not yet.
AP: [laughs] Not yet. I slept in my chair. But you know, that was...Aston was capable of making really good cars. There's no question. Though, at that time in our history, there was a conflict between the survival of the company and the necessity for the cash flow coming from those new cars, which everybody was obviously aware of. And the necessity that an Aston Martin has to have the best possible quality. It wasn't fair to put anybody other than me at the end of the line to make that decision. Because for every car that I turned around, that was putting pressure on the cash flow. And there wasn't anybody that cares more about cash flow than the Chief Executive.
TD: Makes sense.
AP: I used that moment because everybody knew how important it was. I used that moment to say to everybody, "Look, you can see it by my actions. The quality is more important than anything else. We are nothing. We might be nothing if we don't get the quality right." So, at the beginning of that exercise, the first four or five hundred cars, I would say I rejected every single one of them.
AP: Because you know, you can always find a problem with a new car.
TD: Well, especially as an engineer.
AP: Yeah, and you know, I was getting to know the car and getting obsessive with fitment and panels being flush in particular. But also some of the other stuff too. And we had supply issues—ramping up a new car, as you do. Yet those cars that went out have my name on it, and I'm proud of what we did. During that period, we were supposed to do, I think, 1,200 cars. We did 1,004. So we lost, let's say in round numbers, around 200 cars. Those thousand cars were good enough for the business to survive. You know what, it was a tough time, but I actually thoroughly enjoyed it.
TD: Did you have any help keeping focused and awake during that period? Was it coffee? Cocaine?
AP: [laughs] I drink tea obsessively. I brought some with me to the States for this trip. And, do you know, one of the nicest things about British culture is breakfast. I mean, my wife wouldn't let me have, you know, bacon sandwiches at home. So, during that cold Christmas, we had a guy making them at the factory, it was just like spoiling yourself. It's stuff you'd never get away with at home. But you get a camaraderie from doing that stuff, right?
AP: But honestly? I really, really enjoyed it. I was new to the company, so, relatively speaking, it was a great opportunity to bond with people that you don't necessarily come across every day.
TD: And that seems to be a theme we've observed with Aston Martin over recent years. You’ve developed a kind of family atmosphere. Was that on purpose or did it happen naturally?
AP: I often use the expression of family. Because it does mean that we can shout and scream at each other. It's all part of shared values, shared goals. Forty percent of the workforce bought shares when we went public, which is an extraordinarily high level. People putting their own money in.
TD: I mean, that's confidence.
AP: Yeah. Everybody wears team kit.
TD: You once said that Aston Martin’s dealerships are the first and last ports of call and that without them, the company wouldn’t be around. In the digital age where we can scroll and select our exact spec, do you still feel the dealership model is sound?
AP: It's the most obvious representation of what your brand is, yeah. Well, the way that you express your digital has to be consistent with the brand too, right? Digital, just because it's digital doesn't make it gold. Hopefully, if you go onto our website, you'll see photography in the most beautiful way and cause you to come into the dealership. Even when I tweet, which is quite often…
TD: [laughs] We follow you.
AP: [laughs] Generally speaking, I try to be sophisticated, like our brand, but at the same time, there’s a hint of humor there. Which I think is part of being British. It’s that, even when we’re presenting refinement, we’re still taking the piss out of ourselves. I hope it comes across in the way we do it corporately, but also personally. [laughs]
TD: How does that British sensibility and dry humor come to terms with Brexit?
AP: First of all, Brexit's—in the things that we represent as a nation—is really unusual. 'Cause usually we're the rock-solid, reliable "don't do anything mad" kind of a nation, right? This is out of character. Out of character that we find ourselves out of control. We find ourselves as a nation in a rather strange point of time. There are two implications for Aston Martin.
TD: Which are?
AP: First, tariffs. So there's a 10-percent tariff that goes into trading. Obviously means the cars become more expensive, so, theoretically at least, your volume will come down, 'cause there's a mathematical relationship between volume and price. Theoretically, we'd lose volume in Europe. On the other hand, Ferraris and Lamborghinis, and actually Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, will lose market share in the UK, 'cause they've got the tariff coming this direction.
AP: Undoubtedly, the pound sterling will tank. Which a weaker pound would actually help our profitability, in a manner of speaking. We could say there is an upside there because if we're not passing the tariff onto our customers in Europe and we're getting the benefits of the tariff in the UK, theoretically you should be able to sell more cars. But let's call it a wash, 'cause it's easier to call it a wash. It's an act of self-harm in many respects.
TD: And the second?
AP: Let's say the tariffs aren't a problem. What is a problem is friction at the borders. Because, like every other car company, we build on a just-in-time basis. Last year we had 12.3 million parts that were shipped to the factory. There's a stack offloaded about every 30 minutes. Delays at the port are a problem.
TD: We've seen reports that say that it could go on for, like, six weeks?
AP: The truth is nobody has a clue. You know? The British politicians, the hard Brexiteers will say, "Well, you know what, we'll just throw the gates open on our side. So you won't have a problem on our side, 'cause we'll let everything in." Okay, that's great. But 34 percent of our parts cross The [English] Channel more than two times. For example, the pallets that the engines come on, they've got to be shipped back to Germany to get the next engine. And if the door's not open on the other side, you're stuck. It's a cycle. In reality, that doesn't help very much. What we ended up doing up till March was increasing our stock holding and looking at alternative routes into the country rather than just going through Calais-Dover.
TD: Do you think it's possible to negotiate a Brexit? Or do you think that they’ll just keep pushing the date off, keep pushing the date because the Members of Parliament don't want it? Will it end up with another referendum?
AP: Well, I hope we don't push the date off 'cause actually the worst thing for the car industry right now is indecision. The car industry all over the world is pretty good at dealing with changes, and whether it's tariff changes between Mexico and Brazil or something else. If you know what you're dealing with, you can cope with it. What you can't cope with is indecision, because you can't make investment decisions. From my perspective, I'd rather have a hard Brexit than just indecision, just putting it off and putting it off.
TD: Does Brexit affect Aston Martin's image? Does it affect its long-term success and its perceived heritage?
AP: We're inextricably linked with Britishness. Is Britishness damaged by Brexit? I think in the short term, it raises questions. The question is, can you get over it? If you keep this indecision I think there’s a possibility for longer-term damage. Our image and Britain's image in many respects are the same. We’re hand-crafted, reliable, beautiful, historical. We reflect that Britishness and we do that proudly. Let's hope it's not damaged. I mean, that's why I say the quicker you can get past this, the better.
TD: Moving quickly also seems to be one of your strengths. A lot of people were questioning the Second Century Plan when you first announced it. Do you feel vindicated with the success that Aston Martin has seen since then?
AP: That's interesting. I haven't been asked that question before, actually. Yeah, there were people, there were a lot of cynics. If we go back to Geneva 2015, I think a lot of people would have thought, uh, "We've got another Dany Bahar here, selling the dream." But the difference was there was something called a Hoshin Kanri matrix that sat behind Second Century Plan, which is a very, very, very detailed, closed-loop management system. We reviewed for risk and opportunities every week. It has policy, strategy, tactics, owners, KPI, and every quarter we do a full round-up of micro details. So it's not a dream. It's something rooted in reality. I understood everyone couldn’t help…
TD: Questioning it?
AP: Yes. We're having the same questions now since we went public. A different set of people, the financial analysts now, questioning it in the same way, I suppose. But I do feel a great sense of satisfaction on having turned you guys around. And on the basis that you know a lot more about the car industry and how hard it is.
TD: Building a car is damn difficult.
AP: Yes, it is. It's interesting, 'cause lots of people want to build electric cars these days, right? And lots of startups. They think that they've cracked it when they've worked out how to build a motor and a battery and the reality is, that's the easy bit. It's mechanics and electronics...
AP: Everything that's behind what actually makes it handle properly.
TD: Well, that's a sustainable outlook.
AP: Exactly. Even the concept that it could take you a year to get up to line rate is an anathema. You know, in our world, you go from job one to full line rate in no greater than six weeks. And that's just normal. But if you haven't done your homework, if you haven't done your production preparation, you'll not get there, as certain companies will show you.
TD: [laughs] We don't have to go into them.
AP: [laughs] Exactly.
TD: Is there a certain car that you ushered in that you're most proud of?
AP: The one that will be the halo of the company is undoubtedly Valkyrie. And undoubtedly, it's the hardest car I've ever done in my career.
TD: You were at Nissan before working under Carlos Ghosn. What’s your take on his legal issues?
AP: It’s difficult to commentate on because I don't know. I was his number two or number three, but I was always very operational, so I never had sight of ...
TD: The books?
AP: The books, if you want. Or his books. Where I come out on that is rather than feeling sorry for Saikawa or feeling sorry for Ghosn, I feel sorry for the people there, 'cause they're hugely committed. And you've got the Alliance that we all worked bloody hard to make that work. Now, you see it disintegrating in front of you. That's really tough. They're really good people. The staff of Nissan that was with me, that was a turnaround. That was a company that was on its ass. But we produced some fabulous cars. I'm really proud of cars like Qashqai and the Nissan Leaf.
TD: Those were ahead of the curve.
AP: Talent's still there. I'm hopeful that there's somebody out there that can reignite their talent.
TD: What defines Aston Martin moving forward?
AP: The connection between the past and future is this obsession with making the most beautiful cars in the world. When we have to trade off anything, if we have to trade off high top speed versus beauty, we go beauty, for example.
TD: That's an interesting tactic, especially in today's market where speed, power, stats are so important to the clientele that it seems that Aston Martin is speaking to. Does that mean your clientele is different than, say, McLaren's?
AP: The stats say yes, but as we move into our mid-engine car strategy, then you're going to get some crossover, for sure. Nevertheless, even in our mid-engine strategy, where you are chasing numbers, the compromise will always be in the favor of beauty. [Points to a DBS Superleggera in the background] That car, you could reduce the drag and get another mile an hour. It’d make it a little less attractive, but faster. But then it wouldn't be an Aston.
TD: It's already quite quick.
AP: I think that sits pretty well alongside a Ferrari 812 Superfast to be frank. The 812's a bit more horsepower, it's a bit more frenetic. This DBS Superleggera is an easier car to drive, a little bit more refined. But at the end of the day, it has 900 Newton-meters of torque. How much torque do you need?
TD: And those numbers are a little bit...conservative?
AP: [laughs] Another trait of the Brits is we tend to understate things. It doesn't matter anyway, at the end of the day, it's the way the car drives and feels that's important.
TD: Speaking of driver’s cars, Valhalla and Valkyrie aren’t exactly Anglo names. Did you have internal pushback when you first chose those?
AP: Mmhmm. They're edgy choices. Frankly, anything that is even vaguely religious will be divisive. Especially when we're talking about an angel and heaven, right? But we think we can get away with it because it's Nordic mythology. I wanted something "V.” If it's an Aston, it's either a DB or a V. And I wanted evocative names. "Vulcan" went down very well and "Valkyrie" was a name that was stuck in my name for a long time. It just seemed so good. I remember naming "Leaf." The original name of that car was "Mixim."
TD: That's not a great name.
AP: [laughs] Right. But Leaf works perfectly, right? So, to some extent, I found that if the theme is right and it feels like a strong name, you'll get over everything else. And as long as you check to make sure that it doesn't mean "snot" in French or something. Because that happened to Nissan. It had a car called Mocho which means "snot" in Spanish. Fortunately, we didn't sell it in Spain, so it didn't matter. Naming is interesting. We have a committee and we debate it. When you name something, you're talking about something that everybody has an opinion on. So it doesn't matter where it is in the company, there's someone that's going to have an opinion. I think Valhalla was vindicated by the way everyone reacted to it. It's been a good strong reaction.
TD: With both the Valhalla and Valkyrie using hybrid technology and electricity playing a larger role in performance across the industry, do you see that technology trickling down to the DB and Vantage ranges?
AP: All Astons will go hybrid. But not plug-in. By the middle of the 2020's you'll see the rollout of hybridization. Some will wait until the next generation, though.
TD: Will they be more performance-oriented hybrids?
AP: Yes. We’re developing a new V-6 engine. Naturally, that means that the capacity of the engine is lower than we would historically have done, which helps you with your CAFE regulations. But what you're doing is you're making a V-6 feel like a V-8 using the hybrid. And then that's the role. It's not strictly speaking fuel economy related. But it could be related to air quality if you're geofencing a downtown, for example. You've got to have enough capacity that you can run on pure electric for X number of kilometers.
TD: Right, because London and other major cities are toying with ICE-banned areas.
AP: Right. Well, as long as it's in the tens of kilometers, then all you're talking about is the sizing of the battery and the recharging strategy of the battery. Where I think it goes wrong is when people start to talk about 50 to 60 kilometers. Because that's what moves you towards plug-in and plug-in is a bad solution. I mean, you're carrying the weight cost of two engine technologies.
TD: Would a full electric be better?
AP: Yes, it would. Which, of course, is where we go with Lagonda. Lagonda is now 100-percent EV. I tend not to be a gray person anyway. I prefer to be on one extreme or the other. But having Lagonda's pure EV from a CAFE point of view also allows me to protect the V-12 on the side.
TD: How long does the V-12 still have?
AP: I think at least until the next generation. Smaller capacity perhaps. There’s some interesting work to do on combustion technology, propagation, thermal efficiencies. The holy grail here is to move the thermal efficiency of the engine more towards 50-percent. Inevitably, that means bringing the capacity down. And that's why hybridization is important. But I can easily imagine the V-12 not just lasting through this generation of cars, but also the next generation. Set aside regulation and you also have to talk about customer desire, too. When I'm here, the question I get asked most about? Manual transmission. Now, who would have thought that? Americans demanding manual transmissions. But for those people that are in this market, which is a passion market, having a manual transmission is really important. As is a V-12.
TD: With the push toward further technologies, i.e. the Valhalla, Lagonda, and Valkyrie, how does that push forward gel with Aston Martin’s past and its customers who demand legacy?
AP: When the bigwigs talk about technology, they're talking about electronics. When I talk about technology, it’s as a mechanical engineer. I'm talking about the body construction. The fact we bonded, the fact that we use composite material, that we use exotic materials, that we have a manual transmission. I think it's part of the DNA of the brand. I don't think I want to be particularly in the leading edge of the latest digital patches. I do want to be on the leading edge of engineering. And what we do on body construction. Shit, I wish I knew about what we do with bonded bodies when I was at Nissan. It improves the torsional, but when we put it through the ovens, we're not only curing the glue, but we're also tempering the aluminum, changing the molecular structure. It's phenomenal technology. And it belongs to us.
TD: We discussed a little about the process with Aston Martin’s Chief Engineer Matt Becker a few months ago. He also mentioned that the company would have a working prototype of the Valkyrie on the road soon. But if he told us any other details, you’d have him shot. Any truth to either?
AP: [laughs] I'm amazed you managed to get Matt to not open his mouth a little bit, 'cause I reckon it's impossible. I don't think I would have been as kind to have shot him. I think I'd have tortured him in different ways.
TD: [laughs] So the Valkyrie?
AP: The car is phenomenal. The first running prototype is days away. It's not a prototype, it's a pre-production build. Where we are quite sophisticated is the work that we've done on simulators. In Formula One, where this car was really birthed, everything is done in a simulator and then replicated. So it's really sophisticated and that's the benefit of working with Red Bull.
TD: You’re working with Red Bull Racing’s smaller simulator, right?
AP: Well, we've got access to the other ones as well. We've been using the simulator for nearly 12 months now. Every day. So we have a pretty good idea about how it drives. And you've gone through the development loop, so the active suspension, the active aero have all been tuned, so that when the car comes out the back, it should be pretty close.
TD: Close to ready?
AP: If it comes out even half as good as the simulated car on the track, it is gonna be phenomenal.
TD: How then are you preparing your customers for this? By your own testament, Valkyrie is going to be a car that most aren’t prepared for. It’s going to have capabilities that are beyond 98-percent of people on the road.
AP: 99.999999999 percent. I mean, it’s a Formula 1 car. You can only suggest to people in some way they need more training. Some of my customers definitely have Formula One experience. So those are fine. [laughs] But for the majority of them—and I'm a customer of Valkyrie as well, so this includes me—the car is way, way too good for them. So you're absolutely correct. I'm sure you've done Corse Clienti in the Ferrari world. Ours is called AMR Driver's’ Club. Basically, you'll have the opportunity to be taught without being prescriptive about it. We'll show you how to drive a GT4 car. We'll show you how to drive maybe a Vulcan and work up from there to Valkyrie.
TD: The limits are so high.
AP: They are. Look, I know that on the simulator I was able to drive around Spa-Francorchamps at a level equivalent to a Formula Three car in a Valkyrie.
TD: That's fast.
AP: That’s only 30, 40 minutes in and not particularly spending a lot of time behind the wheel. The car is phenomenal. The number of people that have sat in a Valkyrie or will sit in a Valkyrie is probably less than the people that have been to the Space Station. It’s going to be special.
TD: After all that you’ve accomplished, what else do you want to do?
AP: [long pause] You know, the great thing about the auto industry is it's ever-changing. There's always something in front of you that is..."I want to do that, I want to achieve this, I'm wanting to do that." At Nissan, I was really excited about doing autonomous and electric cars. Right now, I'm really excited about launching an SUV and a mid-engine car. But I can't…
AP: Set aside the engineering of beautiful cars, which is great. Set aside the turnaround plan and the company being very successful. I'm 56 years old. This is my 40th year in the car industry. I really want two things, really. One is to be remembered. And the other is to recreate my introduction to this industry. There’s the Second Century Plan which is about creating a lasting, remaining British car company. A true British car company. My legacy being handed over to my successor, bred within the context of me being in the company. And there are five people in the company right now that I would say, I reckon one of those is gonna be my successor.
TD: Interesting. And your recreation?
AP: The other thing is, well, six months ago I established a charitable foundation. The Palmer Foundation. And it's a little bit like recreation. I had the opportunity—'cause there was a reasonable British car industry 40 years ago—as a 16-year-old lad to go and do an apprenticeship. If you look at the UK now, all of our industry is foreign-owned and it's much harder to get those crude skills. What I'm hoping is that I can get to a point where significant numbers of youngsters that perhaps wouldn't have found their way into engineering or apprenticeships, and maybe are being forced into either going into university or drop out, basically have a career path. Whereas 40 years ago I was passionate about making just better cars in the world, now my passion is a bit more human in that respect, which is, as I say, successfully passing the baton to the next generation. We’ve already raised half a million pounds so far. Now we need to find out how to best put it to work. We can do some serious damage with that amount of money.
TD: It seems like you have the drive to do it.
AP: Well, the same passion that made these cars behind you will go into making sure we've got...
TD: The same attention to detail?
This interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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