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How Marek Reichman will reinvent Aston Martin design (again)

sturmeyaward2024
sturmeyaward2024

In a stellar career that he insists has “years to run”, Aston Martin design chief Marek Reichman has led the creation of more than 50 Aston Martin and Lagonda models in 19 years.

It’s an achievement like no other in the marque’s 111-year history, yet while unique, it is just one of a suite of compelling reasons why Autocar is delighted to present Reichman with the 2024 Sturmey Award for innovation.

Perhaps the most obvious and striking reason is the unfailingly progressive nature of Reichman’s work, especially since he has maintained this upward trajectory under no fewer than five Aston Martin CEOs, all diverse in style, emphasis and character.

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Starting at a point where the company was selling two decent but slightly steady sports models (DB9 and V8 Vantage), Reichman has more than doubled the model range, has launched a family of stratospherically priced special models, has built a bigger and much more versatile Aston Martin design group and, with some boldness, has opened the company to unfamiliar but much-needed new product types.

Most of all, he has upped greatly the built-in guts and determination of Aston Martins and unashamedly injected them with chutzpah.

Astons may once have been characterised as well-mannered GTs for people of breeding, but Reichman reckoned they needed to embody performance and capability, too, and get more youthful. The beautiful, muscular shapes he has devised since his arrival have really given Aston Martin’s chassis and powertrain people something to live up to.

The rule-breaking DBX SUV, launched four years ago and recently updated, now accounts for an indispensable 50% of Aston sales and has been every bit as successful as Porsche’s Cayenne or Taycan at carrying the maker’s brand values forward – without being an actual sports car or a GT.

It’s hard to believe these days that straying from those old-school values was ever a concern.

Along the way, Reichman and his team have embraced revolutionary techniques and materials and are diving into electrification with a gusto that would have baffled the traditionalists of yore.

Best of all is the way they have boosted design quality: today’s Astons are viewed with the same admiration and awe as marques that were once thought superior, such as Bentley, Ferrari and Lamborghini.

One of the cornerstones of Reichman’s philosophy for ultra-luxury cars is that “customers buy beauty”.

He sees producing beautiful, powerful, characterful designs as an essential element in Aston Martin’s complex financial rebuild that is still very much a work in progress if the financial press is to be believed.

Reichman wasn’t headhunted into Aston; neither did he answer an advertisement.

Following design studies at Teesside University and a master’s degree at the Royal College of Art, he joined Rover’s design studio but was soon diverted to BMW’s Designworks in California, joining as a senior designer of Land Rovers and leading design of the Range Rover L322 through the 1990s.

In 2000, as the L322 was being launched, he moved to other jobs in Ford’s Premier Automotive Group after BMW sold Land Rover to the Blue Oval.

“The group design boss of the time was J Mays, and after a year or so working on Ford and Lincoln projects, he made it clear he wanted me to lead another of the PAG brands,” says Reichman.

“Volvo was one option – I really liked its pure brand ethos – but then he announced there was a bit of an emergency developing at Aston because Henrik Fisker might be leaving. He reckoned I should meet the new CEO, Ulrich Bez. I flew to see Ulrich, and a 20-minute introduction turned into a two-hour monologue from him, which I soon learned was routine. But I felt we got along well, although he was poker-faced. Looking around, I was struck by the impact you could have at Aston: so much history but not yet enough product. Ulrich Bez made it clear he had a plan for that.”

Things happened fast. Bez liked action and was brilliantly effective at making Aston’s case to Ford’s US bigwigs. It took him just a few weeks to make Reichman an Aston man and get him working back across the other side of the Atlantic.

The task ahead was simple but huge: to improve dramatically the Aston range via a brilliantly versatile chassis plan called VH (for Vertical and Horizontal), but also to set up a new HQ right next to Jaguar Land Rover at Gaydon, just off the M40 motorway near Warwick.

“Ulrich told me that running the company from the old Newport Pagnell and Bloxham factories made him feel like he was operating from his parents’ spare room,” said Reichman.

Together, Bez and Reichman and their teams devised an action-packed model plan – and a building plan for Gaydon.

Early on they set about devising a high-performance DBS (from what Reichman describes as a “rough-arsed” DB9 concept called Black Betty) just as the late Cubby Broccoli, legendary producer of the Bond films, decided to put the master spy back into an Aston. The DBS was tailor-made for the job.

Life at Aston through the Bez years wasn’t easy (“I learned a lot about diplomacy,” says Reichman), but the company had greatly revised and expanded its models and capability by the time the CEO announced his retirement in 2013 as he turned 70, and it had also produced one of its greatest cars, the £1.15 million One-77, of which only 77 were to be built

Like many, Reichman believes that car really hit a sweet spot – and if you ask him to list his favourite Astons, it’s probably the first he will mention.

Aston previously had a tradition of making low-volume, super-expensive models – usually to fend off bankruptcy – but the One-77 was undoubtedly the most successful.

It had a unique face (the convex grille, in an era of small grilles, covered 60% of the front of the car), and the haunches were almost unbelievably dramatic.

Even critics agreed the proportions were almost perfect. Reichman is careful about stealing Ferrari’s thunder, but he believes you can look at a One-77 much as you do Ferrari’s icon, the 250 SWB.

“You know when you’re creating a special car,” he says. “You can feel it’s going to last. But ‘timeless’ isn’t quite the right expression for the quality it has. It’s more like ‘beautiful forever’.”

If it was so successful, I ask, how come you never did something similar in successive cars, the way other designers do? Reichman laughs.

“Well, in design you have a kind of wardrobe of things you can use. But if you use the same stuff all the time, it soon starts looking old. And in my book, the appearance of a new product can only be about the future,” he says.

Reichman rolls through his experience of Aston CEOs. He got on very well with Bez’s eventual replacement, Andy Palmer, although he didn’t much enjoy the rudderless year it took to find the right man.

Palmer knew the industry and its processes well, loved data, respected his designers and was a great advocate and planner.

Under him, seven new cars were planned for the next seven years, and some of that plan survives. The rule-breaking DBX SUV was proposed and realised (in a new Welsh factory) under him and has saved the company.

But Palmer didn’t last after Aston’s somewhat disastrous 2018 stock market flotation, and he was replaced by ex-AMG engineer Tobias Moers, great at developing cars but supposedly not the most personable individual to work for.

So many departed that Lawrence Stroll, the Canadian brand expert who was by now controlling the firm and had hired Moers, was forced to suggest he do the same.

Reichman wasn’t sorry. CEO number four was Amedeo Felisa, the hugely experienced former Ferrari boss, who arrived with his engineer colleague Roberto Fedeli as chief technical officer.

The pair have greatly improved models, refined and upgraded Aston mechanicals, improved components supply and looked the electrification era in the eye (although no results just yet).

They have even launched a new V12 engine. But Felisa, well past most people’s retirement age, announced some time ago that his tenure was to be just two years, so Stroll has arranged for the urbane and hugely capable ex-Bentley boss Adrian Hallmark to take the controls “in October at the latest”.

Judging by the success Hallmark has made of Bentley, Reichman is expecting adroit leadership but doesn’t underestimate the size of the management task.

“Felisa and Fedeli were traditional engineering men,” he says. “They knew how to steer the ship the way it was capable of going. But Adrian has to steer into territory that isn’t well known. Of course he’ll have know-how from his former employer. He won’t be able to share it, but he’ll certainly know what he’s seen.”

In 19 years Reichman has launched some rule-breaking Astons, including the four-door Rapide, the tiny Toyota-based Cygnet (“miles too far ahead of its time”) and the DBX (“it’s 50% of what we do today”), so I ask whether he sees another white space that Aston could fill. And see it he does.

“I see a big space between a sports coupé and a car like the DBX,” he says, “but it’s not a saloon. Look at our DB12. It’s 1320mm tall and a DBX is close to 1600mm. I see a lot of space between DB12 and DBX, maybe something a little taller than the Bentley Continental GT at 1495mm. At that height it could easily have four doors and a shorter wheelbase – especially when you add electrification.

You don’t have this huge, heavy lump of steel that needs to go somewhere inconvenient. The body overhangs can be more compact, too, because without the engine and fuel tank you can design them better for crashing.

“I’m not saying we’ll do a car like this, but I’ll tell you one thing: whatever we design will be powerful.

“The strategists tell us the horsepower battle will end at some point. But it won’t. There’s a natural tendency for people to want to say – and show – that they’ve got more power than you. Really powerful cars now have 2000bhp, and I don’t believe that’s the end. Why? Because chassis technology will allow you to use it.”

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