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Good article from Forbes on Aston:


007 Drives an Aston
Jerry Flint 04.10.06, 12:00 AM ET


We all remember Scott Fitzgerald saying, "The rich are different from you and me." And Hemingway answering, "Yes, they have more money." They had better cars, too. That wasn't exactly true just a few years ago. The Rollses and Bentleys weren't

that much better than a Mercedes or BMW, and just about anybody could lease a BMW or Mercedes. But the old names are getting polished, creating a new class of cars exclusive enough for the very rich. Better yet, they're profitable for their corporate owners, who have turned perennial losers into very successful brands.

I'm talking about Aston Martin, Bentley and Maserati. The point of this column isn't to tell you which supercar to buy but to prove that with intelligent leadership, car companies, no matter how down-and-out, can be turned around. And believe me, these three were down-and-out.

Start with Aston Martin, which goes back to 1914 and was always a rich man's toy--the company, that is. Ford bought Aston in 1987. You want exclusive? In 1992 global sales were only 42. By 1999 they had climbed all the way to 622, and last year the total was 5,000. The big change came in 2000, when Ulrich Bez took over. An ex-Porsche man, he's an auto engineer specializing in sports cars. For the first time Aston has a three-car lineup, ranging from the $110,000 V-8 Vantage to the $260,000 Vanquish S. The best is still to come. Aston has shown a new four-door sports sedan, called the Rapide, that will be out in 2007. "Delectable" is the only word I can think of. It has much the same underbody (the body beneath the outer skin) as the other two models--that's to hold costs down. An Aston Martin will be featured in the new James Bond film, Casino Royale. (Remember, the only way we knew Aston Martin was still around in 1964 was that James Bond drove one in Goldfinger.)

Porsche is readying a four-door, too, but Aston will beat Porsche in the race to the showroom. All I can say is get your order in early for the Rapide. This is one move Ford can be proud of, especially after the disasters at Jaguar. The right men in the right place are doing the right job.

Here's an even better success story: Bentley. Founded in 1919, it joined with Rolls-Royce in 1931. The luxury brands split in 1998, with Bentley landing in Volkswagen's hands and Rolls in BMW's. Frankly, buying the Bentley nameplate looked like another futile gesture, at huge expense, to push VW upscale by making a few hundred big boxy cars a year.

But Bentley, led by Franz-Josef Paefgen, former head of Audi, fooled the world. He created a gorgeous 12-cylinder all-wheel-drive, two-door coupe called the Continental GT, for $149,000, half the price of the old Bentleys. He has followed up with a four-door sedan version called the Continental Flying Spur, with 552hp and a top speed of 195mph. Perfect name, perfect shape. This spring comes a convertible.

Remember the Volkswagen Phaeton, a failing effort by VW to create a Mercedes competitor? The car was excellent, but luring customers with $100,000 to spend into a VW showroom is another story. The Phaeton is not dying in vain: Its innards were used as the base to create the Continentals. Bentley also builds the bigger Arnage ($240,000). Combined worldwide sales of all Bentley models have risen from 1,116 in 2002 to 8,627 this year. That's enough. "We will be stabilizing our production at around this level," says Paefgen. To bring in more profit he's planning a small number of ritzier models, his "Diamond" series.

My third success story is Maserati. It's not there yet, but I'm betting it will be. The company was founded in 1914 and bought by Fiat in 1993. Sales have jumped from 797 in 1994 to 5,600 last year under new Maserati Chief Karl-Heinz Kalbfell, who had been running Rolls-Royce for BMW. The model range includes two-door coupes, convertibles (the Spyder) and the Quattroporte four-doors running to a base sticker of $115,900. The designs and interiors are simply gorgeous.

Rebuilding a superluxury line is as tough a job as you can find. Those customers are picky. But the lesson here is that a turnaround can be done. And if it can be done on a luxury car, it can be done on a middle-market one. It takes wisdom to hire great designers and courage to accept their designs. Great engineering comes from people who know something about cars.

At the moment I don't think GM or Ford has the talent or guts to do a Rapide for one of its homegrown makes. I don't think most American car executives even know the difference between breathtaking and strange. But that could change, too.

Jerry Flint, a former Forbes Senior Editor, has covered the automobile industry since 1958. Visit his home page at www.forbes.com/flint.



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