The first thing you need to know about Aston Martin is that it is a miracle the company still exists. Since its founding in 1914 by Robert Bamford and Lionel Martin, the company has gone through more than half a dozen owners, an overall win at Le Mans (1959 with Shelby and Salvadori) and nearly icon status thanks to its involvement with the James Bond movies. The reason the company changed hands so many times is it has never made a consistent profit and has drained more than one of its rich owner's reserves in the struggle to stay in business. And yet the company has survived, all the while creating some of the most charismatic and quintessentially British pre-war and post-war sports cars.
The Aston part of the Aston Martin name came from Lionel Martin's successful performance at the Aston Hillclimb in Herfordshire in a car he and Robert Bamford had prepared. When the pair started building their own cars in 1915, they took the Aston Martin name for their creation. After an interruption for World War I, the pair began building cars, primarily for competition, and broke 10 world speed records at Brooklands in 1922. With rich patrons like Count Zborowski, Aston Martin built a pair of cars for the 1922 French Grand Prix. But the emphasis on competition cars had severe financial repercussions, and in 1925 the company went into receivership.
But the company wouldn't die. The Charnwood family, which had already invested heavily in the company, took over, and Augustus Cesare Bertelli, a gifted and practical engineer, came on board to create the classic Aston Martins of the pre-war period. The International, Le Mans and Ulster models became regular race winners and brought a whole generation of gentlemen racers into the Aston fold. This didn't keep the company from changing hands again in 1932.
After World War II, a new owner named David Brown bought Aston Martin and another British sportscar builder, Lagonda. David Brown was already a successful company that specialized in tractors and other agricultural machinery. The DB2 (DB stood for David Brown) arrived in 1950 and was a huge success, both in terms of sales and on the racetrack. The stunningly beautiful DB4 was introduced in 1958 with styling by Touring of Milan.. With a successful production car in place, Brown looked to build more specialized racing cars to compete in the World Sports Car Championship. Aston won this championship in 1959 with the DBR1, also claiming outright victory at Le Mans that year.
The '60s saw the evolution of the DB4 into the DB5 and DB6 and eventually the DB6 Volante convertible. But the use of an Aston Martin in the James Bond movie "Goldfinger" probably had more to do with the company's fame than any of its many competition successes. Agent 007's Aston had machine guns, revolving license plates, armor plating, smoke screens, oil slicks and even an ejector seat. Suddenly every kid in America knew what an Aston Martin was and wanted one. Sales increased, and for a time the company was riding high.
The '70s was another dark period for Aston Martin. David Brown sold the company in 1972. A series of fast but thirsty V8-powered sports cars were a difficult prospect in an age of oil embargos and strict emission controls. Production dropped to a couple dozen cars, and the company was for sale again. This time it was purchased by a group led by American Peter Sprague, although that lasted only until 1981 when the company again changed hands. A return to international racing with the Aston Martin Nimrod was short-lived, and the company struggled along until 1987 when Ford Motor Company acquired 75% of the ownership of the company, bringing some stability to the tiny automaker. In 1993, Aston Martin introduced the DB7, and it quickly became the most successful Aston Martin ever. In 1994 Ford acquired the remaining shares in the company.
In 2001 Aston Martin launched the hugely powerful and technologically advanced Vanquish and began a program that will result in several new models, including one code-named the AM305, a Porsche Carrera-sized sports car that will be sold in much larger numbers than previous Aston Martins. Sales are expected to reach 5,000 cars per annum over the next couple of years, up from the current 1,500 or so Astons that are being produced each year. An appearance of the new Vanquish in the new James Bond movie "Dies Another Day" this fall is expected to have the same image-building effect that "Goldfinger" had in the 1960s.
Meanwhile, the company hasn't forgotten where it came from. The DBR1 that won Le Mans is owned by a private collector who allows it to be raced in European historic events and lends it to the factory for special occasions. The company has a charming Works Service department at Newport Pagnell where dozens of older Aston Martins can be seen, some awaiting minor service while others are in for a full restoration. This can be quite expensive, but Aston Martin owners are more interested in preserving what each of their cars represents: A unique part of the plucky British motoring history and the spirit that wouldn't let the Aston Martin name die.