Friday, 23 November 2007

Aston Martin Rapide to be built abroad?

Today's FT had what appears to be a detailed, well-sourced story saying that the new four-door Aston Martin Rapide is likely to be built outside the UK. Four continental European supppliers - Valmet, Pininfarina, Karmann and Magna - are named as possible partners.

The first thing this list tells me is that this is probably not a classical cash-driven off-shoring move. Pininfarina has a great pedigree both as a designer and maker of fully-built cars. Karmann and Magna have also assembled specialist models for prestige manufacturers such as Mercedes, including, in Karmann's case, cars with such challenging features, from a design and manufacturing point of view, as folding metal roofs. Valmet, of course, has produced a very large proportion of the Porsche Boxsters on the road today; as far as I know, nobody has ever suggested that these Finnish-built cars are not as good as their German-made counterparts. On the basis of these companies' track records, I have no doubt Aston will be able to get the Rapide built to the required standard. As I've mentioned here before, some of Karmann's big contracts for fully-built cars are running out over the next year or so, so this company will especially welcome the chance to bid for Aston work.

Free trader that I am, though, I still feel very slightly uneasy about Astons being built abroad, simply because Britishness is such an important part of their identity. Mind you, nobody seems to get too upset at the German Ford-built engines fitted to some of the current models, or the sought-after Zagato cars that have featured in Aston's range in the past.

So if cost isn't the main reason for this possible outsourcing of Rapide production, what is? It looks like capacity constraints at Aston's existing UK facilities are the main reason - the current models are selling very well, and deservedly so.

I think the next UK manufacturing operation to bump up against capacity constraints is likely to be BMW's MINI plant at Oxford, where the new Clubman has joined the standard model and the convertible on the production line. Once again a manufacturer will have to try to judge whether the appeal of a quintessentially British product is likely to be fatally undermined if it is actually built outside the UK (for better or worse, I suspect the answer to that question is a resounding 'no').

Talking of the Clubman, I have now got my hands on this at last, which is the second car I'm testing during a busy two-Verdict weekend. More on that later.

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