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Aston-Martin survives 100 wild years

A few weeks ago, the wife and I managed to sneak off for a showing of the new Bond flick, Skyfall. I'm not in the movie reviewing business, but it has to be said: not too shabby, felt a bit like a watch commercial at times.

A few weeks ago, the wife and I managed to sneak off for a showing of the new Bond flick, Skyfall. I'm not in the movie reviewing business, but it has to be said: not too shabby, felt a bit like a watch commercial at times.

Otherwise, this particular outing for Bond-James-Bond was marked for its "greatest-hits" feel - a cavalcade of all the best bits of Bond we know and love. Bond fakes his death? Moneypenny shows up? Femme fatale with funny fingernails? Super-villain with a Supercuts hairstyle? Checks all around.

Probably the best moment for me was when a somewhat weather-beaten Daniel Craig pulled open the door on a dimly-lit lockup to reveal a cloth-draped shape. Of course, we all knew what was underneath the dustcover, but even so, as the sheet came off, the audience all gasped happily.

And there it was, the most-famous movie car of them all. A silver screen icon that made its debut the same year as Dame Judi Dench, ensuring that it would always be forever linked with one of the most successful movie franchises of all time. An Aston-Martin 1964 DB5.

This year, Aston-Martin looks to celebrate 100 years of heritage. The silver DB5 piloted by Sean Connery's Double-O-Sheven in '64s Goldfinger remains the most famous of the breed, but certainly not the best.

Things started, as with all the best British companies, in a shed. The eponymous Lionel Martin and the entrepreneurial Richard Bamford started off selling Singer cars in London, moving to build specially modified racing cars as Bamford and Martin right up until Lionel's success in hill-climb races at Aston Clinton (hopefully a lightbulb went off in your head just there).

Things developed rather slowly for the fledgling English company because, as those of you with a historical bent will no doubt be aware, there was some mild unpleasantness with the

Kaiser at the time. In fact, Bamford and Martin both signed up and went off to battle; both would survive the Great War, and so would their tiny company.

After the war, Aston-Martin continued to operate at a very low volume, producing few competition models. Success most notably came around 1922 when A-M entered two cars in the French Grand Prix. Later, these models would set records at the Brooklands racing course.

Despite the records, everything went pear-shaped around 1924, and the company filed for bankruptcy. It was purchased by one Lady Charnwood, who placed her son on the board, and then the whole thing went bankrupt again within a year. Sounds like an episode of Downton Abbey I might actually watch.

More investors, more financial difficulties, but innovation and racing success as well. During the inter-war period, Augustus Bertelli produced several winning two-seater open cars that did well at Le Mans and the Mille Miglia. The company changed hands in '32 and then again in '36.

And then, another bloody World War. As with many domestic British manufactures, Aston shifted their production to the war effort, building aircraft components - a bit of an echo in history here as the original Bamford & Martin machinery had gone to the Sopwith factory prior to the First World War.

Once the Tommies had given Jerry a jolly good hiding, it was back to being on shaky financial ground for Aston-Martin. But lo, a saviour appears: the dynamic, wealthy, and not-in-any-way-humble Sir David Brown.

Ever wonder where the letters "DB" come from in Aston-Martin nomenclature? Well, now you know: we're just lucky he didn't call them the Daves.

Sir David spent about 20,000 pounds to acquire Aston-Martin, and more than double that to pick up the similarly beleaguered Lagonda motor company. Lagonda was a small outfit founded by an American (horror!) near the turn of the century, and perhaps most valuable for having engine technology designed by W.O.

Bentley - yes, that Bentley - who was a designer there in the mid-1930s.

Combining the Aston-Martin nameplate and racing success with the 2.6-litre Bentley-designed engine resulted in further racing wins; most notably, the DB2 ensured itself a place in history by sweeping its class at Le Mans in 1951.

While the racing cars continued to shine the lime-light on the winged Aston badge - the open-top DB3S would take its class at Le Mans from '55-'58 - the road-going models began to capture the public imagination.

To the untrained eye, the DB Mark III might be mistaken for a number of other British postwar sporting coupes. Interestingly, it was a hatchback, but in many other respects, it was an evolution of the current style. The DB4, on the other hand, was something very different.

With Italian styling and a 240 h.p., double-overhead-cam straight-six designed by Polish engineer Tadek Marek, the DB4 had both the looks and the shove to match. Of course, history has seen it somewhat eclipsed by the fictional machine guns and ejector seat of the DB5 that replaced it.

These were the salad days for Aston. The cars were as beautiful as they would ever be, the men driving the race cars were giants whose names would forever be writ upon the wall in gilt lettering (for instance, the irascible and semi-indestructible Sir Stirling Moss). An Aston was both a mark of impeccable taste, and possessed of a sporting heritage to match heavyweights like Ferrari and Alfa-Romeo.

Once again, everything went sideways owing to a lack of money. At one point during the mid-'70s, Aston-Martin produced just 21 cars. The brutal V-8 Vantage provided a brief resurgence, appearing in The Living Daylights, but while that particular car remains one of my favourite Astons for its brutal, brooding, bareknuckle-boxer-in-a-Saville-Row-suit persona, it wasn't enough to save the company.

At the same time, for supreme weirdness, you couldn't match the Lagonda sedan. This angular super-sedan debuted in 1976 and promptly melted the faces of onlookers with its avant-garde styling. Then it melted its own dashboard with its avant-garde on-board electronics. It's either the worst car ever made, or one of the most interesting, depending how much of an optimist you are.

The 1980s weren't much better: investors came and went, with Ford buying a considerable share in the company. They would eventually take full control of the struggling Aston in the early '90s.

Ford was good for Aston, principally for the introduction of the DB7 - by 2002, the DB7 had sold more cars than all other DB models. V-12 power arrived in Vantage and Vanquish models at the turn of the millennium, and by 2003, the DB9 arrived to take Aston properly forward into a new age.

Early DB9s are not without their foibles. Peel back the leather covering on an Aston key fob from the Ford Era, and you'll find it says "Volvo" underneath. While the styling was breathtaking, the parts-bin mentality was perhaps not.

Riding on this wave of excitement, Aston returned to motor racing in 2005, once again in the Grand Touring class, once again at the historic Le Mans. Specialist outfit Prodrive was responsible for fettling the big, luxurious DB9s into racing trim. The chair of Prodrive, David Richards, would lead an investment consortium to take over Aston from Ford in 2007 - once again, a racing owner was at the helm.

The "baby" Aston V-8 Vantage emerged, more accessible than the big cars and, to some eyes, even more shapely. The four-door Rapide launched in 2010. Bedecked in iconic blue and orange Gulf livery, a DBR9 clinched GT1 victory at the 24 hours of Le Mans.

And now? Aston faces considerable challenges blending its racing pedigree and the demands placed on manufacturers for cleaner-running cars. To even out the spread, they have the Cygnet, an Aston-badged Toyota iQ, and if you know your children's stories, you'll doubtless remember that the Ugly Duckling turned out to be a baby swan. Unfortunately, this one doesn't grow up.

Better yet is this year's redesign of the DB9, with styling that is modernized, yet still timeless: 517 h.p. and reduced carbon-dioxide emissions doesn't hurt either. The Vanquish also returns as the ultimate Aston GT, with performance only surpassed by the so-rare-its-irrelevant One-77 supercar.

One hundred years later, Aston-Martin still soldiers on, having changed hands innumerable times, somehow survived recession and depression, boom and bust. Ready to get back to work, 007?

No, no, the pleasure is all ours.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column please contact him at mcaleeronwheels@ gmail.com. Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.

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