Practically sporty

14th Sep

“It’s a matter of scale and emotion,” says Marek Reichman. “Industrial design pushes to really change something about the way an object works or is perceived. But the fact is that the car hasn’t really changed since the early 1900s. We’re not levitating cars yet, so you need wheels, and you still have to seat the passengers. But the emotional element in car design is huge. After all, people fall in love with their cars. People have names for their cars in the way they don’t for their toasters. I, like others, still just go out for a drive. Not many people say ‘I’m just going to use my hair-dryer [for the pleasure of it]’.”
Reichman, who’s the chief creative officer at Aston Martin, is no doubt hoping that his latest offering, an SUV – albeit one weighing in at around £160,000 – will inspire the same kind of familial attachment. And  all the more so because this is the first SUV in the history of its maker Aston Martin. It’s a big deal for the British carmaker, in part because the company has historically had its ups and downs – recently it saw the unexpected departure of CEO Andy Palmer after only six years, the installation of new CEO Tobias Moers, and yet another investor stumping up £197m to play with – but also because, of course, Aston Martin is better known for making sleek, powerful and, it’s oft-said, beautiful sports cars. 
This is the also the marque of the cinematic James Bond of recent years – three Aston Martins feature in the next in the franchise, ‘No Time to Die’, now scheduled for release in November. And here, with the new DBX SUV, is the car should Bond ever settle down and have family, swapping the ejector seat for the child seat. Of course, Q already seems to have done his thing: the DBX, which Aston Martin developed from the ground up, creating a new platform for the project, also aimed at rewriting the rules of what an SUV actually is. The tech and the power of this Mercedes V8-engined vehicle can take it both from 0 to 60mph in 4.3 seconds, but also at 4mph up or down extreme inclines. 
“An SUV [from Aston Martin] has to look as though it’s capable in more than just an on-road situation – and in fact, thanks to technology, the DBX does far more than its sporty looks suggest and is far more capable on the track than its more off-road looks suggest,” argues Reichman, who grew up in the great steel town of Sheffield, his father an “artisan blacksmith” who made chains for the QE2 and replacement parts for Big Ben, his big brother the car nut who inspired him. “It’s taking the ‘sports’ of SUV to heart, and why not, since our heritage is in making sports cars. But I wasn’t going to go through the ‘well you’ve designed a great looking car but you can’t fit in the back again’ kind of comments. So that’s sorted. And I’m 6’4”.”
In other words, the DBX is that most oxymoronic of things, a practical sports car. Or a punchy utility vehicle. In part this move by Aston is no more than a reflection of the reality of the situation: that SUVs are, and look set to be, by far the most dominant category of car over coming years. 
“Obviously there are a lot of traditionalists saying ‘no, Aston Martin should never do an SUV!’,” laughs Reichman, who, back when he worked with Jaguar-Land Rover, just over the road from Aston Martin’s HQ, had a hand in designing the latest generation of Range Rover. “But talk to, say, a millennial in China and she doesn’t know anything except SUVs. We have to respect where we were but my job is about the future – where we go next. It’s because beauty can also be boring that you have to keep pushing forward, and to accept that, initially at least, some people might not like what you do, where you’re challenging the norm.”
It’s also the kind of move that, as Porsche found with its Cayenne SUV, can provide a firmer financial footing to allow the continued development of pure sports cars. Porsche found that its SUV was not only a decent cash cow, but drew women to the brand for the first time. Aston Martin is now in the same position. Reichman notes that some 95% of the brand’s customers are male. “But an SUV will change that fundamentally,” he reckons. The company created its FAB – or Female Advisory Board – to find out, as it were, what women want. And the DBX, it may well prove, is it. 
“I don’t think there is any such thing as more ‘feminine’ design. But there’s a more feminine scale, of course,” Reichman says. “If you’re a small woman your grip is going to be smaller than mine, so if you then design [with just a man in mind] a steering wheel with certain thicknesses or angles or a particular offset to the centre console, then [anyone of much smaller stature] is just not going to feel comfortable. And if you don’t feel comfortable you feel intimated by the car, you don’t feel you can use it confidently.
“The fact is that modern car designers can no longer just be ‘stylists’, as we used to be called in the 70s and 80s,” he adds. “We have to be fundamental to the process – we have to understand a new product’s place in the marketplace, target price, how it will grow our customer base. Yes, with a car like this you do have to start thinking about how easy it is to get a baby seat in.”
Such is the devotion that an historic marque like Aston Martin encourages that, inevitably, there will always be the naysayers who see the DBX – regardless of its aggressive blunt front, long bonnet, scalloped sides and necessarily Tardis-like interior – as more bus than beautiful. That’s a comment Reichman might not be entirely uneasy with either: with Norman Foster he designed the first iteration of London’s new Routemaster for TfL. He says he’s as happy designing a tool-like vehicle as he is the more typically sexy output of a luxury name like Aston Martin. 
“I found out that the original Routemaster was created by the same engineers that developed the Lancaster bomber and that it had the same idea of using these rib-like structures with an aluminium core to give it strength. You soon get fascinated. You soon completely get into buses,” he chuckles. “There are certain vans I love. I’m a big fan of Series 1 Land Rovers too, and the Willys Jeep, because they’re the ultimate in functionality.”
Is that a way of hinting that sports cars are on their way out? Reichman posits a lot of challenges facing the car industry. There’s the coming electrification of road transport. There’s the need for connectivity and the impact of other technologies, from voice control to driver management. There’s the trend towards people changing their car more regularly, as they might a mobile phone. There’s the question of how people might want to shop for cars in a post-Covid world. There’s even the rise of companies without a history in the automotive sector turning their hand to it: from Silicon Valley and Tesla to start-ups making electric super-cars. But Reichman still reckons there’s a future for pure fun of the fast car, especially mid-engined ones.
“The fact is that there’s a group of consumers who will always want a sports car because it’s a toy, a gadget,” argues Reichman. “Clearly any sport car is limited compared with what an SUV can do. But I’d cite the horse by way of comparison. In the 1800s people had horses to transport them, to plough the fields, to deliver everything. And then came the car. So now the horse is more for enjoyment, for riding, racing, jumping. But the point is that it’s still there, albeit for far fewer people. That’s going to be the case for the sports car, even if SUVs and practical cars will become more the norm. There’s still a passion and excitement for the most extreme versions of something. That fascination will always be there.”
 

BusinessWorks Hull & East Yorkshire summer 2021

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