Mumbai: As Daniel Craig disdainfully drove the Aston Martin off the cliff, rolling down the hill as it does in James Bond thriller Casino Royale, Marek Reichman’s heart “broke a little”.
But the design director of Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd says he expects that to happen. “It’s a given (that the car would be wrecked),” says Reichman at the Indian launch of the Aston Martin car in Mumbai last week. “It’s painful though. I was at the filming when the car did the rolling. I know what it looks like physically to be there as well.”
Reichman, who has been with the UK-based Aston Martin since 2005, has been credited with designing the four-door coupe Rapide, the DBS, which got a starring role in Bond movie Quantum of Solace, and the Rs 20 crore One-77, of which only 77 pieces were manufactured and five remain unsold.
Constant Innovation: Reichman notes that although Aston Martin has a heritage, it’s not a retrospective design, but a forward-thinking design.Photo AP/Rafiq Maqbool
Reichman spoke about the challenges of fusing technology with old-fashioned handmade parts, why the front grill is so important and why it takes over three years to make a car. Edited excerpts:
The Aston Martin’s best brand ambassador is James Bond. But with Bond’s relevance in the modern world in doubt, what does that mean for the car?
It’s like reading a great novel or watching a great movie, that’s pop culture. It’s important from that aspect. Typically, Bond has always had our latest and greatest. As a character, it suits our brand. He is an understated, elegant gentleman, but also has a streak, which is powerful, dynamic and deliberate. In many ways we don’t need him, he doesn’t need us, but it works like a happy marriage. It’s a collaboration, not a tied in commercial deal. Obviously, then millions of people get to see our cars, so it’s a big advert for us.
Even if you are innovating constantly, there must be some design elements common through Aston Martin’s 96-year history?
None of them are constant; they always move and evolve. Whether through material, through necessity i.e functionality, or through size. Some features are there because as a designer, I want your eye to go there. Obviously, the (front) grill is iconic. What’s so important is the top of the grill makes a mustache (shape) at the top. The top is a trapezoid kind of shape. That ‘S’ is important, it sets up the rest of the car’s language. The side’s straight is another feature that’s always been. It’s like a pair of Levis (jeans) has a red tab. Typically, it’s been a horizontal line through an outlet, but we now have different variations of that. The cars always will have a surface language that’s powerful, with tension and muscular. There’s always attention to detail. We have a heritage, but it’s not a retrospective design, it’s a forward-thinking design.
What does the overall process of building a car involve?
Using an example of the Rapide, it started off as what the brand needed to expand its popularity. What was missing in the market-a four-door sports car. It gives you practicality, usability and the ability if you are sitting in the back to get out when you want to. Then you start to sketch. It’s a drawing process based on inputs. I would show those sketches to Dr (Ulrich) Bez (CEO) and probably to no one else at that stage.
My team of 25 people has six designers. Then we make a scale model, which is about 40% in size. That turns a two-dimensional image to three-dimensional quickly. This helps understand, learn proportions. Out of five scale models, we pick two and do them in a full size. Throughout that process, the only person I need to talk to is Dr Bez. We make the decision. Then we would show the rest of the company, hear their comments, but typically we don’t change. We are in many respects a design-led company. So it’s the sketch, scale, full-size model and then a full-size prototype. At the same time, we have to develop an interior. The launch phase is three-six months, where you are ramping up to build the car in volumes. So it’s about 3.5 years from a sketch to a customer actually being able to buy it.
Does that mean that Aston Martin’s engineering is made to fit in its design than the other way around?
I think so. I have to work closely with engineering, manufacturing and design because without great engineering, the performance would let you down. The first thing you see is the design with a promise that the car looks aggressive, emotional, must be fast or handle well. We will not compromise on engineering, but try and do the impossible. For instance, on the One-77, I wanted to have single piece door with a door mirror—not a door with a cheater panel with a mirror or a door with a mirror stuck on it. I wanted the mirror arm to be part of the door on one piece of aluminium. Though initially engineering said they couldn’t do it, together, we worked to produce what you see, which is a one-piece door. I love it when someone says you can’t do something. The designers want to leap into the future because they have lots of ideas while engineering is more realistic. We have to meet in the middle to together drive it forward.
How does a product so dependent on technology still use manual skills?
What sets us apart from many manufacturers is the fact that we use hand skills to build cars. The craftsmanship allows something to be imperfect. A machine can produce the same thing perfectly time and again, but the product loses its soul and character. What we want to do is produce something beautiful and amazing, which each time will have a little bit of the character of someone else’s personality. As an example, our seats are handmade. We have seamstress who sew the pieces of leather together to create the covering for the seat. Different seamstresses would use different movements, so the look will be similar in character with some difference. It’s important for us to use high modern technology to help the hand building where possible. Our factory (in Gaydon, UK) is so high tech, it’s like a lab. That’s how an Aston Martin is built-the component is incredibly high tech, but the skill is by hand.