In 1980, after another change of ownership, Peter Cadbury and Victor Gauntlett (MVG) became Executive Joint Chairmen. In an interview with ‘Autocar’ magazine in early 1981, MVG dismissed the notion that Aston Martin was moving down market but a ‘less expensive car than the current £34,500 to £42,000 range is something we must seriously consider.’ Sales of the Lagonda ‘wedge’ were buoyant but the ageing V8 range was attracting few customers and stopping production was seriously considered. A smaller car might have appeared desirable, but updating the V8 (with what became the Virage) became both a higher priority and a less expensive option.
As the 1980s progressed, in every single interview with the motoring magazines, MVG continually drew attention to his plans for a less expensive ‘(NOT cheaper!)’ model. The smaller Aston project was given the code name DP1999 – a homage to the prototype DB4GT which was known as DP199. Described as the ‘DB4 for the 1990s’ DP1999 would be aimed directly at the Porsche 928, BMW 6 series and Mercedes SL costing in the region of £45,000 - £50,000 so still not really an inexpensive car. In contrast, the base AMV8 cost a huge £69,500 including taxes in 1987. It was intended that the car would not be hand built but would be produced in low volume and assembled in a new factory in Milton Keynes at the rate of 1000 to 1200 a year. A firm decision on DP1999 was not expected until the very early 1990s following the successful introduction of the V8 powered Virage and the company returning a steady profit.
In September 1987 Ford took a 75% stake in AML. In the week following the announcement, ‘Autocar’ magazine predicted volumes would leap to between 3000 and 5000 a year by 1997, no doubt convinced that DP1999 would now be going ahead. Investment from Ford would start DP1999 but importantly a link with another part of Ford, manufacturing quality automobiles, was also imperative.
Rod Mansfield, formally the head of Ford Special Vehicle Engineering (SVE), became the new AML engineering director in 1990. Since Ford SVE was responsible for creating the Capri 2.8 injection, Sierra Cosworth and Escort Cosworth, it is not surprising that an initial proposal was put forward to give the Escort Cosworth a smart coupe body. However, it took the foresight and vigour of Walter Hayes, as new Chief Executive, to conceive and bring to production an entirely new smaller GT car.
The whole project would have come to nothing if the Board at the Ford Motor Co. got 'cold feet' over providing the funding, but Hayes was able to convince them that the project was not only feasible, but that it would be profitable. His past record suggested that he was probably right, and they sanctioned its implementation. The new design was code named NPX standing for Newport Pagnell eXperimental. The reality was that, with the acquisition of Jaguar Cars by Ford in 1989, the basis for NPX was the Jaguar XJ-S with a good helping of the stillborn ‘F-type’ XJ41/42, Jaguar/TWR Project XX and early XK8 developments.
A factory at Wykham Mill, Bloxham, near Banbury was part of the TWR organisation in which had been built the Jaguar XJ220 and it became Aston Martin Oxford Ltd. with Tom Walkinshaw having 25% interest in the company. TWR was also involved in the design and development of the new car. One of the keys to success would be that the car looked right, looked like a modern version of the DB4. In 1990, TWR had established a design studio and had employed the talented stylist Ian Callum, a 35 year old Scot previously employed by Ghia in Italy. Walter Hayes sent a pair of classic ‘DB’ Astons to the TWR styling studio, a DB5 and a DB4GT Zagato Sanction 2 plus countless images of road and race Aston Martins of the past and told Callum that he wanted the latest version of the ‘DB line’. Instead of masses of drawings, Callum quickly went from the paper to a full sized clay model as he didn’t believe that his design was given enough justice in just two dimensions.
It must have been truly amazing that in March 1992, well under a year from the start of the project, a rolling silver painted ‘F-type’ twin-turbo AJ6 powered prototype NPX had been built, easily distinguished by a front hinged clamshell bonnet. Thankfully, the new Ian Callum designed body captured the very essence of 'Aston Martin' and the project was given £1,000,000 to complete a series of prototypes which were in turn approved by the full board of Directors of Ford in June 1992.
NPX was subjected to far more development and testing than any previous Aston Martin, with the use of some 30 prototypes which were driven in the heat and altitude of Arizona, the intense cold of Scandinavia and in the Ford test facilities elsewhere. During the early part of 1993, Walter Hayes invited Sir David Brown to become Life President of Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd. This provided the perfect opportunity to revive the DB prefix, and, in due course, the DB7 was revealed to the public at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1993. It was, without any doubt, the car of the show.
The construction of the body was a departure from established Aston Martin practice at the time. Rather than a handmade aluminium skin attached to a steel platform, as had been the norm for many years since the advent of the DB4, the new car had a steel semi -monocoque body shell with composite materials used for the bumpers, sill covers, bonnet, boot lid and front wings. Though these bodies were made by Motor Panels of Coventry (subsequently renamed Mayflower), much of the construction was still done by hand. Production was originally somewhat held up as the Resin Transfer Moulding process used to make the front wings was not fully perfected and a shortage of wings was jeopardising production. As an emergency measure to keep production moving bespoke aluminium wings were engineered and made by experienced panel beaters from Newport Pagnell and fitted to 18 particularly sought after 1994MY cars. The registrar has not yet been able to identify the chassis numbers of these cars.
Assembled bodies were initially sent to Rolls-Royce at Crewe for painting and then down to Bloxham for the installation of the engines, running gear and interior trim. Originally, only eight body colours were available (Cotswold Gold, Pennine Grey, Cheviot Red, Malvern Silver, Chiltern Green, rare Quantock Blue, Mendip Blue, and Brecon Black) although later the range was increased and it was hoped that the larger than usual choice would satisfy most tastes. It was also possible for customers to specify their own colour schemes but during i6 production, the in-house Bloxham paint shop could only handle one car a week in the single paint repair booth; non-standard colours on i6 cars are really quite rare. However, from October 1998 the painting process changed and the bodies from Mayflower were sent to the Jaguar paint shop at Castle Bromwich for their anti-corrosion treatment before returning to the new £1.0 million paint plant at Bloxham for their final colour coats. This significantly increased the flexibility of the range of optional colours that were made available to customers.
The withdrawal of the i6 from the market and its replacement with the V12 Vantage is an unusual story. Despite the DB7 being new to the US in 1996, the 6 cylinder engine would not be able to pass the tighter 1999 smog regulations in New York or California, and therefore no i6 could legally be imported to the USA after 31st December 1998. It has been suggested that this inability to export the most successful model in AML history (at that time) to the company's second largest market, forced AML into the decision to fit the only other engine it had at the time, the Ford/Cosworth V12 originally intended only for the flagship Vanquish, into the DB7 chassis. If you look through the register of the DB7 i6 coupe and Volante, you can see that the prototype cars were built using production i6 chassis.
Although as yet never confirmed by AML, the original plan was probably to continue to build the hugely successful DB7 i6 for a few more years using it as an entry level Aston Martin in a two car strategy with the V12 Vanquish as its supercar flagship. This would line up directly with the dual offerings of its main competitive target, Ferrari, who had the V8 powered 355/360 in about the same price range as the DB7, and the V12 550 Maranello at the top. The potential loss of sales of the DB7i6 in the USA threatened all of that, and thus could have forced AML to make a less-than-desirable trade-off decision: use the only other engine available to them in the short term in the DB7 in order to prolong the life span of their most profitable car. When the DB7 V12 Vantage was introduced at the Geneva Show in 1999, AML stated that both the 6 and 12 cylinder cars would continue to be sold side by side, perhaps to assist with selling unsold stock still with dealers. In fact, after the loss of the USA market, production of the i6 for the rest of the world was probably unsustainable and the factory went on to produce the V12 exclusively. The unfortunate by-product of this was a substantial reduction in the performance gap between the ‘entry level’ 420bhp DB7 and supercar 450bhp Vanquish.
Deliveries of customer cars began late in 1994 and production continued until April 1999 at the rate of around 625 examples a year including Volantes from 1996. In that time just 1570 coupes were made split into 781 pre-airbag coupes and 789 air-bagged. The most popular hue was green, with Chiltern Green the favourite. Blue came second with Mendip Blue being the top choice. Red was quite popular with Cheviot Red just out selling Cleveland Red; solid red DB7s are remarkably rare. As for silver, pre-airbagged cars favour Malvern Silver whereas later cars favour Solent Silver. Initially the 5 speed manual gearbox was the more popular transmission but later the automatic became the most common choice, especially within the North American market.
Since the DB7 was based on an existing car whose origins could be traced back to the mid 1970s, and despite the brand new V12 engine, the technology of the car eventually began to show. The replacement for the DB7 was still 18 months away, thus allowing development of the ultimate DB7, the performance orientated GT and GTA. The swansongs of the Bloxham era were the rare and exotic Zagato and DB AR1. The Zagato renewed a long relationship between Aston Martin and the Italian coachbuilder and followed the established path of striking coachwork, lighter weight and more compact dimensions. The DB AR1 was uncharted territory, a fully and permanently open roadster aimed solely at the USA market; not very practical yet quirkily engaging, the wings badge had never graced such a niche car before. Both limited special editions sold out remarkably quickly before the next era for the marque with the introduction of the DB9 and a range of cars based on VH architecture. The Bloxham factory was sold and the workforce transferred to the nearby brand new Gaydon facility.
Total DB7 production over 9 years came to a shade under 7100 cars. At that time, DB7s accounted for a third of total Aston Martin production. That might appear to be a high volume and it is interesting to compare this with total production from the past eras of the marque, which were 1844 Feltham cars, 4835 DB4/5/6/S and 4428 V8s (2 and 4 valve).