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Aston Martin chief executive Andy Palmer: Brexit could be good for the UK's car makers

Emma Haslett
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Andy Palmer unveils an orange Aston Martin DB11
Palmer unveils the new DB11 at the Geneva Motor Show (Source: Getty)

Which way would James Bond have voted in the EU referendum? We'll never know the answer for the fictional 007, but the chief executive of his favourite car brand has finally waded into the Brexit debate.

In the run-up to the referendum, the UK car industry was among the loudest voices on the Remain side. However, one voice remained notably absent from the debate: Andy Palmer, chief executive of Aston Martin.

But speaking to City A.M., Palmer suggests not only that Brexit is unlikely to rain fire and brimstone on the nation’s car makers - but that, should the government’s negotiations pay off, it could actually serve to benefit UK car manufacturers. At first sight this is surprisingly confident for someone in the process of turning around a car brand which, by his own admission, has “never really been profitable”.

You can see why car-makers are so concerned about the impact of Brexit: under World Trade Organisation rules, which the UK would have to comply with if it cannot negotiate a bespoke trade deal with the EU, manufacturers could be slapped with a 10 per cent tariff on exports to Europe.

But that is a highly unlikely outcome, argues Palmer.

City A.M. Aston Martin reviews

“If you look at cars produced in Europe for European consumption, 20 per cent of them are sold in the UK,” he says.

“Why would the Germans and the French and the Italians [let tariffs happen]? It would destroy their European profitability.”

And even in the worst-case scenario, the pound will come to their rescue

“[Since the vote] very approximately, the pound has depreciated against the euro by about 10 per cent - which just happens to be about the same as the tariff barrier we’re talking about.

“The best condition is, we manage a weak pound, we don’t have tariffs, and the UK becomes a remarkably credible place to make cars.“

A stunning, wood-clad powerboat crashes through calm sea
The Aston Martin powerboat: It's "utterly gorgeous", says Palmer (Source: Aston Martin)

Why such strong views? In the run-up to the referendum, shortly before Brexit became the dinner table flash point of choice, Aston had polled its workers - and found three quarters were planning to vote Leave.

“Who am I to tell them they’re wrong?” asks Palmer. “I’m glad I didn’t take a side.”

With a midlands twang and a background on the factory floor, Palmer might not seem a natural choice as the boss of a luxury brand. But when he took the reins in 2014, the marque had been without a chief executive for 18 months, having endured its seventh collapse into administration in its 103-year history (incidentally, seven is the number of James Bonds there have been).

Having begun as an apprentice at Austin Rover before moving to Nissan and working his way up to become chief planning officer in 2013, he may be just the tonic the company needed.

One of his first acts as chief executive was to tear up Aston’s sportscar pedigree and introduce a sports utility vehicle (SUV). The move shocked the purists, but he insists the company has never just been about sports cars.

“I don’t think we’re necessarily true to just being a sports car brand - I didn’t read that anywhere, in any of the things I saw coming into the company.”

Indeed, since he took over, the company has branched out into new areas, and even launched its £1.3m AM37 powerboat last month. It’s a crucial part of his transformation plan, he says.

“We believe it’s credible that you could own an Aston Martin apartment, wear an Aston Martin suit, drive your Aston Martin down to the harbour, and spend the weekend in your Aston Martin boat.” It’s enough to get even James Bond excited.

Listen to the full interview with Andy Palmer

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