The big news this week for Aston Martin fans is that the luxury sports car maker made famous by James Bond 007 is heading back into British hands.

Ford announced that they have sold the company to a UK-led group fronted by Dave Richards – boss of respected motorsport specialist Prodrive – for £479 million.

The American car giant has had a big stake in Aston Martin since 1987, buying the company outright in 1994 and overseeing a period of unprecedented sales success. Under Ford’s ownership, the company developed a number of respected new models and reported record sales of 7,000 cars in 2006.

But with the onset of Ford’s financial troubles, the group decided to sell the luxury marque. Ford lost more than $12bn in 2006, and faces huge restructuring costs. However the group has still held on to a £40 million slice of the company.

The sportscar specialist will remain at its purpose-built factory in Gaydon (Warwickshire), where 1,800 people are employed.

Prodrive success

Under the leadership of Dave Richards, Prodrive has built a formidable reputation in motorsport, running the Aston Martin racing team in the sports car series around the world as well as the highly-successful Subaru rally team.

Dave Richards also managed the BAR Formula One team from 2002 to 2004, taking the team from eighth to second in the manufacturers world championship in that period, before Honda took a greater role and BAR team was rebranded. Richards was also a leading figure in the Benetton F1 team in the late 90s.

Most interestingly for motorsport fans, Prodrive owns a slot to enter the 2008 F1 World Championship. But the consortium has called ‘unfounded’ speculation that Prodrive may now brand its F1 cars Aston Martin.

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Also in the consortium with Dave Richards is finance and shipping banker John Sinders and two Kuwaiti investment companies.

Mr Richards reassured Aston Martin fans that the new owners were committed to the company long term and would not be seeking a quick turnaround like many private equity groups do.

Exciting future

As well as the potential for an Aston Martin presence in F1 racing to excite fans, the new owners of the company have announced plans to step up production by more than a quarter in the next three years.

Growth will be driven by the launch of two new models – the DBS, as seen in latest James Bond Casino Royale, and the four-door Rapide – taking the marque’s range to seven cars.

At least 200 more workers are expected to be taken on at an expanded Warwickshire plant as a result.

Questions ahead

But looking further ahead, the biggest question facing the new owners is, without the backing of a well-funded major car group enjoyed by many of Aston Martin’s main rivals, whether they will have enough cash to spend on developing the brand’s cars to keep them ahead of the competition.

A further threat is looming EU car emissions regulations. If these are implemented on a per-manufacturer basis, that would present a major problem for independent car makers like Aston Martin, unable to meet average emissions limits across their range by balancing the inevitably higher output of their powerful sporting models against low-emissions city cars, as large car groups will be able to.

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For the company to survive under such an imposed EU regime, huge investment would be needed to produce low-emissions powerplants that nevertheless maintain the required level of power and performance. Though it remains to be seen exactly how the EU will enforce the lower emissions limits on car makers that have been agreed.

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