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Vanity?

FEATURE BY MAX NOBLE
18/01/2021

Like fine watches, fine cars are an indulgence. A delight, a whimsy of the purchaser that has nothing to do with the multitude of urbane necessities defining daily survival.

Tell the time? Swatch or Casio passes muster. Cartier, Omega or Rolex a statement makes, or an engineering and artesian soul soothes.

Get from Alpha to Beta? Foot, public transport, or cycle will deal with all but the most extended of travel needs. Scheduled aircraft, Zoom and Skype can meet those longer distances with a sneer of relaxed competence. So beyond a Toyota sedan, or Honda motorbike, who needs more for the medium distances in between these options? The Bentley Continental, Jaguar XJ-R, S-class or the Coupe Grand Touring offerings of Porsche, Ferrari, and Aston Martin?

Simply? No one needs a grand tourer to do anything these days, least of all Grand Touring. They are a pure indulgence, either of one's soul, one's dreams, one's social delusions, or one's ego. Usually a confusing mix of all four.

All the car you need? A Toyota medium sized hatchback. All the car you can cheerfully run? A five-year-old Ford. All the car you dream of? Well a brace of Porsche 911s, a crimson Ferrari Barchetta from a better managed time, and everything Bentley currently builds so as to be prepared for transporting family members to The Club this Saturday.

Or, does Sir prefer a Rapide, or a Vanquish to ease that itch? Quality vanity choices...

Those who look in the mirror and claim no vanity have either painted the mirror black, or only use it with their eyes shut. Those designer glasses? That weekend get-away boat? That car collection (I'm looking at you Zak B. Of the austerity measures for other teams that do not stretch to bounding that fabulous car collection of yours).

We each have a vanity that we address, bemuse, beguile, or feed. Eventually we either wither under the succubus kiss, embrace the slow death, or, on rare occasion, master the moment and transcend the now for a remarkable future.

Sport is saved from oblivion because it is a fine, and socially acceptable, substitute for open warfare, and one-on-one combat (or mano a mano, another fighting reference for folks still living in the 2010's). We define the frameworks within which we either directly, or vicariously, partake of acceptable melee. Yet it is still a vanity. A personal vanity. A group vanity, or a vicarious imagined vanity. It is. All. Vanity.

So! To the rebuilding of a brand as necessary to continued human existence as trouser cycle clips are to the platypus. The reason designer clothes can sell with profit margins that make the defence industry weep is simply because one way or another, we all need to move around clothed. In some locations because of environmental necessity (hello Arctic, Antarctica, and Kalahari desert), and in others out of personal and social modesty (hello most cities and public places around this fine globe which we are currently decimating).

For Grand Tourers the profitability maths is more complex. The Ford Mustang as an "every human's affordable GT" sells in profitable acceptable numbers... which like all GTs then fall into a black hole after three to five years, as the fashion obsessed buyers move along to the next shiny object; history, beauty, and engineering merit be damned.

Ferrari and Porsche have spent well over half a century nurturing their brands, before such was even a concept, until today, with an obsession that even the most devoted fan would applaud, they both muster, citrate, and present a beautified picture of motoring Nirvana. Yet the Porsche Cayenne sold more copies within a few years than the 911 did in fifty. What is a brand to do in the age of ever shifting vanity?

Jaguar F1, facilitated by the joyfully weighted purse of Ford relaunched with that fine Irvine chap behind the wheel, and that Jack the Knife chap at the corporate tiller, using British Racing Green, very slick marketing, and a desire to challenge for championships and be "England's Ferrari". How that all ended (other than to say not so well...) is a story for another day. Right now the point of note is a company that didn't sell tee-shirts - my pardon Polos - but more cars than any of us could drive in a life time failed. Le Mans and the GT-40. The Escort in rallying. The Sierra Cosworth. Yet their failure to launch with Jaguar in F1… was that vanity per chance?

Paul Stoddart. Gene Haas. Let's go all nostalgic with tears in eyes, even dear Tom Walkinshaw. Nice try one and all. Yet they all join Jack the Knife with no cigar.

So with a wallet a fraction the size of Ford, none of the racing pedigree since, well, about seventy years ago, and with an amount of vanity yet to be quantified, how is Lawrence Stroll about to fare in the charming, serene and welcoming world of top flight Formula One team ownership?

A swift comparison of bank balances and cash flow is called for. Ford... well they still have a small stake in Aston, bless them. Founded 1903, that's 118 years ago folks, by Henry Ford they produced 5.5 million vehicles in 2019, employ over 190,000 folk, and managed revenue in 2019 (latest figures) of $155.9bn US dollars. This places them fifth on the planet behind Toyota, VW, Hyundai, and General Motors (right-hand down a bit). No, I'm not going to introduce Tesla into this paragraph. Moving on...

The eponymous Tommy Hilfiger was founded in 1985, then sold to Apex Partners in 2006 for a respectable $1.6bn US, and then on-sold to Phillips-Van Heusen for $3bn US in 2010. Lawrence Stroll, along with Silas Chou was part of this business process, amassing a personal fortune in the region of $2.2bn US while providing itch and irritant free Polos to the vainglorious around the planet. (Disclaimer here, I love the Hilfiger stuff.)

2.2 billion being (for those not currently within finger twitch reach of Excel) 1.41% of Ford Motor Company worth (those who failed to launch Jaguar into low Earth orbit). Meanwhile! Back in Gotham City, oh, sorry, I mean Gaydon, Aston employs a tad over 2,000 folk, and had a net income in 2019 of minus £104.4m. Which in US dollars (as of 12-Jan-21) is $141m. That's a loss folks. Newport Pagnell (the old plant) is focussed on the ancient tradition of excellence that is the Aston universe of yesteryear. Aston is currently trying to expand into submarines (partnered with Triton submarines who took James Cameron to the bottom of the Ocean, but that is also a story for another day). Speed boats, luxury clothing (quite), limited edition cycles, luxury property developments in Miami, and a conceptual luxury aircraft.

Makes Porsche stretching the brand to an SUV (the Cayenne) appear logical and sensible.

Aston has gone from £19 a share at its IPO (Initial Public Offering) in 2018, to a low of 33 pence last year. Moers (current CEO and a Mercedes man) is touting that things are currently going well on the grounds that they are finally reducing inventory of unsold cars at dealers. Meaning the dealers will need to buy new cars to replace stock... stock it just took them years to shift. That's a plan... with the complications of COVID let's see how it plays out.

Goldman Sachs currently rates Aston as a "Sell". Bit technical I know. But "Sell" is the opposite of "Bet the Farm on this one". Rather more in line with the mental image of Skyfall than "Sean Connery leaning on a DB5 in the Swiss Alps. By the way DB5s have gone up lots, so if you had the chance to buy one ten years ago, I do hope you took it.

Now, where was I?

Ah yes. The price of vanity when it comes to buying Polo shirts is modest. Most people on COVID subsistence payments can save towards a quality Polo shirt that will pass muster at the local golf club, or polo club, should you have a need to babysit a small fast horse over the weekend. The vanity involved in buying a $500,000 Grand Tourer, which is now a Mercedes AMG in a Saville Row suit, within which people cannot see your flawless crease free Polo, and within which you will never fit a small horse, even after it has received the 'Godfather treatment', is most considerably counterweighted by the colossal outlay. People on COVID payments, are not making "Afterpay" approaches to Aston for Grand Tourer pre-payments.

Even the world of mechanical watches (yet another topic for yet another day... winking at you Felipe Massa...) is more affordable to enter at the 'modest' end of the range. Why, a quality Zenith Tourbillon can be on your wrist for around $30,000. Which is a fair number of Polos, or half a front brake on an Aston.

My point dear reader!? Why, we all suffer vanity, but the price we pay for it varies by Galactic amounts. I've Polos I do not need, yet enjoy. Watches that cost more than a (more accurate) base Casio. I've a car that I desire, rather than what I need, which comes at a price I can afford. Yet I've one of the cars, compared to numerous Polos and a clutch of watches.

Will the vanity of Lawrence in purchasing Aston be matched by the vanity of the number of people he needs to purchase Grand Tourers they simply do not need, but they want? Deep down, this is a physical need in my gut, heart, mind and soul, want? When they were built in the old factory, the one that turned out race winners all those decades ago there was a story to tell that could align that desire with the wallet of the rich, and close the sale.

Now they are fitting English tailor made suits to German Oak skeletons, do those with the necessary vanity and wallet weight problem still care? Aston sold around 3,000 cars in 2020, for comparison Toyota produced around 8.8 million cars, meaning Toyota took a fraction over three hours to produce as many cars as Aston produced in a year. Remember the Toyota assault on Formula One? Precisely.

As stock brokers love to warn us all in three point print on the back of a brochure in shades of purple that cannot be read by 99% of humanity; Past performance is no indication of future performance.

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READERS COMMENTS

 

1. Posted by Max Noble, 28/01/2021 23:11

"Whoops typing! The site is of course “Capital.com” - :-)"

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2. Posted by Max Noble, 28/01/2021 23:10

"@Kemawi - recommend you widen your stock market news... this from capitol.com on Aston....

“The company’s revenues were already in decline before the Covid-19 pandemic. Aston Martin reported a net loss of £126m in 2019, which accelerated the decline in the share price that has been in motion since the company went public in 2018. At its lowest, the share price was down at 33 pence in May, from its initial public offering (IPO) price of £19 per share.

Excess inventory, as the company missed sales targets, was exacerbated by the halt in activity during the Covid-19 pandemic. The share price fell to 46 pence per share in March at the start of the lockdowns, having started the year at 175.80 pence.”

...or possibly you’ve moved the decimal point a tad to the right...

Yes, Aston stocks hit 334 pence, yes they are rising slightly. Yes they are still under water. Yes Mr. Stroll got the bargain of the century if, and it is quite a large “If”, he can pull off this fantastic rescue... If you believe that people still love “pointless” GT cars (I love them...) and you believe Stroll can pull it off (I’m on the fence...) then Aston stock still represents a fantastic bargain. It’S a very long way back up t the IPO price... But I’d expect Stroll is already a fraction up on the deal..."

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3. Posted by Kemawi, 28/01/2021 10:10

"Did AML share really drop to 33 pence?
The lowest I can see is 639 pence in May 2020........
If they were 33 pence I wish I'd bought them as they are currently 1,779.74 pence......."

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4. Posted by Max Noble, 26/01/2021 4:26

"@Spindoctor - Ok! A good call out! Not a vanity, but certainly an indulgence... :-) To your point; fully agree. In previous articles I’ve called out “Road Relevance” as simply a prop to get the corporate board to invest in racing. If the board dislike racing, don’t give two hoots about technology and engineering, but do care about brand, profile, and profit... the only “true path” (cough...) left is “Road Relevance”. ...and then onward and upward with Corporate Schmoozing...!"

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5. Posted by Spindoctor, 25/01/2021 16:21

"@Max Noble & CrazyCanuck - enough of the luxury goods\sports tie-ups (ins?) already!
I don't know about anyone else but I'm utterly impervious to the dubious charms of any of this over-priced stuff: be it garments or wristwear (previously watches, previously timepieces, previously - OK you get the idea).
I suspect that Sponsorship of Teams is itself an expression of Corporate\individual vanity, actually exceeding that of the tiny Teams owners. They at least, as our Canadian correspondent notes, often have passion.....

Bunging Mercedes\Fezza\??? a few million quid (of Shareholders' money) on the dubious premise of "marketing" buys the CEO or whatever Corporate minion is responsible an opportunity to 'hang out' with famous people & Drivers at Races & elsewhere and an excellent excuse to globe-trot.
Inconsequential, grey Corporate climbers & shills are now at the top table.... Lots of luvverly 1st Class jetting to and fro', Chauffeured Limos\Helicopters, Luxury Hotels & "VIP" passes to the Paddock makes a person feel really, REALLY important! S\He can then trade jollies with his\her peers: an invitation on a nice tripette to Melbourne in March gets you a reciprocal box at Wimbledon in July etc. Meanwhile all those Corporate Dollars, Yens, Pounds etc. produce sweet F(I)A of benefit to most Employees, Shareholders (Bankers, Brokers Vulture Capitalists excepted, naturally) & even less to us poor bloody customers.

O Vanity thy name is Corporate Schmoozing...."

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6. Posted by CrazyCanuck, 23/01/2021 15:53

"@Max Noble - I suppose Hilfiger could sponsor both teams if they wanted to, Puma sponsors multiple teams and F1 itself. Also, drivers come with their own endorsements. Vettel I believe comes with a Casio and a Pepe Jeans logo however, if the idea is to sell luxury, I keep thinking that Ralph Lauren would be a perfect... fit with Aston Martin. Stroll and Lauren, go back a long way and share a common passion for beautiful, exclusive (and very expensive) cars. As you say, we are about to rather delightfully find out. "

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7. Posted by Max Noble, 23/01/2021 9:42

"@CrazyCanuck - good point! My vanity driven smart-casual wear is aiding Lewis! Rather amusing that Mercedes engineering is under the Hilfiger Clothing on track, and the same engineering is under English Aston clothing for the road range. Wonder if the sponsorship will change to Aston F1, or stick with Mercedes? As per other other comments - I wonder who Aston will sign for Watches, clothes, golf gear etc...?"

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8. Posted by CrazyCanuck, 22/01/2021 15:31

"@ Max Noble - "Has Lawrence got the right mix to (...) deliver World Championship success?" Good question. Can he put together all the ingredients? The team (the one that will make him the best car), along with the best engine, best driver(s), best management on and off the track? I doubt it. Right now, there are a few rather important ingredients missing.

As for Hilfiger, right now they are still officially partnered with Mercedes-AMG, so your Hilfiger polo will most likely help propel not Sebastian but Lewis, towards his 8th championship. ;-)

Now, I do wonder which of the designer apparel logos will adorn the Aston-Martin F1 this year...

"

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9. Posted by Max Noble, 22/01/2021 3:25

"@CrazyCanuck - well stated. Like the fine line between Genius and madness, or being centred or arrogant. Has Lawrence got the right mix (“The Right Stuff”) to square-jaw and Aviator his way through the looking glass, and deliver World Championship success?

You list a number of former failures, and highlight Benetton as a success, which was Renault powered.
So can Stroll repeat the feat with a Mercedes strapped into the back of a micro fibre Hilfiger Polo...?

We are about to rather delightfully find out..."

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10. Posted by CrazyCanuck, 21/01/2021 23:06

"Ah, there is vanity but also there is passion, and sometimes, just sometimes, a way to make money and achieve success where others have failed. Jaguar, Ford, Toyota... you could add BMW, Peugeot, not to mention the multiple attempts at resurrecting some sort of Lotus team in F1, there's a long list of more or less wealthy auto makers who've failed spectacularly. On the other hand, a few complete outsiders have succeeded. The Benettons anyone? Flavio Briatore? Lawrence Stroll isn't the first successful garment peddler and outsider to try and invade F1. Who knows? "

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11. Posted by Max Noble, 20/01/2021 22:27

"“Fame in THE 20th Century” sigh..."

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12. Posted by Max Noble, 20/01/2021 22:26

"@Spindoctor - my thanks for the correction! Agree with your observation. An Australian Intellectual (...!) Clive James wrote a book, and did a TV series around the book, called “Fame in to 20th Century”. The book moves in a fascinating arc from Charles Lindbergh who became rather famous for the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris, to the likes of Madonna, and others, of recent times who are simply “famous for being famous”.

Thanks to the Internet, cable and streaming TV, and social media we now have several Titanic boat loads of people only “famous for being famous”.... I’m sure the a global network of “B-grade Rappers against COVID-19” is only a few clicks away from saving the World...

Ah! The beauty of Egos and Opinions shining in the blessed light of a new golden dawn...!"

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13. Posted by Spindoctor, 20/01/2021 13:41

"@Max Noble - irrelevant (well unimportant) correction Hilfiger was flogged to & by Apax Partners (with a final "a"), who were, if I may say so, Lucky & honoured to employ me for some years....

That small detail aside it's hard to disagree with your perspective. As always, I sort of want the Little(er) Guy to win, or at least not be humiliatingly ground underfoot. The (previously) pink cars have certainly put up a good show so-far, but 2022 Regs loom threateningly at which point all bets based on previous "form" must be off.
Stroll Snr is probably no slouch at making money. Implicit in any musings on Vanity in C21st must be the way that those who make a few bob are encouraged to believe their ability\luck is fully transferrable to any other area they choose. Whether it's running an F1 Team on Mercedes' Coffee budget, making very expensive cars or in some cases running an entire nation, History has been far from generous to those who have listened to such siren calls. There's a fine line between self-confidence\belief and self-delusion.
"

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14. Posted by Max Noble, 19/01/2021 3:35

"@BrightonCorgi - I had a feeling you’d be quick to post - glad to see it! Agree Stroll Senior is a smart business man, and Aston is a fine brand... but in the five-nano-seconds of fame world of Twitter and Instagram (you’ll note it’s not called “Permagram...) will that be enough? We are about to find out...

@Batman - Yes, the “infinite game” as some call it - as the work and business of life never stops - even if as individuals we do... (“... not only does it come in Black Mr Wayne, you can choose any shade of black you prefer...”).

@Apexing - Always give me a smile when a reader spots an “Easter Egg”. You’re quite correct the original lyric is “vanished”. Just as Neil varied the original quote to “Let us not go gently to that endless Winter night...” on another album, I enjoy tweaking the original on occasion and seeing if people still spot it.

"

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15. Posted by Apexing, 18/01/2021 15:38

"Great article, as always! But I think the phrase is "a better vanished time", if I remember my Rush lyrics correctly..."

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