Vanity?

18/01/2021
FEATURE BY MAX NOBLE

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.

Which means that Toyota might spring back and win in F1, as could Haas, Minardi, Arrows. Heck, all those fly-by-nights a few years back, or that Aston, along with turning a meaningful year on year profit for the first time in, well, more or less a century, could simply stroll on in and win (pun intended).

Marty and the Doc went back in a DeLorean to fix the future while managing to make the battle to reach 88 miles per hour look like a Clash of the Titans type of problem requiring Demi-God powers to achieve. Which, in a DeLorean, is not that far from the mark (0 to 60 mph in 10.5 seconds anyone...?). What funeral pyre of vanities will this latest battle deliver us curious fans?

The expansive visions of human vanity know no earthly limits. We delight in delusion grand, grander, Demi-God, and well, bigger still. Why Sir, what you need, is not those Ray Bans... Sir needs these limited edition Ray Bans! With this Zenith watch, this limited edition Audi, this set of clubs that even Tiger Woods declined as too expensive, and why, if all that is a touch too much, at least this Polo. Reduced from $195 to a modest $75. Which shall I gift wrap for Sir? Of course, the Polo. Please dream on Sir while I finish the wrapping.

We can often afford the odd indulgent Polo. We cannot often afford the odd indulgent Grand Tourer. Be that Ferrari, Bentley, Porsche, AMG, or Aston. Even the well-monied Russians (who for a time were Lamborghini's largest single market) only need so many Astons.

Is this a burning bridge of vanity too far, or has The Father of Sir Lance charged just the right distance into the future, at just the right time, to deliver a Sean Connery moment in the Alps, rather than the 'Sky Falling' event that was the reality of DeLorean?

As the Good Book highlights in Ecclesiastes 1; "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity! What does man gain by all his toil at which he toils under the Sun?" For all their toil, can the public afford just enough of their handy work to support the gallant Sires Stroll to World Championship glory?

Max Noble

Learn more about Max and check out his previous features, here

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Published: 18/01/2021
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