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Aston Martin a pimp-mobile?

2006-09-04 12:03

Frankfurt - Does the fact that James Bond drove one with tyre-shredding hubcap blades, machine guns and an ejector seat make the Aston Martin car the ultimate luxury accessory?

Or is it the British brand's racing heritage and high performance credentials that make it an iconic sports car?

That is the question potential buyers will have to address as struggling US carmaker Ford Motor Co puts Aston Martin on the auction block.

"Anything is possible," said Stephen Cheetham, car sector analyst at Sanford Bernstein.

"If anybody decides they want it, the prices start to get extremely silly. Rationally, it is worth less than $1 billion and quite a lot less than $1 billion. Irrationally, it may be worth as much as $2 billion," he added.

"It is one of those assets where you might be surprised where the interest comes from," said one investment banker who follows the auto sector closely.

He called Aston Martin an unusual and rare asset that combines elements of luxury and engineering. He thought a buyer intent on expanding the brand could pay around $1 billion for it.

French luxury goods firm LVMH denied suggestions that it or Swiss rival Richemont could be interested in buying Aston Martin, which Ford said on Thursday it may sell to raise funds for other businesses.

While fashionable LVMH head Bernard Arnault may cut a dashing, James Bond-like figure, his spokesman said a report in industry publication CAR online he was eyeing Aston martin was "wrong". Richemont had no comment.

Who's next

Ford's portfolio of European-based luxury car brands has fallen well short of its optimistic projections. Its PAG unit, which includes Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo and Aston Martin, lost $162 million in the second quarter before one-off items.

As it loses US market share and high fuel prices undercut sales of its high-margin sport utility vehicles and trucks, Ford is still weighing what to do with the other European brands.

Cheetham said he thought German sports car maker Porsche AG would be an ideal buyer for Aston Martin, a brand positioned above the classic Porsche 911 model line.

"Porsche have a bit of a conundrum. With all the growth they are planning they are still moving down market really and they will be doing well over 100 000 units," he reasoned.

"Aston Martin, with its 4,500 units (in 2005 sales), is much more exclusive, it's much more premium than Porsche. The two brands stand for quite different things, but Porsche - unlike LVMH or Richemont - actually understands engineering."

A Porsche spokesman said buying Aston Martin "is not an option" for the carmaker with the automotive world's fattest profit margins.

DaimlerChrysler, whose premium division includes the elegant Mercedes-Benz and ultra-luxury Maybach limousine brands, also said it was not interested in Aston Martin.

British machinery group JCB, which said last week it was interested in Jaguar, ruled out buying Aston Martin.

JPMorgan Chase private equity arm One Equity Partners - where former Ford CEO Jacques Nasser is a partner - is also interested in some of Ford's European brands.

In any event, selling Aston Martin is seen as a small but interesting deal for a sector struggling with slack demand and chronic overcapacity that stokes margin-eroding price wars.

"This little transaction doesn't really define an industry, while Renault could," the investment banker said.

He was referring to talks that could add General Motors to the carmaking alliance between France's Renault and Japan's Nissan Motor Co Ltd.

Ford is waiting in the wings to meet Renault/Nissan Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn if the GM talks break down.

Should Ghosn link up with a big US carmaker, "it will make everyone think about what it means for them", the banker said.

Additional reporting by Michael Smith in London, Marcel Michelson in Paris and Josiane Kremer in Zurich


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