Let’s not beat about the bush here: Aston Martin, a decades-old British carmaker with a fully grown CEO, a board of (presumably adult) directors and a whole staff of qualified engineers, lawyers, accountants, designers, publicists and the like, did what the kids today call a faceplant. Aston Martin called it a Cygnet. I call it the most hilarious misstep a major luxury carmaker ever made.
The story has been told before on this website, but it bears repeating. In the late 2000s, a recently independent Aston Martin were finding themselves in a bit of a pickle. Said pickle came in the form of the EU’s emissions controls legislation. Most of AM’s competitors were hitched major carmakers, and thus able to dilute their gas-guzzling, CO2-spewing wares as mere drops in an ocean of Diesel. Aston Martin could not do that, so if they wanted to avoid paying Brussels a fine, they needed to find some sort of loophole.
So a bunch of business people in suits held a lot of meetings, and out of those meetings the solution presented itself: Aston Martin must bring their corporate emissions under control by selling a tiny economy car propelled by a tiny economy engine. They shopped for one and found the Toyota iQ – the tiniest of Toyotas by several centimeters.
The iQ was seen as ideal because its larger petrol engine, a 1329cc 4-cyl., was both frugal in its fuel consumption and modest in its CO2 emissions, which was the alleged point behind the whole thing. And it was a Japanese-made model, thereby sticking it to the authoritarian Eurocrats who were bullying poor little Aston Martin into rebadging this cuckoo as their Cygnet. The name, by the way, means baby swan, as a reference to the DB9’s “swan doors,” apparently.
How was this going to fly, though? The Cygnet would be the first 4-cyl. Aston since the ‘40s and, with a top speed of 106mph, the slowest one in roughly the same timescale. So flying was not on the cards then. But being an Aston and definitely not a Toyota in fancy shoes, the Cygnet needed a bit of British-made customizing to justify its existence, as well as its price, which was at least three times that of its Toyota-badged equivalent.
Although it didn’t look or quack like an Aston, it sure as hell would cost as much as one. So the Aston Martin works got busy adding value to a lowly iQ by reupholstering the (tiny) cabin with gobs of Connolly leather and lashings of Alcantara everywhere. They even offered a set of custom-made leather pouches tailored to fit in the Cygnet’s virtually non-existent rear space, behind the useless back seat.
They tacked on a great big Aston Martin grille on the front end and revised taillights at the back, sparing no expense. They even made an attempt at sticking their signature side vents on the flanks, just to give the folks who gave the Cygnet a bit of a side glance something to ponder. But for all this busy restyling, the Cygnet still looked like an iQ in drag. What folks were really paying for was the badge.
And it must be said that it is a very nice badge. Of course, this being a “Black” version (why does every luxury carmaker still do this, by the way?), you can barely make out that it’s an Aston, which given that it looks like a Toyota, sort of defeats the purpose, from the buyers’ point of view. This is not the only thing that doesn’t make sense with the Cygnet, but this particular one sort of adds an extra level of silliness.
Sales started in the UK in early 2011 and Aston genuinely thought they could shift 4000 of these per annum. The sky was the limit, the wind was beneath the Cygnet’s wings. They even thought of exporting this little birdie to nests far, far away.
In late 2011, Aston exported a contingent of 50 Cygnets for sale in Japan and Hong Kong – of which 35 were black like this one, and the rest white. Colour was not an option for Cygnet buyers in the Far East, apparently. One should also note the ecological and cultural nightmare that this car was, as sold in Japan: it was shipped over to England from there initially, and came back covered in piercings, leathers and tattoos, having travelled once around the planet for no other reason than to cost three times more.
The axe fell on the Cygnet’s neck in October 2013, but its goose was cooked from the get-go. The oft-quoted production number of 300 units appears to be an underestimate, but not a completely wild one: many sources seem to agree that fewer than 150 were sold in the UK, but that 272 RHD models were made, as well as 514 LHD cars, for a total run of 786 units. Of these, only 170 were fitted with the 6-speed manual; the rest, like our feature car, opted for the CVT.
In the end, Aston Martin just gave up on their cunning plan to avoid paying the EU emissions controls fine, given they had lost much more money on the whole Cygnet affair. Which they direly needed, as the credit crunch had already badly affected their bottom line. Unfortunately, the baby swan didn’t just fail to fly, it could not even float and even contributed in sinking its parent company. It seems this major malfunction did cost the CEO his position, as least – a black swan event if there ever was one. In the end, the accountants always win. We all have our justified opinions about “how the bean-counters ruined” something or other, but on this occasion, the decision-makers should perhaps have listened to their numbers people instead of trying to wing it. It might have saved Aston from laying an egg.