Newport Pagnell: Revisiting A Dreamscape From Not Long Ago

Aston Martin

One of my favorite places in the automotive universe has remained Aston Martin’s old Newport Pagnell factory, and this image illustrates one of the main reasons why. There was nothing else like the Finishing Line that was found at the very end of the Vanquish production sequence. Seeing only that sensational shape in various shades was an utter treat, for the Vanquish remains one of the most beautiful cars of the past two decades.

Last week we examined an event that played a key role in Aston Martin’s transformation into the multi-car marque it is today. Project Vantage was a sensational concept car that debuted in 1998, and three years later went into production as the Vanquish. Ferrari’s 550 Maranello may have been the faster (and better) car, but the Vanquish was the early 2000s it machine—no doubt thanks to those killer good looks, and a charismatic V12 up front.

After it entered production, I was blessed to visit Aston Martin on a number of occasions. During this period my path crossed with Kodak’s fabulous and somewhat finicky HIE infrared black and white print film—fabulous because of the dreamy effect it produced, finicky because it was so sensitive to light. To load and unload your camera, you had to use a “changing bag,” which I always thought was a good name for a racehorse.☺

Newport Pagnell factory

When you walked outside the Finishing Line at Aston Martin’s glorious Newport Pagnell factory, here’s what you saw: More Vanquishes, glistening in the sunlight. It truly was automotive heaven on earth…

This nylon sack had a zipper down the center of the front, and “sleeves” on each end for your hands. You would put the camera in the bag, zip it closed, leave the film in its canister and then put your hands through the sleeves so they were in the bag. You would then take the film out of the canister, load it in the camera by feel, and then reverse the process after the roll had been shot.

After a few tries the “changing bag” routine became habit, so I started taking infrared film on a number of shoots. Velvia 50 and 100 (color slide film) remained the workhorses for editorial assignments, while “IR” was ideal for getting something especially “arty.” One of the first IR shoots ended up being a favorite, for a superb subject was found in abundance in incredibly atmospheric location.

Newport Pagnell

A great overview photo of the area just outside the Finishing Line at Aston Martin’s old Newport Pagnell factory. The open doorway on the top left was the Finishing Line’s exit, and you can see a car that was freshly completed. What made Newport Pagnell so brilliant was the only car and thus shape you would see on the grounds was the Vanquish, and it provided a startling contrast to the surrounding century-plus old buildings.

Aston Martin’s old Newport Pagnell factory was about an hour’s drive outside of London in the quaint town named, appropriately enough, Newport Pagnell. Adding to the factory’s charm was the way Tickford Street split it in half, with the production facilities on one side, and the service and restoration center on the other. The area was known as Tickford Abbey, and was originally used by Salmons & Sons, an old coachbuilding firm with history that dated back to the first half of the 1800s.

Aston moved there in the 1950s, producing the DB2 through DB6, DBS and DBSV8 during the David Brown era, the V8, V8 Vantage, Virage, and wedgy Lagonda from the 1970s through the 1990s. Around 2000, the facility was converted to Vanquish production.

Newport Pagnell

One of the wonderful things about Aston’s Newport Pagnell factory was you never knew what scene you would find around the next corner. Here, one Aston’s craftsmen stops to admire their handiwork. I love the way the latticework of lines in the pavement quietly draw your eye up to the subject, and then how you later notice a second Vanquish behind the worker.

Whenever visiting this most atmospheric of factories, you couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the place. Strolling through those old brick buildings with small windows and pointed roofs dotted with chimneys transported you back a century. And in the midst of them was that single, sensual but visceral automotive form.

You never knew where a Vanquish might be lurking, how many there would be, or what color(s) you’d find, but whenever you encountered one it was a marvelous clash of old world and new. The hard, sharp angles of the buildings and the Vanquish’s sinewy curves, the car’s smooth modern surfaces in front of the brick facades, the outdoor stillness punctuated with the sudden V12 rasp when one fired up, and dual exhaust burble that came right after, was utterly intoxicating—like being a kid in a life-size candy store while playing hide-and-seek with the cars.

Newport Pagnell

Another wonderful image from my days at Aston Martin’s wonderful Newport Pagnell factory, where they produced the Vanquish from 2001-2007. All this week’s shots were taken with infrared black and white film, and when used right it gave the most atmospheric, ethereal effect. Which was perfect for the juxtaposition seen everywhere, of the century old buildings with incredibly artful pieces of rolling sculpture everywhere.

Sometimes when entering or exiting the production facilities through the short doorways, I would need to duck my head. Once inside, you would walk along the production line and see talented craftsmen smartly outfitted in a trademark green Aston shirt or coat, and at every workstation precision was there to see. A favorite had bare aluminum body panels skillfully worked by hand, the artisans using their tools to smooth the superformed aluminum surface to perfection.

The production line snaked its way through several rooms, and at the very end was the icing on the cake: the Finishing Line. If a group of geese is a “gaggle,” a bunch of crows a “murder,” and a pack of lions a “pride,” I’m not sure what to call the 12-15 Vanquishes in the very last stages of completion…hypnotic, spectacular, breathtaking and just plain WOW all come to mind.

Aston Martin

We are ending this week where we started: back at the Aston Martin Vanquish Finishing line. It was truly magical seeing all those forms together, in a variety of colors. Intriguingly, one shade of silver seemed to be the most popular. “That is the one on Bond’s Vanquish in ‘Die Another Day,’” a technician noted. “Ever since the movie, it has been our most popular color.”

Peacefulness, serenity, and a singular sense of purpose permeated throughout Newport Pagnell but sadly, that marvelous Finishing Line and everything else is no more. The Vanquish has been out of production for a bit more than a decade, and Aston’s flagship model was the work’s swan song. I haven’t been back since the Vanquish era, but my understanding is that most atmospheric of automotive production facilities made way for housing.

Which I guess is a reflection of the times…

But if a time machine existed, the early 2000s and Newport Pagnell would be one of the first places I would zap myself back to. It’s really not that long ago, but looking at these images, it seems (and feels) many decades in the past.

Postscript: In addition to the photos seen here, I have a slew of other Newport Pagnell images that have never been seen, and am considering doing a small art book and/or ebook in celebration of that wonderful place. Should you wish to be notified when the project reaches fruition, please contact me here.

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