A bucket of Ts sits atop a weathered wooden bench—months’ worth of production distilled into a single cubic foot. These letters help make up the distinctive Aston Martin script on the back of the DB11, Vantage, and Volante. Each one is punched out by hand on a screw press that looks like it reported for duty before Aston Martin founders Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford had even joined forces.
This definitely isn’t Aston’s state-of-the-art Gaydon factory, or even the company’s Newport Pagnell heritage operations. This is Vaughtons. Located in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, a historic enclave of England’s second city, it’s an appropriate place to find the people behind some of the world’s most exquisite hood ornamentation.
Although many luxury automotive brands switched to plastic badges years ago, premium metal still wears premium metal. Bugatti, for instance, prides itself on using as little plastic as possible. Likewise, whether it’s the baby Vantage or the new Vanquish, all Astons don a genuine metal badge produced by Vaughtons.
Incorporated in 1819, a quarter century before Carl Benz gasped his first breath, let alone invented the Patent Motor Car, Vaughtons described itself as a “buttonmaker, medallist, and mint.” By the start of the 20th century, thanks to the influence of Howard Vaughton, an English soccer star and grandson of the founder, the company had captured prestigious contracts, including making medals for the 1908 London Olympics and the Football Association Cup. These days, Vaughtons still makes those football medals, along with mayoral chains of office and jewelry for obscenely rich Middle Eastern royalty.
Inside the factory, it seems little has changed since the early days. Ancient handpresses sit in rows, their curious mermaid-green color worn away by decades of use. Behind them are dies, stacked ceiling high, that appear untouched for centuries. It’s noisy, dirty, and glorious.
“I used to be embarrassed to bring clients here,” says sales director Nick Hobbis, who’s largely been running the show since his father began easing out of the big chair a couple of years back. “I’d visit Aston Martin at Gaydon and think, We can’t compete with that. But they love it. They love the sense of tradition.”
Badges have long been part of Vaughtons’s business. The archive of hand-cut dies weighing down racks upstairs testies to previous contracts with Jensen and Lotus. Wind back a century, and Vaughtons was the original supplier of badges to Rolls-Royce.
Hobbis is behind the latest push. A pair of tattoos poke mischievously from beneath his shirtsleeves, and a petrol-head passion is clear in the way his eyes widen when he talks about cars in his lilting Birmingham burr. Think Ozzy Osbourne, but with triple the Mensa score. Vaughtons currently works with Overfinch, a Jaguar and Land Rover tuning house, and a contract with McLaren is a possibility.
Right now, though, Aston is the main client. Vaughtons sends 2000 components its way every week, the most beautiful of which are winged hood ornaments.
Each of those badges starts as a strip of burnt-orange metal. Vaughtons has made 18-karat-gold badges for special cars, and hallmarked silver badges for eight special-edition Vantages built to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the World War II Spitfire fighter plane, but the regular production badges are formed from a more prosaic copper alloy.
Clipped roughly to size, each blank is then stamped twice in a machine press, giving it the clear shape.
But not clear enough. After two blows, the metal hardens and further stamping won’t improve the definition, so the blank is annealed—heated to 1700 degrees Fahrenheit—allowing it to soften before returning for more punishment in the press. Much of Vaughtons’s work is carried out using skillfully created hand-cut dies, but all the stuff that goes on four wheels is CAD-drawn, and the dies are CNC-machined by another company close by. Automotive clients demand that level of precision.
Following more to-ing and fro-ing between heat and press, during which the ash, or excess material, is removed, the badges travel a few doors up the street. This recently renovated building, with its exposed brickwork and heavy industrial style, looks like the kind of place you’d expect to find hipsters sipping the latest fad coffee as they tend slavishly to their Instagram accounts. Instead, it’s home to eight women—four from three generations of the same family. With hands steadier than a surgeon’s, they apply the first of two coats of enamel to give the badges their distinctive colors. Why all women? “Because they have the patience!” laughs Hobbis.
Enamelers like Sue Moore are literally painting with glass, teasing vitreous enamel coloring into the 43 sections of the badge. Difficult enough ordinarily; hugely complicated in the case of the nine badges created for Aston’s 2016 World Endurance Championship racers, each displaying a different country’s flag.
Later, in his office, Hobbis shows us a series of badges dreamed up to prove how far the concept can go. One spectacularly baroque project called for 2000 pieces of mother-of-pearl. Another badge is finished in the same green as the brake calipers on the limited-run AMR performance models. You can tell Hobbis and his team are keen to show what Vaughtons can do, rather than simply sit back and wait for instructions, but Aston’s designers are very protective of the badges.
Back in the enameling room, the badge is then baked to harden the coating before what’s called linishing, a coarse polishing process that reveals any holes or dips in the coating. Those are then remedied with another coat. Fine polishing follows before the batch is moved to a third unit for electroplating, to deliver the final shine and ensure the exposed metalwork won’t dull.
By the time the badge has reached Aston Martin, it has passed through 30 processes and up to 10 pairs of expert hands. The result feels pleasingly weighty, and the detail is incredible. Compared with the plastic carbuncle on the front of a Kia, it might as well be a Fabergé egg.
You can’t help but wonder how many Aston owners will realize, even as they lovingly and carefully wipe a soapy cloth over one on a Sunday morning, exactly how much effort has gone into creating the badge. Not that it matters to Vaughtons, which will likely be pressing and painting metal the same way two centuries from now.