It has never been easy to reconcile Aston Martin with the rest of Ford Motor Company's lineup
Aston Martin pursues its own turnaround under Ford

DETROIT, Michigan, April 25 (AFP) - It has never been easy to reconcile Aston Martin with the rest of Ford Motor Company's lineup.

The British luxury nameplate's sales are little more than the equivalent of a rounding error for its US parent. While Aston has helped polish Ford's halo, it has also run up significant losses since it was acquired by Ford in 1987.

But 2004 could be a significant year for the brand best known for providing silver-screen superspy James Bond with his favorite automobiles.

With the launch of the new DB9 sports car, Aston is projecting a 50 percent increase in sales over 2003, itself a record year. And that, says the automaker's chief executive, will push Aston Martin into the black for the first time in its 90-year history.

"We will, this year, break even and be profitable (in) 2005," said unit chairman and chief executive Ulrich Bez.

Ford does not publish financial figures for Aston Martin, but Ford's Premier Automotive Group, which comprises Aston Martin, Land Rover, Jaguar and Volvo, turned a modest profit in 2003 (164 million dollars) after losing 740 million dollars the previous year.

Making a profit and ensuring Aston's long-term viability is the cornerstone of a 10-year turnaround plan Bez put in place when he joined the long-struggling carmaker nearly five years ago. Until recently, that might have seemed about as realistic as one of Bond's big adventures.

Over the course of nine decades, Aston has regularly run up huge debts, leaving a series of investors desperate for a quick exit.

Its products failed to meet increasingly stringent US regulatory requirements, barring Aston from the world's largest luxury market, and by 1992, global sales slipped to a total of just 22 cars.

Two years later, volume rose to 42, but because of serious quality problems, the company essentially bought half of them back.

Since then, the situation has slowly begun to improve.

New products, such as the 236,000-dollar Vanquish, have earned Aston a small but growing following among the automotive market's most affluent buyers.

Last year, that sports car and the DB8 combined to generate worldwide sales of 1,500 vehicles.

This year, Bez, a German automotive veteran, expects the company's volume to hit 2,300 units, including 300 copies of the Vanquish and another 2,000 of the all-new DB9, a V-12-powered car capable of hitting 300 kilometers (186 miles) per hour.

The DB9 is the first vehicle to be built at Aston's new factory in Gaydon, Warwickshire in the British Midlands, which opened late last year. While the factory still relies on significant handwork -- virtually every car is customized to some degree -- Gaydon is a relative marvel of efficiency compared with Aston's old factory, an old carriage plant in the quaint village of Newport Pagnell.

That line required an average of almost 1,800 man hours per car. Gaydon cuts that to just 200, and makes use of some modern assembly techniques, such as an ultrasonic welding system borrowed from Ford.

The parent company has, in fact, provided a lot more than just cash to help Aston. It provided the computer-aided design technology critical for building a modern supercar, while the new DB9's safety systems were modeled on those developed by Ford's Volvo division, which is known as a pioneer of safety technology.

While the new sports car is critical to Aston's plans, it is only part of the plan Bez and his team have laid out.

At the North American International Auto Show in January 2003, Aston pulled the cover off a concept car called the AMV8.

A production version, dubbed the Vantage, will be priced to compete with the top end of Porsche's 911 line. And if Bez is right, Aston could sell more than 3,000 copies of the Vantage annually.

Combined with the exclusive automaker's other products, that would nudge Aston a bit closer to the mass market -- and in more ways than just volume.

Taking a tip from more-conventional car manufacturers, Aston is designing Vantage to make extensive use of component sharing.

Though it will be notably more aggressive in appearance than the DB9, the two models will share 70 percent of their underlying parts, something that should significantly hold down costs.

Overall, Aston's growth plan is a bold strategy, and not one guaranteed of success, even Aston insiders concede.

"If it fails, I cannot blame anybody (at Ford)," said Bez. "It is us."