A few years back when things were sort of looking up for Aston Martin, before things got bad, like they are now, the venerable maker of luxury English sports cars had an interesting idea. They’d make a small car, in fact a tiny one, whose diminutive size, low carbon emissions and comparatively modest price (approx. $50,000) would make it a practical proposition for their well-heeled customers’ city use, while just as practically reducing the company’s overall carbon footprint as encouraged by European tax and regulatory policies.
Because, awesome high-tech sports cars aside, Aston is too small to competently engineer such a thing -- there’s no question that a quality small car is a much trickier thing to build than a 3,700-pound luxury sport cruiser -- the Gaydon, England-based firm partnered with Toyota. The result: a version of Toyota’s subcompact, front-driver, the iQ (marketed in America as a Scion,) with some sheet metal changes including an Aston-shaped grille, some nice paint and some fancy seating surfaces -- plus a butt-ton of sound-deadener -- these being the entirety of the transformation; the iQ chassis and humble 1.3-liter, 97-horsepower Toyota engine and transmission remained intact. This three-seat mobile phone booth would now be known as the Aston Martin Cygnet and the smart people of London, Paris and Rome would clamor to have one as their chic city car.
Except they didn’t clamor, they barely budged. So dismal were sales that, two years following its launch, the Cygnet had its plug pulled by Aston. Although they’d claim the reason was Toyota’s plan to drop the iQ following the 2014 selling season, Aston cancelled the small car in 2013, suggesting that thin initial demand for Cygnet petered out quickly. The car was never offered for sale in America, but sales here were unlikely to have altered its fate.
While the Cygnet project was a money-losing failure, the underlying idea – outsourcing the engineering and manufacture of its cars – may well have taken root at Aston, which has recently announced plans to do some future models in conjunction with Mercedes-Benz. While a new and better small car doesn’t seem to be in its plans, an ML-based Aston SUV shouldn’t be long now, m’lady, which makes us cringe. With BMW owning Rolls-Royce and VW Bentley, the English bespoke car business’ annexation by the powerhouse German firms is nearing completion. And while they may have seemed like a good idea at the time, the handful of Cygnets out there only serve to remind me of the beginning of the end.
Enter, however, Texas lawyer, Robert Kleinman, who recently became the first on his block by arranging to purchase and ship home from England all the parts needed to convert his Scion iQ into an Aston Martin Cygnet clone. For all we know, it may be the only one in the world. At most, it’s one of a few. For less than $10,000 (and the price of an iQ) you can do it, too, Kleinman says.
One is tempted, because he lives in this hipster domain, to call his the Austin Aston Martin. This Austin Aston thing is in fact a popular vein of confusion among less than fully switched on car buffs. Austin Martin – Aston Healey, we’ve heard it all, and those with the knowledge must correct them. Aston Martin, Austin-Healey, and never the twain shall meet.
Aston and Toyota? We corresponded with Kleinman recently, asking why someone would do such a thing and how. Herewith the whole story, as related by the counselor:
“I could tell you I believed driving an iQ would send just the right message for my small Austin [law] practice, but my decision to buy the iQ was driven as much by my heart as my head. In any event, once I took delivery of the iQ, I fell deeply and profoundly in love: I’ve never had a car with a fraction of its personality. My kids promptly nicknamed the iQ 'Pierogi' because he’s small, chubby and white, and strangers let me into traffic and no one has ever taken a shot at me, which is a positive since this is Texas.
“I’ve been a longtime auto enthusiast but Pierogi was the first car I ever loved enough to want trick out: factory alloy wheels from Japan; TRD sway bar and springs, OEM goodies from Toyota Europe, an aftermarket sound system, etc. I used to tell others that mine was equipped with 'The Ancients of MuMu Sport Pack,' a reference to THE KLF of acid house fame.
“As a car nut, I was of course aware of the Aston Martin Cygnet. Like any self-respecting car nut, I’m a huge Aston devotee. I took Aston’s decision to develop the Toyota iQ as objective validation of the car’s bold innovation and uniqueness. From a trademark attorney’s point of view, I see the Cygnet almost as intellectual property performance art; it’s the ultimate derivative work.
“Visually I find the Cygnet far more attractive than the iQ. When Aston Martin announced in October 2013 that the Cygnet was going out of production, it immediately popped in my head to get in touch with Aston to see if they had any spare parts lying about for sale. One thing led to another, and before I knew it I was dealing directly with Alistair Elliot, the cheerful proprietor of AstonMartinBits.com, which may or may not be based in Swindon. Anyway, Alistair was fun to work with and indispensible for carrying out the transformation I had in mind. He hooked me up with all the hardware.
"While AstonMartinBits.com was my parts supplier, Berli’s, a quality-obsessed body shop in Pflugerville, Texas was hired to carry out the transformation. Berli’s manager, Chad Kiffe, shared my enthusiasm. And as a bonus, Berli’s even assigned the projected to a certified Aston Martin mechanic on its staff. Berli’s did a flawless job at a fair price.
“I wanted to keep Pierogi as a Scion rather than trying to pass him off as an Aston. As far as I’m concerned, the Aston Scion is the ultimate hybrid. It’s just about done now, a couple minor tweaks remaining.
“The biggest surprise is the unexpected attention Pierogi has drawn from the opposite sex. Once Pierogi made the transition from Scion iQ to Aston Scion, stylish females made it a point to let me know how 'adorable' they found him. It’s amazing what a good nose job will do for you. But as a practical matter, this unexpected benefit has turned out to be of no use whatsoever since I’m boring and happily married.“