Photo courtesy of Bonhams
The Atom is the world’s most successful fully functioning concept car, and an iconic piece of British motoring history. Built in 1939 and still running today, it carries the history of the Aston Martin brand on its shoulders, and its remarkable story is loaded with innovation lessons that are relevant to today’s brands—and not just automotive ones.
Lesson 1: Lead With Vision
The Atom was the brainchild of company owner Gordon Sutherland. He believed post-war motoring would be increasingly sophisticated, requiring high-speed, cross-continental comfort. His vision was to combine the thrills of a sports car with the refinement of a saloon, and he was inspired by new thinking from outside the automotive world.
Sutherland had witnessed the early development of the delta wing in Germany in the early 1930s, and he was inspired to construct a car based on aircraft design and lightweight materials. This was the brief given to chief engineer Claude Hill, along with free rein to develop his own ideas.
These progressive leadership traits—looking outside your industry, setting an ambitious vision, and encouraging experimentation—are essential for senior executives who aspire to lead their teams to succeed in today’s hyper-competitive world.
Lesson 2: Pioneering Holistic Design
Hill designed an ultra-modern and highly innovative four-door saloon that was far ahead of its time, and received universal acclaim from the motoring press.
The prototype had a split screen, hammock seats, and used self-tapping screws and Nylock nuts, which all followed aeronautical practice. It was regarded as a contemporary of the WWII Supermarine Spitfire and a forerunner of the beautifully designed Aston Martins of the 1950s and 1960s.
Even its production methods were unlike anything seen before. The design was strong and yet so simple that two men could build a complete frame in just 10 days. It was a concept car that could be modified easily and produced economically—critical to success given the scarcity of materials during wartime.
The Atom’s internal and external design choices enabled agile development and rapid iteration—two principles that modern business leaders should follow if their conceptual products are to be successful.
Lesson 3: Boundary-Pushing (And Defendable) Technology
The Atom is revered still by enthusiasts today for the dazzling array of new technologies it showcased.
Its lightweight, aerodynamic aluminium chassis was more than a decade ahead of the multi-tubular space frame of the Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing. It sported a new trailing arm independent suspension for the front—based on a Gordon Armstrong design—and the first U.K. use of the popular Salisbury rear axle. Its Cotal semi-automatic gearbox was a forerunner of today’s modern “paddle shift.”
These ground-breaking technologies were only proposed because the Atom was created as a purely experimental prototype. However, Aston Martin saw this innovative engineering as the future of motoring and patented much of it—an approach that had a huge impact on the brand’s future success.
Today’s marketers face the pressures of needing to demonstrate quick wins and showing rapid return on investment. And this expectation fuels the creation of numerous test-and-iterate prototypes—a practice that improves design incrementally but doesn’t deliver a step-change in experience.
To do that, CX leaders need to give their teams time and budget to create potentially unsellable concepts that will, eventually, deliver game-changing features for future products.
Lesson 4: Flexibility Is Key
The Atom was finished and registered just six weeks after the allied evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940. And while WWII brought the company unexpected income producing aircraft components, Aston Martin’s resources were focused on the war effort rather than further developing their exciting new prototype.
The unexpected consequence of this was the Atom entering an extended period of product testing. During the war years it clocked up a whopping 100,000 miles, which helped refine the handling and ensure a smooth ride, even at speeds of 90 to 100mph.
Realising that a considerable sum would be needed to get the Atom into production, Sutherland put the company up for sale through a classified advert in The Times newspaper. David Brown, the English industrialist and entrepreneur, saw the ad and test-drove the Atom.
Brown was impressed with the test drive and saw the advanced engineering, and its patents, as the key to the brand’s future success. He famously bought Aston Martin in 1947—a company that he owned for the best part of 25 years.
The onset of war must have disheartened the team, but they changed their approach and focused on what they could control—testing and refinement. This need to pivot in the face of new challenges is a key driver for digital transformation projects. And the ability to change in this way is necessary if they are to be successful.
Shortly after Brown purchased Aston Martin, construction began of an updated version. This prototype was entered at the 24 Hours race at Spa in 1948 as a way of testing its durability, and the car won the race outright.
Sales of the first production model started that year; a 2-Litre Sports version retrospectively known as the DB1. Fifteen years later, the iconic DB5 made its debut in the movie Goldfinger, beginning a 50-year partnership with the James Bond film franchise.
The history of the Atom, and the legacy it created over the last three quarters of a century, helped build the iconic status Aston Martin enjoys today. And it left us with innovation lessons that will be relevant for years to come - in the automotive industry and beyond.