Aston Martin may lose U.S. dealers without safety exemption

DETROIT Tue Sep 2, 2014 5:15pm EDT

The 1964 Aston Martin DB5 made famous in the James Bond movies ''Goldfinger'' and ''Thunderball'' which featured Scottish actor Sean Connery, is displayed for the first time since a total restoration at the Transport Museum in Luzern December 10, 2010.    REUTERS/Romina Amato

The 1964 Aston Martin DB5 made famous in the James Bond movies ''Goldfinger'' and ''Thunderball'' which featured Scottish actor Sean Connery, is displayed for the first time since a total restoration at the Transport Museum in Luzern December 10, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Romina Amato

DETROIT (Reuters) - U.S. Aston Martin dealers say they are in danger of closing if federal regulators refuse to give them an exemption to safety rules that would allow them to keep selling all four models the British luxury sports car maker produces.

U.S. Aston Martin dealers cannot sell DB 9 and Vantage models produced after Aug. 31.

The 101-year-old maker of sports cars, including James Bond’s original car of choice, asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in March for an exemption of up to three years to federal side-impact safety standards.

Aston Martin says lack of an exemption would cause "substantial economic hardship" to the money-losing brand.

Aston Martin said that with money tight during the recent recession, it was forced to delay redesigning the DB9 and Vantage so they would meet new side air bag standards that NHTSA has phased in since 2010.

A NHTSA spokeswoman on Tuesday said the agency has not yet ruled on the Aston Martin exemption. "The agency has been in contact with Aston Martin regarding their exemption request and is awaiting additional information from their dealers," she said.

An Aston Martin dealer said he was told by a NHTSA official that a ruling could be expected sometime this year.

NHTSA can exempt some manufacturers that sell fewer than 5,000 vehicles annually in the United States. Aston Martin sold 4,200 worldwide last year, the company told regulators.

Without the DB9 and the Vantage to sell, some of the 35 U.S. Aston Martin stores will be forced to close, said James R. Walker, chairman of the U.S. Aston Martin dealer advisory council.

A rejection could keep 670 vehicles out of the United States, according to Aston Martin. It wants exemptions for the DB9 model, priced at $186,525, until September 2016, and for the Vantage, which sells for $119,525, until September 2017.

Aston Martin has struggled in recent years. It is not part of a wider automotive group like other high-end British brands such as Tata-owned Jaguar Land Rover and Volkswagen-owned Bentley (VOWG_p.DE).

The central England-based firm hired senior Nissan executive Andy Palmer as its new boss after nine months without a CEO, Reuters reported on Tuesday.

Daimler AG has expressed interest in greater involvement with Aston Martin.

Aston Martin CFO Hanno Kirner told Reuters in March that despite difficulties he expected the brand to return to "significant" profitability after 2016.

Walker, who sells Aston Martin cars in the Washington, D.C. area, said that a "substantial number" of 530 jobs linked to U.S. dealers would likely be lost if stores close. Dealers stand to lose 25 percent of their sales volume in the short term, pushing many into the red, he told regulators in a letter.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Detroit; additional reporting by Costas Pitas in London; Editing by Dan Grebler)