How many dealerships are too many?

That's a question elite automakers must tackle as they seek to pursue profit and preserve panache at the same time.

Aston Martin isn't saying where its ceiling is, but the primo member of Ford Motor Co.'s Premier Automotive Group (PAG), says 25 dealerships are enough to serve North America. That's how many it plans to have by year's end.

Currently, there are 20 Aston Martin dealerships in the U.S. and three in Canada. And by 2003, it plans to fly its flag in 40 locations across the continent. But Aston Martins will hardly — make that never — become dime-a-dozen.

“We're not worrying about losing exclusivity,” says Simon Rodd, Aston Martin Lagonda of North America's operations manager.

In North America, the number of registrations for Jaguar XK8, Porsche 911, Ferrarri 360 and Mercedes 500 and 600 total less than 25,000, he says. Meanwhile, there are 450 registered Aston Martins.

“So we run no risk, in my opinion, of over-exposing ourselves,” Mr. Rodd says.

In keeping with the vision of Ford group vice president-PAG Wolfgang Reitzle, the future of the automaker's luxury offerings lies with mega-dealerships that feature all its upscale products: Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lincoln and Volvo.

Ironically, numbers are the biggest obstacles facing PAG's expansion.

“The biggest hurdles are the fact that when you put together a deal like this, you have existing Jaguar, Range Rover, Volvo dealerships in the area that have to be dealt with — bought out or consolidated,” says Richard Powell, Aston Martin Lagonda of North America's customer services manager. “It's an extremely expensive and time-consuming process.”

The criteria for becoming an Aston Martin dealer?

“We're looking for Tier 1 Jaguar, CSI,” Mr. Powell says. “And we demand our own areas within each dealership. We don't want to see Aston Martins sold on the same floor as Jaguar, for instance.”

Sites in Phoenix and Denver have been approved as the first to feature PAG dealerships.

Despite the insistence on separation, Aston Martin is quick to acknowledge the benefits it has derived from its association with Ford.

“We are very pleased about the backing of the Ford Motor Co. and the PAG group because it allows us to have access to all technology, know-how and service we need to develop our brand character,” Aston Martin CEO Ulrich Bez tells Ward's. “It's a basic. On our own, we are unable to do this.”

The PAG's influence even affects the supply chain.

“If you come today to a company and you ask for 1,000 pieces a year, why should they do it? But with PAG's backing … they like to do it for us.”

However, the benefits also flow horizontally, Mr. Bez says.

“All our safety engineering is done by Volvo. And Volvo, they are the best. … There is no reason why they shouldn't do, with all their knowledge, our safety stuff. If you buy Aston Martin, you expect it's a safe car. But it's not a different safety. Safety is safety.”

Meanwhile, Aston Martin's mere membership in PAG enhances the other brands. It also gives Ford a showcase for cutting edge advancements.

The V12 Vanquish, which is slowly making its way to the marketplace is being hailed as Ford's “technology flagship.”

It's to be priced at $228,000.

Says Rob Elder, vice president and general manager of Aston Martin of Troy (MI), “My biggest problem right now is, I can't get enough of them.”

The dealership is allotted six this year and 10 in 2002. “Six months ago, they were gone,” Mr. Elder says.