If there were such a thing as an automotive philosopher, they would probably deduce that the engine was the soul of a car. For at least a century, the engineering, power and sound of the internal combustion engine has shaped our perception of the sporting automobile. A fine engine can make an average car into a great one; it can turn a magnificent car into a legend.
Since the end of the Second World War and the start of the David Brown era, Aston Martin has ensured that the refinement and performance of its engines are a pre-eminent part of the company’s offering. While Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford had an innate understanding of the demands of their target market — the gentleman racer and hill-climber — their approach was to combine the best mechanical underpinnings they could source, including an Isotta-Fraschini chassis and a 1400cc Coventry-Simplex engine, married to a four-speed gearbox. This first car, the 1915 “Coal Scuttle”, was incrementally improved and, by the time of the A3, Bamford and Martin’s third car, that original monobloc engine had been enhanced and overhauled by Hamilton Victor Robb to add more capacity and power.
The engine that came to define inter-war Aston Martins was the one created by Domenico Augustus Cesare Bertelli and Bill Renwick in the late 1920s. Bertelli and Hill, who acquired Aston Martin in 1926, worked in collaboration with their young draughtsman Claude Hill, who later went on to design the iconic Aston Martin Atom. Hill’s four-cylinder, 1.5 litre unit had an overhead camshaft and was subsequently improved to add twin carbs and an enlarged capacity of 2.0 litres. It was to be at the heart of all Aston Martins for the next 13 years.
The David Brown era marked a distinct change in direction in every respect. Brown also bought the Lagonda marque, which had been struggling to find a car that matched the talents of its key piece of intellectual property, the Straight-6 engine. Designed by the great WO Bentley in the mid 1940s, it had originally been intended to replace the large and ostentatious V12s that had defined Lagonda before the war. With Aston Martin Lagonda incorporated as a new company, Brown placed the 2.6 litre engine in the 2-Litre Sports and the DB2 was born.
Bentley’s engine saw long and distinguished service in the first “DB” cars and was improved by the Polish-born engineer Tadek Marek, who joined Aston Martin from Austin in 1953. The synergy between road and race cars was underlined by the influence of Ted Cutting, Aston Martin’s Chief Designer for racing cars, who worked alongside Marek in the company’s engineering department. Cutting was the man behind Aston Martin’s remarkable 1959 Le Mans winner, the DBR1, as well as the DP prototype racing cars that followed. His copious engineering knowledge — he designed almost every facet of the Le Mans car — fed back into the company’s road cars.
It wasn’t until the DBR2 that Marek had a chance to debut his own all-new Straight-6, an engine that also demonstrated remarkable longevity as it went on to power the DB4 (and Lagonda Rapide), DB5, DB6 and even the first tranche of DBS cars, before the arrival of the company’s first V8 in 1969. Marek’s six-cylinder was all-alloy with a twin-over-camshaft just like its predecessor, only with a larger capacity of 3.6 litres. Ultimately, it was increased to more than four litres with an output of 282bhp, boosted to 314bhp in Vantage specification from 1964 onwards, with the addition of the famed triple-Weber carburettors.
Marek was also responsible for the V8 engine, perhaps the most long-lived Aston Martin power plant of all, which saw the company through the 1970s and 1980s to the first generation Virage. The mighty 5340cc capacity V8 was ultimately supercharged by American specialists Callaway to bolster the power to unprecedented levels, culminating in the 600bhp V8 Vantage Le Mans V600 in 1998. By this time, Aston Martin was also using a supercharged derivative of Jaguar’s six-cylinder AJ6 engine in its new DB7, introduced in 1994 to revolutionise the company’s image and production numbers. Aston Martin didn’t have a V12 engine until 1999 when the DB7 Vantage marked the debut of a 12-cylinder unit developed in conjunction with Ford, then owners of the company through its PAG subdivision. Ford’s Cologne engine plant had created this V12 from components of the company’s Duratec V6 for the Indigo Concept car of 1996. Conversations between Ford’s management and Aston Martin’s CEO (and former Ford vice-president) Walter Hayes resulted in the V12 being redesigned for Aston Martin’s very exacting requirements. A new era had begun.
The new engine found its spiritual home in the V12 Vanquish, the car that began the company’s modern renaissance. The original Vanquish was bold and muscular, and the engine provided a suitably strong core, with 460bhp from the outset, run through a clutch-less hydraulic gearshift. The second iteration of the engine, found in the DB7 Vantage, was re-engineered to shed 18kg of weight with a sophisticated drive-by-wire throttle and engine management system to minimise emissions and maximise efficiency. On top of all this technology, there was the craft, with each and every V12 hand-assembled in Cologne, proudly bearing the engraved nameplate of the technician who put it together.
It was the DB9 that cemented Aston Martin’s V12 claim to greatness. As one of the company’s most successful and acclaimed cars, the DB9 made an explicit connection between Aston Martin’s values of Power, Beauty and Soul and the physical experience of the machine itself. The all-aluminium V12 produced 450bhp in its first iteration, with 420lb ft (570Nm) of torque, giving the DB9 an impressive power to weight ratio of 263bhp/tonne, enough to give the car remarkable flexibility in any gear. The strength, poise and ease of progress was mated to a swift paddle-shift gearbox that could transform the DB9 from refined GT into a performance leader in an instant. The cars that followed saw the V12 engine undergo constant revision and enhancement, culminating in the 600PS unit that will be fitted to the new Vanquish Zagato in 2016.
2005 saw the dawn of Aston Martin’s new V8, a 4.3 litre unit developed for the V8 Vantage, the sporting companion to the DB9’s exceptional GT capabilities. The V8 had its origins in Jaguar’s late 1990s powertrain, but once in Aston Martin’s hands it was transformed into the core of a true performance classic. From the outset, the 380bhp V8 delivered class-leading figures. The all-alloy, dry sump unit was compact and responsive, designed to deliver 75% of maximum torque at 1,500rpm. This power was accompanied by a ferocious, snarling exhaust note, enhanced by a race-inspired special four-into-two-into-one exhaust manifold, with bypass valves that retained a sense of decorum at low speeds, but transformed the car into Aston Martin’s most sonorous-ever driving experience at full tilt, a sensation enhanced to the full by the V8 Roadster. It was flexible, too; by the time of the ferocious Vantage GT8, the engine’s power output had been boosted to 440bhp.
The use of both the V8 and V12 in the Vantage series emphasised Aston Martin’s close relationship between road and track. The next generation of Aston Martins, however, signals a return to the strength and grace of the classic V12, the zenith of internal combustion engine design and the company’s core qualities. For the first time in an Aston Martin, the V12 at the heart of the DB11 incorporates twin-turbos, allowing the 5.2 litre unit to develop 600bhp and 516lb ft of torque (608PS and 700Nm). Lighter and more efficient than ever before, the engine has intelligent cylinder deactivation and stop-start technology. Yet as before, a plaque bears the name of the technician who spent eight hours meticulously assembling the engine, highlighting Aston Martin’s eternal link between craft, technology and design.
TADEK MAREK: ENGINEERING THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME
Tadeusz “Tadek” Marek was born in Poland in 1908 and studied engineering in Berlin before working for Fiat and General Motors. He supplemented his design work with a successful racing career, including three consecutive attempts at the Monte Carlo Rally in the late 1930s and a triumphant drive in the 1939 Rally Poland (although Ted Cutting later remembered Marek as “disliking” motor racing).
Marek supplemented his design work with a racing career, including the Monte Carlo Rally
At the outbreak of war, he was briefly in the Polish army before working covertly with the government in exile, using his language and engineering skills to survive in occupied Europe before finding passage to England via Tangiers in 1941. He spent the rest of the war as a Polish Major, working on tank designs, before returning to post-war Europe to assist with the United Nations’ rebuilding efforts. Back in the UK in the late 1940s, he worked first for Austin, then developing new amphibious tanks, before finally ending up at Aston Martin in 1953.
Marek combined his development of the company’s legendary six- and eight-cylinder engines with personal projects. These included a DB2, DB4 and DB5, all with enhanced, high performance specifications (the latter with an early version of his V8). In 1968, he retired and moved with his wife to Terracina, on the Italian coast between Rome and Naples, where he died in 1982.