Max Szwaj admits to being nervous. Not because he’s been handed control over the production processes, product planning and responsibility for delivering the next chapter in a century-old manufacturing story, but by being questioned by Aston Martin magazine on his life, passions and ambitions. Yet within barely a minute, we’ve found a topic that Szwaj can enthuse about and forget the perceived threat of a writer’s notebook and a perpetually lurking photographer. Two years ago, long before he’d even considered taking the role of Chief Technical Officer at Aston Martin Lagonda, Szwaj bought an Aston Martin DB2. A lifelong enthusiast and collector of classic cars, this particular model caught his eye after many years of owning and restoring iconic machinery from a certain Modenese manufacturer (more of which later).
“I love cars — I was brought up with that bug,” Szwaj says from his Gaydon office, conveniently sited midway between the factory floor and the design studio. “I was looking to buy something very different. Aston was always there, but not on my list. Desirable, of course, but I had never had one. Then the opportunity came up. I love the early cars. The DB2 in particular is a really pure car.” Szwaj’s own car, a DB2 Vantage from 1953, has the distinction of never having been restored: “It was raced a bit in the 1950s and then owned by another Aston Martin collector, taken off the road in the late 1970s and never touched. I love its originality.”
Having begun his career at Rover in 1988, in what was then the heart of the British motor industry, Szwaj subsequently followed the typically peripatetic course taken by many gifted engineers and designers, including stints at BMW — in Munich and California — Porsche and Ferrari. Along the way, he became friends with a familiar face, notably Aston Martin’s Director of Design, Marek Reichman. Szwaj’s personal portfolio of projects runs the gamut from the MG-F roadster through to the original new Mini and Porsche’s iconic Carrera GT, all cars he was closely involved with.
In California, Szwaj became lead concept engineer at BMW’s independent Designworks studio, a prestigious role that fed conceptual model ideas back to Munich. Between Designworks and BMW’s M Division, he oversaw a programme that was ultimately cancelled at the eleventh hour. “It was very tough because then we had to carefully archive the project — it’s like the longest funeral,” he recalls.
Yet out of this disappointment, Szwaj believes he gained a far greater understanding of the need for shared platforms and elements that are common across multiple models, as well as the crucial role design and engineering play in giving a brand a strong identity. “It was a good experience,” he says. “I saw how both big and small companies worked. You have to take the positive from the negatives.” He subsequently went back to concept design and played a major part in BMW’s nascent i-car programme. “I got my energy and enthusiasm back,” he says. But before the car was launched, he found himself approached by Ferrari, a contact that led to the next stage in his career.
I love the brand. Aston Martin is an unpolished diamond — very aristocratic, very beautiful
Over the years, the Szwaj garage has included many classic Ferraris, including the 512 BB, Daytona and Dino. The opportunity to work in Maranello — and, as it transpired, on the LaFerrari hybrid sports car — was, he says, “incredible”. The contrast with the working cultures of Munich and Stuttgart could also not be more different. The short, intense development period was characterised by constantly shifting targets. “I was very privileged to be given that experience — probably the most challenging project I had ever worked on,” says Szwaj.
Straight after the LaFerrari’s successful launch, he moved on to the company’s next-generation mid- and front-engined platforms. It’s clear Szwaj still has great affection for the brand — his office at Gaydon is notable for its cupboard of hand-built Ferrari models, tucked away in the corner, as well as a particularly cheeky welcome gift — a photograph of a DB11 driving past Maranello’s famous factory gates.
Szwaj’s arrival at Aston Martin is timely, to say the least. His CV, his skills, his passion and his connections have all come together to underpin what is perhaps the busiest time in the marque’s history. With Dr Andy Palmer’s Second Century Plan now well underway, it’s no secret that new models, new innovation and — in some cases — new brands are integral to its success.
“When I look at my career, I’ve always had an overview of the whole car, from concept to platform to production,” Szwaj says, hinting at future models that, for now, are still swathed in the utmost secrecy. “Whatever we do, it has to be honest. Our products will always have British craftsmanship and authenticity.” Clues as to the future are given — his area of engineering expertise, for example. “Of course, the name Lagonda opens up the doors to even more possibilities,” he says, “but the exclusivity has to be maintained. You can’t dilute the brand, but to maintain exclusivity you have to have innovation and creativity.”
As Aston Martin advances, so too will platforms and powertrains, taking the marque into potentially uncharted territories. “I love the brand. Aston Martin is an unpolished diamond — very aristocratic, very beautiful,” he says enthusiastically. “I want to build a team of top creative engineers to deliver an innovative product line. We will create a benchmark in this sector. Aston Martin deserves this.” The ambitions are high. “There’s also a big landscape of connectivity out there,” he adds. “We need to pick the right technologies to differentiate ourselves. You want to drive an Aston Martin, not be driven. That visceral experience is not something we want to take away.”
He believes in having a rounded view of life: “I love art, music, architecture — I always want to see the whole picture. I also draw and paint. The ability to draw and show my ideas on paper is very important to me. You need to communicate a three-dimensional vision with a two-dimensional drawing. Then you’re half way there.”
In all the excitement at what’s to come, it’s important to spare a thought for that beautiful Moonbeam Grey DB2 Vantage. Although currently undergoing some engine work, Max’s latest purchase still has quite a way to go before it meets his exacting standards. “I have too many projects. I don’t have enough time,” he laments. In the face of the demands that will be made by AML over the next few years, one has to sympathise. Although, with a Chief Technical Officer of Szwaj’s calibre, it looks like the DB2’s loss will be the gain of every Aston Martin aficionado for years to come.