INTERVIEW: MAX SZWAJ
We meet the man who will lead the development of a new Aston generation
It could be that we’re a little biased here at Vantage, but right now we can’t imagine a more exciting engineering role in the whole car industry than that of chief technical officer at Aston Martin. Fortunately, our admittedly rather partisan hunch is backed up by the arrival of Max Szwaj, who has left his post of six years as head of innovation and body engineering at Ferrari and Maserati to assume his new position at Gaydon.
We meet Szwaj (pronounced ‘Svay’) in his office, high above the VIP atrium of Aston’s imposing HQ. He’s been in the job for only a few months, but he’s clearly settled and enjoying the working culture and the impetus that pervades the company now that CEO Andy Palmer’s tireless efforts are gaining traction.
Aston has never been the kind of marque to attract faceless ‘suits‘ in its senior roles, and it’s great to see that tradition continue with Szwaj. For starters he’s not wearing a suit, which is always a good sign. Secondly he reads Vantage (we aren’t averse to a bit of flattery), but most reassuringly he’s the proud owner of a 1953 DB2 Vantage, which he bought while working for Ferrari and long before any sniff of a job at Gaydon. He’s one of us, no doubt about it.
‘I love classic cars,’ he says. ‘I’m fortunate to own a few, but this is my first Aston. I bought it before I knew anything about opportunities at Aston Martin. I’d always loved the cars and the brand but, now I’m here, the DB2 gives me an opportunity to look at the brand from a different point of view.
‘To me, the DB2 provides an emotional connection that I believe is vital when you’re developing future models. It’s all about progression and looking at what made the brand. Aston is very special, and I want to gain an intimate understanding of what the qualities are that made and continue to make it so.
‘The company has had a big shake-up. The whole board is new. There have been some big changes implemented and some bold decisions made. That makes it a super-exciting time for me to join. The brand is incredible, but still I think it deserves more attention within the market. Not just in the UK, but around the world.
‘We’re in good shape, but there’s a lot to do. You need to constantly innovate, invest in new R&D programmes, bring in new developments. The core strength of the brand needs to be supported by the substance of the product. That means technical substance to support the design. Our aesthetic is untouchable, unmistakeable. It’s my job, and that of the team around me, to ensure that what lies behind that beauty creates a deeper appreciation and desire for the product. We need to push and push and push this aspect forwards.
‘That process requires resources. What’s so exciting for me is that the management, led by
Andy Palmer, is providing the platform needed to drive that innovation. The people here are extremely motivated; there’s been an awakening. We don’t want to over-promise; we have to deliver that steady progression. One where the achievements from each area of the company pushes the others to do even greater things.’
One of the keys, he says, is recognising the changing market. ‘The world is moving on. Our customers are changing. They’re getting younger and coming from areas of the world that don’t necessarily know our heritage. They judge us on what we do now, not what we did ten, twenty, fifty or in the case of Aston Martin, even a hundred years ago. We have to provide the right product for them now.’
Driving change is something of a speciality for Szwaj, who began his career at Rover in 1989 after graduating from Trinity College Dublin and has since worked for some of the world’s most dynamic car-makers. A move from Rover to BMW after the German company’s take-over saw him working on the Mini concept and front-wheel-drive platform. A job at Porsche followed:hewaskeytotheconceptdevelopment of the new Cayman and also responsible for the concept design and engineering of the fabulous Carrera GT supercar.
After he’d delivered the Carrera GT project, Szwaj was then lured back to the BMW Group with the promise of the lead engineering role at BMW’S design studio in California, then in 2004 he was offered a position at BMW in Munich, working on concept design alongside Chris Bangle and Adrian van Hooydonk. Szwaj’s career took another leap forwards in 2009 when he joined Ferrari as head of innovation and body engineering – a role he subsequently also assumed at Maserati before joining Aston Martin in December 2016.
Throughout his career, Szwaj has always been drawn to over-arching roles, right from his first
‘The world is moving on. Our customers are changing. They’re getting younger’
job as a post-graduate in the concept engineering team at Rover. It was there he learned invaluable skills, such as the craft of drawing full-scale engineering concepts. It was also during these early days that he first worked with Marek Reichman (now Aston Martin’s design director), who was being sponsored by Rover while studying design at the Royal College of Art.
‘Marek and I hit it off from day one. He loved racing and I loved classic cars, so we had much in common. Over the years our paths have crossed – it’s a big industry, but a small world! – and it’s great to be back working with him at Aston. I love design. In fact there was a period when I considered choosing design over engineering, but ultimately I knew I loved the engineering side more, and in particular creating the total concept of the car.
‘When I start to lay out the architecture of a car, the first thing I do is draw it. Not with a computer, but with a pencil, because using a pencil forces you to think three-dimensionally before you commit to putting a line on the paper. I enjoy that discipline.
‘Drawing is a language that engineers should use, but many don’t. It’s a key communication method. I can see what a car should be, but that’s in my head. I need to put it on paper – seeing it can stimulate other engineers and show them what I’m thinking far more quickly and effectively than trying to explain it verbally. A drawing is also the first true test of the concept’s validity, and it means engineering and design teams are aligned as soon as possible. Making that link between the two departments is fundamental to the success of any project.’
With just a few months at Aston Martin under his belt, Szwaj is yet to hit his stride, but these early days are far from wasted.
‘At the moment I’m looking at the whole picture. I need to understand what is what and who is who. I haven’t even met everyone yet! I’m extremely motivated and keen to start improving things, but as soon as the dust settles and I have my bearings I can really start to get into the detail. As CTO, I need to understand what’s cooking. I’m not a micro-manager. I have to build a detailed picture, then give responsibilities to the best people. There’s some incredibly talented people here, and I’m looking forward to working with them.
‘My role is a tricky thing because you need to understand where the world is going and make investments in the business accordingly. The DBX is a perfect example of that strategic thinking. We have a clean sheet of paper to do what we want with that car, right from the facility in which it will be built.
‘We also have to maintain the brand value of Aston Martin with this car, and that’s a fine balance to strike, but if you don’t evolve as the world changes you become a dinosaur.’
It’s intriguing that the ideas already flashing around Szwaj’s mind will soon crystallise into engineering concepts that will ultimately shape Aston Martin’s future model-lines. Quite what they are, and quite how they will confront the challenges of a world and a wider automotive industry obsessed with self-driving convenience rather than the joy of a great driving experience is something we’ll need patience to discover.
Whatever that rather unsettling future brings, it’s comforting to know Szwaj reserves some thinking space for his lovely old DB2: ‘It needs some work, but I have another project I need to finish before I can start it. If I don’t do that my wife will kill me! The car has a bit of competition history, so I’m hopeful it will at least be considered for entries in some wonderful events. I’m also very much looking forward to going on some road trips. I still have a house in Italy, so I have a dream to drive the DB2 there once it is ready. Perhaps one springtime, over the Alps and down through the Italian lakes. That would be wonderful.’
‘If you don’t evolve as the world changes, you become a dinosaur'
Left and below Szwaj will lead the development of future generations of Astons, building on the success of the DB11 (below). The DBX crossover (opposite) is currently making the transition from concept to production – a good example, Szwaj says, of...
Right and below Concept engineering is Szwaj’s speciality, with key roles at BMW, Porsche and Ferrari before Aston. Electric power – already trialled in the Rapide – is sure to figure in his plans