IN­TER­VIEW: MAX SZWAJ

We meet the man who will lead the devel­op­ment of a new As­ton gen­er­a­tion

VANTAGE - - Contents - WORDS RICHARD MEADEN POR­TRAITS MAX EAREY

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.’

V

‘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 As­ton Martin meet­ing the need to evolve

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

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