Automotive engineering and Poland are rarely mentioned in the same sentence. The land that once elected its monarchs is better known for Marie Curie, Nicolaus Copernicus and Frederic Chopin. However there is one glorious exception; Mr. Tadeusz Marek.
Born in Krakow in 1908 he obtained an engineering degree from Berlin’s Charlottenburg Technical Institute before starting work at FIAT’s Polish subsidiary and later General Motors. A tinkerer at heart, Tadeusz spent some of his spare time restoring an ex Polish army Model T. To assuage his need for speed he bought an Indian motorcycle and then started racing first a BMW and then a Norton. Unfortunately an accident that put him in hospital for eight months put an end to his motorcycle racing, leading to his first attempt at the Monte Carlo Rally in 1937 driving a FIAT 100 Special. There would be further attempts in a Lancia Aprilia and Opel Olympia and finally before WW II he won the 12th Poland Rally in a Chevrolet Master Sedan.
As war in Europe started Marek joined the Polish Army but after their defeat at the hands of Hitler and Stalin, Marek found himself in an internment camp and then a civilian refugee. By October 1939 he had made his way to Rumania. Through a colleague who had worked at an aircraft factory he learned that there was a member of the German Embassy staff who was circulating freely between Poland’s Russian and German occupied zones via a permit issued by the Russians. The embassy staffer in question had a car with diplomatic plates. Marek and a friend “borrowed” the car and with the aid of false papers, crossed over to the Russian sector where Marek had a girlfriend. While the girlfriend was never found they managed to help twenty others escape.
Next the Polish embassy asked Marek to organize a convoy of twenty diplomatic limousines to ferry diplomats from the Russian controlled part of Poland to Paris where the provisional government of General Sikorsky remained in exile. Surprisingly, the journey across Europe was almost entirely uneventful. Then in Hungary they hit a snag when a border guard refused to let them pass. Luckily, Marek recognized him as the same guard who had let him through on the Monte Carlo Rally two years before and soon they were being escorted into Hungary with all the ceremony fit for a head of state.
Once the diplomatic cars had been delivered to France, Marek heard that there was a need for designers at a new Hispano-Suiza factory in Tarbes in the French Pyrenees. When he arrived he found only a hut as the factory was still but an illusion. However by now he had set his sights on England and figured the best way to go would be through Paris. Unfortunately he arrived just in time for the evacuation of the city prior to German occupation and was forced to flee south again through the Pyrenees to Madrid.
By now he was carrying six passengers and a bicycle and due to the heavy load and low quality paraffin being the only fuel available, his Fiat 1100’s engine was in dire need of a rebuild. While this presented little challenge to a seasoned engineer such as Marek, by the time the group reached Casablanca they were broke.
Marek and his fellow travellers soon discovered that Casablanca had a shortage of buttons for clothing. Ever the innovators they began to manufacture them out of ebonite gramophone records. Unfortunately, the fledgling business was cut short when Marek and his band of engineers were arrested for doing business without a license. Fortunately the jail keeper was a Gaullist and helped them contact the British Consul in Tangiers to organize passage to England. As could be expected it took a while for the paperwork to come through and so another business opportunity had to be found. This time the product was soup made out of fish fat. It must have been delicious as it earned Marek and his friends enough money to live in a hotel for four months.
By 1941 they had finally made it to Britain and Marek was put in change of design at a tank factory. He was given the honorary rank of Major as it just wouldn’t do to have a Polish Lance Corporal designing Centurion tanks. In the final weeks of the Blitz, Marek was living in the suburb of Finchley and soon enough revenge for the stolen embassy vehicle came raining from the sky and Marek was bombed out. Describing the incident later, he was incensed not out of fear of having almost lost his life but that a slab of ceiling had fallen into a delicious pot of Polish soup he had been cooking at the time of the raid. Worst of all, the alternative English soup offered him by the relief workers was, in his words; “indescribable”. While the English will never be known for culinary excellence the incident would lead Marek to meet the woman who would soon become his wife.
After the war, despite the horror the Germans had recently visited on his homeland, Marek joined U.N.R.R.A to aid in the reconstruction of bombed out cities. His wife joined him and describes an incident when, as they were broken down by the side of a deserted autobahn her husband repairing the car’s radiator, she kept watch, a revolver at the ready.
After returning to England from “Wild West Germany”, Marek remained largely unemployed for two years, but in 1949 he made his first lasting impression on the automotive world. Recently employed by Austin in Longbridge he was given the task of developing a 2.6. liter inline six cylinder engine for Austin’s A90, Westminster and Woolsey models. In 1959, the engine would grow to 3 liters and find its way into everything from luxury Vanden Plas Princesses to the Austin Healy 100, considered by many to be the ultimate British two-seater sports car. By then Marek had already been hired by David Brown of Aston Martin, where he would make his most lasting impression on the automotive world.
Six years before hiring Marek, Brown had acquired Aston Martin and Lagonda a year later. With the Lagonda purchase, he had acquired their inline six engine designed by the legendary W.O. Bentley. By the 50’s however, the engine was showing its age and it was up to Tadek Marek (as he was now known) to update the motor for the Aston Martin DB 2/4 Mark III.
For the 1958 London Motor Show Tadek Marek designed a brand new all aluminum double overhead cam inline six-cylinder engine. In combination with a gorgeous new body built and designed by Carrozzeria Touring of Milan it would launch Aston Martin into the automotive stratosphere alongside the likes of Ferrari, Mercedes Benz and Porsche. Although unreliable in racing and at first prone to overheating in road-going form, it would serve as the basis for all Aston Martins for a decade.
By 1969 the engine had grown to 4 liters producing 325hp in the new DBS model James Bond used in the 1969 movie “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” This was quite a substantial increase from the DB Mark III the character had used in Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger novel of 1965 or even the DB 5 immortalized by Sean Connery in the movie by the same name.
Nevertheless, Tadek Marek was not one to rest on his laurels and in 1965 he had begun testing an experimental version of his last but crowning masterpiece for Aston Martin. Hidden under the bonnet of his ordinary DB-5 for “testing” was a fire breathing double overhead cam 5.3 liter V8. Not ready for the launch of the DBS in 1967, the V8 made its first appearance at the 1969 London Motor Show and the engine would remain in production until the last V8 Virage rolled off the line and the world fêted the new millennium. By then, with some professional tinkering by Reeves Callaway, Tadek Marek’s masterpiece was making 600hp in racing spec when pitted against rivals at Le Mans in 1989.
Tadek Marek retired from Aston Martin in 1968, before the DBS V8 was even launched. He moved to the Italian coast somewhere between Rome and Naples where he lived in peaceful retirement finally able to enjoy some good Polish soup until he passed away in 1982.
Luckily Aston Martin’s Works Historic Workshops in Newport Pagnell will still sell you fully restored 1974 Lagonda Saloon (former show car and one of seven produced) for an unnamed sum. The “X Pack” spec Tadek Marek V8 makes 500 hp, its rumble assuring that Poland’s greatest automotive engineer will not soon be forgotten.