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Tadek Marek, designer of the DB4’s straight-six, is one of the cornerstones of Aston Martin’s success during the golden age of David Brown’s stewardship.
After serving as a factory development mule, chassis DB4/170/L became Marek’s own in 1965, subsequently upgraded and massaged to suit the whims and fancies of the Polish engineer who was also a very good, quick driver.
So, even if it’s not one for the purists, this ‘Director’s cut’ Aston, KKX 4C, must be one of the most interesting DB4s around.
Not that there is such a thing as a boring DB4.
Launched at Earls Court in 1958, this was the car that established the products of David Brown’s Feltham works as the ultimate in wholesome, high-quality grand touring machinery.
It was a British supercar.
With 240bhp and running a 3.54:1 rear axle ratio, the 3500lb DB4 was, for a while, the fastest four-seater production car in the world, able to top 140mph.
Very British in conception, yet clothed in the latest Italian style from Touring of Milan, it was powered by an engine that would take Aston Martin through to the early 1970s, latterly alongside Marek’s even longer-lived four-cam, 5.3-litre V8.
Born in Kraków in 1908, Marek arrived in Britain in 1941 as part of the Allied forces, following some colourful wartime adventures that included internment by the Germans and a daring escape to Britain via the Moroccan city of Casablanca.
For a while he settled in Finchley, north London and met a local girl called Peggy, whom he married.
He moved to Aston Martin in 1953 (when it was still based in Feltham), fresh from a job helping to create an amphibious version of the Centurion tank and, before that, a posting with Austin at Longbridge.
There he had designed the 2.6-litre C-series and a stillborn V8 based, intriguingly, around a pair of A40 engines.
A highly talented draughtsman who preferred to work alone, Marek had worked for General Motors and trained at Fiat’s Polish outpost before the war, and later spent time working for the Italian firm in Turin.
He was unusual among his pencil-wielding peers in that he really could drive, having won tough events in Poland in the past and completed the ’37 Rallye Monte-Carlo, although his motorcycle racing was curtailed after a huge accident at Berlin’s Avus circuit.
Marek was a highly resourceful individual: in 1953, when he thought David Brown had turned him down for the job as chief engineer, he went up to Huddersfield to tell the gearbox magnate to his face what a mistake he was making, only to discover that the letter of rejection had been a clerical error.
His first task at Aston Martin Lagonda, working under John Wyer and Jock Stirling, was to devise an improved 2.9-litre version of the WO Bentley-designed straight-six – first seen in the DB2 – for the new DB MkIII.
Even before this DB4, Marek had form when it came to running secondhand Astons for his own use: one of his MkIII engines found its way into his personal DB2, which was also fitted with a Maserati five-speed gearbox.
Work on the DB4 began in 1955, and Marek’s first all-new engine ran on the bench in 1956.
It was making 170bhp the following year, a far cry from the somewhat spurious 240bhp Aston Martin claimed for the first of the DB4s: it was thought to be more like a true 202bhp.
The engineer, who did not like to be rushed and wasn’t happy about his new engine being tested in the DBR2 racer, had designed the block in cast iron but had to accommodate a late change of material specification to aluminium: team boss John Wyer wanted a lighter engine to race.
Marek had never designed an engine with an alloy block before and, evidently, had not fully taken into account that when the engines were run at high revs for long periods – as was possible on certain Continental roads, and Britain’s soon-to-be-opened M1 – the clearances could triple, leading to a dramatic drop in oil pressure and predictably unhappy cars and customers.
The fact that the 15-pint sump was on the shallow side did not help matters.
Some have suggested that Marek relied too heavily on his development engineers but, given the circumstances – and the small engineering team at Aston – it seems unfair to lay the blame for these mistakes entirely at his door.
The DB4 was developed through five series up to 1963 to address these and other, less serious, issues, and this particular car was at the heart of that process between 1960 and ’65.
It didn’t start life as a prototype or a development mule, however.
In late October 1959 it had been delivered new – in left-hand drive with fully chromed wires and painted ICI Ice Blue – to a customer in St Tropez called Dr JC Roy.
According to Marek, the car was returned to Newport Pagnell from the Paris agent after Dr Roy, having unwittingly put a hole in the sump, continued to drive it until the engine seized.
The factory bought the car from the Parisian agent, Mirabeau, for £700; Dr Roy had apparently bought himself a new DB4.
In its official capacity, DB4/170/L then served mainly as a development car for the 4-litre DB5 engine, although it’s difficult to tell what was an official factory modification and what was done by order of Marek himself for his own use.
An engineering department memo from John Wyer, dated 2 January 1961, suggests that chassis 170/L was earmarked for testing a dry-sump version of the 4-litre engine, an overdrive gearbox (with a 4.09:1 rear axle) and even de Dion rear suspension.
The factory was also experimenting, according to the memo, with single-and twin-plate clutches and pendant pedals.
The lower bonnet and GT dashboard mentioned can still be seen on the car today, but it is not known when the DB4 was converted to right-hand drive.
Wyer estimated the cost of these experimental modifications to be £3000: a new DB4 was listed for £3800 at the time.
Visually, it retains the early-type grille but with GT-style faired-in headlamps and bumpers without overriders, front and rear.
The wire wheels are 15in rather than the original 16in and the doors have chromed frames, a modification brought in on the Series 2 DB4 to cure the wind-noise problems suffered by earlier cars.
The 1965 C-suffix numberplate was its first UK registration (not age-related to the car, which had been run on trade plates by the factory since 1960) when Tadek Marek – then deeply involved in the design of the four-cam V8 – became its first official UK keeper.
He had his own workshop at home, where he spent seven months turning KKX 4C into his ideal DB4.
In went a DB5 Vantage-spec engine (with special cams, raised compression and an extra-large oil cooler), a five-speed ZF gearbox and a DB5 rear axle among many other upgrades.
Being an early, lighter DB4, it was, Marek claimed, the fastest of its type in Britain – quicker than a GT Zagato – with a shattering 13.7 secs 0-100mph time.
Although it has the shallower air intake of later DB4s, the bonnet still hinges at the rear.
It opens, crocodile-style, to reveal an engine that does not skulk under plastic fairings and warning stickers, but stands as a proud sculpture.
All alloy castings and carburettors, something about its shape gives you an instinctive feel for the inner workings of its spooling camshafts, its snorting Webers, and the lunging thrust promised by its four litres and half-dozen brawny cylinders.
Inside, it still wears the black leather Marek specified for it as a retrim before taking the car on in ’65.
The electric windows and Selectaride dampers are DB5 additions, as are the sunvisors.
The ashtrays are of the DB6 type but the thinner, Nardi-style wood-rimmed steering wheel seems to be unique to the car, as are the electrically operated rear quarterlight hinges, something akin to what Rolls-Royce used on the Corniche coupé.
Modifications to the throttle pedal could be due to Marek’s crash at Avus.
If you accept that the GT engines are wilder than you might need – and that the Brico-injected ‘sixes’ were only a qualified success – then the 4-litre engine in this car is possibly the optimum version of Marek’s engine.
Virile yet refined, it whips the car up the road with a long-striding urgency and a throaty burble that is the essence of what is expected of an expensive straight-six.
The torque in second and third gears is superb, and the Webers never spit or stumble; it is so well mannered it could easily be mistaken for running SUs.
You quickly warm to the strong, four-wheel disc brakes – more than a match for the weight and power – and the short, precise, no-nonsense action of the gearbox with its close ratios.
The relative heft of the clutch and the steering is also soon forgotten: the car steers so precisely and with a high-geared faithfulness – sometimes revealing itself with kickback through the wheel – and no understeer to speak of.
You subliminally negotiate medium- and high-speed curves using a combination of buttock cheeks and right foot in a car that could never be described as dainty, but one that is forgiving, stable and satisfying.
The engine is intrinsic to its character and the product of an age when a single individual could be trusted to assume responsibility for the most complicated and expensive element of a motor car that is already just that.
Tadek Marek retained KKX 4C until he retired to Italy, aged 61, in 1969.
Ownership then passed to his business partner, James Nicholson, and eventually to its most recent long-term custodian, Robin Cook, in 1974.
At any point since then Cook could have turned this car into yet another boiled-sweet restoration.
Instead, he understood and respected its history by simply maintaining it fastidiously.
How you put a monetary value on that history is open to debate (the phrase ‘only original once’ springs to mind), but whatever judgement Cook came to feel for the car’s intrinsic worth was spot-on, because KKX 4C was sold before Aston Martin specialist Nicholas Mee even had a chance to advertise it.
Images: John Bradshaw
Aston Martin DB4 Series 1 (standard S1 specification)
- Sold/number built 1958-’63/1204
- Construction steel chassis, tubular steel body frame and aluminium panels
- Engine all-alloy, dohc 3670cc straight-six, twin SU carburettors
- Max power 240bhp @ 5500rpm
- Max torque 240Ib ft @ 4250rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar rear live axle, trailing arms, Watt linkage, lever-arm dampers; coils f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs
- Length 14ft 9in (4496mm)
- Width 5ft 6in (1676mm)
- Height 4ft 4in (1334mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 2in (2489mm)
- Weight 3070Ib (1393kg)
- Mpg 15
- 0-60mph 8.5 secs
- Top speed 141mph
- Price new £4084
- Price now £500,000-1m*
*Prices correct at date of original publication