Some caretaker

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Walter Hayes has successfully tackled myriad challenges laid before him by the Ford Motor Company in the past 30 years. For his latest assignment, safeguarding the future of Aston Martin Lagonda, he was brought out of retirement.

Now 67 years of age, Walter Hayes CBE has achieved enough to last most of us two lifetimes. Whilst his contemporaries queue for their bus passes, Hayes faces the most difficult corporate task of a challenging career, trying to revitalise Aston Martin Lagonda during the deepest of world trade recessions. This business based on craftsmen has faced the same sort of heavy percentage sales losses as Porsche and Jaguar, but it can only make a theoretical maximum of 275 cars per annum. It cannot churn out cars by the thousand.

Behind his usual large spectacles, Walter Hayes blinks constantly and the manner of his speech is diffident, occasionally hesitant. He hops, birdlike, around offices and conversational subject matter. Yet the Hayes record in Fleet Street, Ford and motorsports backs his uncompromising assertion: “I just want to make Aston a proper business.”

I take that intent seriously, even though the subject of such personal determination is yet another bout of investment to secure the future of Aston Martin Lagonda, a business that has frightened off stronger corporate figures than this retired Ford vice-president. Walter Hayes was 37 when he joined Ford. At a time when Fleet Street editors were a good 50 years old. Hayes had already been the associate editor of the Daily Mail and had edited the Sunday Dispatch. Unlike many of those who denigrate the Hayes record, Walter did not arrive at Ford as a burnt out hack, one looking for a quiet rest in the company of a gin and tonic. Contemporaries speak in quiet awe of his restless energy, a raw commitment that collided with the Ford Corporate body and produced slick results. Under Hayes. things got done. The Cosworth FVA/BDA and DFV deals were executed via Colin Chapman and Keith Duckworth. They altered British motor sporting history and put both Lotus and the Ford Escort at the World Championship pinnacles of achievement. Walter Hayes did not do that directly, but the cash and engineering support he obtained from Ford made it possible.

Unsurprisingly Walter Hayes was always in trouble for overspending, operating too many company cars, and he was a cash hungry nightmare for the powerful accounting departments. He often bit off more than others could chew, and some of his pet projects withered very rapidly when his brief attention span moved to the next high profile wheeze.

Nevertheless Walter Hayes acquired a reputation for Ford that is now being wasted. Walter Hayes received glittering rewards for that unexpected sports acumen. Seven years after joining Ford they had made him a vice-president. That promotion brought the privileges and status of a managing director, which was exactly the role he enjoyed in controlling hundreds of employees at a variety of locations. The Hayes progress went far beyond the much publicised sporting influence. By 1976 he had climbed the most significant of internal Ford barriers, becoming a vice-president of Ford USA: his ability to command the ear of Henry Ford II, or to conjure money from American coffers was legendary.

Around 20 years ago Hayes probably had more clout, pay and privileges than would be accorded to the nominal heads of Ford of Britain, men who often had no more influence than area sales managers in the Ford global strategy. In 1980 the CBE (Commander of the British Empire) appointment was made. Walter Hayes’ life now reflected his importance as the effective liaison point between Ford in Europe and the American ranking of vice-president (PR). He held the American position until 1984, when he returned to an appointment as vice-chairman, Ford of Europe. That was his final official Ford post, for he retired in 1989 . . .

But they did not leave him on the sidelines for long. During 1990 he was accorded a directorship of the Aston Martin Lagonda Company, Ford having acquired a 75 per cent shareholding in 1987. Incidentally the majority of the remaining shares are held by the Livanos family, a deal done in 1984 through Greek shipping magnate Peter Livanos.

Buccaneering Victor Gauntlett decided that his Bulldog Drummond days were done at Aston in 1991, sweeping out of the company he had so charismatically led after an 11-year association. Ford nominated Walter Hayes as the new chairman. Aston aficianados must have despaired: “That’s it. Ford will be pushing out leather clad Fiesta-Astons now. Look what happened to Ghia and AC, not to mention the mess Jaguar’s in.”

Naturally, Hayes sees things differently. One nippy spring morning, he was to be seen darting into the plush mews zone of West London. Leaving the usual chauffeur-driven Ford Motor Company Scorpio, he spared us some quotable time before facing his first major press conference at the helm of Aston Martin. From the Walter Hayes viewpoint, the Ford influence at Aston has not been strong enough, soon enough. He explained: “Ford took over Aston October 1987. The first Ford person to arrive was Rod Mansfield. He came from Ford Special Vehicle Engineering (SVE) and had an obvious role to play in the future engineering at Aston, but there were no other Ford people at Aston. That lasted for ages, and I was only the second full-time employee from Ford. I think Ford carried on the ‘hands-off Aston’ policy a little too long. I think it was a mistake that Ford did not get involved straight away.”

Why?

Hayes points to the features being harnessed in current Aston engineering. “Now we have access to Ford EEC-1V electronic engine man agement (as used in the £50,000/465 bhp Aston 6.3-litre Virage conversion), high intensity head lamps, air bags for some overseas markets and the ability to run unleaded fuels with standard catalytic convertors. Ford facilities allow us to rig test the hood for the new Volante over 2000 cycles. We could not have done this on Aston resources.”

He remains strong in his support of sport, but realises: “Professional rnotorsport is not for Aston Martin at present. To be honest, I don’t think they were ready for it a couple of years ago, when they were involved with the World Sportscar Championship, and I do not think they are ready for that sort of thing now. What does please us is the growth in racing and rallying for our customers in older products.” This was almost modest, for the Chris Thompson/Chris Pringle DB4 GT had just won the 1992 Monte Carlo Challenge and Aston has the most loyal customers in motor racing.

Turning to the 465 bhp Virage conversion that dominated the Cheval Place showroom at the time of our interview, Hayes expounded: “We are very happy to talk to people like Nick Cussons about ways and means of becoming further involved.” Aston is working to produce a flexible 500 bhp Vantage specification for the road (unveiled at the October Motor Show), so it is not impossible that we will see the Virage Vantage specification being wielded in British speed events.

Rod Mansfield also adopts the Ford corporate ‘hands off Aston’ stance in shaping his future engineering policy, but that does not mean that little is happening at Newport Pagnell. Computer Aided Design (CAD) is an everyday fact of life that was utilised in the birth of the Virage body, and the Virage Shooting Brake was unveiled by Jackie Stewart at Geneva. Hayes comments about 1992 that: “We have drawn forward the introduction dates of both the convertible Volante which will now appear in April, rather than July/August and the Vantage high power specification will be with us by November.” He is particularly pleased about the order book for the Volante. “It stretches over a year now, in fact there are 102 orders for it already.”

Given that the practical capacity limit for Newport Pagnell is 220 cars per year, the Volante is obviously going to be a major factor in future Virage production. Incidentally past Virage coupe production since the October 1988 British Motor Show launch amounts to 430 examples, an annual average of 130. Whilst Hayes plays the pipe and drum to ensure that everyone knows Aston exists, hidden from our sight is both a five-year corporate Ford Aston plan and the engineering necessary to create the much discussed ‘DB4’ of the ’90s. The man to talk to on that side is a third Ford body assigned permanently to Aston Martin, Scot David Graham. The business planning director is sure of one thing: “By the autumn of 1992 we will know which of the many options Ford will approve. But do not imagine that we are confined to what Ford will finance. We are just as capable of raising outside finance at the banks, but in either case or a mixture of Ford and bank finance we have to satisfy ourselves, and those supplying the finance, that we can make money on any new product.”

As to what those products may be, Aston Martin executives do not deny the merits of a plan to make a smaller Aston of the kind so frequently advocated by the departed Gaunt lett, one that fits below the £134,604 Virage that presently serves as an entry level to the range. It could also be made in far greater numbers, perhaps over 1000 units a year in a strong market. Graham asserts, quietly: “Remember that we have none of the market research possibilities that Ford has before it launches a new mass seller.” The gamble is made riskier, however, “Aston would be forced to make any larger seller in another factory. There is absolutely no room to expand our Newport Pagnell site, it is almost literally walled in.” Graham was prepared to allow that any market research Aston Martin does on the likely sales level of a new ‘DB4’ must depend largely on feedback from dealers and existing customers.

These abound in surprising numbers. Introducing the Car for Life restoration and refurbishment scheme Hayes reported: “Since the first Aston Martin was manufactured for sale in 1914, some 11,430 have been built and 8500 of them are still alive and well and, for the most part, giving excellent service to their owners. Even those in museums, including the James Bond cars, are still roadworthy.”

That is quite a record. Aston has also found quite a caretaker to advance its cause amongst the anxious Ford finance applicants from AC to Jaguar, never mind the constant internal Ford investment needs, all bidding for a financial future from the same font.

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