John Barber discusses his enthusiasm for cars-and the sporting world

Now that some of the dust has cleared from the impact that the Ryder Report made on Leyland, the Government, and former Leyland managing director, John Barber, I felt it ,night be interesting to talk to the man who has carried such a torch for competition to the highest levels in the motor industry.

John Barber, who was born and schooled at Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, is known to the majority of the public as a finance man, ex-Ford, who went to Leyland as a top administrator. He never had formal financial qualifications, but from the Ministry of Supply, to AEI and the car firms he demonstrated an outstanding management and financial flair.

In what was to he his final year with the troubled Leyland, Barber took on the role of managing director and it was in this post that he fell victim of the inevitable political recriminations that followed Lord Ryder’s account of Leyland’s ills.

However, we and Mr. Barber left the wrangling between Leyland and the lawyers behind for several intriguing hours when he consented to talk about some of his experiences inside the car business, his enthusiasm for motor sport, and the reasoning that led him, while having a controlling hand on expenditure within both Ford and Leyland, into such extensive support of motorised sport.

Mr. Barber opened our discussion with the theme that was to be the cornerstone of discussion, just why a car-maker should be involved with any degree of enthusiasm in these restricted days?

“In any manufacturing business it’s absolutely vital that top management are keenly interested in their product. In the car business, this keenness makes the difference between making motor cars and making properly engineered motor cars. You know, when I was at Leyland, I think people used to say, ‘Oh! John Barber, he’s a car nut’, as if that explained everything . . but how else can you make proper products, unless you’re interested enough to see them through?

“Now, if you’re interested in good road cars, then you must have some interest in competition machines… the one is a logical extension of high grade engineering.

“BMC’s top management weren’t very interested in cars—sure, Issigonis was the exception—and look what happened to them!”

Mr. Barber joined just a month before the Leyland-BMC merger, to sort out the chaos that surrounded the merger in 1967.

“Opel used to be a bit dull, but now they’re one of Europe’s most successful companies… why? I think it’s because of an injection of new top management who understood cars, and understood them in a European sense: how to make them handle and brake nicely, so that they were enjoyable to drive. Look at one of the OpeIs from 10 years ago, then drive one from the present and you’ll see what I mean . . and that’s what keen management, of the calibre of men like Alex Cunningham (now back in America as GM’s overseas boss) can do.

“When I was at Leyland I used to drive as many competitors’ cars as possible. At the beginning of the year I would set myself a target number of other cars to drive, aiming around 100 different models. I found I averaged 103 to 104 a year (that’s more than many professional motoring journalists assess!). I got the cars from all over the place, friends, dealers, manufacturers – I swopped Terry Beckett (Ford’s British MD and a colleague of Barber’s for 10 years) an XJ for his Granada—but I aim only to drive the cars for one day, possibly overnight.”

Barber’s pursuit of properly engineered cars has obvious benefits that are not widely known, for just before he left Leyland he had been heavily involved, together with Engineering Chief Charles Griffith, simply on trying to improve the Allegro and Marina (the now announced Mk. 2 versions). “It’s easy to specify a heated rear window, or tinted glass, or any of these other ‘standard extras’ that are incorporated in many cars today… but to make cars that genuinely are better, where the controls fall easily to hand and everything works smoothly, ah, that’s a different matter!”

I was surprised that Barber should have been able to find the time to actually drive the cars and talk to engineers at length, but he assured me with a smile, “if you are to be genuinely keen about your product, as we said earlier, then you must do this. How else can you know what your cars are like?

“Refinement is one of the key words to this engineering approach. I thought the earlier Allegro had an unrefined take-off. We put an enormous amount of work in to overcome this—new throttle damper, engine mountings, all refining the clutch action and improving the feel of the car, which was of genuinely improved quality as a result.

“To me, a refined car is one where everything mysteriously falls to hand, ah, just so. The car -feels so good that you want to buy it, to drive it, to own it. Refinement is hard quality to engineer into an existing design, but I think that some of the things I have been talking about can be best seen in the Princess—which we picked up about a year away from announcement—where a lot of tidying up on the bodywork improved the car no end.

“Now Leyland have to do this with the Mini, taking on the Polo and Golf, amongst others, which are made in far larger quantities than Leyland could envisage… then there is Ford’s Fiesta mini on the way too! So the Mini has to be different, even if it has square wheels, it must have something different from other, larger volume manufacturers. If you make a mistake in placing the car on the market, it can cost a lot of money. Chrysler do this, pitching their low volume against the big boys… there simply isn’t a better way of losing money.

“Leyland has Jaguar, Rover and Triumph divisions to sell the specialist cars, which form only 20% of the total market, the rest comprising mass-producers of varying size. In that remaining 80% you have to pick your marketing approach very, very carefully: two years ago at Leyland, I decided we needed to slot in a cut above the cheapest models, mass-produced by people twice the size of Leyland.

“There are two ways to go a cut above: specify every option in the book (tinted glass, extra mirrors, lights and so on), or make the basic car better—slightly more refined, more engineering, but still clearly defined away from your specialist division products. The first method is of limited use, in my view, because many manufacturers are loading their cars with extra fittings, and, anyway, the customer can always specify such things… if he really wants them.

“I hate naming other manufacturers’ products as examples of what I mean, they can never really express the full meaning of one’s ideas. I especially hate giving foreign cars a boost, but the sort of thing I had in mind was the Peugeot approach.”

I asked what Mr. Barber thought about the Dolomite Sprint as an example of the approach Leyland should increasingly adopt. “Yes, of course, the Sprint is a very fine car, a better car than the BMW 2002 in performance, but these are specialist cars, not the mass-production models that I felt needed extra work, like the Marina, Allegro and so on.”

Summing up Leyland’s chance of survival Barber responded, “well the cars have to he made (referring to a multiplicity of strikes at Leyland) and made well, in sufficient numbers. Then the products must be further rationalised so that there will be five basic vehicles from a production viewpoint—cheap sheetmetal changes could allow the public seven separate, basic cars, to choose from with different powertrains to choice as well.”

I asked Mr. Barber how he thought of Ford today? “They were very clever”, he replied, continuing, “10 years ago they set up on a European basis and that means they are highly competitive today, with a good range (four basic models, five when they get Fiesta mini car). If I went back today, there would only be detail alterations to make inside the company, all the basics are right.”

Since he was obviously still impressed with Ford’s organisation I asked why he had left in 1965? Barber considered that one carefully and quietly replied, “Ford’s a great company, but I’m an Englishman. If you are British there’s no getting away from the fact that the decisions are often made over the water… I mean you have to go to Henry in the end; that’s not so satisfactory. I made a lot of friends at Ford, but there was the challenge of the AEI job (18 months recalled as “I missed the cars; AEI made so many things: you couldn’t really get involved” though it’s vital to point out he was a great financial success in the AEI boardroom battles of that era) and then came Leyland. If you are British, you have to have the interests of Leyland at heart.”

Competition appeal at the top

As Mr. Barber had a major part in the involvement of both Ford and Leyland in substantial sporting programmes, we asked how he, as top level management, judged the usefulness of his hobby to the serious business of selling cars internationally?

“You must assess where motor sport can help in areas where your company is weak. For example, in 1959, Ford had the Tin Lizzie image and young people were buying the Mini. I was at Ford when this was happening, and it was decided that motor sport could do a good job for the company image: now people often buy a Mexico instead of a sports car!”

Barber continued with a shrug, “now, while I was at Leyland the same sort of situation begun to arise because of Ford’s success with young people—and they are the people you hope will continue buying your cars for some time—so we decided we ought to do something in competition.

“There was only a very limited amount of money available”, Barber laughs as he slips in the swift aside, “but they’ve plenty of public money now of course”, before adding, “so we thought that racing something as close to the ones we sold was the best thing. As soon as the old Group Two was over, we were in with a chance to race in the new British Group One Championship, and it was very successful. The first year had the Dolomites winning the Manufacturers’ Championship, and last, year they got the Drivers’ Championship.

“I think there’s no doubt that Dolomite sales were helped by the racing. No, I don’t mean that we could tell exactly how much they increased because of the sport but, they could have declined without racing: in fact the car could have gone out of production without racing. Sometimes you cannot measure a direct sales increase, often it’s enough to hold your position in the market, especially when the model has been around for some years.

“Until I became MD the company (Leyland) wasn’t really interested in returning to the sport. I got the Sprints going and I did, in fact, do the original opening of negotiations with Ralph (Broad). It was my decision and we also tried Bill Shaw and Jim Whitehouse at Arden Engineering. Broad came out best at the end of the year, but Jim lent me his fabulous Ferrari Daytona for 10 days, and that’s something I won’t ever forget.

“You cannot be interested in motor sport and not hear the name of Broad, or see his cars in action. What attracted me was that, right from his Mini days, the Broadspeed cars were so beautifully turned out: they were obviously superbly prepared, winning, motor cars.

“I am a bit disappointed over the colours of the racing Jaguar, they could be interpreted, in Europe, as those of the Tri-colour! Why couldn’t it be a true British Racing Green?”

If the Ford-Cosworth V8 programme had done such wonders for Ford’s overall image, we asked Mr. Barber why he didn’t think the same kind of Grand Prix engine approach would work at Leyland? “Oh, I can’t see Leyland benefiting from that. Now they are doing international races and rallies, F1 is really something that would achieve only diminishing returns.

“I think everyone—not just trade insiders —knows that Ford have nothing to do with F1 in the direct engineering sense. The customer must be able to recognise the product: even though they will know that the Jaguar is handmade by Ralph, people still recognise it as an XJ12.

“So, generally, motor sport can be a good thing for the industry, if it’s done in an interesting way. It’s better that engineers in the company do not work on both racing and production models, for all that means is doing neither properly, and the production cars must suffer.”

Big spenders

Inevitably our discussion swayed toward the cost of a manufacturer’s sporting ambitions. Here John Barber was fascinating as he commented with a wry grin on Leyland’s Jaguar, Dolomite and TR7 race-rally schedule, “now that they have more money, they are able to be more ambitious, and the 1976 racing and rallying programme looks as if it will make a big hole in a million pounds”.

Barber added, with a cautionary frown, that he could only base this on the information released to the public, so it could be only a rough estimate, but it certainly shows how important the sport can be to a troubled car giant, for this amount to be contemplated for sporting use at this point in the company’s history.

To try to make things fairer I asked what he thought Ford were spending, but the reply had to be far more vague for, as Barber said, “Walter Hayes, and the others associated with competition since I left, always seemed to be pretty good at getting sponsors to offset the true cost of their programmes. It’s much harder now to get trade suport to such a large extent as we used to have when I was at Ford, but I’m afraid I really couldn’t be at all sure what the true cost of Ford’s motor sport activities really is.”

The other factor in calculating the Ford effort is that the sporting budget is released in Britain and in Germany (in the latter case it is a question of anticipating future funds, now that Michael Kranefuss has taken on the Ford Europe motor sport directorship) with Britain presently engaged on the major international programme, rallying the Escort 2 from Boreham, while the German department is totally committed to FAVO engineering and sales at present. In any case Ford are certainly not spending anything like the money they were in the 1960s, even when inflation is taken into account.

Summing up Leyland’s expenditure Barber was sure that “this 1976 sporting programme adds up to the biggest competition effort ever by a British manufacturer.”

After all the discussion on racing cars that look something like those the public can acquire, I asked for Barber’s thoughts on Formula racing? A huge smile of delight came to his face as he recalled, “I think I have been to all the GPs in Europe at some time or another. I love this kind of racing but it does vary a lot. Obviously Monte Carlo is glamorous, but I don’t find the racing there particularly interesting.

“I like the Italian’s passionate attitude at Monza . . . that has a fantastically exciting atmosphere of intense feeling for the racing. I’ll never forget the way they reacted when Moss and the Vanwall won there, the crowd were almost stunned without their red cars at the front!

“I must say that, in Britain, I always enjoy watching at Brands, I think it’s a first-rate spectator circuit.”

Turning to his personal preference in racing Barber commented, “drivers do more for me than any other single aspect of racing. I was a big Clark fan, and always enjoyed his races most of all… but I well remember a Goodwood where a driver in, I think, a two-litre silver Cooper Bristol, led by miles… and it was an unknown Mike Hawthorn. I still go to races nowadays, and I get tremendous pleasure out of watching all kinds of racing.”

Had he seen any rallying we enquired? A look of mild surprise crossed Barber’s features as he said “oh yes, quite a bit, I usually watch sections of the RAC, but I have also spectated abroad. It’s a bit more difficult to watch than racing, but from the commercial viewpoint it’s a must—look how well Ford did out of the Safari win.”

At present Barber’s links with the motor industry are still strong. He has written occasionally on automotive subjects for the Financial Times, and he has an unpaid, advisory, commitment to help Jensen through their current difficulties. Barber made it clear that both positions are not full-time occupations, so far as he is concerned.

Following the settlement of the legal battle with Leyland over his dismissal, this remarkable gentleman now feels free to look for a new job (Leyland had to pay, “substantial compensation”, according to the Financial Times report) and one can only hope that some part of our battered industry will soon benefit from the Barber enthusiasm for four wheels.—J.W.