Heroes: Walter Hayes
Spring 2019
John Simister
courtesy and copyright of Vantage


Hayes was the mastermind behind Ford’s motorsport success who nurtured the rescue of Aston Martin

words: John Simister


Walter Hayes appears on this back page because he became Aston Martin’s chairman when the company was rescued by Ford, and it was Hayes who made the idea of a ‘small’ or ‘affordable’ Aston, talked about for years, into DB7 reality and thus made the company viable again. Without Walter Hayes’ vision, Aston Martin might not exist today.

The seed for this was sown in 1987 when publicity genius Hayes, back at Ford of Europe as vice-chairman after a stint at Dearborn, convinced dynasty head Henry Ford II to buy troubled Aston Martin. Ever the car enthusiast with a keen sense both of history and of opportunity, Hayes spotted potential in Aston’s fading splendour. He happened to meet Aston Martin’s then chairman Victor Gauntlett during the 1987 historic Mille Miglia, both of them serendipitously staying as guests of the Italian Contessa Maggi. As conversation naturally turned to Aston, Gauntlett’s need for finance to keep the company going became clear.

Ford bought a chunk of the company in September 1987, then took full control as the DB7 project got under way. Gauntlet relinquished his role in 1991, upon whichHayes became chairman. He was perfect for the role, very British with his pipe, but always thinking of something new and innovative.

And, to the motor-sporting world, he was already a hero. This writer, a child in the 1960s whose father had a Zephyr and to whom Fords were therefore very cool, well remembers press shots of Walter Hayes looking over GT40s undergoing testing at Le Mans, in discussion with Cosworth’s Keith Duckworth as the DFV Grand Prix engine was announced, always masterminding Ford’s latest motorsport splash.

Ford of Britain chairman Sir Patrick Hennessy was the man who capitalised on the spark in Walter Hayes. The US parent company had launched its Total Performance tagline in 1963 to use motorsport to sell showroom cars and Britain wanted to embrace the new culture. Hayes – a Fleet Street journalist by original vocation – was the man for the job.

He had already got to know Lotus’s Colin Chapman by getting him to write a motoring column for the Sunday Dispatch, and of course he also knew of Cosworth’s activities with small Ford engines. Thus the first Hayes idea came into being: the Cortina GT. Next came the Lotus Cortina, using the Chapman connection and the Ford-based Lotus twin-cam engine.

The GT40 was the next big thing. In 1964 Hayes became a director of Ford Advanced Vehicles at Slough, run largely by ex-Aston Martin competition mastermind John Wyer, and after an uncertain start and through many twists and turns the GT40 and its derivatives scored four Le Mans victories. Meanwhile, F1 had changed to a larger 3-litre limit and Chapman and Hayes hatched a plan for a new engine, which Cosworth would design and build, Ford would pay for and Lotus would initially use exclusively. Hayes got Henry Ford II on board along with engineering vice-president Harley Copp, and the Cosworth DFV – with ‘Ford’ on its camshaft covers – won its first Grand Prix (the 1967 Dutch) in the back of Jim Clark’s Lotus 49. A further 154 Formula 1 wins followed, along with sports-car and Indy glory. Thanks to Hayes, Ford and motorsport are wedded forever.

So, 1991. Hayes had technically ‘retired’ from Ford, but rather than donning the slippers to complement his pipe he became Aston’s chairman. It was he who got the ageing Sir David Brown to agree to use of the DB in DB7 (and beyond), a typical stroke of Hayes marketing genius. Hayes also insisted the DB7 should have a straight-six engine to identify it with the original DB cars. He didn’t get to drive the first DB7 off the line as he had hoped, though, because he reached 70 in April 1994 – Ford’s absolute age limit – and the first car wasn’t finished until June. By then, following Sir David’s death in September 1993, Hayes had become AML’s life president. He died on 26 December 2000, aged 76.

As the website, walterhayes.co.uk, records, his Aston tenure presented many challenges – some within Ford still doubted the wisdom of investing in tiny AML – but Hayes’ belief and drive won the day. As Bill Ford wrote to him in February 1992: ‘It is refreshing and reassuring to see someone who not only values the heritage of a great motor car company but can turn that heritage into an exciting future.’ Amen to that.

(caption) Above left and below Hayes in his Ford days, and (below) as AML chairman with Sir David Brown, who he brought back into the Aston fold for the DB7 launch