Keeper of the sacred flame
Aston, issue 3, December 2001
Harry Calton
Courtesy and copyright of the Aston Martin Heritage Trust

In his three decades in the motor industry, Walter Hayes turned around the fortunes of both Ford and Aston Martin, the first action leading inevitably to the second. When in 1987 Hayes persuaded Henry Ford II to buy Aston Martin, Mr Ford remarked: ‘It wont change the universe, but it is the kind of thing we should be doing’.

Working for Walter Hayes was never dull or uneventful. And for 90 per cent of the time it was actually fun. His management style was intuitive and instinctive, yet it was his skill with people that set him apart from his contemporaries at Ford.

Seen in the context of the business environment in which they were launched, many of the programmes and initiatives which he promoted at Ford and Aston Martin were unexpected, courageous, and most imaginative.

My first exposure to Walter Hayes came when he was recruited from Fleet Street in 1961 to become the Public Relations Manager of Ford of Britain, inheriting a staff which enjoyed little respect within its own organisation. As a result our morale was extremely low.

Within hours of his arrival at Dagenham, Walter informed us that in his time as the Editor of the Sunday Dispatch he had always instructed his journalists to bypass public relations departments.

However, through a number of extremely shrewd appointments from both inside and outside Ford, within a matter of months he had created a PR team that was the envy of the motor industry. It certainly commanded the respect of the Ford organisation.

In those days, Ford produced cars, trucks, agricultural tractors, engines, gearboxes and axles at Dagenham, and such was the factory’s size and scale, with its own power station, coke ovens, foundry, blast furnace and estate railway, that it was easy to ignore the outside world. Management traditionally wore blue suits allegedly supplied by a tailor working to a Ford specification and everyone recognised his place in the order of things.

The arrival of Walter Hayes heralded a wind of change. An inveterate pipe smoker, he dressed with a modern sense of style – courtesy of Savile Row – and when he was not prowling around the offices of his staff consulting and advising he was seated at his typewriter writing press releases and strategy papers.

The pipe was almost his undoing. Dagenham’s highly varnished wooden waste paper bins were not made to receive pipe ash and inevitably he set fire to his office early one afternoon. While the Ford fire service saved the Dagenham office building from destruction, Walter buised himself in holding an impromptu meeting in the Press Office.

His skill and flair brought dramatic results while raising many disapproving eyebrows among the Ford hierarchy. He was not prepared to merely communicate management decisions to the world outside Dagenham but insisted on being a member of all the major operating committees within the company.

Journalists were encouraged to visit Ford and to drive Ford products for extended periods ahead of their public introduction. Through his influence on product committees, Walter persuaded Ford management to build performance derivatives of their cars.

Under his guidance, in the 1960s Ford moved from being very much a ‘blue collar’ company to one that appealed to a much younger, more affluent and imaginative audience. Ford became a legend at Le Mans with the GT40; the Cortina and Escort dominated international rallies and touring car races.

Through Walter’s relationships with Cosworth, Lotus and Tyrrell, Ford dominated Formula One for a decade and won the Indianapolis 500. Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark, Graham Hill and many of their contemporaries became ambassadors for Ford.

Walter’s powers of persuasion were legendary. His joint presentation with engineering director Harley Copp to gain approval for the Ford F1 engine programme was covered under ‘any other business’ and took just nine minutes. But as he stated afterwards, Ford had invested £1.25 million to add a synchromesh first gear to the Cortina while for just £250,000 they got world championship-winning F1 and F2 engines…

Walter, the only Ford vice president who refused to provide a forwarding address or contact telephone number when he took his annual vacation, enjoyed a uniquely close relationship with Henry Ford II. As Ford of Europe’s vice president of public affairs during the 1970s he spent as much time in Detroit as he did in Europe. In 1979, when the fortunes of Ford in North America were at a particularly low ebb, he was persuaded to assume responsibility for all Ford’s public affairs activities. He directed a series of initiatives to assure the American public and Wall Street that all was still well at Ford, the current problems were merely transitory and a bright future lay ahead.

With yet another mission accomplished, Walter Hayes returned to Europe as vice chairman in 1984 and, over an afternoon cup of tea with Henry Ford II, prompted Ford to acquire Aston Martin in September 1987. Eighteen months later Walter retired from Ford but within a year became chairman of Aston Martin Lagonda. Such was his knowledge of the workings of Ford Motor Company that he brought about a revolution at Newport Pagnell. He said he was ‘merely the keeper of the sacred flame that is Aston Martin’ and that it was his duty and destiny to sustain it before passing it on like the Olympic Torch.

He succeeded beyond all expectations, delivering the twin-supercharged V8 Vantage and more significantly the DB7, the most successful Aston Martin of all time. He restored the link with Sir David Brown and encouraged a new and closer relationship with the Aston Martin Owners Club. To the best of my knowledge, he only missed one objective. It was always his intention to drive the first DB7 from the production line, but a four-month delay in completing the Jaguar XJ220s at Bloxham forced a slippage. Nevertheless,, the first DB7 left the line just six weeks after Walter took retirement on reaching 70 in April 1994.

As Life President, he continued to advise and counsel Aston Martin until his death on Boxing Day in 2000. He was the founder chairman of the Aston Martin Heritage Trust and a trustee of the National Motor Museum among many other appointments.

A great supporter of English cricket, he enjoyed the unique distinction of being bowled first ball by Divina Galica at a Lords Taverners’ Cricket match, and claimed that it was his skill as an umpire that achieved a dead heat for Charles March in the Drivers’ Cricket Match at the first Goodwood Revival Meeting!