Walter Hayes Autosport obituary cover
Walter Hayes Autosport obituary 1

January 11th 2001
Simon Taylor
courtesy and copyright of Autosport

In his various guises at Ford, the former newspaper editor helped shape today’s F1. 

You can trace today’s partnerships between Formula 1 teams and giant car manufacturers back to the vision of one man, almost 40 years ago.

Walter Hayes, who died of lung cancer on Boxing Day at the age of 76, was the first industry executive to comprehend fully the huge marketing and corporate image-building power of motorsport. Almost single-handedly, he propelled the dull, unsexy Ford marque into the racing and rallying limelight.

Yet Walter had no background in cars nor a youthful passion for motorsport. He began his working life as a journalist, originally joining the Daily Mail as a copy boy. Within a year he was sub-editor and, within two, chief sub. Soon he was associate editor of the Mail and then editor of the Sunday Dispatch.

As the 1950s ended, Ford boss Sir Patrick Hennessy was in despair about his product’s dreary image. He discussed his problems with his media mogul friend, Lord Beaverbrook, who suggested he use a big salary to tempt Fleet Street’s brightest young editor. And that was how, in 1961, Walter found himself working for a car company, as Ford’s new director of public affairs.

One of his first jobs was to breathe some life into the image of the new Ford Cortina. He spoke to the only person he knew in motor racing, Colin Chapman, whom he’d hired as a celebrity motoring correspondent on the Dispatch. The result was the Lotus Cortina – a major innovation as the first bread-and-butter saloon to borrow technical know-how and kudos from Formula One. The giant-killing works team of racing Lotus Cortinas, headed by reigning world champion Jim Clark, did wonders of the Cortina’s staid reputation.

Walter quickly learned what was what in motorsport and became an acute spot of talent. When a young Scottish Formula 3 driver came onto the Ford motorshow stand in ’64, there was no obvious connection: the lad had already signed for BRM for his first Formula One season. But Walter was keen to get him on side, so gave him a free Ford Zodiac. From this banal beginning grew the incredibly fruitful and lasting relationship between Ford and Jackie Stewart .

Then in ’65, Coventry Climax withdrew from racing: a body blow for the British F1 teams, including Lotus, which used its engines. Chapman mentioned his plight to Walter over dinner one evening, and Hayes realised the value of getting the F-word onto the winner’s rostrum. In a Ford policy committee meeting, under ‘any other business’, he nonchalantly asked for a budget of £100,000 for Keith Duckworth’s Cosworth engineering to develop a Ford engine for F1.

For a huge company like Ford it was an impossibly small amount of money, even then. Walter once told me it was one-tenth of the cost of equipping the Cortina with synchromesh on bottom gear. But even he could not have foreseen the value, or the longevity, of the success wrought by that tiny initial investment.

The Ford Cosworth V8 DFV 44 (double four-valve) made its bow mid-season at the ‘67 Dutch Grand Prix. With Jim Clark at the wheel of Chapman’s new Lotus 49, it won first time out. Then Walter shrewdly made the DFV available to any team that wanted it and, between them, Lotus, Matra, Tyrrell, McLaren, Williams and Brabham took 12 of the next 15 World Drivers’ Championships. The DFV went on winning for an incredible 17 seasons and it’s 155 GP victories make it the most successful racing engine of all time.

In rallying, with the Cortina and then the championship-winning Escort, in touring cars and in sportscar racing, Walter saw to it that the Ford logo shone. Ford’s desire to win Le Mans originally came from Detroit, stung by it’s failure to buy Ferrari. But after Ford USA decided that racing was politically incorrect, Walter arranged for the whole Le Mans project to be sold to John Wyer and John Willment and, under the JW automotive banner, the GT 40s went on winning.

Walter Hayes was fond of saying that his only talent was the ability to spot talent in others. This ignored his razor-sharp mind, his frightening grasp of all the angles and his ability to think three or four steps ahead of everybody else. But he was indeed an extraordinary judge of people, able to give men of genius – Chapman, Duckworth, Stewart, Tyrrell, Wyer – the tools to do the winning for Ford while he supported them from behind the corporate barrier.

Walter’s rocket-ship progress up the Ford ladder took him to vice-president, then vice-chairman, and he spent five years as vice-president in Detroit, becoming a close friend of the Ford family. He was awarded the CBE for services to motorsport and, in 1989, having reached the age of 65, he retired – but not for long.

Ford bought the ailing Aston Martin company and Walter came back to be its Chairman. His vision of a lighter, more modern, more available model bore fruit in the DB7, the most successful Aston Martin ever made. With Aston with Aston now healthy, he retired again, still wearing many hats – Life President Aston Martin governor of the University of Michigan library, chairman of the Churches Conservation Trust, trustee of the Grand Prix Mechanics Trust and many more. In the garage of his house, Battlecrease Hall, alongside his humble daily Focus, he cherished a restored DB6 and a Ford model A. His short, neat figure remained a familiar sight at industry functions, totally up to date with whatever was going on, talking urgently and quietly as he always did, his ever-present pipe clamped between his teeth.

Now, as Daimler-Chrysler, Fiat, Honda, BMW, Renault, Toyota and Ford themselves redouble their efforts, and their multi-million dollar budgets, to win in F1, Walter Hayes’ initiative in conceiving the Cosworth DFV can be seen for what it was: the act of a visionary. Not to mention quite unbelievable value for money.

He was indeed an extraordinary judge of people, able to give men of genius the tools to do the winning for Ford

Hayes was influential in Ford’s rise in motorsport as a whole, is Roger Clark took the Escort to victory in the ‘76 RAC Rally

Mario Andretti in the Lotus in 1978, Jochen Rindt in the Lotus in ‘70 and James Hunt in the McLaren in ’76. All three were powered by the Cosworth DFV

Water Hayes was the man behind the DFV which powered Jim Clark’s Lotus 49 to victory first time out in ’67. Hayes was also responsible for the Lotus Cortina

Jackie Stewart on Walter Hayes

Above all, Walter was a gentleman of great dignity and style. But he was a man of very wide peripheral vision. He had more activities than most people realize. He was of course a very good writer, which was his first day job, but he became probably the finest public relations officer that the motor industry has ever had. Ford Motor Company, I suspect, will never fully understand or appreciate just how much Walter did for them. One of the things he saw was an opportunity of using motorsport to get Ford in Europe away from only the blue-collar buyer. He made Ford classless yet socially acceptable. Few people know that he was offered the position of Director General of the BBC. He was involved in a number of prestigious charities and trusts, and was one of the first trustees for the Mechanics Grand Prix Charitable Trust.

In typical Walter style, he put me under contract when I was standing at the Earls Court motor show in October 1964, looking at a white Ford Zodiac with red upholstery. This man standing next to me asked me if I like the car. Of course, I said, it was very nice. “Would you like to have it?” he asked. I looked at him sideways, not knowing who he was. “That would be very nice,” said I. “Well you can have it”, he said “and I’ll also give you a cheque for £500 if you agree to drive for us next year. My name is Walter Hayes and I know who you are.”

From that point on I was under contract to Ford Motor Company. To this day that contract remains in place – if not for the same amount of money!

Walter was unique in the world he lived in I consider myself extremely privileged to have not only worked with him, but been his friend. To Elizabeth, his wife, and his sons and daughter, Richard, Jeremy and Harriet, we send our sincerest condolences and deepest sympathy.