January 2001
Giles Chapman
courtesy and copyright of Independent

Walter Hayes

In the motor industry world, Walter Hayes was an exotic figure, and he knew it. At Ford, the company where he made his mark, top brass were usually former engineers factory managers or salesman: Hayes, by contrast, was an ex-Fleet Street newspaper editor.

When journalists “cross the line” into public relations, there are often murmurs of “sell-out” among their peers, and there is no doubt that Hayes’s 33 years as an image-maker for the Ford Motor Company probably left him far better off than if he had stayed in newspapers. However, it is to his eternal credit that Ford’s status was elevated from that of vaguely sinister giant of car manufacturing to purveyor of cars which, while resolutely egalitarian, oozed speed, power, guts and sex appeal. Born the son of a printer in 1924, Hayes worked his way up the Fleet Street greasy pole in various reporting jobs until he was, first, an associate editor of the Daily Mail and then, in 1956 and at the age of 32, editor of the now long-gone Sunday Dispatch. His move to Ford came five years later, as director of public affairs. His task was to put sparkle into Ford’s activities, and this he set about doing, persuading his sceptical colleagues that Ford should take on Ferrari after the American company failed in its attempt to buy the Italian firm. The resulting Ford GT 40 sports-racing car went on to win Le Mans three times.

Besides the usual rallying activities, which helped add a macho lustre to proletarian products like the Ford Escort, Hayes brought Ford into the ritzy world of Grand Prix motor racing, in 1965 providing £100,000 of funding for Cosworth engineering to develop its DFV Formula 1 engine. Launched in 1967, it turned out to be the most successful Grand Prix engine ever. Sixteen years after its first win, in Jim Clark’s Lotus 49 at Zandvoort that year, it was still taking the chequered flag – a DFV-powered Tyrrell won the 1983 Detroit GP, the engines 155th race victory. And the Ford logo was branded on the side of every one.

By then, Hayes had been elevated to vice-president of the newly created Ford of Europe, and Vice Chairman in 1976. In 1980 he was made a vice president of the American parent. His ascendancy was easy because Henry Ford II, grandson of Henry Ford the founder, liked him and trusted his judgement. When in February 1975, Ford was caught drunk driving up a one-way street in Santa Barbara, it was Hayes who suggested he use a Disraeli quote for the waiting press horde: “Never complain, never explain.”

As his biographer, Hayes wrote Henry: a memoir of Henry Ford II (1990). He maintained that Ford treated “housemaids and hotel maids and secretaries and drivers and the people in the plants like that Dukes and duchesses”. Hayes retired from Ford of Europe in 1989, after having been instrumental in Ford buying first Aston Martin and then Jaguar to give it dominance of the British luxury car industry. He was appointed CBE for services to the motor industry in 1982.

But he was lured out of retirement a year later to become a director of Aston Martin, with a brief to sort out the venerable but ailing company. This was code for closing it down but Hayes actually turned the company around, introducing the DB7 – a cunningly re-designed Jaguar – and boosting production by 500%. He was made chairman in 1991 but shrewdly appointed the industrialist Sir David Brown, and enthusiastic backer of Aston Martin in its post-war glory days, as honorary life president. It was a small move that nonetheless did wonders for Aston’s image among its heritage-conscious customers. A small, dapper and courtly man, Hayes retired in 1994 but continued to be a sounding board to Ford, most recently to its new chairman and aspiring eco-industrialist Bill Ford; if Ford turns to making electric cars and planting forests around its grimmest factories, perhaps Hayes will have played a pivotal part in that. Giles Chapman

Walter Leopold Arthur Hayes, public relations executive and journalist: born Harrow, Middlesex 12 April 1924; CBE 1982; married two sons, one daughter; died London 26 December 2000