Guild of Motoring Writers cover
Guild of Motoring Writers obituary

Passing of a motoring ‘friend’
Guild of Motoring Writers Newsletter
January 2001
John Blunsden
courtesy and copyright of The Guild of Motoring Writers

When Walter Hayes succumbed to cancer on the afternoon of Boxing Day, we lost a Friend of the Guild, not just in title, but in the most personal sense.

Some of us had had the pleasure and privilege of knowing him for more than 38 years, from soon after that day in 1962 when Patrick Hennessy plucked him out of the editorship of the Sunday Dispatch and asked him to revamp and lead the Ford Motor Company’s public relations team. We have all benefitted tremendously ever since from Walter’s decision to accept the challenge.

Leaving Fleet Street marked the start of a long journey, during the early part of which he effectively rewrote the rulebook of motor industry public affairs, achieving with the assistance of the talented and dedicated team he assembled around him, a standard of performance which soon stood out as a model for other car manufacturers to aim for.

But the efficient manner in which his department went about its business was only one, though perhaps the most widely visible, element of his success. Perhaps of even greater importance was that he set out determined that Press and public relations should have a voice in the highest places of the company, which at Ford meant on the hallowed sixth floor at Warley, where all major policy initiatives and strategic decisions were taken. He made sure he was there and he made sure he was listened to.

In time he found a most useful ally in no less person than Henry Ford II himself, with whom he established a valuable bond (and of whom he was later to write the critically esteemed biography ‘Henry’ (Weidenfeld & Nicholson) in 1990.

In the mid-Sixties he assisted HFII in the formation of Ford of Europe and logically he became its first vice-president, Public Affairs, in 1968, before becoming vice-chairman in 1976. Four years later he was off to America, now a newly appointed vice-president of the parent company in Dearborn, charged with a major reorganisation of the global public affairs and ancillary operations there. It was a four-year assignment, after which he resumed his former role in Europe until his (temporary) retirement from Ford in 1989.

He just had time to complete the ‘Henry’ biography before he was called for again, this time to join the board of Ford-owned Aston Martin in 1990 before taking over as chairman in 1991.

On his second retirement, in 1994, he was appointed the company’s Life President, and he retained close links with it to the end, most recently through his chairmanship of the Aston Martin Heritage Trust, for which he produced a prestigious year book.

But Walter’s contributions and influence extended far beyond the companies which he had served so well. Most notably, he was instrumental in changing the framework of Formula One motor racing, thereby laying the foundations of its current prosperity.

Back in his Fleet Street days he had engaged an energetic young racing driver and car constructor called Colin Chapman to write a regular column for him. When he moved to Ford they kept in touch, especially after 1963, when Hennessy gave Hayes responsibility for competitions as part of his overall PR brief. When Chapman found his Lotus team to be starved of a competitive F1 engine following Coventry Climax’s decision to retire from the scene, he talked at length to Walter of his dilemma.

It is now part of motor racing folklore how Hayes, when attending a Ford board meeting, waited until Any Other Business and then calmly said: ‘Yes, Harley (Copp, then in charge of engineering) and I would like to do a grand prix engine.’ The estimated £100,000 cost was sanctioned, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Designed by Keith Duckworth and produced by his and Mike Costin’s Cosworth Engineering, the Ford DFV became so dominant in the back of the Lotus 49 that within a year Hayes told Chapman that the engine had to be made available to other teams.

From that moment of a mere £7,500 bought a race-winning engine (it would score an all-time record 155 victories), Formula One grids grew even larger, and on the back of such massive home-grown success the centre of Grand Prix technology became firmly established within the UK, laying the foundation of what today is one of this country’s most successful industries and finest export achievements.

In recognition of his contributions to trade and industry, Walter received the CBE in 1979. He left an indelible mark wherever he trod, first as a writer and editor, then as an ambassador for the car industry, a man of massive influence in international motorsport, and ultimately as a revered elder statesman in each of these spheres.

Quite a legacy for a remarkable man with the ever-present pipe, whose tireless energy, acute vision and uncanny facility for lateral thinking and eloquent persuasion so often achieved the seemingly impossible. Walter Hayes, in so many ways, was truly a Friend of the Guild.

Walter is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, their sons, Jeremy and Richard and daughter, Harriet.