The battle of Wills: Lyons & Lords – the big guys in my early years.

Barrie Wills thinks back at the big hitters of the motor industry in his early years in the game…


I have lost count of the number of bosses I had during my time in the auto industry but the best known were both knights of the realm, one of which went on to sit in the House of Lords – Sir William Lyons and Sir Donald Stokes, later Baron Stokes of Leyland in the County Palatine of Lancaster and better known as Lord Stokes. A few short years apart in the sixties I found myself, at least on paper, just three positions removed from each of them. Firstly, on the Jaguar organisation chart, and latterly – the British Leyland truck and bus division equivalent.

At Jaguar, I reported to group director of purchasing, John McMillan. He in turn reported to FRW ‘Lofty’ England, then managing director, who was answerable to Sir William. For ever formal, Sir William referred to Lofty as ‘England’, using surnames for the rest of the board and his senior managers, other than Fred Gardner, who was ‘Fred’. Fred was a tyrant by day as he ruled the roost as superintendent of the sawmill, in which the beautiful veneered interior panels were manufactured. In the evening, he would use his carpentry skills to work with Sir William creating scaled-down, and later, full-size wooden models of new cars or facelifts of existing models.

Founder and chairman of Jaguar – Sir William Lyons in his Browns Lane office in Coventry.

A few years later, from my desk at Lancaster House in the small Lancashire town of Leyland, I worked as supplies manager of the newly formed Leyland National company. My direct line boss was general manager Marcus T Smith, formerly head of Bristol Commercial Vehicles, who came from a family stock of executives that ran bus operators. Marcus’s chairman was Ron (later Sir Ronald) Ellis, managing director of the truck and bus division, an avuncular Lancastrian, who had followed Donald Stokes up the Leyland ladder.

Ellis reported to His Lordship, who was based at Berkeley Square House in Mayfair, London. From there his corporate staff, ‘The Nightingales’ as they were known, would issue paper directives, most of which were ‘filed’ in the waste bin. As a start-up greenfield operation, the small team at ‘National’ simply got on with it ‘our way’, with the corporate types hardly knowing of our existence.

Whilst my direct contact with Sir William and Lord Stokes was minimal, I observed them at work, particularly when they attended large gatherings in conference rooms at which I was present. Sir William was tall and slim, straight backed and always immaculately dressed in his trademark dark blue suit with white shirt and sober tie. His entrance into a crowded room drew the immediate attention of all present, whilst a bolt of light seemed to shine from the heavens to illuminate his slick-backed silver-grey hair and black rimmed spectacles. In contrast, the smaller-scale Stokes had limited presence, being near-lost at similar gatherings.

(L-R) Ron Ellis – MD of Leyland Truck & Bus, The Rt Hon Harold Wilson, Sir (latterly Lord) Donald Stokes Director and chairman of British Leyland gaze over a scale model of what was to become the new Leyland National bus factory in Workington, Cumbria.

Sir William Lyons was by no means ‘Mr Personality’, indeed his manner was reserved, almost to the point of shyness, but he had a major presence. Stokes was the complete opposite. Despite lacking presence, he always mixed well, ‘glad handing’ those from inside and outside the business, especially journalists he knew – which were many. A greater contrast could not be found.

Each left an indelible mark on the British-owned automotive industry. Sir William by creating an icon of a company and maintaining its independence despite two takeovers, firstly by British Motor Corporation and later by Leyland Motors, with the significant help of a successor, RJ ‘Bob’ Knight. After Bob had secured Jaguar’s independence within BLMC, John (later Sir John) Egan led the Thatcher-supported privatisation.

It could be argued Stokes was less successful. After winning the political battle, which preceded the formation of British Leyland, and disposing of BMC’s Sir George Harriman’s natural successor, Joe Edwards, in the process, Stokes demonstrated that a track record as the greatest-ever bus salesman did not qualify him to run a disparate empire of car, truck, bus, industrial vehicle, and system and component manufacturers, spread across the globe. The Ryder Report finally put paid to his career, leading to the steady collapse of what was once the largest vehicle maker in Europe.

Whilst history is proud of Lyons’s achievements, sadly it is critical of what is seen as Stokes’s ultimate failure.


  1. Great little posting Mike / Barry

    I often wonder how things would have turned out at BLMC had Ronald Ellis sat in charge and not “The Don”

    Personally, I worked in dealer level all of my working life and for a great deal of those years involved with commercials. Having met and spoken to Ron and Don on a one to one level on many occasions, I always thought Ellis had a more sympathetic and informed outlook on the business as Ron was a true engineer under his grey suits. Ellis was a listener and a thinker always cautious before committing where Stokes flew by his wits and always asked his advisors before committing, sadly often ignoring them.

    Stokes was a mans man, a true super sales and order taker if you like but just not ruthless enough to slash through the red tape and dead wood of BMC – the company that introduced a trojan horse like virus throughout BLMC.

    That’s my rant over anyway. Well done chaps for coming together, it looks like a good fit you two old farts working together.

  2. I am loving these new articles especially considering they are from people who actually work or have worked in the trade. nice work Barrie and Mike

    • Just one small pointer Paul.

      Its “Industry” and not trade. Barrie chastises me for saying that too and makes me give him ten bob every time I slip up.

  3. Thanks for that very interesting description by those who met these two titans of the British motor industry. I have always felt that Lyons really knew how to build a successful manufacturing business, concentrating on producing well-priced items which the market wanted, whereas Stokes was more interested in building an industrial empire and impressing his political financiers. If there was one person I would have swapped places with during those years, it would have been Lyons for sure. Stokes very much less so, especially if it involved attending the House of Snores!

  4. I had the pleasure of working under Big Ron during my career with the MoD. I was fresh out of university when I started and he was a scary imposing person but a caring gentle giant once you got to gain his trust.

    The one thing I will always remember was a framed advert for the Marathon truck on his sanctum wall. His heart and soul was always buses and trucks.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.