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.
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.
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.