A couple of weeks before he died, I phoned Richard Parry-Jones, the Welsh-born engineer who in the early 1990s inspired a global shift in the desirability of Ford’s cars that endures today, to ask him to accept this year’s Autocar Lifetime Achievement award.
Such has been his enduring influence, not only at Ford but also across competitive brands, that he would have deserved this award in any year, but I felt safe to do it now because he was so conspicuously active, having just rejoined the board of Aston Martin. There could be no hint that ‘lifetime achievement’ meant impending retirement.
Parry-Jones had won many awards but said he was especially happy to accept ours because he always said Autocar was the first to recognise his message of change. His management and engineering teams took notice because they “believed what they read in the paper”. We had a cheery exchange about how, at 69, he was “just getting the hang of it” and had many exciting projects ahead.
To their credit, Ford’s 1990s management soon realised what a star they had. RPJ was uniquely brilliant not just at recognising the needs of individual customers (Ford had previously concentrated on fleet managers) but at convincing top management his new way would change the company’s reputation and sell cars. That inspired generations of young engineers – at Ford and pretty soon via the Premier Automotive Group to Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo and Aston Martin – to believe that great work would be recognised.
We reminisced, too, about early sessions at the Lommel test track in Belgium, where Parry-Jones would put a new model on a hoist and talk passionately about how careful design of wheel offsets, brake cooling, engine mounts, suspension bits, exhaust hangers and discreet underbody aero all helped create a car with stable, accessible, deeply enjoyable driving characteristics. Then we’d go out onto Lommel’s famous Track Seven and discover – driving at eleventenths – that it worked.
The first car to get the full benefit of RPJ’s influence was the Ford Mondeo of 1993 – the Blue Oval brass was astonished by the blizzard of positive publicity. After that, tech briefings with Parry-Jones became de rigueur. His greatest triumph will always be the 1998 Ford Focus, a car so far ahead of its rivals that it was truly shocking.
Our last reminiscence, just before RPJ rushed off to another appointment, concerned a comment by Volkswagen Group supremo Ferdinand Piëch about the influence Ford’s star engineer was having on the cars of his rivals. “Yes, he is very good,” Piëch told me in a late-1990s interview. “I tried to hire him, but I found he was paid more than me.” RPJ acknowledged the story, smiled about the salary and was gone. Parry-Jones rose to become Ford’s chief technical officer and vice-president in charge of global product development but retired in 2007 for a management and consultancy career in the wider world. He had been off Ford’s payroll for 14 years when the sad news of his death came through, but even so, they claimed a big place among the chief mourners. Within 24 hours, we had a statement from Bill Ford citing a unique contribution that endures today. Ford subsequently took a page in the magazine to underscore their debt and regret.