Dr Martin Leach, the former president of Ford of Europe whose death at 59 was unexpectedly announced yesterday, was one of a restless, energetic breed of young engineers.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, he turned a company previously known for poor cars, expertly marketed, into one whose design and dynamic qualities set new standards for car makers.

Leach, who raced Ayrton Senna in karts in his youth, and might have made a champion racing driver had he not “caught” engineering at early age, was a true Ford high-flier. He followed Richard Parry-Jones in 1996 as Ford’s head of global R&D and was also concurrently appointed managing director of Mazda (then controlled by Ford) where he founded a new philosophy that produced the Mazda 6 and RX8.

By 2000, Leach was head of product development at Ford of Europe and became president of the organisation two years later. Always in a hurry, he began implementing a rapid new model programme called “45 in 5” without delay but fell out with Ford’s top management — who somewhat ill-advisedly announced that he had resigned before he had done so. Leach sued, and settled for $2.1m in 2005.