Lord Stokes, who died yesterday aged 94, was probably the most outspoken industrialist in Britain in the 1970s when, as chairman of British Leyland, he used colourful language to warn repeatedly of the need for Britain to improve her efficiency to compete effectively in world markets.
Sadly, factors including industrial strife and lack of investment prevented him from practising what he preached. British Leyland (BL) collapsed in 1975 under his leadership in a welter of debt and had to be bailed out by Tony Benn, then Industry Secretary, and nationalised by a Labour government.
It was a brave try, but Donald Stokes was nothing if not a fighter. He first made his reputation as the kind of super-salesman who could sell a Morris Marina to a Marsh Arab. Indeed, he was recruited to the Ministry of Defence to advise on how to sell arms overseas.
His public pronouncements were those of the salesman, and celebrated for being practical and down-to-earth. He once told a motor trade leaders’ dinner in 1968 that the four basic ways of life in Britain were sex, booze, motor cars and sport, followed – a poor fifth – by hard work. Another was: “What distresses me is the number of boys with academic training who are completely useless.”
Commenting on Harold Macmillan’s somewhat inept aphorism that “exporting was fun”, Stokes said he had been bitten by wild dogs in Ecuador, lost in jungles, been away from home half his married life and frightened in aircraft everywhere. He joked that the dogs taking large lumps out of his backside must have belonged to a rival salesman, and then hired a nurse to give him anti-rabies injections for a fortnight as he chased orders across Latin America.
The son of Plymouth city council’s transport manager, Donald Gresham Stokes was born on March 22 1914 and spent his childhood playing in the bus depot. At the age of 11 he had decided he wanted to work for Leyland, which made the buses he liked so much. Six years later, after resisting efforts at Blundells to give him a classical education and make him play games, he became an engineering apprentice with the Lancashire company he was to be associated with in some form or another all his working life, apart from war service.
He joined the Territorial Army in 1938 and ended a lieutenant-colonel and assistant director of mechanical engineering (technical), Central Mediterranean Forces.
Stokes returned to Leyland Motors with a visionary’s zeal for the sort of markets where the company should be selling its products. He argued that European countries would be developing their own truck and bus plants and that Leyland should go for the Middle East and South America. He was given the job of running the new export department in 1946 and began putting his philosophy into effect. But Leyland was a parochial and parsimonious concern. Even when Stokes first went there, he was often sent out on jobs because he owned a motorcycle, so the trip only cost the company the price of the petrol.
At first the decision to go for the easier Empire markets paid off where Leyland had branches and English was spoken. The failure to recruit anyone who could speak Portuguese, however, meant that the Brazilian market was neglected.
But the ebullient Stokes took advantage of the markets where Leyland did operate to such good effect that by 1954 he was on the board. His coups became the stuff of company legend and he would go to any lengths to get a sales contract signed. His first trip to Spain caused a sensation at Leyland when he returned with a cheque for £40,000, owing since before the civil war.
Stokes’s sales team were not traditionally dark-suited, Homburg-hatted gents in spats, but – like himself – ex-apprentices with a technical background who could talk to transport managers in their own (often earthy) language.
The first big order for 620 buses for Cuba was achieved after Stokes overheard a conversation on an aeroplane that the Cubans might need them, and it was clinched with an arrangement for Leyland to be paid out of bus fares.
At one stage the PR department was told to keep publicity for Stokes to a minimum, but his bandwagon was rolling and unstoppable. For the first time salesmen led by Stokes came to be more important than the production men.
As Leyland, the increasingly successful truck and bus builder, acquired AEC and the Standard Triumph and Rover car firms, Stokes also sat on their boards. The empire grew into the Leyland Motor Corporation with 40 associated companies in Britain and overseas. He was managing director and deputy chairman in 1963, knighted in 1965, and made up to chairman four years later; he was created a life peer in 1989.
Meanwhile the British Motor Corporation, formed mainly from old rivals, Austin and Morris, was in deep trouble. The industry’s flagship was near to foundering on the rocks of managerial incompetence, industrial strife, lack of investment and outdated models. Stokes, whose flair and dynamism had relaunched Leyland, was seen by Harold Wilson’s Labour government as the man to steer the whole British motor industry.
After months of occasionally acrimonious talks between Stokes and BMC’s Sir George Harriman, watched over by Tony Benn, terms were agreed. Stokes became supremo of the British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC) in 1973, with Harriman as titular president.
The top jobs went to Stokes’s men with George Turnbull, head of Standard Triumph, becoming MD of the Austin Morris division and Ronald Ellis of Leyland Motors running the new truck and bus division. Williams Lyons, chairman of Jaguar, then part of BMC, became a deputy chairman.
Although the marriage between BMC and the Leyland Motor Corporation was described as a merger, Stokes’s successful group took over the British motor industry, apart from the multinational sector owned by Ford and General Motors.
BLMC employed nearly 200,000 people, had a turnover of almost £1,000 million, and was the fifth largest motor manufacturer in the world.
The Leyland men had been staggered to find that there were no new models on the stocks apart from the Austin Maxi which, after hasty modifications, had teething troubles lasting years. Their own first effort was the more successful (but essentially stopgap) Morris Marina.
Even the dynamic Stokes could not overcome the problems of overmanning, strikes, poor productivity, lack of investment, and largely uncompetitive volume models that beset BLMC. His critics described him as a “great convincer rather than a great organiser” and no devotee of modern business techniques.
The 1973 oil crisis and world recession did not help, and two years later it was all over. Don Ryder was called in by the Labour government to prescribe another remedy for the sick giant. He proposed a massive injection of state cash and reorganisation that worked no better.
Stokes became non-executive president, and was given the task of “badge engineering”, but his days at the very top were numbered. He had been given an impossible task which required two bouts of drastic surgery carried out by the South African Sir Michael Edwardes and the Canadian Sir Graham Day before the much-slimmed Rover group could become a suitable bride for British Aerospace years later.
Although he once told a House of Lords debate on industrial relations that Britain was bleeding to death industrially from self-inflicted wounds, Stokes (as an honorary Lancastrian) never found it easy to wield the scalpel.
Donald Stokes married, in 1939, Laura Lamb, who died in 1995 and with whom he had a son.
In 2000 he married Patricia Pascall, who survives him.
- Opinion : Anything we can do… they can do worse? – Renault 14 - 7 December 2021
- The cars : Innocenti Mini 90/120 (P53) development story - 22 November 2021
- Concepts and prototypes : Rover Metro SP (1991) - 21 November 2021