MOTORING / The enthusiast driving Mazda to the market: Jan Smith, the top woman in a man's world, relishes the challenge of the car business, reports Phil Llewellin

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Three hundred and twenty top-ranking executives from Europe, America and Asia merit potted biographies in a reference book entitled Who's Who In The Motor Industry. That only two are women is evidence that the industry is one of the strongholds of male chauvinism.

One of the women, Morag Barton, runs the Brooklands Museum in Weybridge, Surrey. The other, Jan Smith, is Mazda UK's marketing director. Precise professional status can be difficult to define, but she probably outranks any other woman in Britain's car business. Her current priorities include launching the 1.8-litre version of Mazda's acclaimed MX-5 sports car.

Born in 1947, Ms Smith read English at university in Zimbabwe, then launched into a very successful career with several banks (Midland, Lloyds, TSB, First Direct) before joining Mazda in the summer of 1992.

Although they may not admit it, a surprisingly high percentage of the motor industry's senior people are not very interested in cars. Experts in some fields, notably finance and marketing, say they would be just as happy focusing on baked beans or washing machines. Ms Smith, however, was not cast in that mould. There is nothing self-conscious about the automobilia in her office - photographs and models of cars, many of them Jaguars. Far from it. Ms Smith may have spent most of her adult life working for banks, but cars have been an interest since she was a child in the North-west of England, where the family lived before emigrating to Africa.

'Cars have always fascinated me and I've had quite an assortment,' she says. 'I started with an Austin-Healey Sprite and a Triumph TR3A when I was at university. I loved them. Since then I've had several Jags, including an XJ6 coupe and an XJ-S. The E-type, which I still have, was bought way back in 1973. I remember the E-type coming out in 1961, and thinking what a brilliant design it was - light years ahead of its time - and that 'One of these days . . . .'

'The E-type looks as wonderful now as then. It is so typical of what makes the cars of the Fifties and Sixties unsurpassed for design and style. We drive it to Le Mans every year, for the 24-hour race, then on to Spain or Portugal.'

Le Mans has been a catalyst in Ms Smith's life. She started her banking career with the Midland, mainly because the salary of pounds 925 was pounds 25 a year up on the next best offer. She became increasingly interested in marketing, and progressed fast, breaching what had always been exclusively male preserves in the Midland and the TSB. She was a key member of the team that launched First Direct.

She was lunching with a friend whose business interests included the TSB and Mazda, when their talk turned to the future. 'What I should most like to do,' said Ms Smith, 'is to market cars.'

The timing was perfect. Mazda had just won Le Mans, and success on the track was reflected on the road, where the award-winning MX-5, the cute little MX-3 coupe, and the RX-7 (whose Ferrari-like performance belies a price on the affordable side of pounds 30,000) were cutting a dash.

'The picture looked challenging and fascinating, because things were starting to happen and the company was selling cars that really appealed to me,' she recalls. 'It's essential to believe in the product you're marketing. We sold about 19,000 cars in Britain last year, so it's very much a niche market in which the likes of the MX-5 and the Xedos create an image for the other models that account for the bulk of our sales.

'We see Mazda retaining about 1 per cent of the market. That's realistic, while other manufacturers are talking about increasing their shares. Their predictions total more than 100 per cent.'

Western pundits used to make brave noises about lack of pedigree preventing the Japanese manufacturers from storming European and American strongholds. Mazda's victory at Le Mans was dramatic proof of maturity. Ford still reminds us that its GT40s dominated the 24-hour race in the Sixties: how does Ms Smith see the relationship between racing and heritage?

'All the great marques have been founded on racing, and it helps with marketing today's cars. That's why Mazda is involved with the British Touring Car Championship.

'I believe it takes about 30 years for a car manufacturer to acquire a heritage. Building it involves a whole range of things, including racing, which eventually come together to form a brand that stands for certain values.'

But there are circumstances in which heritage can exceed its shelf life. 'The possibility of reviving the Riley name was mentioned when Rover was sold to BMW. But does the name ring any bells with the younger generation of drivers? Certain Japanese manufacturers may mean far more.'

Ms Smith sees no reason why any business should be regarded as a male or female preserve. But she did sense 'negative feelings' when she joined Mazda UK's head office in Tunbridge Wells.

'Yes, there were moments when I wondered what I was doing here, because the learning curve was very steep indeed. But you have to stick with it and get through. This is very tough and very challenging. Which I enjoy.'

And her ideal car? 'Probably a Ferrari 246 GT or a 275 GTB, for style and shape. But I would want to keep the E-type Jaguar.'

(Photograph omitted)

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