The boy racer who, luckily, never grew up raced to the top

The brains behind Ford's triumphant Mondeo and popular new Escort is a 43-year-old Welshman, now the firm's vice-president. He spoke to Phil Llewellin
Thirty and more years ago, Richard Parry-Jones and thousands of other Welsh children waved and cheered as the IRAC Rally passed through places with such tongue-tangling names as Betws-y-Coed. He was a bright boy, good at maths and physics. The sight and sound of those cars, driven by such heroes as Erik Carlsson and Roger Clark, helped steer him to a career in the motor industry.

This 43-year-old engineer from Bangor, Gwynedd, is now one of the main keys to Ford's future. The erstwhile amateur rally driver is the vice- president responsible for the multi-national giant's worldwide small and medium vehicles. His operation accounts for 2.5 million vehicles a year - about 40 per cent of Ford's total production - and had a $26bn turnover in 1994. The man whose first drives were on an Anglesey beach in his father's pre-war Austin Seven now flies to America twice a month, and to Germany twice a week. He keeps an eye on the burgeoning Brazilian market, and has a team based in Japan, but still finds time to motor 30,000 miles a year, to ride his Suzuki SR1000 motor cycle, and to walk in Snowdonia.

The motor industry's upper echelons contain men whose business is business. They would be equally content and successful selling cornflakes or concrete. At the other extreme, Mr Parry-Jones is a 24-carat car man whose infectious enthusiasm is expressed with typically Welsh fervour and humour. He laughs a lot.

"This job is a bit of a problem, in a way," he smiles, "Don't tell my bosses this, but imagine being paid to do what I'd do for nothing. It's true!"

It is easy to visualise the boy who could identify every car "Make, model, year, the lot" - by the time he was 10. His parents were keen drivers who read Motoring News and took their sons to the annual Gold Cup race at Oulton Park. Richard and his brother used to estimate market share - "We didn't know it was called that, of course" - by counting how many Fords, Austins, Vauxhalls and so forth they spotted during a journey.

His first car was a Mini 850. This, he recalls with a laugh, was "thrashed without mercy" on the "absolutely fantastic" roads of Wales.

At school, his physics master scoffed at the idea of a career in the motor industry but the young man's talent and enthusiasm were appreciated by Ford, who sponsored his course at Salford University. Landmarks since then have included two years in the United States and being in charge of manufacturing operations at Ford's factory in Cologne.

As the European operation's chief engineer, responsible for development and testing, he played a key role in making the Mondeo a car whose handling characteristics attracted almost universal praise and set new standards for the "repmobile". This was rewarded in 1993, when Autocar magazine presented the Welshman with its Man of the Year award. The citation described him as "responsible for changing the culture of one of the world's biggest corporations" and said the Mondeo "offers the ordinary motorist unmatched refinement and dynamics".

Identical sentiments were expressed earlier this year, when motoring writers tested the latest Ford Escort. Mr Parry-Jones and his team had turned an unexceptional car into one that was considerably more refined and much better to drive. I wondered if the previous Escort's popularity was proof that the typical customer is unconcerned about any of the esoteric features and characteristics that concern professional critics. The vast majority of car buyers are not enthusiasts, I said. Don't they regard the car as little more than a glorified domestic appliance on wheels? Mr Parry-Jones shook his head.

"I don't subscribe to the theory that cars are like washing machines," he asserted, glancing towards the many motorsport photographs that decorate his spacious office at Ford's research and development centre in Essex. "There's a danger of radically underestimating the degree of interest and pleasure that the vast majority of customers get from their cars as a bonus on top of the transport function that is the reason for their purchase.

"Sure, the vast majority of people buy a car to get from place to place. But I am firmly convinced that they also appreciate the difference between mediocrity and something worth having. How many people polish the washing machine on a Sunday? The car is one of the world's most exciting and emotionally provocative products. The prospect of shopping for one really excites most people."

Obsessed with driving characteristics, he has forged a formidable alliance with Jackie Stewart, the triple world champion who is Ford's most famous consultant.

"Even the average driver will appreciate the difference between a car that is just, say, adequate and one that has been refined and honed to a level of excellence," Mr Parry-Jones contends. "I don't think there's a conflict between what the enthusiast wants and what the average driver will appreciate. For instance, it just so happens that one of the nice things about physics is that if you reduce friction in a steering system, to improve the enthusiastic driver's perceptions, most other drivers will also agree that it's better. The difference is that they, unlike the enthusiast, don't know why it's better, which is fair enough. They don't need to know it's nicer because the friction's been reduced.

"Cars that are well developed have a friendly, feel-good factor. Good steering is friendly to all drivers, because it gives a feeling of security. It develops a bond of trust between the car and its driver."

His vice-presidential brief extends from design and development to customer satisfaction and, of course, profitability. The business issues are the biggest challenge, he says. Anyone can make a good car that loses money because customers can't afford it. A major part of the challenge involves cost-effective ways of maintaining the car's acceptability.

"The car is becoming more and more a victim of its own success," he says. "One of the great challenges, especially for those of us who are enthusiasts, is to do everything we can to lessen the car's impact on society - the noise, air pollution, congestion. We must make it a very acceptable and valued part of the infrastructure, as opposed to the negative image it might acquire if we don't pay attention to it.

"None of this is in conflict with what the enthusiast wants. The fact of the matter is that cars have become more fun to drive while also becoming cleaner, safer and quieter. We must maintain that progress. I am aware that there are things scientists might say can't be done. The engineer's job - my job - is to find a way."