Richard Parry-Jones: The man in the driving seat of Britain's automotive industry

Richard Parry-Jones has had a hand in designing many of our most popular cars, and now, he tells Margareta Pagano, he wants to attract the next generation of engineers on to the factory floor

If Richard Parry-Jones could not drive his Aston Martin DBS black convertible any more, he would park the beast in his living room.

"It's so beautiful. I could just stare at it all day long." He also has a black Range Rover, for towing his boats and horse-boxes, and a blue Ford Focus – a fun car, he says, and fast.

Parry-Jones should know: he's had a hand in designing more than 70 cars of every shape and size during a 38-year career working for Ford: it was his creative genius behind the Mondeo – still rated as one of the world's top cars – the Focus, Ka, Fiesta, Escort, Cougar, Galaxy, Puma and, in the US, Mustang and, in Australia, Falcon – to name just a few. As group vice president of Ford's global product development and chief technical officer, he was also boss of the car-maker's other brands, his beloved Aston Martin, Jaguar Land Rover, Mazda and Volvo.

And it's all thanks to his mother. "She loved motor sports, all of them. As a child we used to go and watch Formula One races, with drivers like Jackie Stewart. Then you could go right up to the cars, touch them, smell them as they were parked on the grass – not like today where they are hidden away in the paddocks. We'd go and watch the rally cars racing through the Welsh forests near where I lived, and karting as well."

She got him hooked early. He was 10 when he decided that cars were his future; 12 when he wrote to Ford asking about jobs and then 17 when he joined the car-maker in Romford on an apprenticeship which sponsored him to study mechanical engineering at Salford University. "Still one of the best routes for young engineers," he says, especially now that university degrees cost as much as his DBS.

Parry-Jones retired from Ford nearly four years ago. But it wasn't long afterwards that he was asked to become chairman of the Automotive Council, a pioneering body set up by Lord Mandelson to pull together all the various bits – the car-makers, the Tier One companies, and the many hundreds of companies in the supply chain – to work together. It was a rare example of quasi-government intervention in British Industry, and it seems to be working. The automotive industry is growing faster than any other part of manufacturing, with the production of cars and car engines back up to pre-recession numbers and soaring.

I caught up with Parry-Jones last week before he took off for Atlanta for a board meeting of GKN, one of the UK's most successful automotive and aerospace components makers and key to the industry's Tier One base. He's a non-executive director, one his many other jobs that include vice-chancellor of Loughborough University.

You can soon see why he was called the industry's secret weapon – more of a magic bullet, I'd say; he's a petrol-head to beat even Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson for enthusiasm. "There's no doubt we're enjoying a renaissance. We've still got far to go, but in terms of manufacturing cars and their engines, we're not far off the 1960s heyday in terms of production," he says. The numbers tell the story – more than 1.5 million cars and about 150,000 commercial vehicles are now being made in the UK each year and 2.5 million engines. This could top three million next year.

Overall the industry employs nearly 800,000 people and is worth £50bn, about 3 per cent of GDP; exports are running at about £8bn and some £1bn of new money is invested in the automotive sector each year.

Of course the car-makers are no longer British; only racing car specialists such as McLaren and other F1 makers can still make that claim. While RPJ, as he's known in the trade, is as romantic as the rest of us about Britain having lost so many of its marques to foreign owners, he sees no point in crying over past mistakes.

"What matters is that some of the world's best universities carrying out the latest and most sophisticated research and development – especially in low carbon engineering – are British. Our engineers are among the best in the world and the overseas companies – like Ford and Tata – want to be here because they have access to these first-class brains. That's why Ford has based its hub for R&D here in the UK and why Tata is building its new plants. I could go on and on."

And he does. "Here's the list. More than £9bn has been invested in new production plants over the past year – and more is coming." The biggest boost of all was the decision by Tata-owned Jaguar Land Rover two weeks ago to build a new engine plant for £335m, creating at least 750 jobs in Wolverhampton, and there'll be more jobs from all the suppliers expected to spring up around the new plant.

As well as Tata, GM is building the new Vauxhall Vivaro van at Luton; Aston Martin is making the new Cygnet car at Gaydon in Warwickshire – another 150 jobs and more – while MG is to produce the new MG6 GT sports fastback at Longbridge and the MG6 Magnette sports saloon will be designed, engineered and assembled in the UK. There's more – India's Optare is building new bus facilities in Yorkshire; Toyota has just installed the world's first mass solar energy to supply electricity to make its Auris and Avensis models and so on.

Why here? RPJ says even he's surprised by the flood of investors. "Every now and again I turn to companies like Tata, Toyota and even Ford, and ask the same question. Why are you investing in the UK? What makes its work for you? They're all shocked by my question but say, as though I'm a bit slow: 'It's because of the country's fantastic engineering, its hard-working and talented workforce. You still have the best engineers.'"

It's a pride we should take more care with, and nurture, suggests RPJ. "It's time for more self-confidence. We're too good at knocking ourselves and should remind ourselves we have some of the best engineering schools and universities in the world, and through the universities some of the very best research.

"Our engineers are so sought after; they are trained to solve problems, a skill that makes them highly valuable in today's competitive market where technology can bring solutions to solve the big issues of the day like energy storage and low carbon engines."

And UK engineers are cutting edge in four specific areas: revamping the combustion engine to make it more efficient – the Focus is already doing 70mpg; working on lighter weight composite materials and energy storage systems which combine batteries and petrol as well as a new Kinetic Energy Recovery System as used by F1 cars. Finally, they are good at what's called electronics machinery technology – or "drive by wire" systems – which are being used to replace heavier mechanisms, such as hydraulics, in cars.

"Did you know there are more than 300 million software codes in the latest Jaguar XJ?" asks RPJ. "Codes for every function – from the traffic management systems telling the driver whether there is a road accident ahead to the steering information. It's one of the most complex software systems of any car on the market – the average car has about 100 million codes – and beats even the complexity of a Eurofighter jet. That has a mere 12 million codes telling the pilot what to do in the air."

Believe it or not, the second reason why foreign companies like the UK, is our excellent labour relations with, unions such as Unite, make the UK's workforce among the most hard-working and flexible in the world, he says. Productivity gains have been rising at between 3 and 5 per cent a year, partly he says because the UK workforce has learnt to be more like the Japanese, lean and mean, and by cutting out waste, they are actually keeping workers in jobs but by making them more productive.

"What people are beginning to realise is that the manufacturing innovations made over the past 50 years have nearly all come out of the automotive industry."

And finally, he says for the first time in decades, the Government finally understands the value of manufacturing. "At last government gets manufacturing. They get that it's as much about attitude as intervention. We don't need grants or subsidies – but we do need consistency of the right approach.

"We don't need rhetoric but action. We need the German approach which is that government is behind the industry, behind education, will support where it can and that the tax regime and all those other things are working together and not constantly switching which is what used to happen.

"One of the best things Ed Miliband could do is say that Labour will back all the work that Vince Cable and Mark Prisk – minister for motor industry – are doing. Otherwise, this renaissance we are enjoying won't last if we have a roller-coaster approach."

But there are problems too, that RPJ wants resolved, some of which will need government help. He is lobbying for R&D tax credits to be reformed to increase investment into the UK, particularly for capital intensive manufacturers in the supply chain. At the moment, R&D credits are set against corporation tax which for many overseas companies is not effective. More than £7bn is spent by car-makers on the supply chain components – only half of those products are being made in the UK.

Education still needs to improve, he says, starting with the teaching of physics and maths – the stem skills. And more needs to be done to entice school-leavers into industry through apprenticeships as there is a shortage of engineers at every level, not only here but in France and Germany too. One way to persuade students into the industry would be to keep tuition fees at the old structure for all science subjects. "I know that's radical, but it will get the pipeline going."

"We've got to get to the teachers. There are too many fallacies. Too many teachers and the public still see industry as smoke-stacked chimneys, and that salaries are low. It's not true and the latest surveys show that over a lifetime the average salaries of engineers more than match those of those in financial services. We've lost too many bright brains to the City but that is likely to be changing.

"But we must be demand led too. The colleges and universities and industry has to do its bit too get out and sell itself to the teachers, the careers advisers and parents."

That's why the Automotive Council and members such as Bentley, McLaren, Aston Martin, BMW, JLR and Ferrari have got together with the Department for Business to launch the See Inside Manufacturing campaign – an idea conceived at the Bentley stand at the Paris motor show last year. The campaign starts in earnest in two weeks' time and combines about 40 school and college visits to factories and production facilities, masterclasses of car experts to undergraduates. "If we get this right, not just in cars but all industries, I reckthe UK's manufacturing base will grow a couple of per cent over the next few years. We want to show what's going on inside today's workshops and show these children and students just how exciting engineering is."

Getting teenagers inside the factories is a brilliant idea but here's another: Parry-Jones should be given his own TV show to inspire beyond the boardroom – a sort of Tomorrow's World meets Top Gear.

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