Super-car man

Super-car man

As director of Special Vehicle Operations for Jaguar Land Rover, Mark Stanton is arguably the UK’s top petrol-head. He chats with Ian Halstead about baby-talk, computer code and the loves of his life.

Babies babble, burble, burp and coo, then syllables gradually start to form ... the moment of which every parent dreams. However, when Mark Stanton’s mum was hovering patiently around his cot to hear her cherished toddler’s first utterances, she suddenly stood back in surprise.

“My mum swears my first word was ‘car’,” says Stanton, now aged 56, with a rueful look. “I don’t know if it’s true, of course, but it’s something she’s told us many times over the years.

“I was certainly always into mechanical things, taking them apart, messing about with them and loved drawing cars too. I was short and chubby, but then after a growth spurt in my teens, I really got into sport: squash, badminton and especially rugby.

“I drove before I was 17, as my sister had horses and there was lots of land around the stables. I used to take my mum’s Mini up and down the farm tracks and occasionally across the fields.”

Stanton intended to study art and technical drawing, but teachers pointed him firmly toward more academic subjects and, given his love of cars, a degree in engineering beckoned. “I told my careers teacher I wanted to be a nuclear physicist to stop being pestered, but Loughborough looked perfect. It offered engineering and was the place for sport.”

Indeed it was. Clive Woodward was then in Loughborough’s first XV, and Seb Coe was demonstrating what commitment to sporting success required, with punishing training sessions on the university’s running tracks. Stanton’s dreams of combining his two favourite interests soon ebbed though, when he realised he hadn’t the strength or speed for top-flight rugby. However, he’d wisely chosen a course with industrial placements, and his favourite tutor arranged two life-changing spells with Ford.

Mark Stanton 02“Dr Lucas was fantastic as I’d left things until the last minute. He was doing work for Ford and got me in. I enjoyed it, they must have seen something they liked, and they sponsored me. I then did two final-year projects, on hydrogen engines and four-wheel drive. This was back in the early 1980s, so both subjects were very advanced and I stayed on an extra year to gain a BTech and a BEng.”

Boosting his engineering qualifications certainly enhanced Stanton’s career prospects, as did meeting Richard Parry-Jones, then rising swiftly within Ford’s sprawling empire and ultimately to climax 38 years of service as its vice-president, chief technical officer and head of global product development. If a new recruit wished to be taken under someone’s corporate wing, it was most assuredly his, especially if they shared his passion for innovation and engineering.

“He guided me and helped me a lot – particularly in my early years,” says Stanton. “We first crossed paths on one of my placements, and later I came to know him very well.”

The influence of Parry-Jones was most noted when Stanton became frustrated by his work and his sluggish career trajectory. “Initially, I was in chassis research. It wasn’t at the forefront of Ford thinking, and I felt stuck away at the back of things. Work was going nowhere. I was going nowhere. Ford said I should be in a managerial role in five years, but I wasn’t. Eventually, I decided to resign.

“I’d always had an interest in writing code. I remember doing one of the very early computer languages, Fortran. You’d put hundreds of lines onto blue punch cards, put them in a shoe box and hand them to the computer team. A couple of days later, you’d get the program back.

“I’d been working with a company in Germany through Ford. They knew I was fed-up and offered me a job. I went in to tell Richard, and he was stunned. He said he’d been working on a new project for me, and asked me to wait a while. Two weeks later, he offered me a job in North America, and I accepted.”

This role was something very different; working on the group’s most advanced (fully-active) suspension systems, for Ford’s F1 team, Benetton, alongside the notable presence of triple world champion Jackie Stewart.

Stanton’s destination in 1987 was also Dearborn, still a town of fewer than 100,000 souls, but the historic home of Henry Ford and HQ of the Ford Motor Co empire. “I was there almost three years, and really enjoyed myself. Their car had lots of problems, including the suspension, and regularly went off the track. The main challenge was to get the computer systems talking to the car and to the electronics.”

There were two notable newcomers to his life in Michigan: his first company car, and Angela, who later became his wife, and mother to their two beloved teenage daughters. Stanton recalls: “Ford allowed me to choose any car from their leasing business, so I picked a GT Mustang which had a five-litre engine. I must admit, I am a petrol-head and for me, the most important aspect to any car I drive is its performance.”

With a whopping 225 horse-power under the bonnet, the Mustang engine was described back in 1987 as “a tower of power” by a besotted US reviewer – but now there’s a far more potent machine on the Stanton driveway,

The Jaguar F-Type SVR extracts a remarkable 657 bhp from its supercharged V8, with four-wheel drive and an eight-speed automatic gearbox to help drivers tame this beast of the road.

“I am lucky to drive the SVR. It really is an everyday super-car,” says Stanton … and you sense he really wants to nip out and thrash the F-Type along the leafy lanes around his office in Gaydon, Warwickshire. “I accept that we’ll gradually see systems which introduce elements of autonomous technology, but they’re not important to me. I still believe it’s all about the driving experience, not about the car driving itself.”

Stanton certainly has ample scope to enjoy his SVR, commuting between Essex and Warwickshire several times a week. “When I moved here, ten years ago, I thought it would be like my projects at Ford, two or three years somewhere, then on to something different, so we decided to keep the family home where it was. Now I live up here in the week, go back on Friday, back up Monday morning, then probably back once in midweek.”

Mark Stanton 03

Stanton’s neighbours are equally aware of his demanding schedule, because there’s no hiding place when the SVR growls into action. “I live in a five-house close, and the driveway has walls around it, but I still haven’t worked out which way to point the car to stop the noise echoing when I turn the ignition,” he admits.

Stanton’s time in Dearborn had been the start of a lengthy period of commuting on an international scale, as he was then appointed to different Ford Motor Co projects in Belgium, then Kansas City, back to Detroit, then in the UK and another return to Motor City. Finally though, the globe-trotting had to stop – as love for his growing family overtook Stanton’s love of cars.

“I met Angela in 1985,” he recalls. “She had not long since graduated as a physiotherapist and wanted to travel. She fancied Australia, but agreed to go to Detroit with me. Finally though, we’d been moving home for years, had two young daughters, and needed to settle down. I told Ford, and after a couple of months of discussions, they mentioned a potential job with Jaguar in the UK, as group chief engineer for vehicle engineering. At the time, Jaguar and Land Rover had huge ambitions, and some very talented people, but were being stifled by Ford and running up huge losses.”

The timing was just right, and once back in the UK, Stanton’s influence could soon be seen in the launch of the Jaguar XF in 2007, the mid-size luxury saloon which replaced its famed S-type, and took on the BMW 5 Series in the brutal race to capture executive hearts, minds and wallets.

By then, Stanton had been given a ‘cradle to grave’ brief for Jaguar, and might have been there today had not the now fiercely ambitious – and well-funded – Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) launched its Special Vehicle Operations (SVO) division. “There had always been a unit for special parts and accessories, in different names and guises, and I’d been closely associated with it at Jaguar,” he says. “The current SVO incarnation happened almost three years ago, and toward the end of 2015, I was offered the chance to become a director.

“I thought about the job carefully over that Christmas, discussed it with Angela and the girls, and decided to take it. In my old job, I had oversight of all JLR products, which was fantastic because I love engineering and development.

“However, although I had a wide remit, I didn’t have responsibility for every aspect of all products. Now I have a much broader role, including purchasing, finance and manufacturing, so there are nice new challenges and more autonomy.

“Essentially, SVO takes the core JLR cars and ‘dials them up’ in three areas: performance, luxury and capability. We’re definitely seeing new customers attracted to our performance products. The luxury ones are slightly different, in that they’re bought by rich people who want something personal which is unique to them.”

The fast-growing and brand-conscious middle strata of Chinese society is a core future target, but in the short-term, there’s a rather more pressing strategic challenge.  “We’re struggling to hire the right talent because we’ve grown so quickly,” admits Stanton. “There are plenty of new engineering graduates, but we need people with experience. We have a massively diverse workforce here, but everyone is competing for the same pool.”

As he prepares to leave though, another thought is uppermost which brings together
all his favourite things: family, technology and rugby. “Our oldest daughter went to Edinburgh University this year, and sent a WhatsApp pic from Murrayfield,” he recalls, searching his phone for the treasured image. “Their women’s team beat St Andrew’s by 97-0.”

And then he’s off to the car-park, where the sun is glinting on his SVR’s mesmerising, ultra-blue paint job, the sky is a rich autumnal blue and it’s just too much for a devoted petrol-head to resist.