Former chairman of Rolls Royce whose life was changed by a cup of tea outside the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow

Born: May 9, 1932;

Died: June 5, 2019

SIR David Plastow, who has died aged 87 after suffering from Alzheimer’s, went from being a teenage apprentice at Vauxhall in Luton to running Rolls Royce Motors in Scotland and later the entire Rolls Royce/Vickers engineering group, including aero engines, worldwide.

He helped revive the struggling Rolls Royce brand and its sister marque Bentley during the 1970s and ‘80s and became one of Britain’s leading and most-respected businessmen. His success and humanitarianism also led him to serve throughout the 1990s as chairman of Britain’s General Medical Council, which maintains the official register of doctors in the UK “to protect … the health and safety of the public" and also sets the standards for all medical schools.

It was at the 1958 Scottish Motor show at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow, by which time he was Vauxhall sales manager, that he made the life-changing leap from Vauxhall to Rolls Royce/Bentley.

Over a cup of tea at the show, the manager of Rolls Royce Scotland was impressed by the young Plastow, who was presenting the latest six-cylinder Vauxhall Velox model.

“Would you like to drive my Rolls?” the older man asked him. “Yes I would, if you drive my Velox,” Plastow replied in typical salesman fashion.

So the two men exchanged cars for a drive. Seeing that Plastow himself was running on six cylinders, the Rolls manager gave him a job on the spot as a Rolls Royce salesman – “the biggest point in my life,” Plastow recalled.

He would go on to became manager of Rolls Royce Motors for Scotland and the north of England, later managing director of the company worldwide and eventually managing director of the Vickers engineering company which had taken over Rolls Royce in 1980. During his era, he saw some of the best and worst times for Rolls Royce as the company went into receivership and nationalisation, due to the losses on the aero-engine side of the business rather than the cars which remained popular among the wealthy or the wannabe-wealthy posers.

The artistic and technical beauty of the new Rolls Royce Corniche in the early 1970s helped keep the great company alive while its aero engine business was threatening to go down the tubes. Mr Plastow stood firm in defending his luxury models. At a 1978 conference in Detroit, historic centre of the US car industry, he told delegates that legislators or bureaucrats deciding what level of car we should drive was “dangerous nonsense. Man continually seeks a better way of life … and the symbol of his success during most of this century has often been the type of car he drives.”

Most, if not all, of Plastow’s peers credit him with keeping the Rolls Royce marque as the leading one in the world for those who can afford one. But in the late 1990s, he was forced to say two words that he’d used throughout his career: For Sale. But this time it wasn’t a Vauxhall Velox but two of Britain’s and the world’s most iconic brands, Rolls Royce and Bentley, that were up for grabs.

He had retired but was devastated when both Rolls Royce and Bentley eventually became German products – BMW bought Rolls Royce while Volkswagen snapped up Bentley. “I was horrified, so cross,” he said at the time. In later years, having become more of a diplomat than a salesman, he acknowledged that Rolls Royce and Bentley were “looking bigger and stronger all the time” under German management.

David Arnold Stuart Plastow was born on May 9, 1932, in Grimsby to James and Marie Plastow. He went to Clee Grammar School for Boys in Cleethorpe, and Culford School in Bury St Edmunds, where he became head boy and captain of both the cricket and rugby teams.

Cars were his first love, however, and he started as an apprentice machinist-fitter at Vauxhall’s Luton plant in 1950 at the age of 18, interrupted for two years by his national service in an Army vehicle repair facility at Warminster, Wiltshire. He married Barbara (“Barbie”) Ann May in 1954 and worked his way up to sales manager at Vauxhall. And then came that cup of tea outside the Kelvin Hall which changed his life.

He always said his wife Barbie was his grounding force. “She de-pomps me,” the Times of London quoted him as saying. “I get home thinking that I am a hell of a fellow and she spends 20 minutes telling me that the sink’s blocked or when do I plan to do something about that leaking tap.”

In his spare time, Sir David loved sport, especially rugby, football, cricket and golf. One of his grandfathers had been chairman of Grimsby Town FC and Sir David, during his Rolls Royce days, became chairman of Crewe Alexandra FC, not far from the Rolls factory. His favourite footballer, he said, was German Franz “Kaiser” Beckenbauer, whom he saw play during the 1966 World Cup in England.

A highly-competitive 16-handicap golfer, even well into retirement, he was a member of the Royal and Ancient and a former president of the Senior Golfer’s Society. He was knighted in the 1986 Queen’s birthday honours list and was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA).

Sir David is survived by his wife Barbie, son James, daughter Mandy and grandchildren Charlie, Harry, Eddie, Issy and Richie.