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The William Hewland experience

I can still remember how bitterly cold it was that day in November 1972, with an easterly wind howling across the bleak open expanses of the Snetterton motor racing circuit. None of that mattered to the twelve young guys huddled around a few Formula Ford race cars, listening to our Jim Russell Racing Driver School’s instructor prepare us for the intricacies of driving a single-seater race car.

The instruction centred on the fact that the gearbox didn’t have syncro-mesh, so gear changing, particularly down through the box from three to two, would need some practice.

A few minutes later I was introduced to a Hewland Mk 8 gearbox for the first time in my life. I don’t mind admitting that at first we clashed badly! However, before long I’d mastered the technique and so began a long relationship with a company, the products of which introduced so many drivers to the art of single-seater racing.

25 years later, as Founder of the Motorsport Industry Association, I was delighted to watch Mike and William Hewland, on behalf of their company, receive the MIA Outstanding Business Achievement Award from Max Mosley at the annual House of Lords reception.

Sadly Mike passed away in 2012, but the Hewland legacy which he started in a leaky shed by the railway station in Maidenhead in 1957, lives on thanks to the vision and passion of his son William.

He and his father might have been very different in several respects, but the one gene that they definitely had in common was that of determination and productive stubbornness.

My work with Oxford Brookes University recently brought me into contact again with Hewland Engineering and it seemed too good an opportunity not to get together with William and find out how this famous business is facing the future in what is a rapidly changing business world.

What I discovered was that the Hewland story was very much about three distinct eras. The first started in that rather run down old shed in the mid nineteen-fifties to progress to an internationally recognised brand synonymous with the growth of junior categories of racing such as Formula Ford and Formula 3, right through to Formula 1,  where Hewland’s first win came in 1964.

Business as usual?

Much as it would be a fascinating journey to recall those heady days of early success, it will have to wait for another time. I want to start with the second era of Hewland Engineering.

I asked William to tell me about his father, the businessman. He didn’t mix his words and described Mike as being scrupulously honest and financially prudent, but with no formal business training and little passion for business. In fact, he went further and described his father as a “bad listener” albeit that in the early years he was providing the solutions and a two-way communication process wasn’t so important. However, by the early 1980s it became apparent that Mike was failing to pick up on the potential that existed for developing more complex gearboxes for some of the racing teams and constructors. William explained that in the 1970s, the technology in FF1600 and Formula 1 was not that far apart, the senior formulae then moved on and created a new requirement for this higher-level product.

I wondered how long it would take for the name Mike Endean to be mentioned. The answer was not long. Mike Endean, who was then Technical Director, made the decision in the mid-eighties to leave Hewland and establish his own company, X-Trac. With him went a lot of experience, ideas and knowledge. It would become a serious body-blow. There was now a major competitor on the horizon. Looking back, it became obvious that the unchallenged success of the early years hadn’t forced Hewland to progress as far as it could, leaving it suddenly outdated in some respects.

The situation

William continued by telling me how he first joined the company in 1982, as a junior in the design office and stayed fully in design until 1989, when his father decided that he wanted to retire. It seemed that the two primary reasons for this were his age and also the fact that he wasn’t gelling well with the modern era of clients wanting so much input into their gearbox design. This resulted in a choice for William; either sell the company or take it over from his father. He admitted that he was very cautious about this second option, but as a naive 24-year-old he eventually decided it was the best way forward. Interestingly, William recalled how Carl Haas – who’d been the Hewland USA distributor since the 1960s – had twice tried to buy Hewland Engineering, the first time being in 1984 and then again in 1989. William took the bold decision not to sell the business.

At that time, Hewland was being run by a General Manager who’d been there for 20 years, but, in William’s opinion, was more passionate about machine tools in their own right than he was in the motorsport industry. This manager had no idea of how to proceed in a competitive situation, as this was new to Hewland. There was little evidence of passion to move the business forward in line with the increasing pace of the motorsport technology. Effectively, Mike’s son only took real control of the business in 1992, after the General Manager had left and new staff could be appointed.

William admitted that another consideration to be taken into account was that by 1992 the economy was in recession and it became obvious that a totally new approach was needed if Hewland was to not only weather the storm, but also to get back to where it once was. X-Trac by now was proving a serious competitor to Hewland and it became apparent to William that some brave decisions were needed to change the work culture, design culture, customer service attitude and implement latest machinery.

As William summed it up, teams and companies now wanted to have a product designed to suit their budget, as opposed to a carte blanche approach. The market was changing at a rapid rate.

Listening to William outline the scenario that he faced, I got the distinct impression that there was never any real doubt in his mind at that time about taking on this enormous challenge. He and his father might have been very different in several respects, but the one gene that they definitely had in common was that of determination and productive stubbornness.

It wasn’t long before the results of a new strategic plan could be seen. Under Williams’s guidance the company became less reliant on its traditional single-seater market and was now supplying several teams in the British Touring Car Championship with the mandatory sequential boxes.

At this time, William also began a car racing career which gave him excellent first-hand knowledge of the product and what the market wanted.


It wasn’t long before the results of a new strategic plan could be seen. Under Williams’s guidance the company became less reliant on its traditional single-seater market and was now supplying several teams in the British Touring Car Championship with the mandatory sequential boxes.

Then in 1994, a significant partnership deal was struck between Hewland and Prodrive, which clearly demonstrated the way to go in the future. The basis of the partnership was the design and build of gearboxes for Touring Cars; the first project being for Alfa Romeo and a championship win in the BTCC in 1994. William made the point of explaining how this this valuable partnership offered a high-profile testimonial for Hewland, at a fraction of the cost of trying to compete in and develop the Formula 1 market.

It wasn’t all plain sailing at that time, however. To add to the difficulties of building Hewland as a sustainable business, Lola Cars, one of its major customers, were going through some financial problems of their own. The company entered its own team in the F1 World Championship in 1993 with little success. Its second attempt in 1997 proved to be a commercial disaster, with Lola Cars going bust, owing big money. As William explained with a grimace, Hewland were not immune from the financial fallout.

The company was still being run from its Boyn Valley premises in Maidenhead, but it was becoming obvious to William that it needed to be replaced by a modern facility that was fit for the purpose. He admitted that he has had his eye on a piece of land adjacent to White Waltham aerodrome, and conveniently placed for M4 access.

The decision was made and a brand new state-of-the-art facility was designed and eventually completed in September 1997.


Business went from strength to strength, with Hewland securing important deals within the increasingly popular GT1 category in Japan, with Honda and Nissan. The Swift IndyCar programme for Michael Andretti was another premium contract that Hewland secured. As William described to me, the market was now buoyant and had certainly justified the investment put into the new facility and, more importantly, the huge amount of specialised equipment that had been installed.

Then in 2004, Hewland picked up another significant deal, this time within the rally sector, taking over the £4 million Peugeot 307 programme that had previously been held by X-Trac. It was a tremendous step forward in terms of the strategic plan that William and his team had embarked upon and meant that a “money-no-object” client had selected Hewland as the best partner; a real statement of confidence.

The future was looking good, especially with the burgeoning relationship between Hewland and the world’s largest race manufacturer, Dallara. This saw gearboxes being designed for both GP2 and GP3, as well as some other areas of Dallara involvement.

As so often happens, all of this good news was balanced by a major disappointment. William related how the IndyCar scene in the United States was in some turmoil. When, in 2008, the big split came down in favour of the Indy racing League IRL, car rather than the CART route; it meant that Hewland would lose a significant amount of business. What made it worse was that it went straight to their long time competitors, X-Trac. He ruefully added that it was no fault of Hewland, merely that the company was unlucky to be supplying the series that folded.

I then asked William about a category that he hadn’t yet mentioned, sports car racing. His eyes lit up and I sat back to wait for the outpouring of enthusiasm. Yes, he told me, we’re well in with sports cars, in particular with Ferrari, lots of GT2 and GT3 work, in particular with the 360, 430 and then 458s. Then, he went on, there’s the sole supply contract with DTM. That came as quite a surprise to me, but then so much of what I was hearing did. William went on to tell me how in Japan, the GT300 and GT500 series were very big markets for them with Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Gizmo whilst one of their biggest customers is now HWA, the manufacturer of GT cars for Mercedes AMG. Hewland has also had success in LMP2 over the years, mainly with Honda and will be supplying LMP2 in the new 2017 era.

Returning to 2008, William described how at that time another cloud loomed on the horizon in the form of a global banking crisis. He admitted that it was a very worrying time with the 2009 turnover nearly halved. Nevertheless, after a couple of years of consolidation, out of the blue orders rushed in to the Maidenhead company when, amongst others, Ferrari placed an order for 80 gearboxes for the Ferrari 458 programme. Other clients were also resurgent, without much advanced warning.

Yes, William admitted, that was a two-edged sword. Hewland was delighted with such a recovery of their order book, but it brought with it huge pressures in terms of delivery schedules and he explained that it was necessary to invest in both staff and more equipment: “There was no way that we were going to fall into the trap of not keeping up to spec with the high-technology equipment demanded by the development of the sport.”

The near future

These days, a whole new area for Hewland has been electric vehicles, with the Maidenhead-based company the market leader for Formula E supply and many other EV projects.

At this point William took the decision to appoint a management consultant to further lead in to best practices. Then, in November 2015, he recruited a new CEO, Steve Robins, who is a departure from the norm for the company. In William’s own words, “Steve has a proven track record in running manufacturing-type businesses and is not from the motorsport sector. You need business expertise and not just a passion for the sport that we all love. We believe that we’ve got the balance right and that Hewland is most definitely prepared for an exciting future.”

Having seen the superb range of equipment that’s been installed to ensure the future demands of the global motorsport industry, one can fully understand why there’s so much confidence and enthusiasm in place at Hewland.

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