The man behind the manual

Published: 28 August 2020

► New biography of John Haynes
► 200 million Haynes manuals sold in 60 years
► Driven by huge enthusiasm for cars

Just about every working day, John Haynes would drive – usually in his early-’60s Jaguar XK150 – the five miles from the Haynes Publishing HQ in Sparkford to the Barclays bank in Castle Cary.

He didn’t need to but he liked to. He was always careful with money, so he enjoyed keeping tabs on the company’s usually-booming balance. And, crucially, he valued personal relationships in business. So even after he had stepped down from the day-to-day running of the company that’s sold 200 million books in its 60 years, and even after banking went digital, he still made the effort, and used his considerable charm on a succession of branch managers.

It’s one of many neat details in Ned Temko’s new biography of Haynes, who died last year aged 80. You might think you don’t need to read about the life and times of the bloke who didn’t exactly invent but certainly popularised the step-by-step maintenance manual. But like all good biographies it draws you in with its detail.

Haynes spent his early years in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where his father ran (but did not own) tea plantations, and at an English boarding school. There, he resurrected a knackered Austin Seven, and promptly wrote and sold a book about it. During his years in the RAF, which involved some fairly undemanding chores in largely non-hazardous end-of-empire locations, he had enough spare time to start turning the book business into a semi-pro sideline. He also began racing cars at weekends, but a serious accident at Goodwood just before he got married put an end to that.

Out of the air force, fully focused on family life and his now full-time publishing business, Haynes was the right person in the right place at the right time. He was deeply enthusiastic about cars, but he was no engineer, which gave him exactly the right perspective: his manuals were always for owners, not mechanics. Private car ownership was booming, and there were many DIY jobs to be done on even the most reliable cars.

Every so often Haynes would try to realise his ambition of being a publisher of general books, not just a motoring specialist, but this generally came back to bite him. However, when he kept his eyes on the prize, he was a great success. Decades of perseverance paid off when he eventually came to dominate the US market.

He may have been a little vain and self-centred at times, by Temko’s account, but Haynes wasn’t stupid or egotistical enough to think he could do it all himself. He handed over the top job to one of his sons, and brought in some smart outsiders, but stayed on to supervise the expanding museum/café/bookshop just up the road from Haynes HQ. 

Although his company did not shy away from digital, the smartest move of latter-day Haynes Publishing was the expansion into witty or leftfield non-car manuals: Spitfire, nuclear sub, USS Enterprise and so on. As a car enthusiast, he never got tired of old Jags, although he enjoyed having the cash to itch a Ferrari-shaped scratch. But age catches up with all of us, and by the end his daily driver was a Lexus LS. 

And therein lies the problem. There is no Haynes manual for the ridiculously reliable range-topping Japanese luxury saloon – why would there be? It’s a bunch of computers with a living room attached. Mastery of tappet gaps will do you no good here. Analogue expertise only goes so far in a digital world. And the Barclays branch in Castle Cary closed three years ago

John Haynes – The Man Behind the Manual by Ned Temko

Published by Haynes Publishing at £20

By Colin Overland

CAR's managing editor: wordsmith, critic, purveyor of fine captions