IAN Skipper, born in Barrowford, Lancashire, and running a chain of Ford dealerships in his 20s, helped the York Archaeological Trust make the Viking excavations in Coppergate one of the most popular tourist attractions in York, and later helped establish the mould-breaking Jorvik Viking Centre.
Ian – his first name was Constable, as was his father's – studied engineering at Loughborough. While a student, he met his future wife Penny Wood, a nurse at Leicester Royal Infirmary.
He was 21 when he was left in charge of the Ford dealership business which his father had started.
Ian's energy and business aptitude were such that Skipper Motors expanded across the North West, becoming the region's first branded chain of car dealerships.
In the 1970s, Ian happened to see a late-night television programme in which Magnus Magnusson, the then presenter of Mastermind, described the important discovery of Viking houses in the York Coppergate dig. Intrigued – he was already interested in history – he drove to York the next morning to offer his help.
He quickly decided that he would be more use as a business adviser than as a troweller, and organised visitor facilities at the dig and a marketing campaign that eventually allowed more than a million people to see the dig in action – and incidentally raised considerable sums of money to help the excavation campaign.
A man of immense enthusiasm, he was convinced that most people would be fascinated by archaeology if only they knew about it. He encouraged Peter Addyman, then director of York Archaeological Trust, to think of ways of preserving the Coppergate dig for ever so that future generations would be able to visit it.
Between them they devised the idea of an underground gallery in which the actual timber buildings of Viking York could be displayed where they had been found. To make the remains understandable to non-archaeologists, they decided to reconstruct replica buildings alongside them, and visitors, seated in Time Cars, were transported back through the centuries to the Viking city of Jorvik, and then forward to the present time so as to view the excavation which had revealed it.
Ian masterminded the raising of funds for what was then a revolutionary project. He made a huge grant of his own and in addition brokered a consortium of bank loans for what must have seemed a very risky
project. He was also crucial in negotiations with the City of York, owners of the site, and Wimpeys, who were developing it, to ensure that Jorvik Viking Centre became an integral part of the Coppergate development.
The Prince of Wales, royal patron of the project, inaugurated the Centre in 1984 and it became an instant success, attracting over 900,000 visitors in its first year. Since then, it has welcomed more than 15 million visitors.
In 1998, Ian Skipper was given the British Archaeological Awards 'Award of Awards' the Golden Trowel, in recognition of his achievement in changing the way archaeology is presented to the public.
Building on the success of Jorvik, Ian helped set up Heritage Projects Ltd, a York-based company that created other similar visitor attractions around the country. In Oxford, its Oxford Story allowed the public to glimpse the life and history of the University. In
Canterbury, its Canterbury Tales allowed visitors to share the delights of Chaucer's Tales and learn about medieval life. His instinct that these daunting subjects would appeal to the masses if only they were presented properly was proved correct.
Soon the company was operating as consultants around the world as the fame of Jorvik grew and people wanted to copy its methods. Its successor company Continuum, still based in York and now one of
Britain's premier heritage-based leisure companies, continued to benefit from Ian's innovative thinking.
In its early years, Ian helped fund ChildLine, having met Esther Rantzen when her TV programme That's Life featured the Ben Hardwick appeal which he was supporting to raise funds for Britain's youngest liver transplant patient.
Ian Skipper, who has died aged 73, is survived by his wife Penny and their two daughters, Abigail and Emma, and six grandchildren.