In the words of the late-Bill Tuckey, Australia’s finest motoring writer, “When anything can go wrong with a new model press launch, it will.” Perhaps, most famously, even for supposedly bullet-proof Toyota.
Convinced the quality of the Coronas from the Melbourne plant was so good they didn’t need any extra pre-delivery checks, Toyota decided the motor-noters should drive Coronas straight off the production line and not stop until they reach Uluru (Ayers Rock). So it came about that in 1984 eight Coronas set off, with planned overnight stops at Port Augusta and Coober Pedy.
About 300kms out, a smell like rotten egg gas gradually filled the cabin of at least three cars. Ignored at first, by Port Wakefield, north of Adelaide, the Coronas fronted a hoist. The diff was glowing red-hot and reeking. We drove on to Port Augusta but a visit to the local Toyota Dealer proved worthless.
At Coober Pedy the burnt diff oil was replaced on all the cars.
Two engineers arrived from Borg Warner, suppliers of the diff. They claimed that new cars would normally come off the line and be driven to a holding area, where they’d cool down before being moved to a transporter, then driven off at the Dealer, allowing the diff metal to temper. In truth, BW failed to update its pre-load settings, which caused spalling (flakes of metal) of the gear facings. To compound the problem, Toyota had changed the oil specifications to a lower grade without telling BW – embarrassing for both BW and Toyota, who today prefer to forget the whole incident.
The drive route for the 1981 VH Commodore launch included the Great Ocean Road. Predictably, the last 30kms into Apollo Bay became a creation of the opening laps of the Bathurst 1000.
During lunch the local constabulary arrived at the behest of the new PR boss, recruited from the HR department and on his first press drive, convinced that we were quite mad. Truthfully, we claimed not to know who was driving which car and the police had no alternative but to depart. From that time Holden kept driver records at every press launch.
Four years later, on GM’s vast Warren (USA) proving ground, we discovered the posted 40mph (64km/h) was serious, even on the twisty, supposedly handling, section of the track. One by one, as we extended the dynamic limits of the GM cars, we were pulled over and banned from driving. “Sir, you were broadsiding,” we were universally told. No wonder GM’s yank iron was then so vastly inferior to a local Commodore.
The car makers still compete to create the best launch. Decades ago, when launches were far less frequent, they often became major events. For the new Morris 1100, BMC (remember, the once giant British Motor Corporation?) hired a fleet of luxury cabin cruisers on Pittwater, just north of Sydney, for a three-day extravaganza. With full police assistance, a 13km section of Coal and Candle Creek Road in the Kuringai National Park, was closed off. The event became a kind of mini Mille Miglia road race. Over dinner that evening F1 world champion racing driver and BMC guest, Brit Graham Hill, told the assembled hacks, “You bastards are all quite fucking mad.” Nobody crashed, so what was he worried about?
Audi used the same roads for the local launch of the TT – except they weren’t closed. Instead, at every turn Audi positioned a Marshall to point the drivers in the right direction. At the top of Coal and Candle a bloke dressed as a road worker waved each car down and told us some other cars just like this had just gone through and, “they look terrific.” Further on, after scones and tea, they were waved down by an attractive blonde in a tiny jumpsuit. Parked next to her was a Mercedes-Benz SLK, the TT’s closest rival. “Oh,” she cried out, “My car won’t start – can you help?” One by one the journos showed her how to turn the key in the ignition to start the car. “Thank you ever so much,” she cooed, “I’m going to buy one of these cars you are driving’ they’re much better.” The local Audi people always claimed the Germans organised the heavy-handed TT launch.
In 1966 Holden was among the first car makers to fit seat belts as standard (at least for the driver and front passenger). Holden decided to prove the strength of the belts, so the PR-people arranged to suspend an HR Holden by one belt, with a smaller Viva suspended by a second belt below the HR. In front of TV cameras the crane driver holding both cars jerked a movement which split the top-belt plate. The HR dropped onto the Viva, flattening it. The story made the TV news and front pages of the papers across the country. The following day Holden repeated the exercise without a hitch.
Today Australia’s motoring journalists travel the world, virtually on a weekly basis. So frequent are the overseas launches that a couple of the more travel weary hacks now enjoy the privileges of Qantas’ Platinum One status, reserved for those unfortunate people who are almost constantly flying. Sounds glamorous until you realise that they spend more time in the air than on the ground.
Most overseas launches involved one, perhaps two, nights on the ground in Europe for a few hours of wheel time. On one occasion the editor of Wheels magazine flew in to Italy early one morning and spent 20 minutes in the new Lamborghini Aventador on Rome’s Vallelunga circuit before catching the evening flight home. Worth it? Yes, for 12 pages in the magazine.
During the 70s and 80s, Alfa Romeo Australia seemed to us motoring writers to also be an unofficial branch of Italy’s tourist office. Alfa trips to Italy – always as much a cultural event as an opportunity to drive the latest models – achieved legendary status.
The 1976 Ciao Tour, seven days in duration, included a ‘typical’ Italian 12-course lunch with wine in a celebrated Orvieto restaurant. Famously, at around 4.00pm, the happy journalists were advised by their Italian PR-host, “Hurry, hurry, get on the bus or we’ll be late for dinner.”
Alfa’s new model launches were always spectacular affairs. Only Alfa Romeo would launch a new car in Venice….and include partners in the invitation. The 33 wasn’t a great car, but the press launch was memorable.
Volvo’s best laid plans for the crucial S40/V40 twins launch fell apart, even though the engineers knew there were issues. The pre-production engine’s crankshaft damper wasn’t to spec, resulting in an obvious resonant harshness at mid-revs. Volvo flew dozens of the correct dampers to the launch in Spain and slowly began fitting them to the engines. Except, due to Sweden’s stringently applied work hour regulations, the mechanics couldn’t/wouldn’t work more than eight hours a day. No overtime, so most of the inkies drove the flawed cars. The resulting unfavourable press coverage did the new model huge harm from which it never really recovered.
Early on in the 70s and 80s we learned the Japanese manufacturers hate discovering that any journalist understood their language. Press conferences involved translating the English question into Japanese. Then there’d be an often-long discussion before a consensus answer was reached and the answer translated back into English. This – despite many executives understanding and speaking English. The translation process is slow and laborious and designed to prevent any embarrassing or revealing answers. Mostly they came across as simply, “Yes” or “No”, although the question required a far more detailed answer.
American, Bob Hall, who worked for a US car magazine before becoming the first generation Mazda MX-5 product planner, returned to journalism at Wheels in the mid-90s. Hall, married to a Japanese woman, spoke Japanese fluently, but he didn’t like to let on until the inevitable Q&A session, normally at the end of a few days in Japan. At the end of the session, Hall, in fluent Japanese, would thank the executives for their hospitability and then translate the real answers. Genuinely shocked, one of the PR-minders always asked Bob, “So you understood everything on every day?” Smiling broadly, Hall nodded in the affirmative, to the horror of his hosts. Once word passed around, Hall’s journalistic CV – always demanded by the Asian car makers before any trip to HQ – was marked “Speaks Japanese” in bold letters.
For the facelifted XL Falcon, Ford created the slogan, “Trim, Taut, Terrific” – except it wasn’t really much of an improvement over the original XK in terms of durability. For the press drive, Ford set up a drive program that mirrored a rally stage, with the prize of a silver tray or rally jacket for the winners. On a route from the Melbourne zoo they had to average nearly 80km/h on a course that headed north-west. Four cars crashed and none returned with their hub caps intact.
And I haven’t mentioned the time, late one night, when the motoring press threw a fully-clothed Edsel Ford II, Deputy MD of Ford Australia, into a Wilpena Pound motel swimming pool during the Falcon XD launch. Edsel’s mistake was trying to play the saxophone. Badly.
Australian Motoring Writer
ABOUT PETER ROBINSON
Peter Robinson is a doyen among motoring writers and has attended hundreds of new car launches over a 50 year-plus career.
In the early days, when manufacturers wooed and wined journalists from around the world on lavish junkets, the attention was given more to the entertainment and pizzazz, with the new car literally becoming a prop. Reviewers never wrote a bad review of new cars in those early days because it would mean being dropped off the invitation list to the next launch, which could potentially be a week in Paris.
But in those days, when manufacturers liked to outdo each other with all kinds of stunts and surprises for the writers, not all went as planned.
It is a totally different scene today – very much a business meeting rather than a party. Manufacturers are totally professional about their marketing and public relations, and ensure the features, specifications and handling of a new car will attract little or no criticism. They are conscious of the speed and impact of social media and the potential damage that can be done to their product in a fiercely competitive market. Everything has to be right!
Peter’s anecdotes are in no way intended to reflect on the professionalism or reputations of individual brands. His recollections merely reflect on just how far we have come as an industry, with world-class players now delivering exceptional product and outstanding marketing executions. The bad old days are long gone.
We hope you enjoyed his drive down memory lane.