Sunday, February 27, 2011

Driven Personalities - Jac Nasser

The photo in this post features two very good friends of mine, Sir Stirling Moss and the irrepressible Jac Nasser. They both looked pretty pleased with life, and you would too, having the great Stirling Moss taking you for several laps of the Laguna Seca road racing circuit, just outside Monterey, California.

The car is a beautifully-restored Aston Martin DB3, and the photo was taken in the paddock in 1999 – a time when Ford Motor Company still owned Aston Martin.

Jac Nasser is a true ‘car guy’ and I know he really enjoyed having responsibility for both Aston Martin and Jaguar at the time. There were many events around the world when Jac got into either a classic Jag or Aston, and was really able to indulge his automotive fantasies.

I first met Jac in Australia when I was an automotive journalist and he was head of Ford Australia. We have been friends ever since. I admired his tenacious pursuit of strong management, his determination, his integrity, and his (usually) unflappable demeanour. I know there were times when his short fuse led to fireworks, but fortunately for me it was happening to someone else.

I believe Jac Nasser was short-changed when he was at Ford, because his integrity saw him take on huge responsibilities on behalf of the company, and he stuck his neck out on more than one occasion when a lesser man might have shrunk from exposure to controversy. Like all great men he probably made a few decisions he wished he hadn’t, but by and large he was a strong leader for Ford – after devoting a big part of his life to the company.

I once loaned him the use of a Bentley Arnage for a weekend when he was occupying the office on the top floor of the ‘glasshouse’ in Dearborn, but it took me until Tuesday to retrieve it. He told me he got a real charge out of driving around downtown Birmingham, Michigan, in the Arnage – probably sparking all sorts of rumours about Ford taking over Bentley!

So now, Jac Nasser is Chairman of BHP-Billiton, Australia’s biggest resource company, and I couldn’t think of a more fitting position for one of Australia’s most successful ‘migrant kids’. If ever a life of struggle, hard work, determination to succeed, and achievement should be used to promote the opportunities being an Australian can offer, then Jac Nasser is a great poster boy.

I wish him well, he deserves the good things life can provide!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Jaguar Dreaming

My family moved to the extreme southern outskirts of suburban Sydney in 1953 into a street where every house was owned by a former member of Australia’s armed forces, returning from fighting in the Second World War.

Next door to us was a family of five, whose Grandfather was himself a veteran of the First World War. He had done well in business, and on the first Sunday of every month he arrived to visit his young family, driving a seductively-curvy Mark IV Jaguar saloon. It had huge headlights, wire wheels, and was minus the later poncy rear wheel spats (thanks Craig).
Jaguar Mk.IV
Once I had worked out the timing of his visits, I would perch on our front porch to see the dark green Jaguar glide smoothly up the street and stop outside Number 7. Whilst the grandparents visited the family next door I had plenty of time to take in the stylish lines of this beautiful British car.

Then, a few months later he noticed how interested I was in the car, and offered me a ride around the block. From that moment I fell under spell of the Jaguar marque. Sitting on the leather seat, bolstered by a cushion, taking in the walnut dashboard, the classic steering wheel and the huge circular instruments, this car had personality, and style.

Compared to then-current popular cars, the Holden FX, the Ford Zephyr and Consul, the Jaguar said ‘different’ in a soft, cultured British tone. Then there was the exhaust note, as he drove off down the street. A soft burble, building to a throaty rumble as he moved through the gears.

It wasn’t until 1976, when as editor of Modern Motor magazine, I actually drove a modern Jaguar, the then-new XJ-S coupe, for the first time.

Just over a year later I was appointed Public Relations Manager for Leyland Australia, and one of the brands I represented was Jaguar. This began a new driving career which saw me behind the wheel of literally hundreds of Jaguars over the ensuing 20-plus years.
1979 Jaguar XJ6 Series III
My first serious launch event for a new Jaguar was the Series III range in 1979 in the UK, and we drove from Torquay in Cornwall, to the Welcombe Hotel, near Stratford-Upon-Avon. As many Jaguars have been, through the company’s long and tortured history, the Series III was a make or break model.

It was the first serious re-design since Sir William Lyons introduced the first XJ6 in 1968, and the brand needed some stimulus to stay in the game
With Stirling Moss, Warwick Farm 1983 (photo-Les Hughes)
In Australia we developed a program linking Sir Stirling Moss with Jaguar, taking current and prospective owners for laps of race circuits in every state. It worked! We took Jaguar to new sales records in Australia, before it was again time for a new model.

Then, in 1980 at a test day in an XJ-S coupe at the Gaydon Proving Ground in the English Midlands, I reflected on my introduction to, and my opinions of the marque.
XJ-S at Gaydon, Warwickshire 1980
What was it about this brand, which had formed a preconception in my brain that I was destined to like this car, and appreciate its qualities? Without a doubt it was wood and leather, the slinky styling, the handling and road-holding, and that soft rumble from the exhaust as it cruised along the M45 Motorway.
XJ40 testing in western NSW, 1984 (photo-Les Hughes)
In 1984 Jaguar chose to send a half dozen new cars, codenamed XJ40, to outback Australia for dust and durability testing. I spent many hours ‘Back of Bourke’ helping drive prototypes to destruction. This test program resulted in many changes, which improved the production models.

Jaguar XJ-S victory at Bathurst, 1985 (photo-les hughes)
Bathurst, 1985, and JRA (formerly Leyland Australia) funded the entry of three TWR-built XJ-S coupes in the James Hardie 1000, and John Goss and Armin Hahne crossed the line in first place. After that victory we sold out of XJ-S coupes for two years!

A year later we launched the XJ6 in Australia, with a fleet of 10 (XJ40) press cars.
Jaguar XJ6 launch, Surfers Paradise 1986 (photo-Les Hughes)
We continued our very successful relationship with Stirling Moss, taking the new XJ6 around Australia to meet existing and potential customers, and in Queensland a local policeman, who stopped him just to ask the obvious question.
Stirling Moss meets the Law, Queensland 1987 (photo-Les Hughes)
Then we took a group of Australian journalists to Le Mans in 1987 to witness Jaguar sports cars win the 24 Hour race and return to the podium for the first time since the 50s.

Jaguar XJ6 in Loire Valley, France 1987
I drove one of the new XJ40 sedans from England to France, and took some time out to tour the Loire Valley chateaux with my journalist friends, Peter McKay and Alan Kennedy.

The race win boosted Jaguar’s fortunes in Australia, and around the world, but that still wasn’t enough to secure Jaguar’s long term survival.

Ford’s acquisition of Jaguar in 1989 saw me take a new job, as Vice President of Public Relations at Jaguar North America, to try and re-build the image of the brand in that very competitive market.

Snow clearing before heading to the office. Mahwah, NJ, winter 1992
From just 9,000 sales in 1991, Jaguar soared to 22,000 a year in the USA by the end of 1994. In 1995 Jaguar launched the new X300 to much acclaim, but from that point Ford’s management of the marque became very inconsistent, with a revolving-door of both Chairmen and senior managers, who were more intent on climbing the Ford corporate management ladder, than actually building and maintaining Jaguar’s integrity.

Finally, facing crumbling fortunes at the height of the GFC, Ford sold the business to India’s Tata Group in 2008, a move which seems to have ‘saved’ Jaguar, yet again, from the ignominy of total destruction and disappearance from the automotive scene.
Jaguar XJ, Mount Warning NSW, December 2010
The latest Jaguar XJ was started under Ford ownership, but Tata is reaping the rewards of a successful new model. Driving the new sedan in Australia, in late 2010 I was again impressed by how the British engineers had created such a beautiful road car underneath Ian Callum’s stylish new design.

Jaguar's 75th Anniversary celebrations, Pebble Beach, CA 2010
In August 2010 I joined the 75th anniversary celebrations at Pebble Beach, where Jaguar had managed to gather together all the remaining XK SS sports cars, and one of its most famous test drivers, Norman Dewis, who is nearly 90! It was very impressive.

Norman Dewis (L), Gary Temple (Pres.-Jaguar North America) 2010
The best news, however, is that Tata is investing in the future of the company by signing off on a brilliant new concept car, the CX-75. Whilst it may never be built in its current form, the fact that Tata approved millions to bolster Jaguar’s cred with a high performance electric-powered sports car concept suggests the venerable British brand will be with us for some time.

Jaguar CX-75 Concept Car, USA, 2010
And that’s good news for the boy sitting on the porch, mooning over a glorious Mark 5 all those years ago.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Discounting to Disaster

Okay, here’s a photo of the new Chevrolet Volt, without a doubt one of the most interesting new concepts to come out of GM, let alone the U.S. auto industry. While many companies mess about with plug-in BEVs (Battery Electric Vehicles), General Motors has produced a car which, whilst expensive, can actually travel more than 100km. 
Chevrolet Volt
It’s an Extended Range Vehicle - meaning, it has a small gasoline motor to recharge the batteries, thereby extending its range beyond its plug-in power.
That’s the good news for General Motors. Now the bad news for the newly-Public corporation.
It’s the same old, same old. Business as usual, and all the fractious practices that led the old-GM into bankruptcy. Motown, it seems, is not a ‘new-ideas’ factory, when it comes to selling!
Reports coming out of the Chicago Auto Show this week reveal GM is leading the U.S. auto industry back into a downward spiral, generated by discounting! Yes, it’s rebates to drive sales! Not exactly a new idea. It is the most serious negative to hit the slowly-recovering U.S. auto market - and guess who’s driving it - General Motors - it can’t help itself!
You can almost hear the wood-ducks at the weekly sales meetings. “We’re measured on sales, not profitability or sustainability. We have to do this. We have to show we have emerged from the ashes, and we are number one again.”
Maybe it’s escaped the idiots in the ivory tower known as the Ren Cen (the Renaissance Center, where GM has its Detroit headquarters), but there is no more Big 3 in the USA - it’s the Big 7. There are many more competitors than in past decades, all on an equal footing in the market place.
American car buyers were so shell-shocked by the GFC, when two of the Big Three took a big slide, that a few other able, and smarter, competitors started to gain traction. Think Nissan, Hyundai, Toyota, Honda and yes, Ford.
Nissan Altima Coupe
The pie is no longer cut three ways, and here is GM pushing rebates as a way to assert itself. Guess what? GM’s new cars are good, but they’re not that good.
Hyundai and Nissan particularly, have signaled they are both very, very serious about getting a bigger foothold in the American market - and both those companies are rolling out new products at a speed that makes your eyes water.
Hyundai Elantra
Still, the Renn Cen suits think GM can still be number one again. Maybe they can lead the sales race until the rebate money runs out, but they won’t win in profitability or be able to sustain the business. As far as Detroit’s former Big Three is concerned, that mantle will likely be held by Ford. It is making money under Alan Mullally!
Ford Taurus SHO
Forget Chrysler! Not only is it a shadow of its former self, but Sr. Marchionne will make Chrysler do what’s good for Fiat Group - and American consumers may not warm to that vision.
Sales in 2011 have rocketed off the launch pad, and some analysts say it will be a boomer year. Other, more prudent observers are saying, “Let’s wait and see how the first half ends. Let's measure the cost of sales” The GM suits may well sell more cars, but at what long term cost.
Discounting almost killed the Big 3 last time around, and many people just see the same old, same old.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Driven Personalities - Diana Barnato Walker

A few months ago I highlighted some ‘Bentley Girls’ I admire, and included in the list was the redoubtable Diana Barnato-Walker MBE. Then, just last weekend a program screened on SBS-TV called “Spitfire Women” which paid an overdue tribute to the women pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary.
 Spitfire Women - DBW on the tailplane
During the dark days of the Second World War, these brave, beautiful and talented women were responsible for ‘ferrying’ newly-built fighters, bombers and trainers from the factories to the squadrons who would fly them in combat. Diana was a key member of the ATA, and flew over 80 different types of aircraft between 1941 and war’s end.
 DBW at the controls of an Avro Anson
She made scores of flights through all weathers, using only VFR (visual flight rules), with no electronic flying aids. In total, she delivered 260 Spitfires! She was quite a gal.

At Brooklands, June 1999
 A treasured book from a friend
I first met Diana in 1999 shortly after I joined Bentley, and I invited her to a lunch at the famous Brooklands circuit, the scene of many race victories for Bentley Motors. Diana’s father was Woolf Barnato, onetime Chairman of Bentley Motors, who also took the hat trick with three successive wins at the Le Mans 24 hour race.
 Diana's first Bentley
Woolf presented Diana with her first Bentley on her 21st birthday. Although she was known as a glamorous socialite, at just 20 she learned to fly at the airfield inside the Brooklands track, and went solo after only six hours instruction!

Probably one of the best stories about her was from July 1948, when an aircraft she was flying burst into flames near her home field. Rather than bail out and lose the aircraft, she switched off the fuel and glided the aircraft back!
 Painting by Cuthbert Orde 1945

Diana was highly intelligent, warm, witty and loved a laugh. She was 81 when I first met her, and still exuded the same charm, elegance and poise for which she was famous on the party circuit in London.
 Dressed for a party at River House 1945
 Lunch at Horne Grange, Surrey, June 2002
I lunched with her again at her home in Surrey in 2002 just before that year’s 24 Hour race, and promised her that if we won the next year, we’d invite her to the victory party.

Bentley did win the 2003 race, and Diana joined the guests at the Savoy Hotel, leading a conga line across the dance floor! Then, someone dared her to enter a contest for the ladies who, in their long dresses, competed for the fastest time entering and exiting the winning Bentley racecar! Of course she accepted the challenge, and won everyone’s heart with her verve and spirit.
Michael Cuneo's famous painting of the Blue Train race
In 2005, Bentley Motors decided to honour Woolf with a re-enactment of the famous ‘Blue Train Race’ for which he became famous, in 1930, when he beat France’s famed Blue Train from Cannes to Calais. Actually Woolf reached his club in London, before the train reached Calais.
 In Berkeley Square, London, October 2005
So I invited Diana to join our team at Morton’s in Berkeley Square when we made it to London. Although by then 87, she really enjoyed the party, entertaining us with tales of her early Bentley-driving days. What a great privilege to call her a friend.
 About to break the sound barrier in 1963
Her wonderfully full life ended in April 2008, but as a footnote I should mention that in 1963 she flew an RAF Lightning jet fighter at 1,262mph, breaking the sound barrier and holding (for a while) the women’s unofficial speed record! Like I said she was quite a gal.