Tuesday, July 16, 2019

THE JOB INTERVIEW, THAT WASN'T

I’ve mentioned a number of times that my career path was a combination of opportunities and serendipity, and following the story about my first corporate automotive job with Leyland Australia in 1977, in the previous post, I think the interview for that job counts as serendipitous.

I was approached by my good friend, Hans Tholstrup, to join him on the 1977 Singapore Airlines London-To-Sydney Car Rally. To do that I had to resign my current job.

I agreed only on the basis that I would get paid, so Leyland Australia agreed to stump up three months salary at my then-current rate of pay.

For that my role was not only the navigator for the ‘Coke Moke’, but I would also take responsibility for all visas, vehicle carnets, currencies, hotel bookings and general team administration.

This was also not without difficulty. In the weeks before the Rally I had to traipse around London to the many embassies to get passport visas for our team of five, and our vehicle carnets stamped. Plus there was also mechanical work to finish the Moke before we started.

The day I was to leave Sydney, bound for Copenhagen with Singapore Airlines, I got a call from the PA to Leyland Australia’s CEO, a generally jovial, pugnacious Scotsman (whom I had interviewed many times as a journalist). I was to meet him in Leyland Australia's new HQ building in Bondi Junction, in eastern Sydney (right, circa 1977).

He was also well known for fairly fruity language and expressions, so you were in doubt what he meant. He wanted to see me at 11am.

I presumed he was going to wish me good luck, take care, and ensure a keen watch over my admin responsibilities.


I sat down in his office overlooking Sydney Harbour, and after pleasantries, he looked at me sternly and said: “We’ve got (expletive) awful PR'. Our vehicles have got a (expletive) awful image.” Both comments I agreed with.

Then silence descended on the office for a few minutes, until he looked up and said: “Well, do you want the (expletive) job?”

Dumbfounded, I simply replied: “Job?”

“Aye, I happen to know we’re paying you for three months and when you get back, you’re jobless. Do you want the (expletive) job?”

Recognising the truth of his statements, I agreed, because when I got back home I would need a job.

“Well, finally,” he said. “Now that’s sorted, we’ll have a wee dram.” Thereby pouring two very generous servings of Johnny Walker Whisky. “Good luck, and I’ll see you in September.”

Two large Scotches later I staggered outside, and caught a cab to the airport for my 4pm departure. After check-in I called my wife, and said: “Hey, I’ve got a job when I get back.”

“Thank God for that” she said. “What is it?”

“I’m going to be PR manager for Leyland Australia”

“Wow, you obviously love a challenge.” She replied. Then, at 4pm I took off for the greatest adventure of my life.


It was a challenging job, but 13 years later when I resigned from the company, mine and my team's PR efforts had put both the company and all its products in very positive PR territory.

Then, in early 1991, my wife and I jetted off to the USA, so I could take up the role of Vice President of Public Relations for Jaguar Cars North America – a company that was once again in a very sad and sorry state. Once again I would begin the job as a ‘salvage merchant’ to try and help improve its fortunes.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

FINAL COMMUNIQUE FROM A CORPORATE COMMUNICATOR

As I boarded the Singapore Airlines 707 in late June 1977 I already knew that at the end of the Singapore Airlines London-To-Sydney Car Rally, in September, I would be starting a new job. However, in years to come, I would enjoy moving into a series of corporate jobs working with some of the most famous brand  names in the automotive industry.

The Rally was 30,000km; through 30 countries in 30 days, and quite frankly at the end I was knackered, and hooked on Coca Cola! After I had cleaned up and settled back into family life in Sydney, I was announced as the new Head of Public Relations for the troubled LEYLAND AUSTRALIA.

I say troubled, because Leyland Australia was the offspring of the British behemoth, the BRITISH MOTOR CORPORATION, which in 1954 began assembling Austin and Morris cars at a huge plant in Sydney under the name BMC Australia. Things rolled along nicely until the mid-1970s when the British Leyland Motor Corporation of Australia decided to challenge the market leaders Holden and Ford, with a new, locally-designed and built sedan called the P76.

It was a well known disaster, and resulted in local manufacturing being shut down, the company renamed Leyland Australia, and it became an importer of a range of poor quality British-made cars, subsequently needing an injection of some high-powered public relations to try and turn around the community’s, and media’s negative perceptions of the company and its products into positive territory.

My decision to join Leyland Australia not only led to a challenging PR career, but also a fabulous opportunity to learn new skills, fine-tune my PR style, and generally broaden my knowledge, as Leyland Australia not only sold cars, but also Land Rovers, Buses, Trucks, Tractors and long distance tourist coaches.

My self-confidence as a communicator, bred from my careers as a motor racing commentator, automotive journalist and radio announcer provided many opportunities to be ‘on stage’ presenting new vehicles, emceeing dealer conferences and corporate events. My person-to-person communications skills were also boosted over the next 13 years as I became the public face of Leyland Australia and slowly began turning the tide of PR negativity around.

In 1983, under the energetic and skillful new Managing Director, Phil Hovell, Leyland Australia was renamed JRA Limited, and a new era opened up for the company. We had ‘weeded-out’ all the poor performing cars, introduced smart new models, taken on the Peugeot franchise, and the company was also the number one producer of bus and coach bodies in Australia. Low profitability vehicles like trucks and tractors had also been consigned to history.


In addition, sales of our most valuable nameplate, Jaguar, were rising fast, thanks to much clearer focus on marketing the brand.

The PR programs included a number of opportunities for me to host journalists from all over the world at various new car launches in Europe and England.

Yes, these media trips were fully-funded PR campaigns, but for me, the most eventful outcome was that I ended up increasing my circle of friends, because of our shared passion for cars, and they way they are designed and put together.

In terms of PR programs, I was required to think outside the box and come up with programs that were not only useful, informative and beneficial to the brand, but also innovative, low-key and jovial. There were also investments along the way in which I played a major role, like talking my fellow Board members at JRA into acquiring one of the most famous racing Jaguars in Australian motor sport history, to use as a promotional tool.

The famous 'Grey Pussy' one of Australia's most successful racing Jaguars

In the 1980s I was able to broaden my skill set even further, because I had decided that producing industrial videos about our company and its products would be a useful new tool to reinforce the strength of the company and its market dominance with models like the Range Rover, Jaguars and our contract with the Australian Army to supply Land Rovers. The videos were aimed at media, government departments, dealers and customers, and proved very effective.

I began by producing a series of videos showing off our Denning division's skills in producing tough and reliable interstate motor coaches, which ideally suited Australia’s atrocious outback roads. We were also producing bus bodies for commuter buses built on Mercedes-Benz chassis for two state transport services.


Then, to further promote the history of Peugeot’s presence in the Australian market since the early 1950s, in 1983 I arranged to bring on board the winner of Australia’s very first ‘Redex Round Australia’ trial, humble chemist Ken Tubman, to re-run the event in a current Peugeot 505 STi. In 1953 it was a Peugeot 203.

Wherever possible Ken followed the original route, made difficult by the fact that modern freeways had been overlaid over many of the dirt tracks and gravel roads they encountered in 1953.


This was so successful Ken and I were invited to Paris, to present a copy of the video to the head of the family, m.Roland Peugeot.

In the late 1970s, thanks to the drive and determination of our Deputy MD, Jack Heaven, JRA Limited won a huge contract to supply the Australian Army with a unique series of Land Rovers, in 4WD and 6WD designs. The army called it ‘Project Perentie’ named after the large Australian lizard which was easily the master of its outback environment.

The major PR benefit was that both the 4WD and 6WD models were completely re-designed, and re-specified by JRA exclusively to suit the Australian Army’s unique requirements.

With Jaguar North America CEO, Mike Dale
The next turning point in my corporate career occurred when Ford Motor Company acquired the, once-again, ailing Jaguar car company in 1989. Ford established a ‘Rescue Team’ and I was invited to join as Head of Public Relations for Jaguar Cars North America, the company’s biggest market.

The task was, again, very daunting. In 1991 sales were just 9,376, a far cry from its sales numbers in the late 80s, around the 20,000 unit mark. Because of my success in turning around Jaguar’s image and media perceptions in Australia, I was told by Mike Dale, President of Jaguar Cars NA, that if we didn’t save Jaguar in the USA, Jaguar would not survive. No pressure then.

My PR role also involved managing Jaguar’s racing activities in the USA, and working with the Head Office PR team to maintain a high level of visibility for the brand in motor sport. This was made easier having won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1988. Finally, by 1994 we had lifted annual sales to 15,195.


At this stage of my corporate career, despite the obvious challenges, I was having a ball. Yes, it required long hours, quick thinking, and creating unique and effective PR programs using not only Jaguar’s fabled history as an anchor for our communications, but also employing Formula One racing champions like Sir Stirling Moss, the late Phil Hill and Australia's Alan Jones.

Throughout my entire career in the automotive industry I was never far from the racetrack. Motor sport crossed my path in just about every PR role I was given.

I was very fortunate to be at Le Mans when Jaguar won the 24 Hour Race in 1988; and again in 2003 when the Bentley Speed Eight snatched the trophy.

In addition to motor racing, I was also instrumental in managing a number of key corporate sponsorships for the companies I represented. It's probably no surprise that a large number of these happened via the avenue of motor sport, but we worked hard to make sure they paid off.


When my USA visa ended in 1994, I returned to Australia and joined the fledgling Daewoo Motor Australia which had just started business in August that year.

This role not only saw me managing public relations, but I was also head of Customer Care for a brand new badge, with ‘zero’ image value. The fact that most Daewoo buyers had previously only been able to afford used cars brought a different set of problems, as they didn't understand that maybe there was the occasional problem - even with a new car!

It was a new set of challenges, but the icing on the cake was that within four years we had gone from zero sales, to 21,000 sales per annum.

With former Chairman of Rolls-Royce & Bentley, Graham Morris
In 1998 I received a call from the Chairman of Rolls-Royce and Bentley Motor Cars, an old friend from Austin-Rover days, Graham Morris. He told me that Volkswagen AG had acquired Bentley, and the brand’s presence in the US market was so low, it was invisible. In order for Bentley to succeed overall, it had to establish a new presence, image and healthy sales in the USA. I thought, “Here we go again.”

After I was appointed it took some time for the US Immigration department to issue my work visa, so in the interim I spent time at the HQ in Crewe, Cheshire, learning the detailed history of the Bentley brand.

Then one day I was asked to fly to Germany on the VWAG corporate jet, where I was introduced to VWAG Chairman, Dr. Ferdinand Piech. It was a private interview, and pep talk about building the Bentley brand in the USA. No pressure!


Dr. Piech told me that after Graham Morris’ reassurance that I was the ideal man for the Bentley PR job, there would be no budgets for marketing, advertising or promotion. Dr. Piech had decided the whole budget was to be directed into PR activities, and he was hopeful the company had made the right choice, and I returned to Australia to await my visa, and seriously consider the new challenge I was facing.

In 1998 Bentley sold just 880 cars in North America, and I’m delighted to say that global sales in 2006, when I retired had risen to almost 6000, helped along by the launch of the Continental GT coupe in 2003. More importantly, research revealed 81% of Continental buyers were new to the Bentley brand.

Two of the greatest elements I enjoyed in my 40 year career was the constant travel, and the chance to drive an extraordinary range of cars.

I managed to visit every continent, toured the Far East extensively, as well as Europe, north and south Africa, and of course the USA.

Not only did my various roles sharpen my communications skills, but added knowledge and broadened my experience. I have led a very fortunate life, but, no pain, no gain.

As far as cars were concerned they ranged from prototypes, handbuilt production cars, flash company cars and even the occasional race car.

I put in a lot of hours on the job; I was devoted and dedicated to being as professional as possible, but I also made a lot of great friends along the way – from the absolute top levels of automotive management, to world famous designers, racing drivers, personalities and great journalists, many of whom I count today amongst my most enduring friendships.

With Michael Parkinson, Tom Walkinshaw, Paul Newman, Captain Mark Phillips, Kim Cattrall, Derek Bell, Jay Leno and Bentley's hardworking Richard Charlesworth

Clockwise: Dr. Ulrich Bez, Fabrizio Giugiaro, Dr. Franz-Josef Paefgen, Michael Dale
I must mention my lifelong gratitude to the CEOs and Directors I served under. I learned important aspects from each of them, and senior automotive industry figures, and was rewarded with incredibly generous relationships with each of them. Thanks, my sincere gratitude.

There was also the opportunities I had to work with many of my heroes.
Top: Sir Stirling Moss, Bottom: Sir Jack Brabham; David E. Davis Jnr, who
was founding editor of Automobile magazine in the USA
As I’ve said before, my career was less planned, rather more a combo of serendipity and opportunities. The events and the photos evoke great memories of a life well lived, simply by being a car nut.

Here's where it started, and here's where it ended. What a buzz and what a ride it was!


Wednesday, July 3, 2019

BENTLEY BARNSTORMS PIKE'S PEAK - AGAIN!

I am immensely proud that my former employer has beaten the production car record at this year’s Pike’s Peak hillclimb. This is a magnificent victory over time and conditions.


The weather this year was atrocious, and maybe that’s a factor in a big, heavy, 4WD production car smashing the record by over 8 seconds!

The Bentley Continental W12 coupe, with Pike’s Peak Master, Rhys Millen, at the wheel, stopped the clocks at 10:18.488 seconds over the 12.42 mile course, taking 8.4 seconds off the previous record, and averaging an amazing 70mph.

The start line at Pike’s Peak is situated at 9,300 feet, and climbs to 14,100 feet through 156 bends, where the air at the finish line is 1/3 less dense than at sea level.

The weather included rain and snow, a big contrast to the cloudy, but fine day at last year’s event, when the Bentley Bentayga SUV claimed the outright record for a production SUV.

The Bentayga completed the run in 10:49.4, taking two seconds off the previous record.

This year’s record run is an appropriate victory to celebrate Bentley’s Centenary year.

Already famous for its victories at Le Mans in the 1920s and 1930s, plus its impressive victory in the 24 Hour endurance race in 2003, Bentley continues to use motor sport as a critical endorsement of its performance credentials.


Monday, July 1, 2019

SKODA CONCEPT WHICH PASSED ME AT JET-SPEED

This one slipped by me back in 2014. It’s a product of a team of student designers harnessed by Skoda Design, known as the Design Akademie.


This is the Citijet, based on Skoda’s micro hatch, the Citigo, with a one litre, 55kW three cylinder petrol engine.


It was the very first project completely designed and built by the student designers, although they eschewed the four seats in the micro hatch, opting for a basic two-seater concept.

If this was available I’d be putting my name down, except that like many dreamy concepts, this one is not all that practical for the sub-tropical Gold Coast – as it’s minus a roof – so it’s only for sunny days.

The student lineup changes every two years, but the new faces followed up the initial 2014 project every year with a range of wild ideas, based on topless recreation vehicles, and even an off-road pickup this year called the Mountiaq.

I have always admired the inventive, innovative and very good-looking vehicles which emerge from Skoda Design, and its encouragement of budding Czech Republic designers is one explanation why this division of the Volkswagen Group, manages to stay ahead of the design curve.


Sunday, June 30, 2019

TOURING - CORNISH CAPERS

Back in 2011 I had an opportunity to road test the then new Lexus CT200h Hybrid during a trip to the UK. At the time we were keen fans of the ‘hot’ British TV comedy series ‘Doc Martin’, so we decided on a trip to the mythical Portwenn, actually the Cornish fishing village of Port Isaac.


This exercise included everything I enjoyed about publishing ‘Driving & Life’ – a new car; a great drive program; idyllic locations; meeting new people; watching the filming of a TV series, and offering the chance to marry fantasy to reality.

We picked up the Lexus at Heathrow after arriving from Australia, and covered the 240 miles in about four hours. When we arrived outside the pub, locals told us that today was the filming of the final sequences in Series 4.

The film crew was set up on the beach just above the waterline, with the star, Martin Clunes, looking entirely out-of-place (as he mostly did) in his smart grey suit and tie, with the support crew and onlookers all dressed in casual gear.


The crew had just stopped for lunch, Martin grabbing a sandwich roll and water on the beach, while the director discussed script changes before filming got back on schedule.

Having spent quite a lot of time on film and television sets over the years, it never surprises me how much ‘pfaffing around’ goes on. Rarely is anything rushed, and any ‘fluffs’ require an immediate re-shoot. Actually, being a TV series on the usual tight time and money budgets, I was very impressed how many times the Doc Martin scenes were completed in just one or two takes.



There’s no doubt Port Isaac is an ideal choice for the setting. It’s typically picturesque, with a long history dating back to the 14thcentury, when it was mainly used as an export location for coal and tin. When that enterprise shut down, it turned to fishing, which still sustains the town today.

Naturally, as the TV village name is mythical, the producers have ex-appropriated a number of existing buildings to play different roles in the storylines. A private house is the scene for Doc Martin’s surgery, just up the hill from the town, and the general store has been renamed the Portwenn Chemist. 

Only the The Mote restaurant managed to escape being re-cast.

The county of Cornwall is absolutely beautiful, with green rolling hills ending abruptly at towering cliffs, where the Atlantic Ocean incessantly bashes the rocks into submission. The pounding waves also open up some great spots for dedicated surfboarders at a number of beaches along the coast.

Actually, if you drive a few more miles north along the Cornish coast, you'll arrive at Tintagel, which was 'apparently' the home of King Arthur, and the court of Camelot. Needless to say the entire Arthurian legend is hotly debated, with many locals arguing that the village of Cadbury, once the site of Cadbury Castle, is the real location for Camelot.

I visited Cadbury once, and met a dairy cow behind a farm gate at the top of the hill wearing a sign around her neck, which said 'Guinevere'. Maybe I was in Camelot.


Thirty minutes drive, and 16 miles south down the A39 is the fishing village of Padstow, a much bigger town than the compact Port Isaac. Today, it’s much better known as the location for TV Chef Rick Stein’s range of restaurants. There’s the eye-wateringly-expensive ‘The Seafood Restaurant’, which fronts the western side of the busy harbor, right next to The Metropole Hotel.

Top row: Padstow harbour
Middle: Rick's Cafe; The Seafood Restaurant; The Golden Lion
Bottom: Rolling hills and outstanding natural beauty

A short walk away, in Middle Street, is the much more affordable Rick’s CafĂ©, but find a seat early, because it’s very compact, and very popular. Rick also runs a deli on South Quay, close to the restaurant.

If, after emptying your wallet at The Seafood Restaurant, you want to punt further south, another 55 miles will bring you to 'Land's End'.


Given that it’s mostly two-lane ‘A’ roads, that will probably take close to two hours from Padstow. But, it’s worth it to say you’ve been there.

Although I’m talking about Doc Martin, perhaps a more dramatic BBC show has better links to Cornwall locations. ‘Poldark’ was filmed around St. Agnes and St. Just from 2015. The somewhat dark plot was set in the late 18thcentury and garnered millions of viewers around the world over its four series. A fifth series is currently planned for later in 2019.

Cornwall is my very favourite county in England. Lots of quaint villages, with postcard houses.


Accommodation in the Port Isaac village is mostly small BnB's, but if you look to stay on the outskirts, the Longcross Hotel (below) gets excellent reviews.



It’s one of Britain's most beautiful areas to visit, and these days there’s even a ‘foodie trail’, probably pioneered by Rick Stein’s fame.

One final note on Port Isaac’s continuing fame in celluloid, as it’s the setting for a new film called ‘Fisherman’s Friends’, based on the real life exploits of a bunch of local Port Isaac fishermen turned singing group, known as ‘The Shanty Singers’. It's due for release this year.


Tuesday, June 18, 2019

FCA CHAIRMAN FUMBLES A FABULOUS FUSION

It’s easy to see why FCA Chairman John Elkann is peed off that he wasn’t able to pull together a merger of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Groupe Renault.

Actually, as has already been reported, it was actually the Agnelli heir who scuttled the deal by picking up his toys and going home, when Renault CEO Senard wasn’t able to get Nissan on board with the deal.


FCA REALLY needs a merger like this, especially when you trace what’s happened to the FIAT passenger car line-up over the past 14 years.

Mind you, there was a moment of hope when FIAT announced it would use the latest Mazda MX5, as the basis for a new attempt to leverage some past loyalty to the Italian brand, producing a new FIAT 124 sports car.


Alas, despite badging some hotted-up versions as the Abarth 124, the project went down the gurgler big time, and the FIAT 124 is no more.

The only thing keeping FIAT still in the passenger car game is the baby FIAT 500, and the FIAT 500L mini-SUV (which is built off the Jeep Renegade platform).

Jeep Renegade

But, it’s the passenger car catalogue which really needs help, and this collection of photos underscores just how serious things are for Italians and Italophiles hanging out for a 'really new' FIAT car.

The story starts in 2001 when FIAT Centro Stile produced the slab-sided Stilo model to replace the ageing Bravo/Brava, which were heavily criticized as being too quirky and ‘too Italian’ – meaning they had no sales prospects outside Italy.


Then in 2007 Centro Stile, produced a pretty stylish ‘top-hat’ on exactly the same platform and mechanicals of the FIAT Stilo. I drove more than 1500km around Italy in one of these in 2007, and it was a delight. Very economical, handled well, and managed to easily keep up with the speedsters on the autostrada.
We move right along to 2014, and once again FIAT’s in-house designers at Centro Stile in Torino, picked up their pens and paper, and using the same platform and mechanicals as the Bravo, came up with the latest iteration of a car which debuted in 2001. This time FIAT decided to call the new car, the TIPO.

1988 FIAT Tipo
Now, Tipo is actually the Italian word for ‘type’, and the latest Tipo is known internally as Tipo 356. Even this badge harks back a long time to the first FIAT Tipo, which was Tipo 160 designed outside FIAT, at the IDEA Institute.


Yes, there’s something to be said for keeping the flame alive by renaming new models after old, but the real point here is that FIAT’s passenger car division is hanging by a thread with the basic platform and mechanicals of its latest hatch, dating back 18 years!


A successful merger with Renault would have seen FIAT pick up the Common Module Family (CMF) platform, which is used extensively by both Renault and Nissan.


This would have resulted in a brand renewal of major proportions for FIAT’s old car lineup which plods along, trying to fight off not only excellent European and Japanese competitors, but significantly, outstanding cars from Hyundai and Kia.

When the MX5/124 sports car project was first mooted, I opined that FIAT could do worse than make a joint venture with Mazda.

Giovanni Agnelli
A JV with Mazda would have given Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, founded 120 years ago in 1899 by Elkann’s great-great grandfather Giovanni Agnelli, access to some outstanding automotive technology.

The 43-year-old Elkann is a pretty smart guy, but I think he is very much regretting his lack of tact over the difficulties Renault faced trying to craft a new operation by merging Renault, Nissan, Mitsubishi and FCA.

FCA is weak in so many areas of future model replacement, that if anything happens to the Jeep/RAM 'cash cow', FCA will become roadkill!

UPDATE: According to US sales data to the end of May 2019, US FIAT sales were down 39% in the first five months, selling just over 1000 cars so far this year. When the FIAT 500 was launched stateside, FIAT became a very popular brand, but now sales data says it only sold 33 cars a day, nationally, in the USA, in May. It seems the FIAT 500 market is now saturated - and with the 124 sports car disappearing FCA cannot count on US sales to bolster the FIAT brand.