George Bernard Shaw once observed that "the British and Americans were two great countries separated by a common tongue", and having worked in the automotive industry in Australia and the USA, I’d have to say the same applies to Down Under and the Americas.
First of all, let’s hear it for the Yanks. By and large my mates among the American motoring media are always on-time, well-behaved, well-mannered, and mired in homegrown customs - but really pleasant company.
The Australians? Now there’s a contrast in cultures. They are loud, eccentric, each of them with wildly different personalities, which requires a lot more ‘management’.
Of course, there’s always the outlier in every group. Take the launch of the Jaguar XJ-S V12 convertible in Juan-les-Pins, on the Côte d’Azur in 1992. The American group and I are all gathered in the lobby of the beautiful Hotel Juana for the coach trip to Nice Airport, and the short flight to Paris to join our ‘Air Chance’ flight back to New York.
Head counting takes place, and the coach driver is agitating to get going – the morning traffic is ‘affreux’ (awful). Right, one head, I’ll call him Matt (in the group above), is missing! One of my Jaguar UK PR colleagues is assigned to find our missing motoring writer. The rest of us board the coach, and head east to Nice airport.
We’re about halfway to check-in, and I look out the rear window of the coach and see an XJ-S speeding up behind us with Matt dozing away in the passenger seat. At least I thought he was dozing. My PR colleague later pointed out he was really mostly comatose from the previous night’s excessive consumption of champagne and cognac. Well, of course, after the coach dropped us and the group trooped into the check-in desk, a somewhat bleary Matt summoned a half smile, admonishing us: “God, guys, what kept you? We have a flight to Paris in 20 minutes!”
Then, in 1993, there was Don. On one occasion after flying into JFK from Europe I was called back during disembarkation by a member of the cabin crew. Indicating a sleeping giant in a Business Class seat the stewardess said: “I believe he’s one of yours.”
“That’s true,” I replied. She said: “Well, you’re responsible for getting him off the plane and into the terminal.” Now, Don (in the group below) is 198cm (6’5”) and I am 162cm, weighing about 68kg, but I do manage to rouse him.
Somewhat bleary-eyed he was eventually coaxed to his feet, and as he rose, there was revealed, on the seat underneath him ten empty miniature Gin bottles. He leaned heavily on me as we both stumbled along the airbridge.
Don decided not to travel with us again, but providing I brought home a Press Kit and photos, we would get a great feature on a car he had yet to drive. I wasn’t complaining.
One quaint American custom is the time dinner is served in many American homes – say, 6pm. Whereas your average European may not sit down to dinner before 8pm. The Spaniards? More like 10pm!
It's September 2003, and I am ‘herding the fleas’ around Paris, on the occasion of Bentley’s big news – the launch of the Continental GT coupe, and we’re planning the schedule for the remainder of the day, leading up to dinner at a flash Parisian brasserie. I say to our French PR guy: “You have told the restaurant we’ll be there around 6pm, haven’t you?”
The response is, I should say, what I would expect from a Parisian: “Sacre bleu JC, six heures? Tu blagues (you must be joking)!”
My response is: “I already told you they like to eat early!” He replied: “If this was England, that would be afternoon tea.”
Yes, I have a major cultural problem. The French PR guy refuses to get involved, he’s too embarrassed to talk to the restaurant manager. He says the kitchen and waiting staff probably don’t turn up until 6pm. If I want to alter the reservation, I can do it myself. He provides the restaurant’s phone number, and hurriedly departs to join his girlfriend for an aperitif over on the West Bank.
I call the restaurant, and whilst the manager sympathises, there is no way we can eat before at least 7:45pm. Thus, I concoct a sort of a plan. I tell the coach driver that instead of heading west from our hotel to the brasserie, he should go east, drive along the Champs Elysees, past the Louvre, to the Place de la Nation in the 11th Arrondisment, north along Avenue Parmentier, up to Sacre Coeur, where everyone will leave the coach to walk to the Basilica, and then check out the view of Paris. All this should soak up at least an hour.
It turns out, Sam, the driver is just that. He normally has a guide on board who will point out the famous highlights of the trip, so of course it’s up to me to provide the running commentary. We’re about 45 minutes into ‘le tour’ when a loud voice from the back of the coach says: “When do we get to the restaurant, I’m starving!”
I speak to the driver in French, and then reply: “The driver was under orders to give us a brief tour of the city, so it’ll be about another 30 minutes, if the traffic is not too bad.” The group groans in unison.
I am about to instruct the driver to avoid the Peripherique (because at this hour of the late afternoon, traffic will be at standstill), but then I have a flash of inspiration, and tell him to join the road which encircles Paris, at the Porte de Clignancourt, and stay on the Peripherique until Porte Maillot. Yep, we join a southerly traffic pattern that is mostly alternating between dead stop and 5 km/h.
That soaks up some more time. We exit and wind our way through the narrow streets of the 16th Arrondisment to the restaurant.
We arrive at 7:30pm, while the staff are still laying tables. We shuffle in, straight to the bar, where at least the barman has opened some champagne for the group.
I speak to the Maître de, and we devise a time-wasting procedure of studying the menu and taking orders. The first dishes arrive at the table at 8pm – but the boys are not happy. Still, the subterfuge appeared to be superficially accidental!
The Australians are a completely different bag. The ‘incidents’ which arise during ‘flea herding’ are always many and varied, so one must be alert to be able to spring to a new course of action.
It’s 1988 and we are on a coach returning from a Group C sports car race at the Spa Francorchamps circuit in Belgium, to our hotel in Wiesbaden (about 40km west of Frankfurt).
One of our Aussie group, I’ll call him Wayne, refuses to eat pork in any form, but he LOVES Wiener Schnitzel graced by a fried egg (Holstein Schnitzel), so before we depart to Spa I speak to the hotel chef to ensure he has genuine veal for Wayne’s dinner that night.
After a day of cheering on the Silk Cut Jaguar team, and the constant flow of high class food and drink, our weary troop boards the coach. One of the group says to Wayne, “I’ve looked at the restaurant menu mate, and they are serving Schnitzel vom Schwein, so you’ll be having steak tonight, right?”
“Nope”, says Wayne, “I’m all sorted. JC made sure the chef had the right stuff.” At which point, overhearing the word ‘Schnitzel’ everyone chorused, “Sounds great, let’s all have schnitzel!”
After a day of being fed Foie gras, Faisen and Frommage (Paté, Pheasant and Cheese), washed down with excellent wines, I’m not sure any of the others ever realised they were dining on Pork Schnitzel – but Wayne was happy!
On the subject of dining, there were two Aussies who made a habit of missing the planned lunch stop during a media drive event. Let’s call them Mike and David. These two were definitely the oldest, and most experienced scribes in the troupe, and prided themselves on their good taste in restaurants.
Both Mike and David are in this group below enjoying a Sydney Harbour cruise with Jaguar's Lofty England.
They would inevitably pair up for the test drive, and after a quick scan of the route notes, one would say to the other: “Do you know this restaurant where the lunch stop is?” If there was any doubt, one may say: “Hey, aren’t we close to that great Italian restaurant we ate at last year on the BMW event?”
The other would reply: “You’re right, so let’s get away before everyone else.” That was usually the last we saw of Mike and David until the drive route ended at the hotel night stop, when they would eventually traipse in, the car with an extra 200km on the odo, raving about the Osso Bucco and the light, dry Pinot Grigio.
If one or the other wasn’t attending the event, they would typically harass the poor unfortunate who was assigned as their co-driver into departing from the planned route to ‘try this fabulous little place I know’. It didn’t only happen in Australia, I can remember numerous occasions when this happened in Europe, and I would have the European PR team urging me to find them! But, I was always confident they would find their way to the hotel, and all would be fine, providing they were able to make an appropriate ‘entrance’ telling the rest of the group what a great little place they had found for lunch!
However, behaving badly was also on the cards with the Aussies, and there were two, in particular, who were always the ring leaders. Let’s call them Davey and Will. Their misadventures are too numerous to recall, but this photo taken in the pretty Cotswold village of Broadway will give you the idea!
However, I can truthfully say I was never fazed by the antics of the Yanks and Aussies. They were smart, erudite, good-natured, funny and very enjoyable to travel with. It was a huge part of my enjoyment of my job.
There are, however, big differences in reporting styles between the two tribes. First of all, let’s look at my own Aussie journalists. Australians possess a secret weapon, which I have rarely seen deployed by many American journalists. Aussies have a built-in BS detector, and when attending a new car launch it’s important that the car company PR team are aware that everything they, or their management say, or write, publish or comment on will be treated right from the word GO with the greatest scepticism.
Whatever claims are made, they’d better be right, because otherwise the product, comments, or PR kit will be treated with great derision, derogatory criticism and occasionally hoots of laughter – right there, at the press event!
Press conferences rarely go the way the CEO may expect. He or she will be called on to explain to the media troupe the veracity of all claims, assertions or declarations. If the responses are deemed unsatisfactory, then the report which follows will start with the BS that was detected by the scribes. The report will then go seriously south, and turn out to be about as bad as you could expect. Another great potential PR victory ‘down the gurgler’.
Now, my American friends are way too polite for their own good. Firstly, they accept everything in the Press Kit as gospel. Bad idea! The Kit may be full of hyperbole, even blatant BS, but the Americans are willing to give the benefit of the doubt. I can remember many, many years ago when I was a motoring journalist driving new cars in Europe and saying to my American co-driver: “This car is crap, I’m going to call them out when we get to the press conference.” This usually caused my companion to turn red in the face, and say: “You wouldn’t. Would you?”
Too right I would, otherwise the car company gets a free ride to a good report it doesn’t deserve.
So, this is not so much about differences related to nationality, it’s more about cultures. Keep in mind Australians are descended from either convicts, or crooked policemen, whilst Americans are descended from puritanical, pious settlers who take everything at face value as honest and true. Bad idea!
How do you think it was possible for ordinary Aussies (during World War II) to be able to sell a chunk of the Sydney Harbour Bridge to unsuspecting American servicemen on leave?