Letter from Europe: Carmakers, PR, and Monaco
8 June 1998
European Bureau Chief
They are a unique breed of people. They work in public relations and theoretically they are there to help. Some people call them spin-doctors, and those of you who have seen that brilliant satire "Wag the Dog" will know what I am talking about. In the automotive world there are lots of lots of them, some great, some not so great, and some plain appalling. In the latter category, leading by a mile, is an English lady by the name of Erica. When The Auto Channel's European correspondent asked to test-drive a car she wrote back and suggested a trip to the nearest dealer. I still have the letter, it is a classic. I won't name the company she worked for, I understand she has moved on since . . . or maybe she was pushed. Not a day too soon.
Then there are the ones with excuses. Take General Motors' British branch, which runs by the name of Vauxhall, as another case in point. Some weeks ago at Sears Point I met a very nice Dutchman who works in Cadillac's PR department in Detroit. He was very proud of the fact that they will be selling their much-revised products in Europe and was keen that I should drive the car. After all, The Auto Channel is read in some 75 countries, so it makes a certain amount of sense. Get in touch with a certain person in Luton, England, she will be delighted to help. Right? Wrong! The Auto Channel? Never heard of it she said. Don't forget we are three years behind the States as far as the World Wide Web is concerned. Bravo! A car? Out of the question until October. Fine, can we make a firm a date in October? No, that is too far ahead. Mind you, apart from one period when JT Battenberg was running Luton I have always found their people singularly unhelpful. Not rude, not unpleasant just sluggish when it came to test vehicles.
Then are the major European manufacturers. Some are doing so well that you will be lucky if the PR guys will talk to you. They have their little pet outlets--be they newspapers, TV, or radio If you are not one of the them, forget it. Mind you, even within the same company there can be huge differences. One firm's PR is stunning in the United States whilst their UK people are so far up their own posteriors they never see daylight.
The best car company from a PR point of view has to be Ford. Their people in the United States are well-informed and friendly, their people in Ford of Britain are just plain brilliant. I date this back to the reign of Walter Hayes, arguably the best Public Relations boss the industry has ever seen.
The guys I feel sorry for--and I don't mean that in a patronising sense--are those working for Nissan. As the company's boss admitted recently they have lost their way. A great shame because the mechanicals are just fine. It's the lack of styling that seems to be the problem. It would not surprise me if they ended up with someone like Daimler-Benz.
Which brings me to the merger/takeover of Chrysler. Funny thing, nationalism. There was not a murmur in the States about a German take-over of a national institution, just like there is little noise about the imminent loss of Rolls to VW or BMW. Can't quite see it happening the other way round somehow.
Those of you who listen to my Grand Prix reports on audio know that the recent Monaco Grand Prix was rather interesting. What I did not mention was the journey to the Principality. Some years ago a dear friend who used to run Saab in the United States wrote to me and, amongst other things, reminded me that the two most beautiful words in the English language were: "My Ferrari". Now it's confession time. I have been the very proud owner of a 328 GTS since 1987. Red, with tan interior, this car has been to Monaco every year since then. And, let me add, never missed a beat.
Recently the journey took on a new dimension. Good-bye sea sickness, good-bye queues for ferries, hello Channel Tunnel! What a way to go. We turned up in a convoy-an AC, a new Lotus, and my Ferrari. Without any fuss or delay we were on our way to France, a journey which took all of 35 minutes. As all the formalities are done prior to departure--including passport control once on the other side, it is just a matter of pointing the car towards the motorway. French cops permitting, Monaco is about 12 hours away. Unless the cars break down. Well, the AC lasted halfway down France before it cried "enough!" The Lotus simply flew until it too expired--mercifully, after the Grand Prix. The only car which got there and back without any trouble was, yes, you've guessed it, my 328. The French are very much into Formula One, and every time I stopped to fill up there were long discussions about the merits or otherwise of Schumacher & Co.
Talking of Formula One, I had a chance to discuss matters with Max Mosley, President of the International Automobile Association--FIA to its friends. He admitted that racing was pretty boring these days, but tried to defend it by saying that it was more interesting to wait for the one decisive moment than to watch lots of overtaking a la CART. I totally disagree with him. Once the McLarens disappear into the distance, there are no decisive moments. Max gets it wrong when he compares it to soccer. Maybe there are games where there are only one or two goals, but there is always plenty of action: narrow misses, ball hitting the crossbar, and so on.
Having said that, Monaco was anything but boring: Irvine and Frentzen came together, Michael lost it in Casino Square during practice, Rosset and Villeneuve collected each other, Wurz entered the Tunnel on four wheels and came out on two, and there was that lovely embrace between Mika and his fiancee Erja in front of the World . . . it's a shame they don't have at least four races a year in Monaco. Mind you, we would all be bankrupt because whilst the South of France is very beautiful, cheap it is not!