Weekend Herald - Canvas
Travel: The Iceman Cometh
Greg Bruce heads to the mountains and fails at the wheel
It’s been five years since my wife allowed me to drive a car with her in it. On Father’s Day or my birthday, she sometimes offers, but it puts her in such a state that I usually decline. I wouldn’t mind driving now and again, just for variety, but I’m not especially bothered because there are few things I’m less interested in than cars. If I had the choice between watching an hour of Top Gear or an hour of a top hat — an unadorned top hat, sitting motionless on a flat surface — I would not take my eyes from that hat for even a second.
I hardly drive, don’t care about driving, don’t know anything about cars, don’t like cars and was sent at the start of this month, I presume as some kind of joke, to the world-class Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds near Queenstown to drive high-powered BMW M cars high in the mountains, for what was being called “BMW M Town On Ice”.
To get to the world-class Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds (WCSHPG), I had walked from my accommodation at Queenstown’s QT Hotel to a jetty on Lake Wakatipu, taken a jetboat to a clearing on the banks of the Dart River then a helicopter up to the WCSHPG. With me was a large group of local and foreign automotive journalists, a bunch of PR and marketing people and Josh Emett.
I had texted my wife after the jetboating, just to tell her I’d been jetboating. She’d replied: “Glad you survived the jetboating. Anxious about the helicopter and driving.”
She often worries about my unexpected death, which I know because she tells me. Earlier that morning, when she overheard me talking to our kids about the helicopter flight, she said, “We really need life insurance.” Shortly after that, she took me aside and said quietly: “If they ask you to do anything dangerous, just say no.”
On arrival at the WCSHPG, I was wearing two T-shirts, a thick cotton chambray shirt, a cashmere sweater, a lightweight bomber jacket, a brand new Icebreaker Merinoloft jacket with a BMW M Town logo stitched over the heart (presumably to stop me wearing it in public), a thick wool scarf, a wool beanie with ear coverings, a pair of selvedge denim jeans, two pairs of undies and one pair of extra-thick, knee-length snowboarding socks.
The helicopters had dropped us directly on the ice in the late afternoon gloom and in spite of my extensive clothing I was ludicrously cold and therefore happy to get inside and have my M Town passport stamped, be given a complimentary racing driver’s suit with my surname stitched on the back,
then stand as far from the door as possible. I didn’t want to go back outside under any circumstances, least of all to drive a car. I thought about how warm and comfortable my wife would be at that moment, eating dinner at home with our three children, who would be fighting and telling her how much they hated the pasta they had specifically asked her to cook.
I stood by the fire, drinking warm non-alcoholic cocktails and eating delicious canapes. Time dragged. Half an hour passed, then 45 minutes. Time was money and it was also boredom. Why was nothing happening? Finally, BMW New Zealand managing director Karol Abrasowiczmadej appeared on stage. He started telling an odd story about being into sports and admiring an Olympian (I think he said he used an app of hers for training) and she had some good advice along the lines of, “Prepare and prepare, so on the day of the competition, you can relax.” This story could have been going anywhere, but then suddenly it segued into a discussion of the weather. The moral was: the event was cancelled! I couldn’t believe it. I felt a weight lift off me and descend on Abrasowicz-madej.
He handed over to Kerry, GM of operations of the WCSHPG, who handed over to Steve, GM of customers for the WCSHPG, who handed over to Gabby, marketing manager for BMW, who handed over to Tim, product manager for BMW, who handed over to Mike, head of driver training for BMW, who said his would be the last speech of the night, which wasn’t true — but I didn’t care, I could have spent all night listening to solemn proclamations of disappointment so long as it meant I didn’t have to drive anything.
The problem was apparently that it was not cold enough, which meant conditions would be too dangerous to drive — too slushy or slippery or something. They didn’t want to put lives at risk.
Although my spirits were high, it was hard not to feel bad for everyone else. So much time, effort and money had gone into this whole project. Abrasowicz-madej’s face was sad and his voice tremulous as he recited the apparently endless and repetitive letter/number combinations of the 15 or so vehicles we were supposed to be driving that night. He chanted them, like some sort of selfsoothing Buddhist koan.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars had presumably been spent on the ice sculptures, food, booze, flights domestic and international,
accommodation, fireworks linked to some sort of pressure switch so as to launch when cars raced past them, DJS, the presence of Josh Emett, neon lighting, jet boats, helicopters, Icebreaker clothing, bad marketing slogans and custom stitching.
Those last three items came together in the complimentary Icebreaker Merinoloft jackets with the stitching reading: “ONLY IN M TOWN WHERE TOO MUCH IS JUST RIGHT.” When I first saw that motto, with its lack of wit and its logical incoherence, I wished I’d been present at the meeting where it was conceived so I could have stood up, thumped the boardroom table and yelled: “THAT’S ENOUGH!” Although it probably wouldn’t have done any good, because everyone knows decisions like these are based less on quality and more on the exploitation of entrenched power dynamics.
After Abrasowicz-madej’s lament, Gabby got up and showed us some ads. The first one featured a Black Sabbath song (Paranoid) and showed people driving BMW M cars very fast, racing them, drifting them around corners, driving them on two wheels and parking them on the side of the road by night, where cool people had gathered to look at them.
The second ad featured the following voiceover: “M Town: it’s not just a city, it’s a tribute to highperformance cars. The air is filled with the sweet scent of burnt rubber. Paint shines a bit brighter here. Smooth asphalt asks to dance with your tyres. Tunnels are the stage for beautiful symphonies ...” Listening to it almost made me want to go out driving.
There were more ads, the thrust of them being that BMW M cars are ideal for being driven by young, beautiful people at unacceptably high speeds, for being slid sideways through corners, for having their tyres desecrated, for making both roaring and screeching sounds.
“Why did we decide to bring BMW M Town to life here in New Zealand?” Gabby asked — rhetorically, as it turned out — when the last ad finished. “Close to one in every three of our vehicles here in New Zealand are either BMW M or M performance.” I wondered what that said about New Zealand and New Zealanders. I decided probably nothing.
Tim, the product manager, got up and ran through specs and details for each of the cars we were supposed to be driving. The specs seemed mostly related to power and speed: “0-100 in 3.3 seconds” and that sort of thing. Phrases included “for the young and young at heart”, “performance and excitement”, “really fun car to drive” and “so much involvement and so much fun”.
“Excitement”, “excitement”, “excitement.”there would be precious little excitement on this night though. BMW had missed out on the centrepiece of its promotion, journalists had missed out on their story, PR people had missed out on whatever it is they do. It looked like nobody was happy with this cancellation and that was very nearly true.
To get to Michael Hill’s private golf course, where we were having dinner, we had to drive. Out of a sense of obligation and politeness, I took my turn at the wheel of an X3 M40D, which starts from $125,000. I had a reasonable level of confidence in my ability to wreck it, especially after Mike, the head of BMW driver training, told us to beware of sharp drop-offs left and right, that the gravel we would be driving on meant the ABS brakes wouldn’t be very effective, that we should go slow into corners and fast out of them; and that we would be driving on the road Possum Bourne was killed on.
I was sharing the car with Liz Dobson, editor-atlarge of the Herald’s Driven magazine and doyen of Australasian automotive journalists. Several times, she told me to adjust my hands on the steering wheel and either to put my lights on high beam or turn them off high beam, but I kept hitting the wrong stalk, spraying water on the windscreen, which flustered me. Several vehicles overtook me, including a large campervan. I was so relieved when, after 20 or so minutes of erratic, slow driving, we finally pulled into Michael Hill’s driveway and Liz told me how to park. That was my one and only time behind the wheel of a car at BMW M Town on Ice.
We arrived 90 minutes ahead of schedule, meaning that the M TOWN DINING EXPERIENCE CURATED BY JOSH EMETT was not yet ready, but the warm, buttered rum cocktails certainly were. By the time the first course arrived I was over all the car chit-chat and when, between entree and main, one of the Australian journalists at my table said something like, “It had a five-litre supercharged V8 just to feed fuel into the engine,” I went to the toilet and could happily have stayed there for the rest of the night.
The food was good though. The entree was a fancy Southland cheese roll, the main course was duck and dessert was something with chocolate and a crispy thing. Late in the piece, as the Cloudy Bay wine matches were starting to bite, I managed to turn the conversation to industry gossip. Somebody told quite a good story about an automotive journalist who used to watch in-room porn on junkets then demand car manufacturers pay the bill. Somebody else told a story about the glory days of car launches when manufacturers would apparently stuff a wad of bills in the glove box for “gas money”.
The perks have predictably tightened since then. Motoring journalists are still flown all over the world to launches and events and whatever an “activation” is — but is that as glamorous as it sounds? European launches often last a single day, meaning journalists from this part of the world spend two to three hours in an aircraft for every hour they spend in a car or car-related presentation.
After the M TOWN DINING EXPERIENCE CURATED BY JOSH EMETT, full of food and booze, I sat in the darkness of the minivan home listening to the boozy car talk of 10 or so Australian motoring journalists.
For some reason I didn’t catch, they started discussing the ultra-luxury car brand Bentley, which led to a line of conversation culminating in one of the journalists delivering this memorable comment: “For all the critique I have for the Bentley product — that colour palette! I frickin’ love it!”
The ownership of a prestige car is a distant dream for anyone on a journalist’s salary. If you’re into cars — and presumably as a motoring journalist you are — your daily reality is the equivalent of holding a bar of delicious chocolate you will never be able to eat.
When I got back to the hotel I looked up Bentleys on the website cars.com. The cheapest model was listed at NZ$246,000. I’m not sure about wages in Australia, but the average New Zealand journalist could only pay off that car after five years if they lived in it, never drove it and ate only its leather upholstery.
My current car, the most expensive I’ve ever bought, cost $8000. I resent every dollar. If I could get rid of it, I would. The colour palette is black.