ROCKING AND ROLLING
Longtime car journo gives a sneak peek into the crazy and sometimes calamitous world of vehicle launches
The idea probably looked good on the drawing board: place a spanking new car on an isolated rock off the Western Cape coast, as the centrepiece of the launch of a new Toyota. In the words of a recent TV ad, what could go wrong?
The weather, that’s what. A storm suddenly blew up and a huge wave washed the car into the Atlantic Ocean. Months of planning were undone by a splash of water.
In the case of an American brand, the problem was a fat foot. A theatre audience of journalists, dealers, customers and assorted VIPS applauded as the curtains parted to reveal the new car moving slowly to the front of the stage — then ran for their lives as it continued over the edge, landing where guests had been moments earlier. The driver’s size 12, it emerged later, had slipped from the brake to the accelerator.
Motor companies spend millions of rands on new-vehicle launches. It’s the chance to make an indelible impression for a vehicle that will be on the market for years.
That’s why some go for the spectacular. BMW SA once hired the Concorde to fly guests at supersonic speed from Johannesburg to Cape Town. That event, for the launch of a new 3-Series, went off without a hitch.
Others are not so lucky. Where large groups of people are involved, there is always capacity for catastrophe.
Sometimes it’s part of the attraction. For the SA launch of the Chinese Chana brand, teams of journalists took turns to drive four vehicles from the assembly plant in China, over the Himalayas, across Asia and the Middle East, and down through Africa to SA. I chose the leg from Dubai to Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. The final stretch was driven at breakneck speed through the mountains, protected front and rear by a heavily armed military escort, after we learnt an al-qaeda ambush was waiting for us. Four days later, a group of Spanish tourists were murdered on the same road.
Motoring journalists don’t always need outside influences to put their lives at risk. Launch crashes are not uncommon, usually because journos overestimate their skills. Alcohol used to play a part. On his first launch, in 1980, journalist Stuart Johnston was surprised to be offered beer and wine before driving Opel Kadetts 250km through the former Transkei. He recalls: “When we reached our destination, we drank some more, slept, drank again then drove back to East London.”
These days, motor companies won’t let anyone near alcohol until all driving is over. In any case, journalists are usually spectators, not instigators, when things go wrong.
Take the Mitsubishi Pajero launch in the Free State. True to the vehicle’s go-anywhere reputation, the route included fearsome offroad conditions. The Pajeros handled everything with ease, until they got stuck in thick river mud. No amount of manoeuvring, even by Mitsubishi’s professional drivers, could free them. Just then, a couple of passing farmers stopped in their Toyota Land Cruisers, hitched up the Pajeros and towed them to safety — all in view of dozens of media cameras. Great publicity for Land Cruiser, disaster for Pajero.
Given the amount of detail involved in launches, it’s surprising more doesn’t go wrong. There is travel and accommodation to book, guests to invite, individual dietary habits to consider and driving routes to plan.
The secret, says Matt Gennrich, former head of communications for Volkswagen SA, is to plan for the best but be ready for the worst.
“Plan for every contingency,” he says. “Most of the time when things go wrong, your guests don’t know as long as you recover quickly and don’t