Long­time car journo gives a sneak peek into the crazy and some­times calami­tous world of ve­hi­cle launches

Financial Mail - - LIFE -

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

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