AROnline tells the tale of the Austin Metro dealer launch – an unforgettable event for anyone lucky enough to be there.
Ken Clayton – the mastermind behind the event – explains how events unfolded with the aid of his diary of events, while Contributor and former BMC manufacturing apprentice turned British Leyland retailer Richard Williams recalls his experience aboard a cruise ship on a stormy Irish Sea, and how it all worked out back at his dealership…
All at sea for the miniMetro launch…
We’ve all heard the stories about the legendary dealer launch of the Austin Metro, of how it took place on a cruise liner in the Irish Sea. Well, it seems that the events really do live up to the legend, as two people involved clearly recall. Ken Clayton was the Manager, Launch Planning and Special Events at Austin-Morris when the Mini Metro was launched in 1980, and has unique insight into this once-in-a-lifetime unveiling. He explains how the event came together, while Richard Williams – as one of the dealers aboard – recalls his own experiences.
Ken explains, ‘in the late 1970s most car manufacturers adopted a three-stage process to the launch of a new model. The first was to show it to the press, next in line came the dealers and fleet buyers – so they could get geared up to promoting and selling it – and the final stage was the public launch when the advertising programme swung into action. The Launch Planning and Special Events Department was responsible for the dealer and fleet parts of the launch sequence.
Planning for a launch generally took around six months or so. With the Metro it was different, because we all knew that it was a make or break car for the company. Get the Metro launch wrong and we could all pack up and go home. As a result, a great deal more effort went into all aspects of the event. For the dealer launches, we started the planning process in the summer of 1978, more than two years before the car was expected to make its public appearance.’
Changing tack: from Mini to Super-Mini
As you’ll read in the Austin Metro development story, the LC8’s marketing and design strategy changed very late in the day, and that would have ramifications for Ken and his team. ‘At that time I had been told that the public launch was to be in December 1980 or January 1981. Working back from that approximate date, I started looking at a possible dealer and fleet launch sequence in October or November of 1980. I was also told that the Metro was to be a straight replacement for the Mini. Our early work on the event was heavily coloured by this fact and my thinking latched onto the idea that this would provide a hook for the launches,’ Ken recalls.
The logistics would be difficult, especially considering the size of the BL dealer network. Ken explains: ‘By the late-1970s, the company had more than 1500 dealers and any new model launch involved bringing them to a central location to see a theatrical presentation, an exhibition, and to drive the new car,’ Ken says. ‘It was possible to find places where we could stage a presentation for all the dealers in one go but the need for a ride and drive imposed a significant limitation. What we needed to find was a venue with around 300 bedrooms, preferably in one hotel, a presentation theatre plus space for an exhibition and a room in which the dealers could sit down for a gala dinner. We also needed a suitable road network where they could try the new car.’
The team looked at various possibilities before concluding that it was not a good idea to try to organise a UK based ride and drive in which dealers would be able to test the new cars over public roads in November or December. So, the early plans centred on launching the Metro to the press in the south of France. Monaco would be an option, with outline costings showing for the whole programme, including overseas presentations for dealers and one group of fleet buyers plus a salesmen’s programme, coming in at just under £700,000. The problem of scale kept returning – how to accommodate so many dealers and so many cars down there for a three-day event?
January 1979 and plans start to crystalise
The launch would need to be memorable, and not somewhere used before. A paper from the Central Launch Committee spelled out some options aside from Monaco. Ken put it this way: ‘I was told that “It must have immediate impact upon the delegates as soon as they receive the invitation.” Part of the reason for this was that the dealers were going to be asked to pay towards the cost of the launch. There were various venues within the UK that would have met the criteria – for example, one of the prime sites at the time for new car launches was the NEC on the outskirts of Birmingham. This had already been used for events including the launch of the O-Series Sherpa. The feeling was that it would not send the right signal to dealers if we were to use the same venue for the LC8.’
As the year progressed, it became clear that the UK was becoming increasingly favoured option after Monaco, and Ken was issued with the instruction to look at the most favourable climate areas of the UK as alternative venues. Ken recalls the moment when the UK was agreed upon: ‘A handwritten note from Sandy Mathieson (who was in charge of the whole publicity team) to me, and dated 23 February 1979 settled matters: “It is now abundantly clear that we launch in the UK” he wrote. “You should now commence planning for a UK launch with overnight stay.”
‘It then became a race to find somewhere suitable. Central London was out because the ride and drive site would have had to have been around 45 minutes away by coach. Heathrow was described as marginal because of the difficulty of laying out a good ride and drive route. The detail offered on other locations varied from “Bradford. There is insufficient suitable hotel accommodation” to Manchester which included information about several hotels but drew the conclusion that the restricted number of hotel rooms and lack of a presentation facility meant it was unsuitable. The final section of the report offered four possible options, all of them involving significant compromises,’ Ken says.
Hitting on the idea of a nautical theme
‘At the time my line manager was Tony Cumming and he had been involved in the shooting of a commercial for the Mini on board HMS Ark Royal, which was being decommissioned early in 1979. As a result, he knew something about the ship. As he passed my desk one day he asked how we were getting on with finding a venue and I told him that we hadn’t come up with anything suitable as yet. He said “Ark Royal’s being decommissioned – plenty of space for presentations and exhibitions on board and loads of accommodation.” He laughed as he walked on to his office because we both knew that the standard of accommodation would not have been good enough for the dealers and fleet buyers but his comment started me thinking about ships,’ Ken recalls.
In one of those Eureka moments, Ken started to make calls. He initially spoke to Cunard who then put him on to Charles Assanti at the shipping broker, Stelp and Leighton. Although Ken couldn’t say for what reason the ship would be chartered, the criteria were simple: ‘I needed to get an object around 10ft long, about 4ft high and about 5ft wide into wherever they did cabarets on board the ship. There was a pause. “Sounds like a car” he said.’ By March 1979, Trevor Taylor (the UK Operations Director) sent a memo confirming that a ‘suitable cruise liner’ was to be looked at as a priority, and it was a case of sourcing the right ship.
At the same time it was necessary to get the filming under way. ‘We would always shoot movie footage for the launch of a completely new model, but it was unusual to be able to get film cameras involved at such an early stage of a car’s development and I was keen to take full advantage of it,’ Ken recalls. ‘The main film was to be supplemented with packages for broadcast media to use at the launch, sales training films, dealer promotional films and even a possible television documentary although it was agreed that this would not go ahead unless a commitment to broadcast was received. The total cost agreed was just under £300,000.’
Meanwhile, the process of choosing a ship was still ongoing: the SS Oriana was rejected because, with a price tag of £2 million, she was too expensive; the MV Funchal was too small, while a car ferry called the MS Saga had very small cabins so she was ruled out as well. Two vessels were considered at this stage: the SS Britanis and the MS Vistafjord and, after visiting them in Puerto Rico in April 1979, the deal was assembled to charter the MS Vistafjord at a cost of $69,000 per day plus $4.00 embarkation and disembarkation taxes plus $35.00 per person for food and drink – for a total cost as quoted of £1,263,600.
The MS Vistafjord is chosen
Ken wrote a paper on 23 April 1979 setting out all possibilities for the launch and recommending the use of the MS Vistafjord, sailing out of Liverpool or Avonmouth with the ride and drive programme in Cork. The total net cost was shown as £1,064,194 and, although this was £152,000 more expensive than Aviemore, it would allow the inclusion of 200 extra fleet buyers plus the dealers’ partners. A decision was required by 30 April 1979 ‘because all cruise ship owners […] have already mapped out their programmes for 1980.’
He adds with the benefit of hindsight that the concerns over weather issues were very minor. ‘One section of the paper evaluated the most significant risks and identified bad weather as a factor although it added “Information from the Meteorological Office in London shows that there is only 2% incidence of gales in the area on average during September. This […] would equate with one half day during the month.” This proved to be not entirely accurate,’ he says.
Then it was a case of ironing out the details. Ray Horrocks, for instance, liked the idea, but didn’t want the ride and drive in Ireland, instead favouring the Isle of Wight, Isle of Man or the Channel Islands. But these were details. As Ken says, ‘The final piece of paper to commit to the project was signed by Ray Horrocks on 18 June 1979. So we were committed: Metro was to be launched on board a cruise liner. All that remained was to agree on where she would be based and where the ride and drive was to take place.’
The cat is out of the bag…
Initially, the plan was to base the event at the West Gladstone Dock, part of the northern dock system of Liverpool, and have the ride and drive on the Isle of Man. ‘Then on 13 and 14 August 15 sailors died, seven yachts sank and 75 capsized when storm force winds hit during the Fastnet Race from Cowes on the Isle of Wight to the Fastnet Rock, the most southerly point of Ireland,’ Ken remembers. ‘This was uncomfortably close to where MS Vistaford would be sailing in little more than 12 months’ time. As Tony Cumming walked past my desk when news of the disaster had broken, he paused and said “How are you sleeping these days?” He wasn’t seriously suggesting that we should cancel, but others were raising questions. At that time, the company was operating under a very bright spotlight, having soaked up enormous sums of public money in order to avoid it going bust. It looks very much as if the Austin-Morris Board was keenly aware of the likely reaction in the press once news of the charters leaked out.’
And that it did. ‘On 19 October 1979, Charles Assanti wrote to tell me he had been contacted by Ian Gronbach, a freelance journalist who had picked up on the fact that MS Vistafjord was calling in to Liverpool several times during September 1980,’ Ken says. ‘Charles tried to fend him off by saying that “the chartering principals had specifically asked for their name not to be revealed.” It didn’t work.
‘I had taken a day off on 25 October and was driving home, listening to the evening news on BBC radio. I was amazed to hear that the Metro launch was the lead story. The Birmingham Evening Mail followed and the next day, the Daily Express, Birmingham Post, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Sun, Mirror and others ran the story. I don’t know what effect this would have had in the office because it would have been dealt with by the PR Department (known as Product Affairs at the time) but they produced a brief for their team ‘to be adhered to in answer to any queries about the […] dealer launch trips.’ The notes confirmed that “BL Cars have chartered the cruise ship Vistafjord […] to make a total of eight trips to the Isle of Man from Liverpool during the period 5 to 21 September.”
‘They went on to explain that “a total of 3200 guests have been invited [including] representatives of BL’s 2000 sales outlets.” No costs were to be revealed but “it is true to say that the cost is equivalent to holding a similar business function launching a major new car at a mainland venue.” The notes concluded by stating: “The major advantages [sic] of the cruises is that it has made it possible to hold the dealer-launch during September when finding a large enough hotel for such a long period is most unlikely. Also the guests are a captive audience for the full 15 hours of communication.”
Former press and PR officer Ian Elliott remembers this episode well. ‘I still have a few mental scars from that! When the Daily Mail spotted the BL booking of the ship, there was a predictable “Wasting Taxpayers’ money” story in the offing. I happened to be at Longbridge when it blew up, and it was suggested that I should break into Harold Musgrove’s meeting with some vague idea that he might telephone the Mail‘s Editor and get the story canned. Harold’s Secretary was quite firm that was definitely not a good idea, and I wasn’t minded to put my head in the Lion’s mouth either. All we could do was standard ‘damage limitation’. Next day Trevor Taylor and Tony Ball pulled me into Trevor’s Bickenhill office and gave me a right wire-brushing for not having miraculously stopped the story. It was almost as if they thought we had put the story out deliberately.’
A strange feeling
‘It was odd to see a project that I was organising but that wouldn’t come to fruition for another year, being featured on the front pages of national newspapers,’ Ken continues. ‘Some were critical. Others were supportive. In reality, it didn’t make any difference – we continued to work on the launch.’ In the background, contingency plans were being drawn up in case the MS Vistafjord plan fell through. But in reality, there weren’t any.
As he recalls, there were some lighter moments during this furious period of planning. ‘In the middle of November 1979, a letter addressed to Sir Michael Edwardes from the Rotary Club of West Derby in Liverpool found its way to me. They were hosting a visit from Rotarians from North Berlin, Rimini and Vichy and wanted to know if they could join the MS Vistafjord for a while during the launch programme. I replied as politely as I could, that it would not be possible.
‘Then there was the suggestion, that the ship should be re-named and the logo painted on the funnel for the duration of the charter. The fact that I actually passed this query to the London office of the owners of the MS Vistafjord suggests that it originated from somebody fairly high up in the hierarchy of Austin-Morris. Surprisingly, it seems that the owners’ London office passed the enquiry to head office in Oslo. After due and careful consideration, the answer came back: “No.”‘
Even at this late stage, there were some wobbles – should it be Liverpool or not? Should the ride and drive be on the Isle of Man? ‘On 16 January 1980 I sent another memo to Trevor explaining that Mylchreests, the dealers on the Isle of Man, were keen to start planning to provide the support that we would need from them. In the memo I told Trevor, “So far I have managed to stall them, but they are beginning to suspect that our plans may have changed substantially.”‘
A busy time for BL
During 1980, while planning for the Metro’s launch was ramping up, Ken’s department also needed to deal with a massive dealer conference in Wembley (at a week’s notice), the launch of a new dealer’s incentive programme called 100 Club, the launch of the Morris Ital in London, the facelifted Austin Maxi and, of course, all the promotional activity around the Wimbledon tennis championships. While this was going on, Ken was working with the production team putting together the Metro’s launch conference.
‘Typically, this sort of event would start with the MD giving his state of the nation address and then we would go into a sequence of presentations dealing with the development of the new model, the reasons that it was superior to the competition, the market that it fitted into, the advertising to launch it along with much more,’ Ken remembers. ‘The whole thing culminated in the climactic moment which was the reveal of the new model. This was the first time the dealers would see the car in the metal and was designed to be as dramatic as possible and to show the new model off in the best possible way.
‘Some of the individual presentations were handled by senior directors and some were audio-visual sessions. Again, everything is different now but in 1980, we used a wide screen which was divided horizontally into three areas. A slide could be projected onto each area and all three butted up together. There were then two other screen areas covering the joins. It was known as ‘two over three’ and involved, in the case of Metro, a rack of 18 slide projectors and pre-recorded soundtracks. The whole thing was capable of presenting a continuous image across the screen which, when done well, was stunning. In the case of Metro, the business conference was on Day One while, on Day Two, there was the Metro launch after which the dealers were taken ashore to drive the car.’
Three production companies, Caribiner, MMA and Roundel, pitched for this work, and in May 1980, Caribiner was chosen. The producer for Caribiner was David Lowe although he left well before the show took place. Kenny Neigh from Caribiner’s New York office took over from him and he was joined by Gerry Pagliari and Julia Yesner, both also from New York. Jon Rollason, who had been a scriptwriter on the television soap Crossroads, was brought in as writer. In fact, Caribiner assembled an impressive team including Phil Grief as production manager, Gordon Roberts and Mollie Kirkland, a diminutive but hugely impressive show-caller.
‘Over the next few months, I spent a lot of time working with this team and grew to respect their professionalism. But those months would prove to be amongst the most demanding and stressful of my working life,’ Ken says.
Finally planning: a cruise at sea
In order to make plans aboard MS Vistafjord, Ken and Peter Wilson joined her for a short cruise. This started in Southampton and went via La Coruña on Spain’s northern coast, Lisbon and Gibraltar to Genoa. It was here that the details of the event were nutted out. These included logistics – down to rooms, meals and how the presentation would take shape on stage. Ken recalls with some frustration how the simplest of tasks were quickly complicated by being on board: ‘It was probably at this point that I became aware that one of the difficulties for the set builders was that the decks on a ship apparently aren’t flat: they curve across the width of the ship and, in MS Vistafjord’s ballroom, along the length of the room. The summer turned into a seemingly endless round of meetings with Caribiner, various directors and the launch committee as well as viewing the first rough cut of the film The Metro Story (below), reviewing scripts for the launch event and going through speaker support material on lightboxes.’
Meanwhile, the PR Department set out what the best paint colours to choose and which angles looked best on film and in the photographs that were needed for the conference. The studio, where the shots were to be taken, needed to be secure in order to keep the still-secret Metro under wraps – it was a big ask getting enough cars together pre-launch, as there was so much competition between departments to get their hands on BL’s hottest property. But Caribiner got their shots, and had the images ready of for the presentations ahead. This imagery was approved on 7-8 August at Caribiner’s premises at the World Trade Centre near Tower Bridge in London.
The most important part of the job was to make the conference set (that would eventually be used in the MS Vistafjord‘s ballroom) look as if it was a permanent part of the ship, apart from an oversize Leyland logo stage right. As Ken says, ‘the effect we were aiming at was to give the dealers the impression that there was no way that a car could be revealed on this set. This was expected to be a puzzle because the climactic point of any new car launch was the reveal when the dealers saw the car in the metal for the first time. We were working on the basis of surprising them because they would have thought there was no way we could have got a car into the ballroom in the first place and, even if we could have done that, there was nowhere to hide it until the reveal.’
The set worked a treat.
Countdown to launch
Ken recalls how it was to work: ‘the plan for the show was that there would be an opening film, followed by Trevor Taylor, who would welcome the dealers. Ray Horrocks would follow and then Peter Johnson (the Sales Director) provided a market report. This was followed by a film about service and then a section covering the Mini realignment. Another film followed that before a section headed on the running order as ‘Rover launch’ before the final module of the Day One conference.
‘Day Two would begin with another film followed by Trevor Taylor talking about marketing planning before Tony Ball (the Chairman BL Europe and Overseas) spoke about product development. He was followed by a film about the new manufacturing plant before Neil Johnson (the Service Director) filled in the detail about servicing the Metro. There was another film setting out what the Metro range comprised before a section on publicity. Then Tony Ball stepped up to the lectern to introduce the reveal.
‘When we ran through the reveal in the warehouse, we used the modern music track that Caribiner had chosen. As it got into its stride, the Leyland logo on the wall began to revolve and then it hinged at the top and swung up into the roof to reveal a large round aperture. A Metro, mounted on a cantilevered arm and swathed in dry ice vapour, came out through the aperture and, when the arm was at full reach, the car revolved, the whole process being accompanied by appropriate lighting effects. As the music died away, we looked at the assembled Directors. I’m pretty sure it was Tony Ball who said that he liked the way it worked but that the music was wrong. “There’s only one piece of music you can have for that reveal,” he said. “Land of Hope and Glory.”
‘And if Tony Ball wanted Land of Hope and Glory, that’s what he’d get.’
All aboard the MS Vistafjord
Ken Clayton joined the MS Vistafjord on 2 September by which time the supporting marquee areas where the dealers and fleet buyers would join the event were already in place. The cars and stage sets were also dockside, and the process of setting up the ship to accommodate the launch was not a small one. It would use an enormous floating crane named Mammoth and everything, including display cars, would be lifted onboard by it. It was at this point that the cars were scooped by a Daily Mail photographer.
‘Work went on all day and well into the night to build the set and the exhibitions on board and technical checks were started the following day. Charles Assanti was on board. I saw him in the ballroom which was being used as the main presentation theatre. He asked how things were going and I said fine. I pointed out where the set was being built, the sound and lighting engineers’ positions at the opposite end of the ballroom and explained where they would be drilling holes in the deck to fix the reveal mechanism.
‘Charles looked horrified. “You can’t go drilling holes in the deck of a ship,” he said. “There’s no knowing what’s under the deck.” I explained that Phil Grief, the technical chief for Caribiner, would have cleared it with everybody but assured Charles that I would make sure it was all OK with the owners of the ship. I asked Phil about it and he said that he had checked it out in great detail with Mr Weitz, the ship’s architect, who was on board,’ Ken says. Of course it was all okay, but it was symptomatic of the kind of stress points encountered in the lead up to an event like this.
The dealers start to arrive
Ken continues: ‘On 5 September, rehearsals continued and, in the afternoon, the first group of dealers arrived. There were various difficulties with double-booked cabins for them and one dealer, who was told that he was in a double cabin with his wife, replied “If you think I’m sharing a cabin with her, you’ve got another think coming.”
‘That afternoon, at 5.00pm, we started the first performance of the Day One conference in front of a dealer audience. The computer controlling the slides had a glitch during one of the automated modules but, overall, the first show went well. At 10.00pm we had the cabaret which was a huge success and then, at 11.30pm, everything had to be re-set for the Day Two conference session. Overnight MS Vistafjord left Liverpool and relocated to Douglas on the Isle of Man. At 7.00am that morning, we started to get ready for the Day Two conference which included the reveal. The dealers loved it with most of them standing and applauding as the car appeared through the fog of dry ice to the soundtrack of Land of Hope and Glory.’
The dealers went from the conference session out to the exhibition on the Lido deck and were taken ashore after lunch to drive the cars. That part wasn’t quite as smooth as expected: the MS Vistafjord couldn’t moor alongside in Douglas so everybody going ashore had to be taken in the ship’s tenders. There were around 80 cars at Ronaldsway airport on the island and a route had been mapped out around the island’s roads for what was one epic event.
Ken takes up the story again: ‘The journey back to the ship was pretty rough but everybody got back on board without mishap. Once everybody had returned, I realised that we hadn’t been as tight on security as we should have been so I saw Kjell, the ship’s Hotels Manager, and explained the problem. I said that I didn’t think there was likely to be anybody on board who shouldn’t be there but asked him to carry out a discreet check.
‘That night we had the first gala dinner with the men dressed in dinner jackets and the women in evening dresses. I was just starting on my main course and Kjell came to my table. ‘We have a stowaway’ he said. It’s at times like this that people get the wrong idea about me. They think I’m amazingly calm when, in reality, it takes a few seconds for me to process information like that. So there was a brief pause while I considered what Kjell had told me and then I collected the security chief and the PR boss from their tables and Kjell took us down through the kitchens into the crew quarters.
‘It turned out that a seaman had come on board in Liverpool, had stayed hidden overnight, had gone ashore in Douglas and come back in the afternoon. He had been picked up by the crew when I asked for a search of the ship. He was locked in a cabin and, once we had satisfied ourselves that he wasn’t a journalist, we asked that he be kept there and went back to dinner. He could have expected to be prosecuted but we just wanted him put off the ship in Liverpool the following morning.’
Ken wasn’t having an easy time of it. ‘It was probably around the end of this second group that people began asking if I was okay,’ he says. ‘It seemed that I was looking ill. I realised that there were two aspects of the event that were getting to me. For one, my day started at around 6.30am and finished at about 1.00am the following day when I did a tour of the ship before going to bed. Five and a half hours of sleep aren’t enough for most of us but there wasn’t much that I could do about that. In fact, I did manage to find one or two times during the day when I could rest.’
He adds: ‘The other issue was that I was inundated with people who were bringing various problems to me. I figured out that I couldn’t do anything about one third of these problems. Somebody else could deal with around a third of them so I only needed to concern myself with about one third of the problems that people brought to me.’
And from the dealer’s perspective…
Richard Williams would join as part of the 11 September group, by which time the whole process had been repeated several times. He recalls, ‘In mid-September, Williams Automobiles received an invitation to attend the launch of the new, much-needed hatchback. The event was to take place on a small cruise liner sailing out of the West Gladstone Dock in Liverpool. It was a time of great excitement – although the Metro project had been well publicised, the press buzz was growing fast.
‘We arrived at what was a cargo dock to see a lovely small cruise ship, the MS Vistafjord, waiting for us alongside the dock. We parked in the designated parking close by and boarded. It was mid-afternoon so it would give us time to settle in our cabin before we ventured up to the lounge. Of the new car, there was no sign at all,’ he added.
That evening’s sailing went well, if a little choppily. ‘The champagne and canapés flowed along with the sea sickness that was beginning to claim more and more victims,’ says Richard. ‘Apart from that, it was a lovely and well-thought-out celebration. However, the surviving party goers made up of the toughest car dealers and their wives were rapidly succumbing to sea sickness as the boat, now well clear of land, was taking on the characteristics of a fairground roller coaster. Before midnight just about all had surrendered and headed for the sanctuary of their cabins to regain their strength for the much-anticipated launch the following day.’
Ken counters that slightly by saying, ‘one of the reasons I recommended the MS Vistafjord was that she had very good stabilisers so no, she didn’t take on the characteristics of a fairground roller coaster. The day that Richard arrived was when I was expecting Ray Horrocks to be able to leave the ship early the following morning to attend a Shareholders’ Meeting. I’d been warned that the weather was likely to be bad but, when I went to bed around 1.00am, I was still hoping that we’d be able to get a boat in the water for Ray, in spite of the forecast. If conditions had been as Richard describes, I would have known for certain that it wasn’t going to be possible and would have been trying to make other arrangements. The fact that we could not get a boat in the water wasn’t confirmed until around 6.00am on 12 September.’
What the dealers thought of the Metro
‘Breakfast was a rather muted affair as most of those attending had developed a rather greenish hue, but anticipation was high,’ recalls Richard. ‘We were all going to see a fantastic new model that would restore BL’s market share, revive dealer profitability and give us the ‘jam tomorrow’ much promised by our Regional Managers. The launch was to be in the morning and we were then to be offloaded on the Isle of Man to actually drive the new car. It was an incredibly well-planned and thought out launch – probably the best to date – but the one uncontrolled variable was still wreaking havoc.’
‘The surviving party goers made up of the toughest car dealers and their wives were rapidly succumbing to sea sickness as the boat, now well clear of land, was taking on the characteristics of a fairground roller coaster.’
Richard continues: ‘All the retail network and their wives – well, those still standing – made their way into the ballroom which had been now laid out in a conference format. At the front, facing a bulkhead, were the display screens for the videos along with a giant round British Leyland sign that, a few years later, was to gain its own rather derogatory name. The sense of anticipation rose: we were given a great motivating talk and visual display by the Directors, we were given market data, profit projections and reasons why the entire British population was a market for the car. It would appeal to everyone from dustmen to royalty and they were right. They told us how it would roll back the tide of foreign imports, and they were right about that too.’
Seeing the car for the first time was quite a moment, although there were no tears for Richard like there were for some other dealers who’d been at the Metro’s unveiling. ‘At last the presenters announced “…and now the new miniMetro!”‘, says Richard. ‘The screen displays and the music were fantastic. It was an awe-inspiring experience. The BL roundel suddenly lit up in a vivid neon blue light (above) and then, horror of horrors, it started to rotate. The motion of the boat and visual motion of the rotating sign swiftly finished off the less hardy, who turned Opaline Green and made a swift exit to deposit their breakfast. For those who survived, the result was spectacular and probably the best launch since Ford unveiled the Mustang.’
And it certainly was an entrance, creating the same impact as it had done when Ken first saw it tested back in London. ‘The rotating roundel slowly opened and smoke came out lit by the blue light then, from out of the smoke, on an hydraulic arm, appeared the new miniMetro,’ Richard remembers. ‘It was spectacular. There was a huge and much-deserved standing ovation. It was an incredible achievement. The car was every bit as good as described. It had its own unique style, it was spacious yet economical. It was competitively priced and made you proud to be British.’
Excitement, but Ray Horrocks makes an early exit
Ray Horrocks (below) needed to be in London for a meeting. The evening before Ken had seen the port agent, David Bishop: ‘I asked him about the weather forecast for the following day as I always did and he said that it was for galeforce winds. I explained about Ray Horrocks and we had arranged to have a boat in the water for him first thing to take him ashore so he could fly to London from Douglas. David said that, if Ray wanted to be sure of being in London tomorrow, he had better leave that night.
‘I went looking for Ray to tell him the news and saw Tony Ball. I asked Tony where Ray was and he said he was in the cocktail party talking to the dealers. He asked why I wanted to know and I told him. He said that Ray should stay on the ship to be with the dealers. I explained that I didn’t want to be down on the boat deck in the morning with Ray pacing up and down, wanting to know why he couldn’t get off this ship. Tony said, “My responsibility, he stays on”. There was nothing more I could do.
‘At about 6am the following morning I was woken by the telephone in my cabin. It was the Captain calling to tell me he couldn’t put a boat in the water because it was too rough. I called Tony and told him. There was a long pause. Eventually he said “Meet me in the office”. When I got there he was discussing possibilities with various people. Somebody said a lifeboat would come out, but it would cost us. I asked how much and was told (I think) £7 per crewman so I said, get them out.
‘Ray did his presentation and then he was dressed head to toe in oilskins and taken down to the boat deck. Although we were already at anchor, the Captain manoeuvred the ship so that the Ramsey lifeboat could come alongside in the lee of the ship’s hull and Ray was taken down the steps that were ordinarily used for loading the ship’s tenders. The lifeboat was heaving up and down in the swell with spray drifting over the deck. It came alongside and Ray, with great aplomb, stepped on board at just the right moment and was taken off to the island. The film I have of the event shows the lifeboat with spray sweeping over it and undertaking a journey that must have been extremely uncomfortable.’
Richard must have missed Ray Horrocks leaving the ship as this happened during one of the presentations. But the Metro was the big news anyway. He continues: ‘We all clustered round the new cars, excitement was running high. We all knew that there was a huge market for it from our loyal customer base, but we did have a few questions on quality and supply and were assured all was planned for. Considering the rolling of the ship, the logistics and execution of this was incredible and highest commendations should be awarded to the team that carried it out.
‘Then it was off to lunch to await the anticipated drive of the cars around the Isle of Man TT course. However, unbeknown to us, the wind intensity had increased. The Isle of Man was in sight but only fleetingly between the waves that were rolling by. One second there was a great view of the island when we were on the crest of a wave, the next view was of another large wave rolling in when you were in a trough. It soon became obvious that there was no chance of us making landfall.’
Ken counters this by saying, ‘I have that video showing Ray leaving the ship. I’d guess the wave height as being about two metres, possibly a little more. It was very windy and was rough enough for me not to have wanted to be at sea in a small boat but they were certainly not ‘monster waves’ with the ship disappearing between crests.’
…but the seasickness was claiming victims
Richard continues: ‘More people were succumbing to the dreaded sea sickness and retreating to their cabins leaving a very hard core of survivors. My wife very wisely avoided sea sickness by finding the indoor swimming pool which was rocking in time with the waves. By swimming in it, she found the rolling motion of the boat was absorbed by the water in the pool – a true MS Vistafjord survivor…’
Ken adds, ‘back on board, it was obviously impossible for the dealers to go ashore to drive the cars which was disappointing but the ship’s crew raised a laugh when they announced that an extra film would be shown in the cinema that afternoon. It was Heaven Can Wait.’
Richard was disappointed to miss out on his first drive of the Metro on the Isle of Man, and it was a muted end to a great event for him. ‘The boat steamed back to Liverpool, the pounding of the sea subsided and the passengers looked a little less green. As we went down the gangplank some people were walking in a drunken manner as they were adjusting to the land not rolling and that brought on a few more bouts of sickness. The whole event – whatever the weather – was a fantastic experience and one I will never forget. I am really pleased that my wife and I survived the ‘miniMetro Launch.’
One last drama for Ray Horrocks
Ken remembers a second incident with Ray Horrocks. He says, ‘an entirely separate occasion again involved Ray Horrocks having to leave the ship. On this occasion he had to get ashore as soon as he had finished his presentation on Day One and before the ship left Liverpool. The difficulty was that the MS Vistafjord could only leave Gladstone Dock within a couple of hours before or after high tide. On this day, it would have been a bit tight to get Ray ashore before the deadline but it was achievable. Then the start of the show had to be delayed because the dealers were late arriving following an accident on the motorway leading to Liverpool.
‘The delay meant that we were really pushing our luck on the departure. If the tide fell too far, MS Vistafjord just wouldn’t be able to get out of the lock leading from the Gladstone Dock. I talked to Ray before he went on and explained that he needed to get through his speech as quickly as possible and then waited outside the ballroom for him to finish. I was joined by Kjell who was in radio contact with the Captain on the bridge. As the minutes ticked by the messages from the bridge became more forceful until the Captain was saying he was going with or without Ray. At that moment Ray appeared out of the ballroom, having finished his presentation. I ran him down several decks to the gangway which he ran down and, as soon as his feet hit the shore, the gangway was pulled in and we left.’
The final group joined the MS Vistafjord on 19 September and the following day, Gerry Pagliari (one of the Caribiner producers) and Mollie Kirkland who had been calling the show throughout, left. The final group of fleet buyers departed on 21 September and Ken’s team was left to clear all of their kit out of the ship, a job that was finished by the middle of 23 September. After that, the Metro’s international launch came at the Paris Motor Show followed by the British International Motor Show at the NEC in Birmingham.
Ken Clayton summed it up perfectly: ‘There were many times during my career when I wondered why I chose to do such a stressful job and that was particularly the case with the Metro show. I can still remember being in a London hotel bedroom wishing that I could find a nice, dark room where I could curl up and wait until it was all over. Then I’d see the dealers on their feet and applauding enthusiastically at the end of a show and I knew exactly why I did it. As I used to say to people years later, ‘It’s as close as I could get to being in show business and still earn a decent living.’
Back to land with a bump…
Back at his dealership Richard was getting ready for the Metro’s arrival. ‘Buoyed by great hopes from the event, we returned home determined to host a great Metro launch party for our clients. We arranged a large evening party in our showroom – we would have trained ladies to demonstrate the cars on display, lovely food and wine. We mailed our customers and had an almost 100% acceptance. However, shortly after that reality struck – our questions on quality and delivery proved to be very prescient.’
He continues: ‘We had been promised ten cars, but were only offered three due to delays in production and, to top this, there was very little promotional material available. It was quite clear that the agency that had produced such a slick launch to the dealers and press was not involved in the main launch which was being organised by British Leyland in-house – for a huge party, it looked like we had three cars and about thirty catalogues. We would look absolute fools, urgent action was needed.
‘I swung into action persuading some of my old apprentice colleagues, who were still involved with the factory, to get me two more cars which had been stuck in rectification. We said we would rectify them ourselves.’
Sidestepping the ‘system’
‘Having worked in the publicity stores, I knew that they were an entity in their own right and took a gamble,’ Richard says. ‘I drove our trusty Sherpa van up to Oxford and parked at one of the loading bays. I wandered inside and introduced myself to the Foreman – I explained that I had worked there about ten years before and that I had come up from the British Leyland’s Regional Office in Bristol with a letter on their headed paper asking for urgent brochures for the region.
‘The signature was illegible and the Foreman was so busy that he did not have time to check the authenticity of the letter so he swiftly arranged for me to load what we needed. Needless to say the van was loaded to the gunnels and swiftly driven away before my ruse had been rumbled. Anyway, with the two extra cars, now making five, and a van load of promotional materials, our Launch Event could go ahead and it did. Hundreds of our customers descended, they loved the car and, even though bits like the bumper ends and trim fell off and door handles broke, they were not deterred from buying them.’
But it wasn’t straightforward for Richard. ‘We sold them like shelling peas and then, guess what? Supply was awful with huge delays and quality was poor. Our worst fears had been justified, but that did not stop this fabulous little car from saving our business for several years. Had the quality had been excellent, the supply adequate for the market and the model constantly refreshed, then the story of British Leyland might have had a happier ending.’
As for Ken, he was proud of how the Metro’s arrival had worked out. ‘It had been the most demanding project of my career but also the event of which I am most proud. I went on to launch the Acclaim, the Maestro and the Montego before leaving ARG as it was by then, in 1984. I still look back on the event with some surprise, mainly because everybody at the company who was involved in the decision accepted the idea of launching a car on board a cruise ship,’ he says. ‘It was a risky proposition and we all knew that. I’m fairly sure that they wouldn’t have taken that decision a few years later. Why they went with it in 1979 I don’t know. That said, it was a good decision, given that we had to launch the car in the UK. It made for a hugely memorable event. I still have the memo sent by Trevor Taylor after it had all finished in which he commented on “the incredible success of the Dealer and Fleet User Metro launches’ and wrote that ‘the Metro launch [was] probably the finest ever car launch.”
‘That’ll do for me.’
What of the Metro?
Richard concludes: ‘Williams Automobiles soldiered on with British Leyland until it morphed into Austin Rover. The Metro was indeed our saviour. As the new sales waned, the used ones grew. British Leyland found a great ruse by sending new Metros to the Channel Islands to act as hire cars, many never turned a wheel. The cars were then re-imported in their droves and sold to a select few dealers – luckily, we were one of them. Coupled with the warranty work, due to the poor quality of the cars, that kept the workshop going and the Metros, we remained profitable until it was obvious that Austin Rover was a basket case and we needed to change franchises.
‘Fortunately, we successfully managed to do that by changing to Saab then, on that marque’s demise, we re-located the company to rural South Gloucestershire from where we now operate a multi-award winning, Internet-based niche franchise business with a worldwide client base – but that’s another story…
‘Meanwhile, the latest incarnation of the car which the Metro was intended to replace, the MINI, is still going strong and is a transport fashion icon in most developed countries – especially China, where its sales are rocketing – whereas the Metro has gone. However, had the Phoenix Four, who bought the remains of British Leyland from BMW Group, revived the Metro in the same way BMW resuscitated the Mini, the story could have been so different.
There is still, though, one small ray of sunlight for the Metro – at least some remaining examples are being restored to their former glory so future generations will see them in the coming years. Would I buy and restore a Metro? Well, probably not, but I hope many people do to keep the legend alive. I do, though, still have two boxes of the launch catalogues left in my attic!’
And the MS Vistafjord?
Well, it’s a story which has more than a few parallels with that of British Leyland. The MS Vistafjord was the last cruise ship to be built at the majestic Swan Hunter & Tyne Shipbuilders Limited shipyard at Wallsend on the Tyne and, indeed, the last cruise liner to be built in the United Kingdom. Swan Hunter was, like British Leyland, suffering from lack of investment, union strife and Government interference and, just as British Leyland produced the iconic Metro, Swan Hunter produced the elegant, though rapidly outdated MS Vistafjord.
Norwegian American Line, the shipping company which originally commissioned the MS Vistafjord, struggled for profitability and was purchased by the Cunard Line, the UK’s luxury cruise company. The MS Vistafjord therefore joined the Cunard fleet in October 1983 – just three years after the miniMetro Launch.
Like the Metro, the ship, although still elegant, dated quickly and, as Cunard moved on to bigger and more modern ships, the competitiveness of the MS Vistafjord waned. In 1999, Cunard like British Leyland, made one of those disastrous moves and renamed her MS Caronia – a name that was supposed to be a more traditional Cunard Line name. Bookings slowed and finally, in 2004, she was sold to a company that understood her market, Saga Cruises, which commissioned a £17 million refit and re-launched her as the MS Saga Ruby in March 2005. Her market was, like the Metro’s, made up of older people who still had brand loyalty and a resistance to change.
Meanwhile, British Leyland had lurched through similar crises of trying to trade with an ageing model range. The company was bought by British Aerospace, which stripped a lot of surplus property from the company to keep the cash flow going, but didn’t invest in the necessary new products which were so desperately needed. A year after the MS Vistafjord was bought by the Cunard Line, British Leyland was sold to BMW Group which soon realised that this manufacturing conglomerate was well past its sell by date. The company ceased making the Metro in 1998 and, in 2000, what was by then known as the Rover Group was finally broken up. The part which was sold into private ownership, MG Rover Group Limited, finally expired in 2005.
However, following her refit, the MS Vistafjord had a new lease of life and cruised on for several years, but her age was showing and what proved to be her final cruise from the 7 December 2013 to the 10 January 2014 was marred by mechanical problems which resulted in the itinerary being revised. Saga Cruises her sold for $14m USD to Millennium View Limited, a Singapore-based company which planned to convert her into a floating hotel in Myanmar. The cost of converting her was reportedly $10 million USD but, just as with the privately-owned MG Rover Group, anyone with an ounce of commercial sense could see that was unlikely to be financially viable, and it wasn’t.
The new owners of the now-renamed Oasia went into administration and, after two years of sitting unloved, this grand old lady embarked on her last voyage from Sattahip in Thailand to “the place where ships go to die” at Alang in India, which was to be her final resting place. Sadly, as the original version of this article was being written in November 2017, the last of her hull was being dismantled. She was a wonderful, elegant ship which outlived the Metro by 19 years – a fantastic achievement – but, unlike the Metro, the poor MS Vistafjord will now only live on in pictures and the happy memories of her former passengers…
[Editor’s Note: Richard Williams is still a Director of the company founded by his grandfather 106 years ago, Williams Automobiles Limited, and represented the smaller retailers on the National Franchised Dealers Association’s National Executive for many years. The company, which was highly commended in the Best Dealership category of the 2014 Automotive Management Awards, currently has franchises for three of the UK’s leading low-volume sports car manufacturers, Caterham, Lotus and Morgan.]
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