Ken Clayton recalls the highs – and lows – of launching the Austin Maestro (LM10) to the trade in 1983.
There were logistical issues, management mismanagement and a sense that it was doomed to fail.
Launching LM10 – the trials and tribulations
In 1976 I started organising new model launches for the company that became Austin Rover Group (ARG). As a result, I was responsible for the dealer and fleet launches of new models from the Rover SD1 and Triumph TR7 through to the Austin Montego. In those days new model launches happened in three stages: first came the press launch, far enough ahead of the public launch to enable the monthly magazines to prepare feature articles to coincide with the public announcement of the car.
Next came the dealer events which were timed to happen just before the new models arrived in the showrooms. The fleet buyer shows just followed on because they used much of the same material as the dealer launches. The final act was the public announcement. In the case of the dealer and fleet launches, the events were highly theatrical with the climactic moment being the reveal of the car, usually accompanied by loud music, extensive lighting effects and clouds of dry ice vapour.
One of the oddities of the dealer launches that I organised was that I didn’t usually have any say in the venue. Sometimes I was left wondering who on earth had chosen the places where these things where staged and on what basis. The launch of the Maestro was a prime example.
Not the ideal venue to launch it
The dealers were to stay in two hotels – the Don Pepe and the Don Carlos – in Marbella but the launch events were in the Palacio De Congresos Y Exposiciones De Torremolinos (above) which was more than 40 minutes away by coach. Just to add to the variety, the gala dinner was to be at the Casino Torrequebrada in Benalmádena which was about half way between the hotels and the conference centre. Whatever the reason, that’s what we were told to use.
The event was scheduled for January 1983 and we held the first site visit in April 1982. That’s when the production company and I discovered some of the more delightful aspects of the conference centre. For one thing all of the auditoria had concrete desks built into the stages – not ideal when you need enough stage space to reveal a car.
Then there was the roof. It expanded and contracted as the sun heated it during the morning or it cooled as the afternoon wore on. This movement was made possible because the roof was mounted on wheels that moved along tracks. Unfortunately, the wheels had become jammed over time so they didn’t so much roll along the tracks as skid with appropriate steel on steel sound effects.
Marketing placed under serious pressure
The first site visit gave the production company a lot to think about. Problems with the venue aside, the early stages of this event were difficult. The production company had proposed a concept which the management weren’t keen on, so there was further development and then there were arguments about the budget. In August there was a meeting with senior management and they finally accepted the ideas that had been put forward.
This was not a happy time within the company. To some extent it was inevitable because of the financial pressures but those of us in marketing were increasingly demoralised. One of the ways in which senior management tried to address the situation was to organise occasional management meetings.
These were supposed to give us some idea of what was going on. In a diary note about one of these in August 1982 I wrote: ‘Not that good but it got into the general airing of grievances about lack of direction, lack of image, too many layers of management etc.’
It was against that background that I was told that, when there was a script meeting a senior Director had decreed that there could only be two of us present with the relevant Director and the production company. Another diary note reads ‘The man’s an idiot. How are we supposed to act on his supposed decisions if we aren’t allowed to hear them? [My boss] started ranting about the Director doing his job. That seemed ironic since he spends a lot of time doing mine.’
At the beginning of October the production company had travelled from London to Canley to present first drafts of the scripts to various Directors. Another diary note: ‘We waited 1.5 hours before three of the Directors turned up. A fourth arrived an hour or so later. I found it very depressing. You have to fight to get them to attend a meeting like this and then they suddenly start throwing in all sorts of new priorities. Still, they accepted the set design and said we’re ‘75% right’ whatever that means’.
A couple of days later I was told that the Maestro was now going to be launched as a seven-car range, not six. The 1.6L was to be presented as a distinct derivative. This meant changing much of what was planned for the launch element of the event but that was par for the course. It was at that time I started borrowing the cars we needed for photography and also had my first sight of the solid-state instrument pack which seemed pretty impressive.
Joined up thinking
One of the reasons that we had a separate department to handle dealer and fleet launch presentations was that there was never just the one event in planning. The SD1 facelift and Ambassador launch event was in early production while we were working on the Maestro. At the same time I was working on dealer launch schedules for the Montego, Acclaim (my diary doesn’t explain this but I guess it was actually the replacement for the Acclaim), Metro five-door, LM10 van and LM11 Estate events.
This work would probably have included producing budgets for submission to the Finance Department for approval. That was a bit of a game in the sense that I knew that whatever figure I put in would be cut by at least 10 per cent so I inflated all the figures by about 15 per cent.
Around the middle of October pretty much everything to do with the dealer and fleet shows had been presented to the senior Directors and they appeared to like what they saw. That was Friday. The following Monday I was being asked why the production company couldn’t have come up with the latest versions of the scripts weeks ago. I used to think the Directors understood how the production process worked.
Apparently, I was wrong…
Getting them captured on film
We began photographing the cars early in November and, as usual, there were problems with the fit and finish. This was always the case because we were usually working with what were called Job One cars – this usually meant that they looked as if they were little more than prototypes. It was normal for components to have been produced off development tooling and the photographer had to be very, very careful how he handled them.
This would cause problems later when we showed the automated sequences for the presentations to the Directors. They disliked the section on the base model so much they wanted to drop it. My diary again: ‘The truth is that the car was so badly built it looked lousy. We’d had to finish building the cars ourselves.’
At the end of November I spent some time with the computer graphics people in Cowley. They showed me that they could reproduce, on screen, movement such as the closing of the driver’s door. I asked if we could film it. They looked a bit doubtful and said it was possible but we’d need to set up a camera on time-lapse and leave the computer and the camera running all night. Computer technology in the early 1980s needed time to cope with movement.
Getting to Spain
By the beginning of January 1983 the production company had started set building in Torremolinos. This involved constructing an entirely new stage from scaffolding over the original with its concrete desks. About the same time we had a walk through of the show in their offices in London.
Just over a week later I arrived in my office at Canley, expecting to be leaving to go to Spain late the following day. When I got to my desk I was told that I was booked on a ferry that was leaving in about 24 hours. About noon I drove home, packed and left for Dover, arriving about 23.00.
The crossing next day was uneventful and I drove to Paris, where I managed to find the Gare Austerlitz. I thought this was pretty good given that this was well before satnav and I was on my own in the car so didn’t have any navigational help. I had been booked on the overnight Motorail service to Madrid – I’m not sure that it saved any time but it was an enjoyable novelty from my point of view. It took just over two hours after arriving in Madrid for me to get my car back and I set out to drive to Torremolinos, arriving at the crew hotel late that evening.
Building the set
They had made good progress on building the stage and the set while my colleagues from the Exhibitions Department were well advanced with the installation of the displays that the dealers would see after the reveal.
One of the lessons that people have to learn when they’re working on shows like this is that you have to take care to avoid upsetting the wrong people because they can make life uncomfortable. This happened to a man who arrived to fix a display balloon over an ornamental pool outside the conference centre.
The pool had fountains all along its perimeter and they were merrily squirting water into the area where the balloon was to be tethered. I don’t know what he did to my colleague who was in charge of exhibitions but when he asked if the fountains could be turned off he was told that the man who could do it wasn’t there so, no. He battled on and got the balloon tethered and only got a bit wet in the process.
Getting ready to launch
The week or so between arriving onsite and the dress rehearsal was an enjoyable interlude. The weather was warm, we were able to get on with sorting out everything to do with the show and usually finished early enough in the evening to have some good food and the occasional glass of wine.
There were various restaurants and cafes around the crew hotel and I was in one of them one evening when, somewhat to my surprise, a pornographic film was being shown on the restaurant’s television.
Some of the crew were in there as well and, at one point, a woman could be seen onscreen sitting astride a man. Suddenly, she leaned forward and slapped his face. From the back of the restaurant one of the crew could be heard saying ‘Wake up you fool’.
A winter’s escape
The rehearsals for our show went well and everybody seemed to be happy with the result. The first group of dealers arrived on 23 January and that evening the cabaret people arrived.
This show was a bit of a risk because there was a strong jazz feel to it. It was hosted by Mike Felix who had been the singer in a group called the Migil Five but, by this time, was a comedian.
Alongside him we had the Pizza Express All Stars which included some of the best jazz musicians in the country. The line up was completed by Laurie Holloway and his wife, Marion Montgomery. Laurie would later be best known as the musical director on the BBC show Parkinson while Marion was the resident singer on the show in the 1970s.
This was all well before the Single Market so the musicians should have had Customs documents, called carnets, for their instruments – at least that’s what Customs at Malaga airport said. They didn’t have them so the Spanish Customs people were refusing to allow the instruments in.
Fortunately we always used a local fixer on these shows – called a destination management company or DMC. They sorted out the problem with Customs, but then we had another difficulty because I’d driven a minibus to the airport to meet the musicians. There were too many people and too much luggage for the minibus so we had to hire some taxis as well.
Then I got stopped by the Police for joining the motorway in an inappropriate manner. I think I just filtered in as would be normal in Britain. Apparently, you weren’t supposed to do that in Spain.
The guest presenter… Simon Williams
The following day we ran the first show and everybody was delighted. We had Simon Williams as the link-man for the show. At that time he was best known for playing James Bellamy in the period drama Upstairs, Downstairs. One of his tasks was to introduce the reveal.
This was the usual theatrical event but on this occasion the music that had been chosen was Crown Imperial which was augmented with Thunderflashes mounted under the stage. The explosions they created gave the whole reveal more impact. In rehearsals, Simon would introduce the reveal on stage then jump down and watch it from the seats. Once the dealers were in he had to deliver his final line, walk into the wings and watch from there.
What he didn’t realise was that a Thunderflash was mounted under the patch of stage on which he was standing. After the show he told me ‘My dear, I thought my suppository had exploded’
Some catering difficulties
We caused a little consternation for the Spanish Food and Banqueting Manager because we had a buffet lunch. The dealers queued – they were British, after all. The Banqueting Manager was asking why they didn’t do what Spanish people would do and just gather round the servery and grab what they wanted. We persuaded him to add in more serving stations after that.
The gala dinner went well, although there was a slight issue that became apparent later in the programme. We had four dealer groups and two fleet buyer groups. They all arrived on the afternoon of day one and had a welcome dinner that night. The following day they watched the presentation, examined the cars in the exhibition and drove round the mix of motorway and local roads as part of the ride and drive. That evening they would have the gala dinner and, on day three, they’d be taken back to the airport and the next group would come in.
One side effect of this schedule was that those of us who were present throughout had to eat six welcome dinners and six gala dinners over the full run of the show. Nobody wants to eat the same meal every other night for almost two weeks so the menus were always planned to be different for every welcome and every gala dinner. Unfortunately, that only works when dishes with different names are genuinely different. The chef at the Casino Torrequebrada seemed to have six different names for Baked Alaska which was served at every gala dinner.
The cabaret: a damp squib
It was unfortunate that the cabaret wasn’t anywhere near as successful as the show because the sound system in the Casino wasn’t good enough. The evening ended with a group of us sitting in an all-night café round the corner from the crew hotel with Ernest Maxin who organised the cabarets for us.
It must have been a strange sight with half-a-dozen British people in evening dress in an all-night café until 4:00am in the morning, discussing what could be done about the cabaret. Two of the sound engineers from the presentation went over later in the week and sorted out the sound system so there were no more problems in that direction.
One of the factors that you have to get used to in running these events is the challenges that get presented from time to time. For example, as the cabaret artists arrived for the second show, one of them came and told me that she had lost an earring in her room. The jewellery had been a gift from her husband and she was in some distress at having lost it. I had to get one of our corporate security team to go to her hotel, get the manager to let him into her room and search for the missing jewellery. I was able to go to her before the cabaret started and tell her that she now had a pair of earrings on her bedside table.
That was relatively simple. The third dealer group on 29 January was a different matter. I went up to the airport to be part of the team meeting them. We were using charter flights and the one from Manchester had hit problems.
There was a baggage handler’s dispute at Manchester airport so all the delegates had been put onto buses and taken to Birmingham. En route the aircraft they were due to fly on from Birmingham went technical and the air charter company decided that it would be quicker to take them to London than to wait for the Birmingham aircraft to be fixed.
So the dealers stayed on the buses and carried on to London. Before they arrived, Malaga airport was closed by fog so they ended up overnight in a hotel at Gatwick. Clearly this would affect the programme for the following day and, when I got back to the hotel from the airport, I got a message saying that I had to go to the Don Carlos hotel in Marbella, where the Directors were staying.
I assumed that I needed to be part of the discussion about how the following day’s programme could be modified so that the dealers would still see the whole show and drive the car. I got there to be given a piece of paper with a revised programme. I was somewhat annoyed, having driven for 20 minutes to be given a message that could have been passed on by phone.
That aside, all is good…
The rest of the show went well although, towards the end, we were all getting on each other’s nerves. It’s almost inevitable when you’re living and working in such close proximity with a team day in day out for around a month.
In fact, it was 7 February that I went to the Palacio for a final inspection. This always happened so that if there were any accusations of damage having been done, the argument could be settled while we were still able to look at whatever the venue was claiming we had done.
In this case, there was a claim for some damage done to a ceiling. This was made of metal strips and the production company had cut a 5cm long piece out of one of the strips. That cost an extra £600.00 although the Production Manager gave me the strip of metal that had been cut out as a souvenir and I still have it.
I left that afternoon, stayed in a Parador overnight in Jaen and arrived in Madrid the following morning. The overnight Motorail service to Paris was unloaded around noon the following day so I was able to catch a ferry and drive through a snowstorm to reach home at about 11:00pm.
This had been one of the less enjoyable shows but there was never any opportunity to dwell on why things had been as they were. I arrived home on 9 February and within two weeks I was running a one-day conference for the whole dealer network in the Wembley Conference Centre. A month after that was another event in Berlin and in May we began work on the Montego launch which would prove to be my last event for BL.
- I was there : Driving fun in sales promotions - 27 May 2023
- I was there : How technology changed at British Leyland - 13 March 2023
- I was there : Dealer and fleet launches of the Austin Maestro - 23 January 2023