I was there : Driving fun in sales promotions

Rover-Triumph story 1973: Rover P5

One of the great advantages of working in the Sales Promotions Department, first at Rover-Triumph and then at Leyland Cars was that I got to drive all sorts of cars – not just the production models, but some of those used for display as well.

My experience with them began on the day I arrived at the Rover factory at Lode Lane in Solihull. One of my new colleagues took me down to the garages where the historic cars were kept and introduced me to Don Joyce who looked after them.

Don let me drive a Rover from very early in the 20th century and that was fascinating for somebody who had so far driven only relatively modern cars (apart from the Morris Minor owned by my Driving Instructor). This Rover was very peculiar because one pedal disengaged the clutch and applied the brakes: you pushed it about halfway down to change gear and then all the way down to apply the brakes.

Rover T3

Riding in a legend

Then he took me round the block in the Rover T3 gas turbine car (above). This was a small, two-seater with the gas turbine engine behind the seats. We sat in it with Don in the driver’s seat and he pressed and held the starter button. We watched the needle on the rev counter start rotating and Don explained that the engine became self-sustaining at about 18,000rpm.

It sounded like a vacuum cleaner having been switched on but not stopping when it reached normal operating speed. It was fascinating but at the time Rover was experimenting with gas turbine engines. From time to time, we’d see an HGV tractor unit from one of the petrol companies driving down Meteor Way with a strange whistling sound. These were the gas turbine prototypes that were being brought back for servicing.

The only other contact I had with the gas turbines was at the Duckhams Birmingham Motoring Festival in September 1975. It had been organised to promote the idea of motor racing round the streets of Birmingham. It ran for a week and, on the Saturday, there was a grand parade. I got various interesting vehicles to represent the company and the Rover BRM that Graham Hill drove at Le Mans in 1963, ‘64 and ’65 was one of them.

Ken Clayton (left) at the Duckhams Birmingham Motoring Festival with the Jaguar fire engine from Silverstone.
Ken Clayton (left) at the Duckhams Birmingham Motoring Festival with the Jaguar fire engine from Silverstone

The biggest go kart in the world

At that same parade, we had a Scorpion light tank and the drivable Range Rover chassis. The drivable chassis was huge fun: somebody once described it as the biggest go-kart in the world. It was, literally, a Range Rover chassis complete with engine, transmission, a driver’s seat, a bit of floor in front of it, the scuttle and full controls so that it could be driven.

The Transport Department agreed to get it into Birmingham on the Saturday morning to be part of the Festival grand parade but when I rang up to make sure it was on its way, nobody knew anything about the arrangements. Fortunately, the man I talked to said he’d sort something out and it would be there in time.

I assumed that he’d get hold of a vehicle and trailer, but he decided that the easiest and quickest thing was to stick a pair of trade plates on it and drive it from Lode Lane to Victoria Square in the centre of Birmingham. He managed to get there in time and to get back without getting stopped.

A rallying great

These promotional events were usually great fun because of the vehicles we had available. The RAC Rally was in its heyday at the time with a major spectator stage in Sutton Park on the outskirts of Birmingham. One year there was to be a parade of historic rally cars and, somehow, I ended up driving a Triumph 2.5 PI that had competed in the 1970 World Cup Rally (below).

I figured that the spectators deserved more than just watching the 2.5 passing slowly and quietly so I hung back until there was a bit of space in front of me and then floored the accelerator to give the watchers a bit of a spectacle.

Then there were the dealer weekends. These didn’t happen very often, but they were great, especially the ones at Goodwood for Hare’s which was then a big dealer group in Sussex. They took over the circuit for a weekend and had an example of every model from the whole range available to take customers for three laps round the track. A group of us from Rover-Triumph went down to drive the cars that were, by the standards of the time, the performance models – Triumph TR6, Stag, MGB, Spitfire, P6 3500S, Jaguars, Dolomite Sprint and so on.

Triumph 2.5 PI 1970 World Cup Rally

Most of these were factory demonstrators that had to be driven down. The first event was in 1976. I had the TR6 and was really looking forward to it. The exhaust note from the straight six engine was wonderful as I left Tamworth where I lived, but by the time I got to Goodwood I had a splitting headache. I managed to swap it for a Jaguar XJ-S for the journey back.

The format of the event was that anybody could turn up and book a ride in one of the cars – customers weren’t allowed to drive themselves – and one of us would take them out in their chosen model for three laps so that they got one flying lap.

We regarded it as our job to give them some fun so we took it quite fast. The Dolomite Sprint usually went down with a couple of spare wheels and some spare brake pads because it was pushed so hard that replacements would be needed during the weekend.

Goodwood delights

I loved Goodwood, especially Madgwick. It’s a double apex and, at that time, it had a hump in the middle – when you hit that the car would go up and the steering would suddenly be very light. The trick was to keep the steering wheel in the position you’d had it in before hitting the hump. Getting that right was very satisfying.

That said, I wasn’t particularly fast. On one occasion I followed Denis Chick (later to become a very big cheese in Vauxhall) out onto the track. I don’t remember what either of us was driving but my car should have been faster than the one Denis was in. I realised very quickly that there was no way that I could keep up with him – he was much faster than me, even in a lower-powered car.

There were Marshals in place around the circuit and those just after Lavant corner used to be jumping up and down when I passed them in the Stag which had a manual box and electronically engaged overdrive. I saw them in the Paddock at one point and asked what the excitement was about. They said the engine note as I passed them and flicked the overdrive switch sounded fantastic.

MGB's 50th birthday will be celebrated by a trilogy of MGCC events

MGB: ‘It’s horrible’

The only car at that weekend that I hated was the MGB. It had reached its final, rubber-bumpered iteration by this time and I found it hard work. I took it over early one afternoon and immediately had a customer who wanted a trip round the circuit. When I got back into the paddock one of the other people in our team came over and asked if he could take it out. ‘Be my guest’ I said. ‘It’s horrible.’

It’ll probably horrify the die-hard MG enthusiasts, but I found the Triumph TR7 much more fun to drive although I got it horribly wrong early one morning in London when it had been raining. I had driven down the Edgware Road and was heading onto Bayswater Road. I came round Marble Arch but accelerated too soon and suddenly found myself facing the wrong way – just as well it was so early and there was little other traffic about…

At Lode Lane I was roped in to help with a visit of foreign journalists. My part in the trip was to drive one of them from Lode Lane to Browns Lane in a manual XJ-S. I took great delight in demonstrating that the V12 engine had so much torque that it could accelerate from about 15 or 20mph to 140 in top gear. Obviously, I couldn’t get it above the speed limit on the A45 but he seemed impressed.

Management inconsistency

One of the difficulties within the Department was that my boss would tell me one thing, but I was never certain that he said the same to others. When the man who had overseen the Land Rover demonstration team retired, my boss told me that I was to take over. I don’t know what he told the members of the team, and in all honesty, it probably wouldn’t have made any difference.

The demonstration drivers could best be described as independent and at that stage they were very independent. It was well before mobile ‘phones. They spent the summer attending agricultural shows around the country and the winter months running demonstration days and training sessions to teach people how to drive Land Rovers off road. As a result, they spent very little time at the factory and were out of touch for most of the year.

I figured that there was no chance of being in charge of them, but I did at least manage to go on some of the training events where they taught me to drive a Land Rover off road. One November we were somewhere in Cornwall and Don Green was teaching me how to descend a slippery slope. He explained that the important thing was to engage a low gear, let the vehicle trickle over the top of the hill onto the descent and then keep my feet clamped to the floor. Under those circumstances, he said, don’t touch the pedals and make sure you’re going straight down and not across the gradient. At one point he said, ‘If you could see the vehicle from outside now, you’d realise that the wheels are rotating backwards but don’t worry about it.’

British Trans-Americas Range Rover

An off-road masterclass

But Don’s party piece was at Lode Lane. There was a demonstration area called ‘The Jungle’ and a man-made hill that I remember as being about as high as a house. The sides rose at 45 degrees and Don would start driving up the side so that all that could be seen through the windscreen was the sky. Halfway up he would stall the vehicle, stamp on the brakes and explain the process of recovering and getting it back to the bottom of the hill. It was impressive.

Then there were the British Trans-Americas Range Rovers (above). These had been supplied to an expedition led by Major John Blashford-Snell in 1971. They were driven from Alaska to Cape Horn and were the first motorised vehicles to succeed in crossing the Darién Gap in Central America. When the expedition got back the vehicles came to us for display at dealer events and they always drew a crowd.

I loved driving these first-generation Range Rovers and the Trans-Americas vehicles were not much different to the Range Rover we had in the department for general use. The main differences were that they were left-hand drive and had one seat in the back that was of the type fitted to the Rover 2000. The rest of the back of the vehicle was taken up with lockers of one sort or another. There was a roof rack with a couple of aluminium bridging ladders strapped to it.

Ken Clayton's son Simon in the back of the department Range Rover
Ken Clayton’s son Simon in the back of the Department’s Range Rover in 1974

One of the people in the Personnel Department borrowed it to go to a recruitment event at a university and late in the afternoon he called me to say that the battery was flat and how could he get it started. I don’t know what he’d done to annoy me, but I immediately asked him if there was a starting handle for it.

He said he hadn’t seen one and seemed unaware that his chances of turning the V8 engine by hand were slim but then I said ‘Ah. No. I forgot. There’s a capstan winch on the front so you wouldn’t be able to fit a starting handle even if it was there.’ After a pause I said ‘But there’s your answer.

Just get a length of rope and wind it round the capstan and then do the same as you would to start an outboard motor.’ He sounded a bit doubtful but asked if I really thought that would work. I gave in after that and suggested he call the nearest dealer.

Range Rovers were always a favourite

The workhorse Range Rover in the Department was one of my favourite vehicles. It was just such a pleasure to drive. When I had to take a load of promotional material to Dublin for an event, I managed to grab the Range Rover. I had loaded it up on the Friday and went in on the Sunday morning to pick it up and drive up to Holyhead to get the ferry across to Dublin.

I arrived at the back gate of the factory on my way out and stopped at the security hut where I handed over the paperwork for all the kit in the back of the vehicle. One of the security guards said, ‘I’ll bet he’s got all the paperwork for the stuff in the car but nothing at all for the car.’ We all laughed, and they sent me on my way. He was right. I had no paperwork at all for the car.

After I’d been working for the company for a couple of years, I was given a Triumph Toledo (below) job car. It made a huge difference because I’d had to buy a car when I was made redundant from my advertising agency job before joining Rover-Triumph. Now I could sell the Triumph Herald I’d bought. The Toledo was fine and so was the Dolomite that replaced it.

Triumph Toledo

After that I went up in the world in terms of job cars because there was a major Energy Crisis with the threat of petrol rationing. The bottom dropped out of the market for the big Rover-Triumph products, so we were all given big cars, in my case a Triumph 2000. At the time I was so strapped for cash that I was driving a taxi part-time. I never found out what the boss thought about one of his drivers turning up for work in a Triumph 2000.

This was about the time that I was responsible for sorting out cars for the Milk Race. It was a bike race that usually started in Brighton and finished two weeks later in Blackpool. We provided a variety of cars on loan – the race controller had an XJ6, a Dolomite Sprint with an extended sun roof and a wooden platform in place of a front passenger seat was used as a camera car, Princesses for team cars and so on. All of them were liveried and a couple of us would spend two days at the Milk Marketing Board headquarters in Thames Ditton applying the livery.

In 1975 there was a spare set of livery so I stuck it on the Triumph 2000 because I thought it would make life easier when I was at the start and one or two stage finishes before arriving in Blackpool for the end of the race. The race was well known to Police forces around the country, partly because they would ‘pause’ the traffic to let the race go through (the roads couldn’t be closed) and partly because a fair number of the motorcycle escorts for the race were Police motorcycle officers. This proved to be useful early one Saturday as I was heading into Blackpool for the race finish.

Getting a police escort

I was staying at the Norbreck Castle Hotel in Bispham, so I decided to loop around the town and come in from the north. As I was heading in, I saw a Police car coming up behind me. I stuck to the speed limit, but the crew had obviously seen the livery on the car and as they overtook the observer motioned for me to fall in behind them. It’s the only time I’ve had a personal Police escort, but I got through the traffic much faster than I expected.

I liked the Triumph 2000 and hung onto it for quite a long time but then I was told that it was to be replaced. I can’t remember how it happened but at the time somebody in the Department was working on the cars to be supplied as courtesy transport for Wimbledon. He decided that these should be a bit different, so he specified an Austin Princess because of the amount of space in the cabin but it was finished in a colour I think was called Champagne with a brown vinyl roof and a sun roof. It had electric windows which in the 1970s was a great novelty.

That was another car I enjoyed because it was comfortable, had enough room for my family and looked good. But that was replaced by an Austin Maxi which, even at that time, was showing its age so when that came up for replacement and I was told that I was to be given an automatic Maxi I decided the time had come to change. The company had a scheme called the Management Car Plan (MCP) under which we could lease a car from the company.

Austin Maxi

No to a Maxi, yes to a Rover SD1

I worked out that the lease cost of a Rover 2600 would be covered by the mileage claims I would be able to put in so when somebody called to say my Maxi was ready, I told them I didn’t want it. ‘What do you mean?’ he said. I believe they tried quite hard to find a way to make me have a job car, but the rules were written to stop us getting them. Only people who did a certain amount of business mileage each year were eligible for job cars. It turned out that there were no rules saying that we had to have a job car so for the rest of my time at BL I had a Rover 2600 and loved it.

One of the cars that I didn’t get to drive but heard about was the road-going version of the Broadspeed Engineering-built Jaguar XJ12-Cs driven by Derek Bell and Andy Rouse in the European Touring Car Championship during 1976 and 1977. It had been created for the TV series The New Avengers with Patrick Macnee (who played John Steed, the lead character), Gareth Hunt and Joanna Lumley.

Steed's Broadspeed Jaguar XJ12

It was supposed to be John Steed’s car and looked terrific. At the time I shared an office with John Howlett who handled promotional activities for the Motor Sport programme. He told me that the Jag was almost impossible to drive because it had such wide tyres but the TV company thought it looked just right as the personal transport for a secret agent.

Just occasionally I got to drive products from other manufacturers. Cedric Scroggs was our Marketing Director for a while, and I was in his office one day when he told me that he’d got a BMW 633CSi on test. I asked what it was like, and his reply was to tell me that I could find out for myself. He gave me the keys and told me to take it home overnight. It was a seriously impressive car, not only for its looks but also for the comfort and performance.

On the way home I found that the windscreen wipers were on intermittent wipe. I tried everything I could think of to stop them and, after about 45 minutes, I hit the wiper control stalk fairly hard and shouted some sort of curse borne of frustration. It worked. The wipers stopped their intermittent activity and I thought to myself, ‘Of course. It’s a German car. You need to be pretty heavy handed with it.’

1984 autoroute

The reason for writing this piece is that somebody asked about the cars that I drove to the dealer launch events that I organised. It was unusual to have anything exciting. I would usually try to borrow a left-hand-drive car from the press fleet, and I think it was one of their Rovers that I drove down to Torremolinos for the launch of the Austin Maestro.

I used Motorail between Paris and Madrid but it was still a total of around 500 miles which probably took 10 to 12 hours in all, so it was good to have a comfortable car for the journey. The following year was a step down – a Maestro for the 750 miles or so down to Cannes for the launch of the Montego. It wasn’t bad and I remember thinking that the electronic instrument pack was pretty good although the voice reminding me to do up my seatbelt and so on got to be annoying.

Looking back, there are several of those cars that I’d like to have now: the P5B that I drove to and from the Royal Show in Stoneleigh one year was gorgeous. But what about the P6B that I drove at Goodwood? That looked so good and was lovely to drive. On the other hand, I always enjoyed the XJ-S for effortless long-distance motoring. And what about the original Range Rover with its plastic seats? That was wonderful. Maybe it’s a good job I don’t have the space (or the cash) for any of them…

© 2023 Ken Clayton

If you were at the coalface and have a tale to share, please do get in touch!

17 Comments

  1. Brilliant article – I love all this insider stuff, please can we have more articles like this. I totally agree about your TR7 v MGB comments. I had an MCP TR7 in 1981 and colleagues with MGBs often used to swap with me. They all preferred the TR7.

  2. A great article and very informative about some of the ‘perks’ of working for the company that are not usually published. Were you involved with the press or dealer launches for the Rover SD1 Vitesse or the MG Maestro EFi, by any chance?

  3. Thank you for the comment. No, I wasn’t involved in the press launches. They were handled entirely by the press office. Just as well really because at the time the press launches were happening we were in the final preparation stages for the dealer and fleet buyer events.

  4. Fascinating… A great piece of history.

    Over the years I’ve seen photos of various Rover Gas Turbine cars, but I’d never previously seen the one near the top of this item. How many variations were there?

    • Thank you for your comment. The original gas turbine powered Rover was JET 1 which looked rather like a Rover P4 and I think is now in the Science Museum. It was followed by T3 and T4 which looked a lot like a Rover P6. The company collaborated with BRM to build the Rover BRM which took part in the 1963 Le Mans race as an invited entry and in 1965 a Rover BRM finished 10th overall driven by Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart. I believe this is the car we had at the motoring festival.

  5. Ken,

    Nice article, and the memories of BL’s employee car plan. Company car, job and MCP. We had Pool cars when any one needed a random car. The considered opinion was that these Pool cars were terrible because they had different drivers with different driving styles all the time , usually for short journeys. I have therefore always been weary of cars with lots of owners for this reason. I am not sure it has any logic, but nevertheless this has stuck with me for over the years.
    i would love to read an article on all the tricks of preparing the Press Cars, because we had a large operation virtually rebuilding the cars from the less than satisfactory production line.

    • I’d second your suggestion about the press demo cars. I was told a number of years ago by a former senior manager at Austin Rover Group that if you wanted to own a Rover SD1 Vitesse, then the press demo cars were the ones to have because they had been prepared to deliver what they claimed in terms of power output.

      In addition, I’d be interested to know about the preparation that went into models to be used for display purposes at major motor shows. For example, I recall from correspondence I saw that a lot of additional attention to finish and detail went into preparing the Mini ERA displayed at Motorfair ’89.

      • David – there was a special department (called 21 Shop) that prepared display cars, cutaway engines and so on for displays at launches and at motorshows. Part of their work involved improving fit and finish but a lot of it was related to safety (I doubt that cars were allowed on motorshow stands with even a whiff of petrol in the tank) and security (I believe anything removable was glued in place because otherwise it would get nicked). But I believe all manufacturers had an equivalent department. As to the Mini ERA, sorry, but that was after my time.

    • Thanks for the comments Mark. Maybe Denis Chick could provide some insight into what the Press Garage did to prepare cars for launches because I think he was in the press office at that time. From my point of view, I just knew that cars would arrive at the dealer launch for the ride and drive activity and they’d be maintained by, I think, a team from the press car garage.

  6. My first Rover was an s/h 1997 HHR 414Si bought from an MG Rover dealer. The service book showed the first owner was Rover Group and the car maintained by the factory workshop. I expect this was a pool car? I kept it under 3 years and it served me well in that time.

    • If your car was maintained within the factory, I think it’s likely to have been a demonstrator.

      • Thanks Ken – my satisfaction with that car led me to buy a R45 1.6 Olympic S, then an MG ZS120. It was in 2008 when I ceased MG Rover ownership.

  7. I think it was me who asked you what you drove to dealer launch events. Thanks for the very comprehensive and fascinating reply.

    Interesting about what you have said regarding TR7 Vs MGB. My old ARG dealer boss always claimed this as well.

    • Thank you for the suggestion Steven. It was a good spur to record some more of the fun times I had with the company.

  8. Another great piece, Mr Ward. Madrid to Torremolinos is around 265 miles, although at the time it could take quite a long time to cross Despeñaperros and the Antequera to Malaga stretch was also quite poor. In the summer in the 1980s it was a conmon sign to see a lot of overloaded French cars carrying Moroccan migrants going back for vacations which had overheated in the steep ramp just South of Antequera with their bonnets up and blowing white steam…..

  9. Thank you for your kind comments. Your notes on the route are helpful because unfortunately I didn’t keep a detailed diary of the journey beyond the fact that I left the Motorail terminus in Madrid at 11.15hrs and arrived at the Hotel Alay in Benalmadena at 20.45hrs. I stopped for coffee and fuel twice on the journey and got lost in Malaga but it took 9 hours and I wouldn’t have been sightseeing on the way.

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