I was there : Launching the facelifted Rover SD1 (with added Ambassador) – Part Two

Rover SD1 Series 2 launch

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.

Finally, 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.

A joint event for Austin and Rover

The last SD1 shows for which I was responsible were the dealer and fleet launches of the facelift models that appeared in early in 1982. This was to be a joint event with the revised SD1s being presented at the same time as the Austin Ambassador. The dealer shows were in December 1981 and those for fleet buyers in January 1982.

The planning and production of these major launches was always intense and very demanding. The initial problem on this occasion was that I was running the Triumph Acclaim launches in August 1981 when work needed to be a full speed on the Rover and Ambassador shows and I just couldn’t do both. Fortunately, a new member of staff had joined the department earlier in the year, so I asked him to look after the early stages of the Rover show and I’d take over as soon as the Triumph Acclaim show was finished.

One of the basic principles that I followed was to let people get on with their jobs without constantly looking over their shoulders – obviously I’d keep a close eye on them until I was confident that they knew what they were doing but, from that point on, I trusted them to get on with it. That was to prove to be a mistake in this case.

Concentrating on Rover

The Acclaim dealer and fleet launches finished in August, so I was able to concentrate on the SD1 and Ambassador events. The production company that I had appointed to create the shows had recommended Monaco as the best venue for December. As a result, Peter Wilson and I travelled out to see the hotels and conference facilities with a representative of the production company at the end of August. Peter was the member of the department who was responsible for arranging travel, accommodation and catering so he needed to see the hotels.

A trip like this sounds like a jolly but one of the golden rules of organising a major event is that you must see the venue for yourself. That’s the only way you find out the truth about things. Admittedly, it wasn’t as tough as we made out back at the office but there was always a lot to get through in the few days that we’d be on site. There were more relaxed moments though. I particularly remember a lunch at La Rascasse in Monte Carlo which Peter finished with a dish billed as Melon with Port. It turned out to be a lot of Port with a little melon. He had some difficulty in concentrating during the work we had to get through that afternoon.

So yes, we had some fun but there was a lot to do in checking out the hotels that we might want to use as well as venues for the presentations themselves. For this event we looked at the old conference centre that stood over the tunnel that is such a feature of the Grand Prix circuit and at the Sporting d’été which was a nightclub and casino at the eastern end of Monaco.

SD1 facelift in the exhibition
SD1 facelift in the exhibition

When Monaco isn’t Monaco

One of the facts about Monaco that came up a few times while we were doing our recce was that there was a very low crime rate in the Principality, but we heard that there had been a major robbery in the Monte Carlo Beach Hotel which was where we were staying. When we raised this, we were told ‘Ah, but the Monte Carlo Beach isn’t in Monaco, it’s in France’.

The surprising follow up to this visit arose out of the fact that we didn’t say which company we were from. This was because the press would have had a field day if they had known that two BL people were checking out hotels in the ‘millionaires’ playground’. In reality it made perfect sense to consider Monaco for the launch because at that time we could stage the dealer event there at a cost that was very little more than it would have cost in the UK and without the consequences of Britain’s winter weather. Added to that, the dealers were prepared to pay more to attend an event overseas in the middle of winter.

So, we were introduced as part of the production company. One of the properties we inspected was the Loews Monte Carlo Hotel (now the Hotel Fairmont Monte-Carlo). The Sales Manager was a German whose name I can’t now remember. A couple of weeks after we got back to the office the phone rang on my desk and it was this man wanting to follow up on our visit. I was amazed because we had taken great care to remain anonymous.

Admirable perseverance

He told me that he had rung a number of people around Europe asking if anybody knew this Brit called Ken Clayton. Eventually, he found somebody who knew me and told him where to find me. On reflection, it’s not surprising that he went to so much trouble: we were talking about an event that would be worth about 4800 room nights to him. Business like that was worth chasing. In the event, we decided to use two other hotels instead.

Soon after we got back from the recce, I watched one of the most brutal events that I’ve ever witnessed in the conference industry. This would be the only launch for which we used dancers and the production company asked me to attend the auditions. We sat along one wall of a big room in the YMCA near Tottenham Court Road in London and a group of dancers came in.

The dance captain went through a routine and the dancers were expected to reproduce it immediately. As they did, she walked round telling a chosen few to stay while the others were all told, basically, thank you very much but not this time. It was a fast, merciless process with each dancer having very little time to make an impression among a group of others. Then another group would come in and the process would be repeated. Why anybody would be so determined to be a dancer that they would put themselves through that time after time I could not imagine.

All a matter of timing

I was getting involved in the production but, overall, it seemed unreasonable to just march back into the office and announce that I was back and taking over the SD1 and Ambassador events. The colleague who I’d asked to look after things seemed to be getting on well with it, so I decided to stay in the background, getting reports from him. However, I began to get worried about the show at the end of October.

The normal procedure for these events was that there would be a process called a lightbox review when the slides to be used in the show would be laid out on big lightboxes so that we could check that things were right before they were shown to the Directors. There would normally be hundreds of slides and, inevitably, some would be missing, replaced with temporary slides called ‘write-ons’. On this occasion there was hardly anything to be seen.

I was concerned at the lack of progress, but my colleague and the production company assured me that all would be fine for the next stage of the production, called ‘the walk through’. This was the event when the AV modules and the speaker support slides would be shown to the Directors. Again, there would always be a few slides missing.

Preparing the exhibition for the first group of dealers
Preparing the exhibition for the first group of dealers

The dreaded walkthrough

On a November day that I still think of as Black Thursday the Directors gathered in a room in the Royal Lancaster Hotel in London for the walk through. There was hardly anything for them to see. From my point of view, it was a disaster. We had everybody there from Harold Musgrove down and it had been a colossal waste of time.

It was followed by meetings with my boss during which we discussed options, one of which was to sack the production company and appoint one that we knew and trusted. But we were only two weeks out from the day when we were due to start building the set on site. That wasn’t enough time for a new company to begin from scratch. The only option was to make the existing production company come up with the goods.

The bottleneck seemed to lie in the process of programming the computer that controlled the AV modules. This had been sub-contracted to a specialist firm whose approach to conference production was entirely different to mine. I believe in careful planning. They seemed to believe in creative chaos. I insisted on bringing in an additional firm to help with the programming. When I was told that there was still a problem, I called the people who had produced the Acclaim show and asked if one of their programmers could be made available. They said he could but when I told the company working on the Monaco show they suddenly found extra capability.

In the interests of security

I spent a whole week in London, monitoring the production company’s progress and slowly they got themselves up to speed. By the time I travelled out to Monte Carlo, I was hopeful that they would produce the show they had promised.

Towards the end of November, we were setting up at the Sporting d’été. Corporate security had decreed that everybody working on the show had to have a photo ID badge. The manager in charge of the exhibitions decided that he preferred to have a photo of his dog on his badge. That’s what he wore throughout the get-in.

One of the more entertaining episodes involved getting the display cars to the Sporting d’été. They were on several car transporters that had been driven out from England. Articulated lorries weren’t allowed in the centre of Monte Carlo unless they had a Police escort, so we had to meet the trucks and the Police late at night somewhere near the Oceanographic Museum.

Driving through in style

The whole procession then drove through the town with a Police escort to the Sporting d’été. Once there, the cars had to be got into the building. It wasn’t too bad to get them onto the stage in the Salle des Etoiles which we were using for the presentations, but we were also using some of the gaming rooms for the exhibition.

Getting the cars into those was an entirely different affair. For one thing SBM, which owned the building, said that the gaming tables were never moved. Maybe that was just the explanation for the cost involved in making space for the displays. The real problem came in the fact that there was a low wall just inside the doors. As people entered, they were on a raised level looking out over the room with the wall in front of them.

They would turn right or left to walk down a couple of steps into the gaming room. The team from 21 Shop who were responsible for the display cars had to build a ramp to go over the wall without catching the roofs of the cars on the top of the door frames and then the ramp had to run down onto the floor of the gaming room. The 21 Shop team were magicians and did it magnificently.

Preparing to winch an Austin Ambassador into the exhibition room
Preparing to winch an Austin Ambassador into the exhibition room

Acting royalty aboard

The production company was the most showbizzi outfit working on that type of show at the time so, in addition to dancers, we had Norman Rossington and Peter Bowles with us. Their job was to link the various elements of the show.

Norman had an impressive CV. Apart from appearances in several Carry On films he had been in Lawrence of Arabia, The Longest Day and even A Hard Day’s Night, the first Beatles film. Peter was just becoming famous through his role in the BBC sitcom, To the Manor Born. We rehearsed the final show with them on 29 and 30 November and the next day the first group of dealers arrived.

The show was nowhere near as good as it should have been. The reveal of one of the ranges involved dancers bringing life-size photographs of sections of the car onto the stage. They put them all together and then there was supposed to be a dead blackout. The pictures they had just assembled were supposed to fly up into the space over the stage and, because we were supposed to be in a blackout, the audience wasn’t supposed to see it the assembled image go. It was supposed to be a magical surprise when the lights came up and in place of the photo was the real car.

Presentation cars onstage with (l to r) Norman Rossington, Peter Bowles and Tony Ball (Chairman BL Europe and Overseas)
Presentation cars onstage with (l to r) Norman Rossington, Peter Bowles and Tony Ball (Chairman BL Europe and Overseas)

The blackout wasn’t black enough

It should have been good but the truth was that it wasn’t possible to get a dead blackout in the Salle des Etoiles so the dealers could see the picture of the car disappearing into the space over the stage.

On the whole this was the most disappointing show I was involved in. Just to add to the pain I was in the welcome dinner for the first group, and I was told that one of the Directors wanted to see me. When I got to his table he asked if I’d seen his room. I hadn’t so he gave me his key and told me to go and look at it. I collected Peter and we went to see what was wrong.

It was one of those rooms that you never get to see when you do a recce on a hotel. It was small to the point of being poky and had obviously not been refurbished for a long time. Peter managed to get him moved before the dinner had finished. It wasn’t the only problem we had with rooms. Later Peter told me that we didn’t have enough rooms for the next group.

The dealers were staying in the Hotel de Paris and The Hermitage which was where I was also staying. In reality, I didn’t need to be with the dealers so I told Peter that he could move me to the Beach Plaza which was where the crew were staying so I spent the rest of the show in a much more relaxed atmosphere.

SD1 facelift dealer launch in Monte Carlo – presentation of a car to HSH Prince Rainer of Monaco
SD1 facelift dealer launch in Monte Carlo – presentation of a car to HSH Prince Rainer of Monaco

A Prince in bad circumstances

One of the events that I had nothing to do with was the presentation of a facelifted SD1 to His Serene Highness Prince Rainier III of Monaco (above). I suspect that somebody had the idea that it would be good publicity, so a presentation event was organised at the Palace. The following September news came through of the tragic death in a car accident of Princess Grace of Monaco.

It’s not surprising that alongside the shock at hearing of her death there was a period when everybody in the office wondered if she had been driving the presentation car. She hadn’t but that didn’t soften the blow we all felt, having spent so many weeks in Monaco less than a year before.

We finally got to the end of this ghastly event and the last group of dealers boarded the coaches that would take them back to Nice Cote d’Azur airport. Peter and I waved them off and got into a car with three of the secretaries. We had decided we deserved a day off, so we drove over to Ventimiglia, just over the border in Italy. We got back late in the afternoon. Peter was driving and dropped me off at my hotel before going on to his. Soon after I got to my room the telephone rang. It was Peter.

‘You’ll never guess what’s happened.’

I didn’t hesitate because it seemed pretty obvious from the way he was asking. ‘They’re still at the airport,’ I said.

Food and drink solve all problems

The charter aircraft that was due to fly the dealers back to the UK had gone technical and wasn’t expected to be able to leave until very late that evening. I got to the Hotel de Paris very quickly indeed and spent an hour or so there. Peter was making arrangements to look after the dealers. He called a man that he knew, who was Food and Beverage Manager at one of the hotels near the airport.

Between them they were making arrangements to feed the dealers in that hotel although Peter’s pal said he wouldn’t be able to get all of his banqueting waiters in to serve a dinner. It looked like members of our team who were still in Monte Carlo were going to be drafted in as waiters for the evening. Meanwhile, I was behind the reception desk in the lobby of the Hotel de Paris trying to find out exactly what was happening to the aircraft.

At one stage I had a telephone in one hand with the airline’s Nice Station Manager on the other end and another telephone in the other hand talking to the airline’s London office while Telexes were coming in from the travel company which had handled all the arrangements for the flights. It was a fraught and frantic hour or so, but the airline managed to sort out the technical issue before we all had to dash over to Nice to serve dinners.

Back home with a shudder

By the middle of December, I was back at home and then on 16 December we had a walkthrough of the fleet show. That went well but this launch hadn’t finished with me yet. Early in January Britain was hit by some of the coldest weather ever experienced with temperatures down to minus 20 degrees and colder in some places.

We were working in one of the exhibition halls at the NEC near Birmingham and trying to get fleet buyers in from all over the country. We had four groups of 300 buyers coming in to see the show and, so far as I know, they all made it safely.

All except one… We had built a theatre space with 350 raked seats in one of the exhibition halls with a corridor leading to it from a lobby area near the doors leading into the hall. This was one of the consequences of using what was known as a black box venue – all we were getting was a black box.

SD1 facelift cutaway car for use in the exhibition
SD1 facelift cutaway car for use in the exhibition

Alcohol fuelled and emotional

We had to bring everything else in from the walls for the theatre to the carpets, seats and so on in addition to the usual lighting and sound rigs, scenery, turntables and all the other kit needed to stage a major product launch. The build and rehearsals went well, and we started the shows. During one of them I was in the lobby area and one of the security team came and told me that there was a problem. I followed him down the corridor into the auditorium and he pointed up the stairs at the side of the seats where the fleet buyers were sitting, watching the show.

One of them had collapsed on the steps at the side of the seats. By the time I reached him he was conscious, but I knew that the show would be finishing very soon, and the buyers would be heading down the stairs that he was blocking. I managed to get him to his feet and supported him down the stairs and into the corridor. He collapsed again. As I knelt at his side, he looked up at me and said something and suddenly I realised that he wasn’t ill… he was drunk.

Even so, he was lying in the corridor and 300 fleet buyers were due to come down it in just a few minutes. I managed to get him to his feet again and supported him to the end of the corridor where there was a chair. I parked him there so that the first aid people could take care of him, just as the finale music finished and the house lights went up.

SD1 facelift cutaway car for use in the exhibition
SD1 facelift cutaway car for use in the exhibition

What the duck?

We finally completed the shows on 15 January and usually there would be all the paperwork to deal with – signing off invoices, writing thank you letters, arguing about extra costs and so on and, on this show, there was a lot to argue about with the production company. But there was also one extra job to do. One of the acts in the Monte Carlo cabaret was Neville King, who was a wonderfully funny ventriloquist.

I was told that he had created havoc on the flight out to Nice by making it seem that there was somebody trapped in one of the overhead baggage bins. He was great in the show and one of the props that he used was a decoy Mallard duck – the thing used by hunters to convince wild Mallard that the area in which the hunters were operating was safe. Every night when he had finished with it, he tossed it over his shoulder, and it bounced around at the back of the stage.

When the crew were derigging the show, they found the duck and gave it to me to return to Neville. The trouble was that he had already left so I took it back to the office and called his agent to explain that I had Neville’s duck and to ask how I could return it to him. I never got a response, so it sat on the edge of my desk. By this time, we were in a huge, windowless, open-space office in Canley works. That summer was hot, and I began going to work in just a shirt and trousers – no jacket and no tie. After a couple of days my boss asked me to do him a favour and start wearing a tie again. Apparently, there had been complaints.

All a matter of style

So, I did as he asked but then I thought that if I was improperly dressed because I wasn’t wearing a tie, then so was the duck – it was a drake, after all. I dug around in my wardrobe at home and found the most appalling early 1970s tie that I had, unbelievably, worn at some point in the past and put it on the duck which was still sitting on my desk. The tie hung over the edge of the desk in a rather debonair manner.

A few days later Trevor Taylor, who was Sales Director at the time (I think) was walking through the office, looked over to me, raised his hand and said, ‘Hi Ken’. Then he stopped short, pointed at the duck with its tie and said, ‘What’s that?’. I looked at it and said ‘It’s a duck’ as if this was the most obvious thing in the world. ‘Oh’ said Trevor, ‘Right’ and walked on, shaking his head.

This had been by far the worst show of my career but at least it left me with a laugh.

© 2022 Ken Clayton

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

7 Comments

  1. Ken,

    I hope that, as well as chronicling your adventures on here, you are also considering a book.

    As well as automotive history, there’s a fascinating corporate and social history to your tales.

    • Thanks for your comments Brian and I’m glad you’re enjoying the stories. I doubt that there would be enough demand for a book and, to be honest, dealing with a publisher on my last book about Jaguar left me with a desire to avoid repeating the experience. I think I’ll give everybody a break from the launch stories for the next episode and take a look at some of the people I worked with on the shows who were at the top of the organisation at different times.

  2. I hadn’t realised that this event was happening when Princess Grace of Monaco died in a car accident.

    I was an apprentice at Canley at that time and on the day that the news broke there was feverish activity in Building 50 to get people ready to fly out as it was thought that she was driving a Rover but we understood that to be one of their ‘household’ cars, rather than a launch car.

    When it became known that it wasn’t a Rover, people were stood down.

    • We weren’t running the event when she died. The dealer shows were in December 1981 and that’s when the SD1 was presented to Prince Rainier. Princess Grace died in September 1982 but, like you, I remember the concern about what she was driving.

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