I was there : Launching the Rover SD1 over the years – Part One

Rover SD1

In 1976, I started organising new model launches for the company that became Austin Rover – 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 their 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 buckets of dry ice vapour.

Rover’s move to Woburn Abbey

On reflection, it seems odd that I rarely seem to have been involved in choosing the venues for new model launches. This was certainly true of the event to show the Rover SD1 and the TR7 to fleet buyers. These were the people who bought vast quantities of cars for car hire companies, leasing companies, corporations and so on.

For some reason, somebody – and I don’t know who it was – decided to stage the event at Woburn Abbey. My main responsibility on this occasion was an exhibition to be mounted at a site just inside the London Gate: it was, quite literally, a greenfield site.

The Fleet Sales Director decided that he wanted to display the whole range of British Leyland products – the full car range including Land Rover, Range Rover and Jaguar, trucks, semi-trailers, buses, even an Alvis Scorpion light tank. I have a vague recollection of the display including scaffolding and refrigerators, but I might have that completely wrong.

Outdoor challenges

Woburn Abbey

The combination of the range of exhibits and the fact that we were going to display them in parkland meant that we had to bring in absolutely everything that would be needed. I organised marquees, generators, portacabins to be used as offices, PA systems, catering, even telephone lines. This was, after all, many years before the availability of mobile phones so I had to get the Post Office, which was the telephone service provider through the whole of Britain except Hull at that stage, to provide telephone lines so that we could stay in touch with the office.

We moved onsite on 4 May 1976 to begin building the whole exhibition area, ready to start running the shows on the following Monday. From my point of view, the timing was dreadful because my daughter had been born a couple of days before and I had a three-year old son to look after.

Paternity leave had not been heard of at that time, but I managed to take some time off to take care of him although I had to be at Woburn for part of the build-up. My in-laws usually looked after our son while I was onsite but, one day, I decided that he’d like to see what was going on so took him to work with me. I think the only clear memory that either of us has of the day was him playing with a football on one of the trailers that was hooked up to a Leyland truck.

A clash with Vauxhall

It was during the build-up that we went to a pub in Woburn village for lunch and, while there, the landlord found out what we were doing and commented that Vauxhall was also launching a car to the press and the pub was on the route that they were using to demonstrate the car in fact, it was a lunch stop.

I couldn’t say now whose idea it was to go to the same pub the following day but this time taking an SD1 and a TR7 with us. We parked them in the car park and went in for a quick lunch. We were told afterwards that the Vauxhall PR team were less than impressed to have been upstaged at their lunch stop.

One of the more entertaining exhibits at the event was the Alvis Scorpion light tank, which was amazingly fast cross country, as experienced by Henrietta Tiarks, perhaps better known as the Marchioness of Tavistock and, later, the Duchess of Bedford. She apparently expressed great interest in the Scorpion, so the driver offered to take her for a ride in it. At speed… Across the deer park… She gave every appearance of enjoying the experience.

Overall, though, this event proved to be an ideal introduction to the process of launch presentations because, from my point of view, it went without a hitch.

An unusual event

The same was true of most of the launch of the Police specification Rover 2300 and 2600 in July 1977. This was another of those events where the venue was chosen for me. I was always very much against letting people loose on racetracks when we didn’t really know them or their capabilities.

There are plenty of stories in the motor industry of people undergoing some sort of transformation when they’re on a racing circuit and thinking they’re (in 1977) James Hunt or Niki Lauda.

However, the Fleet Sales Team were adamant that the right place for this launch was the Donington Park circuit in Leicestershire. The circuit was being revived by 1977 under the guidance of local business man, Tom Wheatcroft. I suppose it made sense to the Fleet Sales Team because it meant that the Police drivers could go as fast as the circuit allowed and the flashing blue lights, Police signs and so on wouldn’t have to be covered up.

The cars : Jaguar XJ-S development history

A Jaguar incident

For our event, the Police representatives who were attending were supposed to drive around the circuit only in the two new Rovers. At some point one of the Fleet Sales Team said that one of the coppers wanted to drive the Jaguar XJ-S which we had there purely for display. He persuaded the Fleet Sales Director that it would be okay because the individual concerned had the highest level of Police driver qualification at the Met. – he was therefore allowed out on the track in the XJ-S.

I didn’t have a clear view of Redgate Corner at the end of the start/finish straight so didn’t see exactly what happened. In reality, I didn’t need to see it. I could guess when I saw the cloud of dust as the very experienced and highly qualified Metropolitan Police driver over-cooked it and spun off into the gravel. In fairness, an XJ-S was a grand tourer, not really a sports car so the suspension wasn’t really suited to that sort of driving. At least, I suspect that’s what he told his colleagues. On the upside, that was the only slight flaw in that event, so the record was beginning to look pretty good.

That all changed on the next SD1 event.

On to the six-cylinder models

Rovers 2300 and 2600

In September 1977, Ray Underwood was running the Dealer Launch for the Rover 2300 and 2600 at The Heathrow Hotel, alongside the airport. The fleet shows were, again, in a different location and this time with a different company staging them. The location that I was landed with was the Hilton Hotel at Stratford-upon-Avon.

It was fine in many respects, but there was one aspect of it that would become very important: the main conference room would have to be used for the launch presentation and also for the gala dinner. I suspect that we had plans to have beauty shots of the cars on screen while the dinner was progressing because it wasn’t possible to separate the projection screen from the diners. In the event, it didn’t matter what was planned.

We rehearsed the show on Sunday 18 September with the first group of fleet buyers due to arrive the following morning.

Specialist attention

It was normal to bring in a specialist conference production company for these events because we just didn’t have the skills or the equipment to produce them in-house. On this occasion, I had hired a company called Magic Lantern. A different company was producing the dealer shows in London and, as a consequence, the two shows were entirely different. This was one of the things that I changed once I took over responsibility for all the launch events because it made no sense to have two production companies creating two separate shows when significant parts of those shows could be exactly the same.

The fleet rehearsal ran well enough on the Sunday afternoon but, at the end of it, one of the Directors said that we needed to use one of the AV modules that had been produced for the dealer show. These modules were technically very complicated.

They used Kodak Carousel slide projectors and, on this occasion, there were 18 of them arranged so that, when three were illuminated together, they provided a magnificent wide-screen image. Alongside the projectors was a four-track reel-to-reel tape recorder with a music and commentary on two tracks and a pulse track on the fourth. The sound was fed into the sound system we had installed and the pulse went to a small computer that controlled the projectors. so it would receive a pulse and send a signal to turn on whichever projectors were needed at that moment.

High-tech solutions

There were various companies making these computers and the rig we had in Stratford was made by AVL. Unfortunately, the dealer show used around the same number of projectors but, critically, it was controlled by a small computer made by a different company called Electrosonic. The two systems were incompatible so I couldn’t just take the module from the dealer show and use it in our rig.

The decision to include this AV module in the fleet show therefore presented me with a number of problems. The first was that it was now Sunday evening and I had to get hold of the Producer from a different production company in London. Then I had to persuade him to get the module out of their stores so that somebody could pick it up and bring it to Stratford along with the necessary projectors and control equipment because it was running on Electrosonic gear.

That meant we had to fit another 18 projectors and an additional set of control equipment onto the projector racks that were already loaded with AVL kit and the 18 projectors that Bill Johnson was using. I have no memory of getting in touch with the company that produced the dealer show – it seems most likely that I got hold of Ray and asked him to contact them. I do, however, remember the difficulty in fitting all the extra kit in behind the screens (we always used back projection meaning that the audience had a clear view of the screens because the projectors were behind the set).

Showing them to the fleets

On the Monday the fleet buyers came in and took their seats and we started the show. It wasn’t long before the AVL and Electrosonic kits decided that they didn’t want to play with each other. As a result, that first audience saw about half of the show they should have seen. That was bad enough, but the same audience was to have dinner in the same room.

In order to make sure that everything would work properly for the next day’s audience, we had to step through all of the slides – one spread at a time and through hundreds of spreads. It was the only way to make sure that the slides making up each spread were in the right slots in the projector magazines. There was no alternative but to do it while the fleet buyers were having dinner.

I was told later that they thought it was a great idea to show them photos of the new cars while they were having dinner, so they were happy. The same couldn’t be said for Bill or me. I can manage without that sort of stress…

Autocue machine

Sticking to the script

The Directors who were speaking at these shows usually had Autocue meaning that their speeches were typed onto a roll of paper that was fed through a motorised machine which housed a television camera. These days it’s all electronic but then it was down to a typewriter and a narrow roll of paper.

The image from the television camera was sent to a monitor, typically in the base of the lectern on stage, and the text was reflected off a clear screen at eye level. It meant that the speaker could appear to have memorised the script which was better than having them flipping typed pages over.

However, this meant that they pretty much had to stick to the script, which was no bad thing from my point of view because it helped when it came to slide changes. I never allowed speakers to control their own slides: I reckoned they had enough to think about in delivering the words convincingly without expecting them to control their own slide changes. There was always a risk that they’d press the wrong button or press the right one twice so we always had the projectionist sitting with a copy of the script, controlling the slide changes.

Next slide please

There was one occasion when I came under great pressure to allow a speaker to look after his own slides. It was a few years after the Rover show and the late Tim Bell (later Lord Bell) was one of the speakers. He absolutely insisted that he was going to control his own slide changes. In the end, I said we’d arrange it and gave him a button that he pressed to change his slides. What he never knew was that the button only connected to a light on the projectionist’s desk, so Tim was only doing the electronic equivalent of saying ‘Next slide please’.

Back in Stratford for the Rover 2300 and 2600 fleet launch, Terry Nolan was one of the Directors who was speaking. I liked Terry but he always wanted to paraphrase passages in his script to keep it fresh for him. The Autocue operator who had been with us through rehearsals and the first show was used to this, but she wasn’t there for the second show.

Her replacement was obviously not familiar with the content of the show so when Terry went off on one of his paraphrasing journeys, the operator stopped feeding the roll of paper through the Autocue machine, thinking that Terry was off on an ad lib and would come back to the script. As a result, when Terry looked back at the screen, he could see a section that he had already delivered, albeit in different words. Undeterred, he clapped his hands together and said, ‘But let’s move on’. The Autocue operator realised what had happened and managed to get back to the point that he should have been at in the first place.

The rest of the event passed off with no mishaps which is more than can be said for the launch of the facelifted SD1. That was a nightmare. I’ll explain what happened in the next piece.

© 2022 Ken Clayton

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

Rover SD1

9 Comments

  1. These launch shows using AV presentation are always complex affairs, even more so these days. The name Electrosonic is known to me, I had experience of producing tape/slide shows using their rigs,albeit on a smaller scale compared to Ken’s experience. Making promo Films on 16mm was more pleasant task.

    • This was an interesting article to begin with but then you started talking about the Av side of things and I got bored. All I was expecting to read was about perhaps comments from prospective deals regards sales for the cars, how well received the cars were by dealers etc- sadly none of this was mentioned.

      • I’m sorry I bored you. Sadly I can’t give you any of the information you want because my role was purely one of producing the shows. Others would be far more qualified than I am to tell you how the dealers (and the fleet buyers for that matter) reacted to them.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure about 16mm films being more pleasant to make. They were certainly more expensive. The complexity of the slide shows is difficult to explain these days. Suffice to say that I had many conversations with directors at rehearsals on the lines of ‘No, you can’t take out any slides or add any at this stage. It would mean taking all of the slides out of all the magazines, laying them out on lightboxes to re-arrange the order and then re-traying. It’s far too risky at this stage of the game. All you can do is to substitute one slide for another.’

  3. Well said Ken and very true! I recall many hours selecting and positioning Slides on a lightbox. I’ve spent my entire career in industrial Film, Video & AV/TV production (now retired but freelancing part time.) Look forward to reading the next instalment.

  4. A great article and very informative. Thank you. I look forward to reading about the launch of the facelifted 1982 MY models and also whether there was a similar, albeit smaller event for the Vitesse variant that followed towards the end of 1982.

    • Thank you for your comments. I have absolutely no recollection of any launch presentation for the Vitesse. I’ve checked back through my diary and given that the public launch was mid-October, I would have expected a dealer launch 4 – 6 weeks before but can find nothing. Sorry. The piece on the facelifted models will follow soon.

    • I’m not so sure. PowerPoint has its advantages but so did slides. For one thing they imposed a discipline on speakers. They had to work out what they wanted to say well in advance of the event and couldn’t turn up on the day expecting to be able to make changes. In my experience, the changes that get made these days rarely improve matters. I work on the basis that a speaker should assume that no slides are needed beyond their title slide. More should be used only if they actually contribute to the communication of the presentation. These days this is rarely true. Given the cost of the slides we were much less likely to get the ‘script on screen’ approach which I hate, especially when the speaker decides to read out the words they’ve got on screen.

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