HONEST JOHN ANECDOTES FOR SGMW
I am not allowed to write as ‘Honest John’ anymore, but that does not preclude me from writing of the 26 years when I was ‘Honest John’.
We had flown to Portugal to test-drive the then new Smart Roadster and Roadster Coupe. I drove with Chris Rees and, apart from the awful automated manual gearboxes, we enjoyed the cars, top down in the glorious sunshine.
It was not until our return approaching Stansted in a chartered Boeing 737 that the climate changed. We were informed that severe cross winds would make landing too dangerous, so we would have to circle for at least half an hour before attempting to touch down. They played us an old TV comedy on the screens, after which the Jeff Day, the Mercedes-Benz PR, stood up to address us with the reassuring words, “Well, I hope you’ve all filed your copy.”
The plane hit the runway at an alarming angle. All the lights went out. Some of us clutched their rosaries. Finally, the bumping and thumping ended, the scream of the engines subsided, and we taxied to the private terminal.
Instinctively, after clearing immigration, we all ran to our cars as quickly as our legs would take us. I got to the M25 just as the storm hit and I’d never seen anything like it. The temperature was so low that as soon as the hail hit the road surface it turned into a skating rink. Braking on the descents had no effect except to transform the car into a toboggan. Similarly, the 40-tonne truck beside it. Eventually on the flat, all the vehicles stopped. I tried to get out an immediately slipped. I could not even stand up. Finally, we saw some movement and, by Junction 21A with the M1, it was all over.
Not so for those of us travelling North, however. They were stuck on the M11 overnight. Questions were asked in the House of Commons about gritters. And the Blair government was forced to put its hands in its pockets to increase the fleet, even though most of them would only ever be required for a few weeks of the year.
Whenever a manufacturer launched new right-hand drive UK registered cars in mainland Europe it encountered the logistical problem of getting them back to Blightly. Then someone came up with the idea of having the last rotation of UK journos drive them home.
These were always the most coveted trips and George Fowler and I got the job of driving a BMW F25 X3 from Innsbruck to Farnborough in the snow. Happily, with four-wheel drive, Pirelli Sotto-Zero tyres and a 2.0 litre diesel engine, this was adequately equipped for the journey we faced.
We hit a white-out blizzard in the Austrian Tyrol. Motored through without mishap. Then reached the A8 for Munich, which was blocked by wheel-spinning HGVs with only one driven axle. After half an hour of getting nowhere, we spotted headlights escaping from the left of the autobahn that appeared to be crossing a field. So we followed them.
Of course, it wasn’t a field. Roads in that part of Bavaria were simply not hedged in. Eventually, we found ourselves in the village of Nelligan where the ‘gasthaus’ just happened to have its own craft distillery, so we were able to settle in comfort for the night.
ONE MAN PRODUCTION TEAM
As ‘Honest John’, I filmed 180 You Tube videos, mostly single-handed, and this posed its own set of problems.
It’s one thing to film a drive-by shot while a helpful journo colleague is driving the car (often posing as me in my hat). But it was quite another while I was on my own because this entailed setting up a camera to film, driving away, turning round, driving past the camera, then turning round and returning to retrieve the camera.
I got away with it until the launch in Tuscany of the BMW 3-Series Gran Turismo, a very nice, luxurious hatchback. The BMW PR had suggested I used a hill quite close to our hotel. The problem was, having filmed the drive-by I had to drive half a mile to the bottom of the hill before I could turn round. That was when I saw a white FIAT Punto stopped next to my camera. I wrung the neck of the diesel engine racing back up the hill inevitably to find that the camera performance out of that BMW it had never given before only to find that inevitably the camera was no longer where I left it.
I turned round at the top of the hill and could still see the white Punto in the distance, so screeched off after it. But by the time I reached the bottom of the hill, the Punto had disappeared. I could turn left or right, so disconsolately turned right to head back to the hotel, whereupon, out of the side of my eye, I spotted the white Punto sneaking down a side-road towards the road I was on.
So I blocked him off. He took the desperate measure of bumping over the verge to make his escape. I went after him in hot pursuit, pulled him over in the manner of an old American action movie. Then, as I was approaching the passenger door of the Punto, he took off again.
Happily, my red mist cleared, and I weighed up the value of my camera against a £35,000 BMW plus the risk of killing someone or getting killed. So I gave up and went back to the hotel.
The next day, the hotel receptionist accompanied me to the local carabinieri post, I reported the theft, described the occupants of the white Punto, signed a form and headed to the airport with the remains of my possessions.
A few days later I had a call from BMW to tell me my camera and tripod had been returned to the hotel. Later, when I checked the SD card, everything was there apart from the white FIAT Punto approaching the camera, stopping and someone’s hands grabbing it.
On another occasion, filming a Ford Focus ST estate car in the South of France, I wanted to make the point that this was a hot hatchback that could carry a lot of stuff. I’d left my driving companion having a coffee in a village, found a patch of ground off the road, unloaded the car and set up to film me opening the tailgate to reveal the cavern inside.
But the light wasn’t right. I needed the sun to shine into the interior of the car. So I carefully set the camera and tripod aside where it wouldn’t get damaged, started to reposition the car, then heard a crunch as I drove over my companion’s travel bag.
Happily, it wasn’t his laptop. But I had no choice other than to buy him a brand new Kindle.
IT COULD HAVE BEEN A CATASTROPHE
For its 2016 7-Series, BMW wanted to do the launch in style, and took the word launch’ literally. So, after a chauffeured tour around the Cote d’Azur in a 730Ld, we were boarded onto a typical gin palace ‘yacht’ that was to take us on a sunset voyage along the Riviera to our extremely exclusive hotel. Except there was something tangled around the propellors. So the captain had to call in a diver. The wet-suited frog man duly descended, emerged with something horrible in his hands, muttered words to the effect of “Voila” and set us free.
But by that time the sun was already setting, so there wasn’t much to see, except for a rigid inflatable boat bobbing ominously on the end of a rope behind us. Most of us retired to the ‘salon’ where the pile of the carpet was so deep we were requested to remove our shoes before entering.
Eventually, when we reached offshore of the hotel, it was pitch black and it would have been too risky to attempt to berth against the hotel’s quay. So we were ordered into the RIB and, with the flaps of our jackets acquiring tide-marks as we sat around the sides, we motored into a nearby harbour where a fleet of 7-Series picked us up to transport us to the hotel.
I had never stayed alone in a larger suite. This one could have accommodated three generations of a Catholic family in comfort. I could have swapped beds every hour of the night if I’d wanted to.
Dinner was steak with a Bearnaise sauce, but, due to some sort of mix-up over food allergies, I just got steak, which was tough in both senses of the word.
We were staying at a stunning beach hotel at Playa Calafell in Spain. A building I remembered from my mis-spent youth in the 1960s when it had been a derelict former children’s sanatorium.
‘Desayuno’ (breakfast) had everything the English or the Spanish could wish for, from crispy bacon and crusty bread to ‘churros’, that are a kind of multi-faceted deep-fried doughnut snipped into pieces about 3 inches long traditionally dunked into a hot chocolate drink or a chocolate sauce.
In my absence, my Scottish co-driver had found the bread and the bacon, made a sandwich, spread it with what he took to be HP sauce, then took a bite.
The first car I drove with optional factory-fitted satnav was the 1997 Volkswagen Passat B5, built in a brand-new factory at Dresden, which was the location of the launch. We stayed at an incongruous 1970s Hilton in the centre of the city that contrasted with the painstaking reconstruction of Bomber Harris’s blackened cathedral like a hideous carbuncle.
In those days I was afflicted by a compulsion to max every car I got my hands on whenever the opportunity presented itself, preferably legally, and legal in Germany was the autobahn. It just so happened that there was an autobahn keyed into the route to the lunch stop.
I found the autobahn. Concrete surfaced with two lanes either way. Except all the traffic was running two-way, nose to tail on one carriageway. Then a chap in a VW sweater beckoned me over and directed me to the other carriageway. No kidding. They’d closed off half of the autobahn to give us a chance to max the cars. We only had a couple of kilometres to play with, but that was enough for 130mph from the 1.8 20-valve turbo engine, followed by a fairly severe brake test. Imagine Tony Blair’s Labour Government allowing that.
Lunch was at a schloss where LJK Setright was none too happy about the braised pig’s knuckle on offer, after which I decided to get lost and let the satnav conduct me back to the hideous Hilton.
On another occasion VW’s excellent PR, Paul Bucket, afforded me the great privilege of dinner with Bruno Adeldt, VAG’s then financial director, on the top floor of the new Sony building, still under construction on Potsdamer Plaza in Berlin. Adeldt had been a child when the Russians invaded the city in 1945 and spoke of the great shame he had felt when the conquering army was comprised of half-starved, bedraggled Mongolians using donkeys for transport.
His story helped explain Germany’s determination to win the peace.
Elsewhere at that dinner, so the story goes, octogenarian motoring writer and former Lancaster pilot David Lord Strathcarron was asked by one of our hosts if he had ever been to Berlin before.
“Yes, several times many years ago.” He replied. “It was night.”
We’d enjoyed Walter Rohrl spinning us through J-Turns in an Audi A4 quattro. Had rather less fun in Sweden where we were supposed to drive Audi S1 quattros on a frozen lake, but four by four was cancelled due to thaw by thaw. But the most unforgettable ride was a lap around Goodwood circuit in a short wheelbase Audi UR quattro with Hannu Mikkola pressing the pedals.
Jon Zamett had bought him a brand-new pair of white trainers for the purpose, and it was more interesting to watch them dancing between brake and accelerator than to look out of the windows at the landscape passing in the wrong direction.
Eventually, we reached the Goodwood chicane, still travelling at 100mph. To kill the speed he simply flung the car sideways, after which he trickled into the pits to find his next victim.
The occasion was the launch of the amazing Audi RS4. But, after Mikkola’s demo drive, no way was Audi UK going to allow us on the track in one of them.
GETTING STUCK IN
I’m not very good in the snow. Slid a BMW X6 into a drift in Austria and had to be towed out. Though later was entrusted with the job of getting a 120D quattro from a ski resort to Innsbruck airport. The German crew told me, “just follow Tatania,” with a sly grin between them. Tatania didn’t just look sensational, she was ace behind the wheel. 70-80mph doesn’t read like much. Except this was downhill on hard-packed frozen snow with more than a few bends in the road. When you lose adhesion at that sort of speed you need a very delicate touch. Just following Tatania got me there without a scratch.
I was less successful in the sand dunes near Castellao in Portugal. We were driving a Toyota Urban Cruiser with four wheel drive and I foolishly thought a bit of sand wouldn’t be a problem. Half an hour later a pair of friendly Portuguezers threw us a lifeline and towed us out behind their L200 pick-up.
I was a little luckier photographing a SEAT Ibiza on a beach in Spain. Job done, the wheels started to sink and spin. So, rather than just let them dig a hole, I tried full lock and, between me and the DSG gearbox we managed to claw the car out sideways.
In Italy, in a FIAT 500L Trekking that was fitted with a trick diff, it wasn’t my fault at all. My driver of the day had looked down to try and find the switch and accidentally bumped a wheel off the track into a field that was a couple of feet lower down. The sump shield was resting on the ground, so no amount of revving and pushing and shoving would get enough traction to reverse back onto the road. So eventually I walked across the field to a wood, came back with some fallen branches, packed them under the dangling wheel, and had my driver drive forwards into the field, after which we regained the track at a low point and headed back to Lingotto. The next team to take the car out couldn’t understand why it was full of dust with foliage in the suspension.
I was worried about what could happen on the launch of the Audi R8 at Le Castellet in the South of France. (The hotel, attached to the Paul Ricard circuit, with its own airfield was otherwise known as ‘Bernie’s Inn’.) On top of that, it was a weekend.
Obviously, the speed cops were well aware that this was a favourite spot for Audi car launches. (I’d driven A4s, A6s and A8s there in the past.) So how would they take to a bunch of rosbif journos racing around in the fastest road cars that Audi had yet produced?
I won’t write that we needn’t have worried. Sue Baker got stopped end escorted to the local gendarmerie. But it turned out they thought the car looked fantastic and all they wanted was for Sue to tell their mates what it could do.
We encountered a similar reaction. Everyone from parish priests to a little girl taking her dog for a walk was gob-smacked, then broke out into a grin.
Towards the end of our drive we turned off the main drag into a winding road through a canyon. All the kids in a Renault Clio in front of us had their camera phones glued to the windows. Then I spotted a bunch of bikers behind us, so signalled to let them through before passing the Clio and setting off after them. They had us on the straights. We had them on the corners. So they never got away from us until we had to turn off for Le Castellet. Happy days.
GOOD KOREA MOVES
We had been driving the then new Hyundai i30 in Austria and dinner was at round tables set up in the Natural History Museum in Vienna. There was no table plan so, rather than huddle together with colleagues, I thought it would be both polite and potentially more interesting to sit with our Korean hosts.
It turned out that the chap beside me enjoyed oddball Japanese, Taiwanese, Thai and Korean movies as much as I did. Takahashi Miike, Park Chan Wook, Kim Ki-duk all came up. Within weeks we were posting DVDs to each other. (Anyone who has watched Bong Joon Ho’s Academy Award winning ‘Parasite’ or even ‘Squid Games’ will get the drift.)
My dining companion was Ken Lee, CEO of Hyundai UK, famous for being the first manufacturer to exploit the UK government’s scrappage scheme. Rather than wait, he and his colleagues had prepared ten scenarios of how it might play out, so when the final details were announced were immediately ready to press the button.
I had some success with ‘Honest John’ You Tube videos for the Hyundai i10 and iX30. Tom Barnard was Hyundai PR at the time and, always keen to try something different, had dressed up a Travelodge as a 5-Star hotel for the UK launch of the iX30. Nothing was as it seemed. The meat looked like cake.The cake looked like the meat. Notices in the bathroos read, ‘Please feel free to steal the towels.’ Ken had me sit with him and his Korean European Marketing Director to explain Tom’s unconventional approach.
The next day we got to drive the cars and were warned of extensive flooding in the area. Before long I reached a road that had transformed into a river. Then a pick-up truck drove by and, as I watched it, I realised the road was flat and the water was only six to nine inches deep. So that’s where I filmed. The result (with a little help from Hyundai) was 380,000 You Tube views.
Before he returned to Korea, Ken got me into ‘Kimchi’ and Korean short rib barbecue, my wife and I took Ken and his wife to a Thai restaurant. Ken loaned me his Hyundai Genesis for a week, even though the car was not officially on sale in the UK. I got to visit the Hyundai/KIA development facility at Namyang. And, on my second visit to Korea, I got within 100 metres of North Korea.
The Demilitarized Zone (the ‘DMZ’) between South and North Korea was a major tourist attraction. So that was where we were directed on the launch of the SsangYong Rexton G4 in 2017. The highlight was one of the many tunnels dug by the North Koreans through which to invade South Korea.
First, they took us on an open train. Then we reached an incline down which we had to walk with bowed heads until we arrived at a solid concrete wall. Beyond that, it was explained, the tunnel was completely flooded for 100 metres until a second solid concrete wall, the idea being there was no way to breach it without being drowned deep underground. Suitably reassured, that no invasion was imminent we headed back to the Rexton G4s.
MICHELIN 3 STAR
One of my first European launches was for the Citroen Xantia Activa held at the Michelin headquarters at Clermont Ferrand. In 1934 Citroen had faced bankruptcy from the costs of developing the revolutionary Traction Avant and putting it into production. The company then rescued by Michelin who had been its principal shareholder, which was a smart move because the Citroen Traction Avant became a runaway success.
If you are a tyre company you want drivers to use your tyres, wear them out, then buy some more. Which explains the marketing genius both of buying Citroen and of producing Guides Michelin. So where else to stop for lunch than a Three Star Michelin restaurant, so posh they even offered Eau Sauvage to freshen up in the toilettes. After stuffing ourselves with fois gras, we were each handed a Bayonne ham, then consigned to the coach back to the charter flight.
I could not help imagining the consequences if our plane came down. An air crash investigation report that read, “30 bodies were extracted from the wreckage, including 90 legs.”
NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCES
The launch to the 2nd generation Audi TT RS4, now with 400PS, took us to the former F1 circuit of Jarama, close to Madrid (now surrounded by housing developments, so under the thumb of noise restrictions).
We’d been practising ‘launch control’. But were then let loose, alone, on the track and I don’t know if you’ll remember F1 races at Jarama where the cars took off from a crest at speeds well over 100mph? Well, that’s what I did.
It’s one thing to leave the ground at 70mph. You soon come back down to earth. At over 100 you fly for a much greater distance and have no control at all. Very eerie. But happily (after all, I’m still here), I landed just in time to get some braking done before the rapidly approaching corner.
For the launch of the 2007 939 Spider, Alfa Romeo took us to Essaouria in Morocco and the drive was on deserted metalled roads across the desert. All went well until half-way through the return leg at about 115mph when the car suddenly got into a tank-slapper. It seemed like some colossal force inside the differential was trying to fling us sideways.
I couldn’t power out of it because the car only had the smaller engine. I definitely couldn’t brake. So all could do was gradually lift off until it calmed down and we could come to a stop.
We got out. No sign of a puncture. All we could think of was perhaps an undulation and a patch of sand on the road had triggered the VDC and initially I’d been fighting it.
My report to the Alfa engineers was countered with denials. Though, shortly after the launch of the car, on 27-7-2007, DVSA Recall R/2007/092 read: “Alfa Romeo 159, Brera & Spider Possible loss of vehicle control. Oil may leak from the Power Take Off Unit which may cause the unit to seize and possible loss of vehicle control. Fix: Recall cars likely to be affected to apply sealant to the core plug and to fit a retaining clip. 610 vehicles affected.”
SO GOOD I BOUGHT ONE
The launch of the first-generation SEAT Leon took place, unsurprisingly, in the city of Leon in Northwest Spain. We were flown to the small airport at Aviles, put into cars and told to take the scenic route via La Robla.
Happily, our Leon was blessed with the 1.8 litre 20 valve turbo engine and six speed gearbox straight out of the Audi TT, a powertrain for which the VW Golf GTI had to wait more than two years.
It went rather well. 140mph plus, even on the scenic route. Though, on 15-inch wheels, which restricted the size of the discs, the brakes weren’t quite up to its performance.
At the Parador in Leon we met Walter d’Silva, who SEAT had purloined from Alfa Romeo after he penned the beautiful 146, 147 and 156. The 1999 Leon looked a lot like a 5-door Alfasud, with a hatchback at its stubby tail, but d’Silva hadn’t designed it. That happened before he arrived, but I think he was he was responsible for the second generation Leon and third generation Toledo.
The following day we had hoped to drive a more mundane Leon back to the airport, but they had all been nabbed, so we were left with another 20VT 180. As soon as we set off, I could feel it was even better than the previous day’s car. It must have loosened up and felt even more eager and responsive. We had a blast of a journey back through the mountains to Aviles.
This doesn’t read like much of a story, but about 18 months later I was standing on the auction floor at BCA Blackbush when a 30,000-mile lipstick pink Leon 20VT Sport rolled into hall 2. I stole it for £7,800, blagged a CD multiplayer that plugged straight into the glove compartment, enjoyed an excellent year and 10,000 miles, then sold it for £400 less than I’d paid.
CHARITY BEGINS IN OXFORDSHIRE
Every two years Chris Bidgood used to stage the Britwell-Salome collector’s car run to raise funds for cystic fibrosis and other worthwhile charities. To take part, I managed to borrow Mitsubishi’s own venerable Jeep CJ-3B (VAD 831X) and, with some difficulty, managed to follow the others to Dick Skipworth’s farm where he housed a significant collection of racing Jaguars.
Dick Skipworth had previously been responsible for the saving and ground-up restoration of the famous ex Ecurie Ecosse transporter powered by a unique supercharged, opposed piston two-stroke 3.2 litre Commer diesel engine. (The one they made a Corgi toy of.) He sold it in December 2013 at Bonhams for £1,793,500.
After enjoying Dick’s excellent hospitality, including a film show, we were to return to Britwell-Salome. Unfortunately for me, everyone else was in a car capable of much more than the 55mph of my jeep.
So they left me in the dust. With no map, I thought I could orienteer my way back, but eventually realised I was driving in the wrong direction so had to resort to the satnav on my phone (which I had stupidly not thought of because I had never used before).
Nevertheless, I got there eventually. Enjoying the cheery attention of hundreds of motorists as they overtook me.
One of my fairly regular co-drivers was Richard Martyn Hammond from Cornwall who was great company with a terrific line of street banter.
On this occasion I was pre-booked to drive a SEAT Ibiza with Leigh Robinson and we, along with Richard, were staying at the refurbished art deco Midland Hotel on Morecombe Bay.
Leigh and I returned from our test-drive to the hotel and were surprised to find half a dozen cars parked up with their interior lights on and flasks of hot drinks being passed around inside.
What was going on? Were they preparing for an evening’s winkle picking on the mudflats once the tide went out? Or was there something else afoot that we didn’t know about.
Seems that someone on the hotel staff had read the guest list and told a friend that Richard Hammond would be staying at the hotel that night.