Currently reading: The stories you've never heard: Autocar's secret launch diaries
Our team tell their favourite stories from reporting on the car industry
Autocar
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12 mins read
16 May 2020

When the Autocar team aren’t sitting in their homes producing magazines and online stories remotely while socially distancing, you’ll usually find them in all manner of unusual locations driving, learning about and reviewing cars. Hey, it beats a proper job.

While we’ve been taking an enforced break from travel, we decided to look back through the schedule of our ‘launch diary’ planner to recall some of the most entertaining, unusual and downright weird events we’ve experienced.

Matt Prior - Hallucinating at 130mph

Difficult though this may be to believe, I’m a world speed record holder. Albeit in the 1600-2000cc diesel-powered production car class.

It was 2013 and, to celebrate its 110th anniversary, Vauxhall took two standard 2.0-litre diesel Astras and prepared them to drive for 24 hours around Millbrook Proving Ground’s high-speed circuit. I was due a two-hour stint in each car.

I took the start in one Astra at 4pm, which meant I would be in the other at 4am for a two-hour shift. But I needed to be ready to go from 2am, so I hadn’t had any sleep when I started.

What followed was the most uncomfortable two hours of my driving life. The Astra’s top speed was 130mph, but the view around the top lane of Millbrook’s two-mile-circumference bowl barely changed. It was just the same dimly lit patch of concrete, and even a conventional walkie-talkie earpiece inside my crash helmet – crushing my ear in the sort of pain that’s fine for 30 seconds but unbearable for two hours – couldn’t stop microsleeps or hallucinations.

But it was all worth it when it was over. There was joy, celebrations and even certificates – which our office cleaner unwittingly threw out.

Matt Saunders - I'll have one on the rocks

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Vauxhall Astra 2019 road test review - hero front

An all-new family of efficiency-enhanced engines, some mostly effective chassis mods and a few trim and equipment upgrades usefully sharpen the Astra’s appeal

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It was the UK press launch of the original BMW X3 – in the spring of 2004, if memory serves – and, having been on the magazine for a grand total of six months, I’d been charged with driving a Land Rover Freelander to Aberdeen for what was, I think, the first big Autocar group test in which I had partaken. The test was being written by one Chris Harris, who had flown up to the Highlands with the rest of the BMW launch posse, while the rest of us drove up the rivals. Back then, we did a great many group-test stories like that.

I learned much over those few days. I learned how much farther away the north of Scotland is than the rest of it. I learned how quickly a veteran car photographer can lose patience with a novice road tester if he’s not doing exactly what he’s told. I learned how quickly Highland locals often drive on single-track roads that are usually – but not always – empty of four-car Autocar group-test exercises.

I’m pleased to say that it wasn’t a local who dented my pride and the panels of a borrowed test car that day, instead a sizeable roadside rock mostly submerged in a large puddle, which I ended up reversing into – and over the top of – at reasonable speed. We were running out of light; snapper Stan still had to get a water-splash cover shot plus several others; and I was taking my time, turning around properly and being careful. I was told to “just bloody reverse and hurry up about it”. All right, then. Wallop.

The chassis ended up so bent that BMW couldn’t repair it, and the car had to be driven back to the launch hotel – by Chris – very carefully indeed. The night out I had afterwards with ex-Autocar publishing executive Dai Davies, believing my career here to be over before it had really begun. Well, that was quite big also.

The last thing I learned that week? What a top bloke Chris is. He personally took the rap for the written-off X3, preventing the incident from impacting on Autocar’s budget line and shielding me from any serious repercussions. Thanks, Monkey. Sorry, BMW.

Jim Holder - Volcanoes, glaciers and an MX-5

Mazda has made a bit of a name for itself for taking its cars to wild locations and then letting hacks loose to create long-distance drive stories.

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Even by its standards, however, the idea of driving around 800 miles or so of the perimeter of Iceland – maximum allowable speed limit 56mph – in 48 hours was pretty bonkers. More so because it had elected to put us in MX-5s to do so.

At 6ft 2in tall and unfamiliar with what kind of country lay ahead, I wasn’t whooping with delight at the prospect. How wrong I was.

Roof down, sun out, knees back, I discovered a country of mystical beauty, mixing the very best of the rolling valleys of Wales with the extremes of rugged mountain ranges, towering volcanoes, spine-tingling glaciers and black-sand beaches.

It turned out, too, that the combination of long, winding gravel roads and twisty coastal routes (plus, occasionally, the fact there was nobody to be seen for miles around) meant that the MX-5 was in its element. If you fancy a relaxed road trip, this is the way to do it.

Steve Cropley - The Italian Job

I’ll never forget one extraordinary mega-junket I experienced in Italy for the launch of the Alfa Romeo Alfasud coupé, the Veloce. A load of us were shipped to Rome but, instead of looking at cars, immediately were taken on a tour of The Eternal City’s restaurants and galleries.

Next was Naples, to see Alfasud saloons built at Pomigliano d’Arco, but we weren’t allowed to take any pictures because the workers were stroppy and might have walked out. My main memory is clocking the ferocity with which new cars were driven onto transporters: lots of wheelspin and last-yard braking.

Instead of cars, we looked at more antiquities around Naples and even spent a night on the island of Capri. Then it was Verona and at last Arese, outside Milan, where we really would meet the Veloce. But it turned out we’d arrived earlier than expected; nothing was ready.

A compromise was struck. We were allowed to see a single Veloce prototype, parked for a few minutes outside the R&D headquarters, as long as we viewed it from our bus – and agreed to take no photographs! After five minutes, we drove away.

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When it was unveiled a month later, the Veloce was a decent little car, but from that trip we were none the wiser.

Mark Tisshaw - Dr Bez jumps the gun

Driving any new Aston Martin is great fun, so doing two on the same launch is even better. So it was when driving the previous Vanquish Volante, and even more memorably the V12 Vantage S, on the sensational mountain roads an hour or so outside California’s Palm Springs, in the middle of the desert.

Yet something else about that launch always makes me chuckle and baffles me to this day. Aston’s then boss, Ulrich Bez – a real character who did a fine job in keeping the company going and making great cars with limited resources while never really receiving the credit he deserved – was ready to wind down and step aside, yet the PR team wasn’t quite as ready to announce it.

One by one, Dr Bez took the half-dozen or so of us hacks aside for a quiet chat one evening to announce he was leaving, without the PR team knowing. I’m pretty sure he was then taken aside for a quiet chat of his own, before we were told what he’d said to us wasn’t actually the case…

His reign must have lasted at least another year, and each time we saw him from Palm Springs until then, the elephant in the room was never quite addressed.

Rachel Burgess - Discovering Bhutan by Yeti

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Bhutan isn’t one for many tourists, let alone motoring hacks. Yet I found myself in the mystical Asian country with a fleet of Skoda Yetis on a four-day adventure drive. The Yeti was ageing – and now is sadly no more – and this trip was Skoda’s farewell to its niche-yet-well-received 4x4.

The drive through Bhutan was remarkable – the roads were the hairiest I’ve known (and that includes Bolivia’s ‘most dangerous road in the world’), and the combination of narrow, weaving mountain passes, gargantuan Tata trucks and sheer drops could quickly have resulted in a gory death.

En route, we witnessed many smiling people, cows resolutely sitting in the middle of the road and, of course, a Buddhist monk blessing our cars to ensure our safe passage. What we didn’t see were many cars: the country has just 50,000 on its roads, one for every 15th person.

The Yeti held its own impressively, touring us around a kingdom so magical and untouched that it’s hard to believe it’s even real.

Kris Culmer - Finding a 200T, easy as W123...

I only joined Autocar in January, so I must spin a yarn from my old desk at our sister title. For the 40th What Car? Awards, we planned to gather every winner since 1978.

Most were easy to track down, because many manufacturers maintain a historic fleet, with the rest located via cousin’s-friend’s-dad arrangements. But one car we just couldn’t get our hands on was a Mercedes-Benz 200T.

Fortunately, the fretting made me realise that I saw a W123 wagon every day. So I knocked at my neighbour’s and explained who I was and what I wanted. Surprisingly, he was keen to help, if baffled that I wasn’t after his SLK 55. Soon I swapped an Audi Q5 for his 280TE – the first 20th-century car I’d driven. I’d never felt so cool. I’ll admit driving to the shoot wearing my Ray-Bans and 1980 Brighton football shirt, playing Phil Collins.

I’ll never forget the shocked face of an old schoolmate who saw me, my nervousness or the terror when I realised at midnight the low-fuel light was broken. Above all, though, how I carefully never exceeded 60mph, only to return to a merry anecdote about how happy the car was doing a ton.

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Simon Davis - Struck dumb by Fiat

One of the more memorable launch experiences I’ve had came not as a result of the sheer majesty of the location we were in, nor the quality of the roads we were driving on, nor even the car we were there to test in the first place. In fact, ‘memorable’ isn’t really the correct word to describe what happened. ‘Downright bizarre’ would probably be a more apt descriptor.

We’d been flown into Turin to test drive the facelifted Fiat 500X, but we first had to attend the evening press conference. To begin with, this went pretty smoothly. We were shown the car, heard about the differences between it and the old one, asked a few questions – all the standard press conference stuff. But then things got a bit weird.

Seemingly out of the blue, the Fiat executive who had been delivering the presentation announced to a room full of British motoring hacks (collectively famed for their sophisticated sense of humour) that they were “about to see some serious sh*t”.

To really hammer the point home, the phrase had been projected onto the massive screen behind him, too. Cue an excruciatingly awkward silence, which was immediately followed by violently stifled laughter.

To this day I wonder if he had actually been trying to warn us…

James Attwood - Thai'd up in knots

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Anyone who has been to Thailand will know the concept of social distancing doesn’t apply on Bangkok roads. Cars are usually bumper-to-bumper, with motorbikes, tuk-tuks and other unidentified objects whizzing between with terrifyingly little space. And it was onto those roads Mitsubishi intended to let loose a group of European journalists in its new L200 pick-up trucks. Eek.

The idea was to drive from Bangkok to an off-road test track in the Thai countryside, to showcase the all-round abilities of the latest L200. Frankly, the prospect of tackling Thai highways was scarier than any possible 4x4 course.

Thankfully, Mitsubishi had a plan. We were taken by bus from our Bangkok hotel to a convention centre on the outskirts of the city, where we were met by a fleet of L200s, a security team and a number of police outriders. We were going in a motorcade.

Lessons were given: keep at a set distance from the car ahead. Don’t slow down of your own accord. Don’t let anything cut in. Then we were off, a succession of L200s with police bikes swarming around them, blocking traffic and clearing our route. Unsurprisingly, we made swift progress to the off-road test centre. It was quite the experience – although, as you might imagine, it didn’t exactly allow for much judgement of the L200’s handling dynamics.

The return journey was even better: we did it in a minibus, with one police bike accompanying. Somehow, he kept us moving – including, at several points, guiding us on the wrong side of the road down packed Bangkok thoroughfares.

Richard Lane - Lamborghini's cliffhanger

Last summer, photographer Max Edleston and I almost dropped an Aventador SVJ Roadster off the side of the Raticosa Pass. It was a world-exclusive drive, where we collected the car – all £432,000 of it – from Sant’Agata and kept it overnight Friday. The obvious thing to do was therefore to scope out the road that Lamborghini’s test drivers have used since the days of Bob Wallace and bag a set of mind-blowing images as the sun went down.

Despite an early rendezvous with the police, who had set up a roadblock consisting of two patrol cars, six officers and two machine guns in our honour on the outskirts of Bologna, it was going well. And then the Aventador went full prima donna and evaporated reverse gear at the worst moment imaginable.

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It was while we were doing cornering shots, which involves lots of back and forth driving on the same road. Specifically, during the most perpendicular point of a three-point turn in a shallow, downhill-sloping gravel lay-by on the fresh-air side of the road. Reverse, selected via a button, just wouldn’t engage, even after we’d let the car cool and reset.

Having traipsed back uphill, Max adopted a prop-forward position and took the car’s weight while I released the brakes, then climbed out and joined him. With gravel slipping under our feet and P45s at the front of our minds, we established a faint rocking rhythm that grew and grew until we had inched this 1700kg mid-engined monster back onto the road.

Sweating profusely and with suspected hernias, we finished the shoot and stopped for a pizza in the quiet village of, well, I can’t remember. What I can recall is that the car’s hugely expensive carbon centre-caps were no longer in place by the time we’d paid the bill.

Tom Morgan - Not focused on taking selfies

PR bods like to call it the ‘lifestyle rotation’. Us lot are usually first in line at any new car launch, so as to get driving impressions into print as quickly as possible. But for my first taste of Ford’s monumental Mk3 Focus RS, I had infiltrated one of the later groups. Here things are a lot more laidback, so online ‘influencers’ can take all the selfies they need.

But when miles of twisty Spanish mountain roads and an empty Circuit Ricardo Tormo are waiting, you aren’t going to hang around for everyone to update their Instagram, so I hopped into the first car I could.

The other driver keen to get going? That would be Ben Collins. Cue several brilliant hours of fast road and track driving, Drift mode firmly engaged, courtesy of the Stig and an angry 2.3-litre Ecoboost engine. Turns out he’s a lot chattier when not in the white overalls and helmet – but just as rapid behind the wheel.

Lawrence Allan - An electrifying experience

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It feels like the concept of the international motor show is living on borrowed time, but I will keep fond memories of a few. One of my favourites was Los Angeles 2018, because of an aftershow concept drive Audi had arranged.

Driving on the crowded streets of downtown LA isn’t something that would usually pique my excitement, but this was different. Audi had taken its multimillion-pound, one-of-one E-tron GT straight off the show stand and plonked it on a street not far from the Staples Center, with an invite extended for me to get behind the wheel.

That felt pretty special in itself, but the cool factor hit the roof when I discovered we’d be driving the EV with an escort of multiple police motorbikes ridden by retired cops.

The locals are used to elaborate film sets, yet when a sleek, never-before-seen concept glides through a red light on an intersection guided by LA’s finest mounted division, it turns heads. The whole experience was made even more fun when I learned that the posterior that occupied the driver’s seat before me belonged to Robert Downey Jr, who had used the E-tron GT filming the latest Avengers superhero movie.

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Comments
6

289

16 May 2020

I am hoping that this pandemic is going to put the final nail in the coffin of "doing things this way because we always have".

That includes hugely expensive and wasteful Motor Shows....long past their sell by date with actual purchasers, now mostly run for the benefit of Motoring Hacks so that they can get around all the Brands in one hit..... and then the ridiculous business of flying large number of  scribes (and now even worse - 'social influencers'),  to ever more luxurious and far flung venues to wine and dine in the hope thay might be impressed by the hospitality and expenditure, and write something flattering about their often entirely average car. This is actually called bribery! 

This sort of wastage has to stop. The Car companies cant afford it and the planet cant afford the resultant unecessary emissions.

Oh, and @ Matt Saunders, if I were the BMW Press officer I would have charged Haymarket for the written-off X3....rank stupidity comes to mind and for what a photo of a child driving the car through the watersplash....like this helps in any way to sell new X3's (or more magazines for that matter).  Accidents happen but this is on another level.

This sort of behaviour with someone elses property should be punished - as a warning to others to take more care. Pretty sure none of you would have behaved this way if you actually paid out your own cash for the car. Reflect!

16 May 2020
289 wrote:

I am hoping that this pandemic is going to put the final nail in the coffin of "doing things this way because we always have".

That includes hugely expensive and wasteful Motor Shows....long past their sell by date with actual purchasers, now mostly run for the benefit of Motoring Hacks so that they can get around all the Brands in one hit..... and then the ridiculous business of flying large number of  scribes (and now even worse - 'social influencers'),  to ever more luxurious and far flung venues to wine and dine in the hope thay might be impressed by the hospitality and expenditure, and write something flattering about their often entirely average car. This is actually called bribery! 

This sort of wastage has to stop. The Car companies cant afford it and the planet cant afford the resultant unecessary emissions.

Oh, and @ Matt Saunders, if I were the BMW Press officer I would have charged Haymarket for the written-off X3....rank stupidity comes to mind and for what a photo of a child driving the car through the watersplash....like this helps in any way to sell new X3's (or more magazines for that matter).  Accidents happen but this is on another level.

This sort of behaviour with someone elses property should be punished - as a warning to others to take more care. Pretty sure none of you would have behaved this way if you actually paid out your own cash for the car. Reflect!

16 May 2020
289 wrote:

I am hoping that this pandemic is going to put the final nail in the coffin of "doing things this way because we always have".

That includes hugely expensive and wasteful Motor Shows....long past their sell by date with actual purchasers, now mostly run for the benefit of Motoring Hacks so that they can get around all the Brands in one hit..... and then the ridiculous business of flying large number of  scribes (and now even worse - 'social influencers'),  to ever more luxurious and far flung venues to wine and dine in the hope thay might be impressed by the hospitality and expenditure, and write something flattering about their often entirely average car. This is actually called bribery! 

This sort of wastage has to stop. The Car companies cant afford it and the planet cant afford the resultant unecessary emissions.

Oh, and @ Matt Saunders, if I were the BMW Press officer I would have charged Haymarket for the written-off X3....rank stupidity comes to mind and for what a photo of a child driving the car through the watersplash....like this helps in any way to sell new X3's (or more magazines for that matter).  Accidents happen but this is on another level.

This sort of behaviour with someone elses property should be punished - as a warning to others to take more care. Pretty sure none of you would have behaved this way if you actually paid out your own cash for the car. Reflect!

289

16 May 2020

....having quoted my input verbatim twice..... do you have a point to make Laos?

17 May 2020
289 wrote:

That includes hugely expensive and wasteful Motor Shows....long past their sell by date with actual purchasers, now mostly run for the benefit of Motoring Hacks so that they can get around all the Brands in one hit.....

 

I like motor shows. Had tickets prepaid for Geneva this year, was going with a couple of mates, it is/was kind of a tradition for us and yes, seeing all the brands at once was one of the benefits, as well as being able to sit, even test drive the cars, not to mention seeing exotics that we probably would never have a chance to see again. It's what some people call " being an auto enthusiast ".

But great for you to want to end it, virtue signal away.

289

17 May 2020

There are always exceptions to the rule Tuga....sadly you are in a minority, which is backed up by plummeting attendance numbers.

The format of the GRRC moving motorshow was an indication of a more imersive experience for car buyers and far more affordable. There are still legs in this framework IMO

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