The elephant had apparently starred in several films but it didn’t know much about marketing strategy for the Chrysler Town & Country, though.
Neither did the cheetah, the lemur or the thing scuttling around that looked like an armoured rugby ball. She did, at least give us a hook for lots of jokes about the elephant in the room taking a vacation.
I knew, when I headed off to live in Michigan, that the UK and US were two countries divided by a foreign language, but I had no idea that the divide made the Great Canyon look like a crack in the pavement.
My husband Richard had been poached to become Creative Director for Automobile in Ann Arbor, a leafy little town about an hour from Detroit, attached to the vast University of Michigan and where the college football stadium seats 100,000 people and you can see it from space.
We loved being there but even after four years we were still turning up to things late, outstaying our welcome, taking wine when we should have brought a home-cooked pie and vice-versa (that was an embarrassing evening), and swearing too much.
Richard’s office was a very gentle place compared with the abrasive, macho atmosphere in Autocar or What Car?, where both of us had worked over the years.
It was refreshing that half the staff were female, gay or both, and if everyone had to stay late, in place of the take-away ‘cuzzer’* to shovel in at your desk, one of the staff would prepare a tasty pasta for everyone to eat together in the board room.
Of course, the location meant a rich seam of stories for me. The Automotive Press Association, which included PRs as well as journalists, held monthly lunches in Detroit, with CEOs or vice-presidents as guest speakers.
Ford, GM, Chrysler and Nissan would invite us into their R&D facilities, into their design studios and on to their test tracks.The cosy relationship the British press has with the PRs and other journalists was, however, entirely lacking. When I met other journalists I could see the word ‘rival’ flashing on the back of their retinas.
We rarely saw PRs. They were generally at their desks by 7am if you wanted to email them, and might go home at 9pm. We glimpsed them at auto shows, Christmas parties and the occasional event if it was close to their office, but never on a launch.These were handed over to events companies, who were desperate to impress, but never thought to invite a senior figure from the company, an engineer or designer.
Road routes were short and dull. Journalists flying in from all over the country all arrived and left at different times, so I’d spend hours alone but not lonely, usually shopping in LA, Boston or Nashville.
The Town & Country and the Dodge Caravan had the option of a table, so you could turn the rear seat around and create room. Perhaps, they suggested, Mom and one child could be doing homework while another child played sport. They obviously hadn’t noticed that Moms are on the touchline and howling like banshees at the ref when their kids play sport, so no one bought the option and it was discontinued.
For the launch, the events’ company invited us with partners and entire families for a three-day extravaganza in San Diego including a trip to Sea World, a go at static surfing, a horse-riding demonstration and a visit by the menagerie from a local exotic animal sanctuary, plus the film-star elephant.
At the smart launch, we did get Roger Penske to talk to. The company had taken over the entire floor of a hotel, and to demonstrate how small the car was, they’d given it its own room with ‘clothes’ in the wardrobe (removable panels) and a bathroom equipped with car cleaning kit and oil. The clever bit was that t wasn’t on the ground floor.
My favourite event has to be Ford’s celebration of Casino Royale. We started at the test track drifting hot Mustangs, and then went to a shooting gallery where we shot
Our next stop was the casino, where were learned to play baccarat while drinking flavoured Martinis dispensed from an ice sculpture. It’s just as well we did that after the drifting and shooting. Finally our partners met us to watch the film, which had a Lincoln in it not a Ford.
Back in those heady days before the financial crash, the Detroit Auto Show featured some bizarre theatre, too. In my first year, a senior suit drove a new Jeep off the stand down the corridor and out through a plate-glass window. I don’t suppose they’d seen Queer as Folk. The next year the top brass were cooking on the stand and the press pack resembled a 1950s’ recipe book. I’m sure it’s all very different now. Horns will have been pulled in and budgets slashed. It wasn’t always a comfortable experience being there, but I thoroughly enjoyed the madness while it lasted.
* Australian for curry