‘Better the devil you know than the one you don’t’ – a saying that can be applied in all walks of life especially work.  

Perhaps not more so than in our profession when it comes to ‘partnering-up’ to test drive cars at media launches of new models.

At some stage we have all been more or less forcibly paired up with somebody we don’t know, haven’t got a clue as to their driving skills, their personal hygiene , their fetish for taking ‘selfie’ photographs or indeed a break for shopping and in past-years perhaps a stop for a ‘snifter’ or two in a bar or pub en-route. 

Having been involved in the newspaper industry from 1965, followed by automotive PR from 1985 and back to journalism in 2005, I’ve participated in press launches on both sides of the fence so I know first-hand about journos likes and dislikes about sharing the wheel of a test car.

In the early days when driving gloves were in fashion, as soon as your allocated driving partner put those on you know you were in for a rough ride with a keen driver especially with no drink-drive rules and un-policed speed limits. What was important for PRs were the number and quality of journalists that attended and how much ‘fun’ they had, plus using the best hotels no other car company had used to promote the brand and of course ‘the blag’ was important. What motoring scribes actually wrote in terms of an independent review about the new car was more or less a secondary consideration, it was called Press Relations – remember those days?

Today will health and safety and duty of care company rules, stealth cameras for speeding plus diminishing PR budgets, it’s a much calmer and more sanitised environment we find ourselves in as we test drive cars in the UK and abroad.

Talking of calmer and sanitised things brings me onto the subject of this verbal ramble, our chairman – Robin Roberts.

I’ve known Robin before the Western Group was officially founded in 1983 although it had been in an unofficial existence during its incubation period before then.  Robin used to partner, in terms of test driving, another Welsh Wizard namely the late and well respected Alan Watts. Today, following my return after retirement from PR to ‘scribbling’, Robin has me as his ‘driver’ or as he terms it ‘his fixer’. As I said ‘better the devil……’   That said of course we do not always attend the same events so thankfully there other amiable Western Groupies, or in my case likeminded old-stagers from other Groups to pair-up with for test driving duties.  

When it comes to driving Mr Roberts we know how each other work, we know the model we want to try, not the fastest, not the most expensive – but generally what the punters are going to buy.  It’s a routine and at our time of life, routine is good. 

So we’ve got the keys to the model of our choice and we make our way to the test car. “You drive” so I generally do the first stint but only after our pre-test drive routine has been gone through. Seat adjustment, mine’s always different to Robin’s even though we are the same height, he likes cramped legroom and short arm space and a high seating position and don’t get me started on the width of his door mirror angles – it’s a Welsh thing I suspect to monitor sheep activity. Have we zeroed the fuel consumption read out, are we using sat-nav or a road book, which route then, is there a spec-sheet, then goes up the cry from one of us ‘HOW MUCH’?

Finally we get started, but it’s not long before we need to pull in to a fuel station, not to top up the car with fuel although we understand cost-saving is important for PRs, but for Robin to pay a visit to ‘the facilities’.  He is now banned by me from drinking coffee and orange juice before a test drive.  I’ve lost count of the bars of chocolate or tubes of mints which have arrived in the test car following his ‘visits’. You can’t really use the facilities without at least buying something – can you he says?   So off we go again.

And so our journey continues discussing the finer and less fine points of the new model, chatting about other issues in our changing world of journalism, Western Group stuff, our families and what other events we might or might not be invited to attend.

My driving tends to be more relaxed reflecting my age and perhaps mirroring how the punter might drive their own vehicle. Robin is more about putting the car through its paces, seeing where the limits of cornering adhesion are and he doesn’t wear driving gloves.  I occasionally remind him that this manual gearbox car has a sixth gear as were move swiftly onwards.  It’s a partnership that works as we get the info we want and an average fuel consumption figure that mixes the highs and lows of our driving styles.

It’s a driving partnerships that works – for us anyway  – and has even brought us rewards, such as the time our high fuel economy on a Suzuki event based in Bath took us through the Cheddar Gorge and we emerged with two hefty pieces of cave-matured calcium-rich cheese from Alun Parry. 

On a personal note there are two particular occasions that sometimes spring to mind about our chairman.  One was the time I was heading PR at Mitsubishi.  We were holding a press launch in the South of France staying at the Byblos Hotel in St Tropez.   Robin I think was driving with Alan Watts and I seem to remember they belatedly made their appearance in the Nice Airport car park.  It was in the days when an overseas press launch was a good opportunity to buy really good wine at low prices.  As an understanding PR you had to arrange a test driving route on an overseas launch that took in a supermarket otherwise timings went-to-pot as the Journos did their shopping anyway.  I saw Robin laden down with flimsy plastic bags containing copious bottles of red wine. Yes you’ve guessed it – the plastic gave way, the bottles crashed to the floor and red wine was spilt soaking the other contents in his bag and generally leaving a trail of wine as we headed to the terminal building. It wasn’t funny for him, but I still smile to this day.

Another memorable occasion was soon after I returned to motoring journalism and one of the first press launches I attended was a VW event somewhere south of Guilford. I had just arrived in the early evening and had just got to my room when the phone rang.  It was Robin. He had just had a call from his office and as a result of that call had decided to stop being a ‘staffer’ for his South Wales group of newspapers and was contemplating going freelance.  We met up and discussed the future and from that day our driving partnership was formed.   Better the devil you know – you know!

David Miles
David Miles
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