Before I became a car hack, I had some rosy fantasies about what the job would be like. From the international travel to driving the cars themselves, motoring journalism seemed impossibly exotic, and I remember boring on to my dad about what a fabulous way to earn a living it must be. With great kindness he suggested that there was more to life than driving about in sunny places at someone else’s expense, and if that was all I ever did as a journalist, the novelty would quickly wear off.
‘What does he know?’ I thought. Decades of car launches later I find that, annoyingly, he had a point. Don’t get me wrong. Work has taken me to some lovely places in the company of excellent people. Some of the cars have been interesting too, but these events inevitably follow a fairly set pattern, so that even for an infrequent participant like me, one new car launch tends to bleed into the next – although not recently, for obvious reasons.
There’s unintended comedy in these get togethers of course. Many years ago, I was one of a group of hacks taken by General Motors to Detroit to see some Chevrolets and Cadillacs it briefly, and misguidedly, thought Europeans might buy. Having resisted the opportunity to try line dancing while jetlagged, I was attached to a lady PR person of middle years with Dolly Parton hair, eyes like limpid headlamps and a relentless line in ludicrous personal flattery. Her job was to tell me how bloody wonderful I was, and attempts to talk about anything else were resisted with a shiny smile and a questionable approach to personal space. She went off message just once, revealing that she’d joined GM as a student, expecting it to be a short term gig, but had never left. Then the corporate obedience chip in her brain fired up, there was a lot of eye contact and a manicured hand rested gently on my sleeve.
“After all, if you met people as fascinating as yourself, wouldn’t you want to do what I do?” she breathed, her voice vibrant with sincerity. This was undermined somewhat when she was asked to introduce me to an impossibly neat executive type and couldn’t remember my name.
Car makers are also obsessed with being hip and happening, but don’t always carry this off. A good example was a presentation by two grey suited, middle aged male Volkswagen executives who were part of the launch of the early 2010s iteration of the Volkswagen Polo. This was somewhere hot – Portugal I think, but shamefully I can’t be sure – and was on a Wagnerian opera scale. The executive duo nervously clasped microphones and did little dad dances (think Matt Hancock on hot coals) as they read from a teleprompter in stilted English. I’m going to make up what they said, but it went something like this:
“The Polo is a very cool car.”
“Yes it is. Especially with climate control.”
“Your daughter would be proud to go to the disco in her Polo.”
“And jack her body to the funky sounds.”
“She certainly would. And she would be excited to drive home in her Polo. Knowing she is safe because of the car’s many airbags. And she would know of its many passive and active safety features!”
I was sitting at a table with a group of hacks, including a lady lifestyle journalist with a jolly, Clare Balding, head girl-like manner. We briefly made eye contact and were clearly thinking the same thing about this ‘unusual’ take on youth speak, because the next time I looked she was convulsed with silent laughter, shoulders heaving, eyes filled with tears. As the Teutonic ‘street argot’ continued, this created a rising tide of hysteria that had a similar effect on me.
I realised then that sometimes, you can’t take the life out of lifestyle.