Retrospective

Ups and downs

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Everyone loves a bit of spectacle and drama, and the arrival of new models on the automotive scene is usually a good excuse for both. Planners, designers, engineers, production managers and all the other staff working on the development of a new car, which typically takes up to five years, have meticulously honed a vehicle which aims to appeal to car buyers and be a big seller. Now it is time for creative teams to launch it with maximum impact.

That used to routinely involve a theatrical unveiling at an international motor show somewhere, ahead of a press launch drive in some foreign location. Good weather equals better photographs, and a sunny impression. But increasingly in recent years there has been a separate ‘reveal’ as an event in itself, ahead of the launch drive.

So it was that in 2014 a helicopter with a car slung underneath it flew along the Thames to Tower Bridge, where it was lowered onto a waiting speedboat. It was on route to a celebrity launch party attended by 3,000 guests. The destination was Earls Court, historic home of the British Motor Show, where a guard of honour comprising six manufacturing robots awaited.

The car: Jaguar’s XE, the then new compact executive saloon was the newest and smallest member of the big cat range. The bill for its dramatic 007-worthy debut was a reputed £3 million, as an up-front investment in clawing widespread coverage and attracting a sassy clientele to the new baby Jaguar saloon.

A year or so later, another new model arrived on the scene from the Coventry-based British car maker. This time it was the E-Pace, Jaguar’s first compact sports utility vehicle, albeit a so-called ‘soft-roader’ rather than hard-core 4×4. This time the reveal wasn’t quite as extraordinary, or even aerial, but it was also memorable. The company took over London’s ExCeL exhibition centre, which has since earned fame as the first temporary Nightingale hospital during the early days of the Covid pandemic.

Little did we imagine any such chilling future use as we car journos and other guests stood facing an airport runway-length stage dressed in theatrically colourful lighting. This appropriately formed the car equivalent of a fashion catwalk. An E-Pace appeared in the far distance and whizzed down the vast hall on its elevated stage, where it was formally introduced to the assembled guests by its designer Ian Callum. 

Car makers do enjoy creating a bit of memorable drama to show off their new arrivals, but few are as unusual as the venue chosen by Mercedes-Benz to stage the UK launch of the GLA. No aerial drama nor sunny foreign test route for this new arrival. Quite the contrary. We were invited to enter a large lift in the Cheshire countryside, which then plummeted us 620 feet below ground. Into a salt mine.

Bizarrely, a fleet of test cars awaited us, perfectly lined up in the depths of the mine from which much of the gritting salt that is spread on Britain’s winter roads is sourced. The cars’ headlights glowed in the gloom. Our test route was through the mine’s intricate string of tunnels, some with cathedral-height roofs above us, others lower-slung and spookily dark. We weren’t skimped for a test route. The tunnels’ total length, if stretched out in a straight line, would stretch 130 miles. I have driven in some unusual places on car launch test drives, but this was certainly one of the oddest, but remarkably unforgettable.

New car debuts and launch drives are a constant ongoing routine for motoring writers, with activity now revving up again post-lockdown. It’s a tough gig for car company creative teams, and the agencies who work for them, to come up with the right setting and test route to best showcase a new arrival. It’s certainly impressive when they stretch the boundaries by sending a car high up into the air, or burrowed deep down underground.

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