The McLaren 570S Spider. Picture: MCLAREN AUTOMOTIVE
The McLaren 570S Spider. Picture: MCLAREN AUTOMOTIVE

The idea probably looked good on the drawing board: place a spanking new car on an isolated rock off the Western Cape coast, as the centrepiece of the launch of a new Toyota. In the words of a recent TV ad, what could go wrong?

The weather, that’s what. A storm suddenly blew up and a huge wave washed the car into the Atlantic Ocean. Months of planning were undone by a splash of water.

In the case of an American brand, the problem was a fat foot. A theatre audience of journalists, dealers, customers and assorted VIPs applauded as the curtains parted to reveal the new car moving slowly to the front of the stage — then ran for their lives as it continued over the edge, landing where guests had been moments earlier. The driver’s size 12, it emerged later, had slipped from the brake to the accelerator.

Motor companies spend millions of rands on new-vehicle launches. It’s the chance to make an indelible impression for a vehicle that will be on the market for years.

That’s why some go for the spectacular. BMW SA once hired the Concorde to fly guests at supersonic speed from Johannesburg to Cape Town. That event, for the launch of a new 3-Series, went off without a hitch.

Others are not so lucky. Where large groups of people are involved, there is always capacity for catastrophe.

Sometimes it’s part of the attraction. For the SA launch of the Chinese Chana brand, teams of journalists took turns to drive four vehicles from the assembly plant in China, over the Himalayas, across Asia and the Middle East, and down through Africa to SA. I chose the leg from Dubai to Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. The final stretch was driven at breakneck speed through the mountains, protected front and rear by a heavily armed military escort, after we learnt an al-Qaeda ambush was waiting for us. Four days later, a group of Spanish tourists were murdered on the same road.

Motoring journalists don’t always need outside influences to put their lives at risk. Launch crashes are not uncommon, usually because journos overestimate their skills. Alcohol used to play a part. On his first launch, in 1980, journalist Stuart Johnston was surprised to be offered beer and wine before driving Opel Kadetts 250km through the former Transkei. He recalls: "When we reached our destination, we drank some more, slept, drank again then drove back to East London."

These days, motor companies won’t let anyone near alcohol until all driving is over. In any case, journalists are usually spectators, not instigators, when things go wrong.

Take the Mitsubishi Pajero launch in the Free State. True to the vehicle’s go-anywhere reputation, the route included fearsome offroad conditions. The Pajeros handled everything with ease, until they got stuck in thick river mud. No amount of manoeuvring, even by Mitsubishi’s professional drivers, could free them. Just then, a couple of passing farmers stopped in their Toyota Land Cruisers, hitched up the Pajeros and towed them to safety — all in view of dozens of media cameras. Great publicity for Land Cruiser, disaster for Pajero.

Given the amount of detail involved in launches, it’s surprising more doesn’t go wrong. There is travel and accommodation to book, guests to invite, individual dietary habits to consider and driving routes to plan.

The secret, says Matt Gennrich, former head of communications for Volkswagen SA, is to plan for the best but be ready for the worst.

"Plan for every contingency," he says. "Most of the time when things go wrong, your guests don’t know as long as you recover quickly and don’t show signs of stress."

Don’t show stress? Tell that to former Chrysler SA boss Tom Ford who, boasting about the back-seat space of a Neon, invited the nearest journalist to experience it. Embarrassingly, the hack turned out to be the tallest, fattest one present and barely squeezed in. "We all tried to hide our embarrassment (or sniggered under our breaths)," says Johannesburg journalist Denis Droppa.

The crazy accelerates

Gennrich recalls an SA-hosted international media launch for an offroad vehicle. It took place in a neighbouring country which required foreign journalists to carry working visas. Unfortunately, the local agent realised this only on the morning of the launch and the planeloads of journalists were instructed to register as tourists — unlikely at an airport that existed mainly to service the local mining industry.

The immigration officer quickly smelt a rat but her boss was eventually persuaded to let everyone through. However, says Gennrich, one wrong word or action "could have caused a minor international incident".

No part of an event is immune to problems. As journalists arrived at East London airport for flights home after a Mercedes-Benz launch, the company presented them with gift boxes containing ornate kitchen cutlery by artist Carrol Boyes. Unfortunately, the 9/11 New York terrorist attack a few months earlier had caused airlines to ban passengers from carrying anything sharp on to aircraft so thousands of rands of metalwork was gifted to grateful airport staff.

Air travel is often the cause of launch problems. Durban journalist Colin Windell was on a Nissan Patrol launch in Tzaneen when the pilot of the small aircraft preparing to return guests to Johannesburg steered it into a tree, tearing a large hole in the wing. Everyone had to pile into cars instead.

On a launch I attended, the pilot of one of our light aircraft was so hungover he couldn’t find the ground. A stretch of the N1 highway near the Zimbabwe border had been closed to traffic so planes could land and the inebriated flier caused considerable disruption before finally remembering the difference between up and down. And yes, he was reported to aviation authorities.

A flight from Johannesburg to Mpumalanga in a geriatric Hercules transport aircraft turned horrible when, first, passengers pulled back the curtains to discover there were no windows and, second, the pilot was ordered to descend to low altitude because of air force manoeuvres along the route.

A combination of high temperatures and low-level flying caused the Hercules to rock violently in the thermals. Locked "blind" inside a boiling, vibrating, metal tube, few passengers managed to keep down their onboard lunch — a particularly greasy spaghetti bolognese — and when they reached their destination, some were in no shape to take part in the ride-and-drive that was intended to start immediately.

The trouble with disasters is that they are sometimes remembered more clearly than the events they disrupted. "Do you remember that terrible flight to Mpumalanga?" "Yes." "Can you remember what we were driving that day?" "Um ..."

Sea travel can be just as damaging. Renault once chartered a cruise ship, the Astor, to take journalists, dealers and their partners from Cape Town on an overnight cruise to Langebaan lagoon, on the West Coast. But the event coincided with a huge storm, and as the Astor left the shelter of the harbour, huge swells sent guests running for their cabins, where many would remain until the ship docked back in the Mother City two days later.

The plan in Langebaan was for a hotel pleasure boat to ferry passengers to shore for a drive. But the waves were so big the Astor had to use its lifeboats instead. Even these couldn’t attach themselves to the Astor and those passengers well enough to leave the ship had to jump — or be thrown — into boats as they passed the disembarkation door.

Windell and his wife, Cathy, were among those hurled into the void. They were the lucky ones. Just after they landed in a lifeboat, the "rescue" was suspended while a fire in the engine room was extinguished.

At the end of it all, says Windell, the Astor returned to Cape Town on three engines instead of four, many of the journalists had not driven the Renaults they were there to experience, and the company’s PR "was close to gibbering incoherently".

At least in SA we have a relatively small group of motoring journalists, most with similar bad habits. International launches attract a maelstrom of nationalities, each with their own driving characteristics.

"If I have learnt one thing from all the launches I have been involved in, it is this," a Ford Europe marketer once told me. "Send the Italians out last. It’s safer for everyone."