Warts and all

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Very early in my career, as a junior reporter on a local newspaper, I was lectured by my then news editor about precisely who I served. My responsibility, he said sternly, was to honestly inform my readers, while writing skillfully enough to please my newspaper bosses – principally him! – and not to concern myself with anything else. Advertisers were there to pay the bills, not to dictate the copy. Honest journalism was what kept the publication afloat, and good timing was vital. Above his desk was a deadline reminder. It read: I want it yesterday!


His tutorage became all the more important when my career path veered into motoring journalism. Road test reports are to enlighten readers, not to butter up manufacturers. So car reviews had to be written fairly and honestly, warts and all. I was soon reminded of this when attending the press launch of the Rover 800, which took place in Lausanne, Switzerland. We arrived at our venue after heavy rain, and on opening the boot of the test car to extract my suitcase, water cascaded in to give the boot’s contents a soaking.


The company PR chief was not only the event host, but also a friend from our time together previously in motor racing, and was on hand to witness what had just happened and not at all amused by it. “You’re not to write about that!” was rapidly hissed in my ear. “Oh yes I will!” I replied firmly. To do otherwise would be to do my readers a grave disservice. The car would be given an honest appraisal, leaky boot and all. That was my job.


Another occasion that sticks in my memory was during my time on Top Gear, when I was tasked with presenting to viewers a new Ford model. While demonstrating the space and practicality of the back seats, I yanked on a seat tag and it rapidly parted company with the base to which it was attached. The Ford press office person who had brought the car to our studios was horrified. “Don’t show that!” he pleaded, “You’ll have to shoot it again!” I tried to soothe his jangled nerves, but without agreeing. “Sorry,” I said, “I don’t think we have time for that.” My producer was very quickly on the case. “Right, let’s set up the boot shot,” he said, moving the cameraman swiftly away from the rear seats and round to the back of the car. The broken tag duly appeared in our report.


The brave new world of electric vehicles is by no means exempt from these ‘oh dear!’ quirks of build quality and reliability. While test driving a Tesla Model S after its arrival on the UK scene, I decided to try out one of Tesla’s superchargers, which back then owners could use to recharge their cars free of cost. I knew there was a row of them at Bluewater shopping centre and headed there for some retail therapy, as well as EV replenishment. Not having used a supercharger before, I parked the car in a bay, and climbed out to examine the instructions on the device. Alright, that all seemed straightforward enough. Back round to the driving seat to grab the car-shaped keyfob and get organised. Oops. The car had shut down and the door was locked, with the key fob inside.


Happily, there was a Tesla centre at Bluewater, and a call for help brought a swift response. From his breathless arrival, I think the employee had run all the way to my rescue. What had occurred was unfortunate, he soothingly told me, but wouldn’t happen to a real owner because they’d simply use the app on their smartphone to open the car. “Ah, ok,” I responded. “So now ask me where my phone is?” Together with the key fob, it was locked inside the car.


That was how I discovered that a Tesla can be remotely unlocked from the company’s UK headquarters when need be. Once again, they would prefer that I didn’t write about that. Sorry, but readers come first in the queue of who a trustworthy motoring journalist serves.

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