Wake up at 4.30am sandwiched between two representatives from News International. I have no idea where I am. I’m hungry, nauseous and horribly dehydrated. One of them (from the News of the World, natch) is a lot more attractive than the other, I begin to recall, as another woman (this one’s in uniform) ushers in the reality of the situation: “Will you be having the hot breakfast, sir?” Welcome on board the SLR-express, aka the BA54 from Jo-Burg to Cape Town. SLR is the hot property in motoring now: a £313,000 product of the marriage of Mercedes-Benz to the McLaren grand prix race team. In a sector where the hot car of the moment can guarantee extra sales, the first drive of the SLR – in South Africa – is one of the most eagerly anticipated stories of the yearâ€¦ and I’ve assigned myself to do it. I’m not in the habit of going on too many launches. I’m too old, too intolerant of many of my colleagues in this lazy backwater of journalism, and massively independently wealthy. I don’t need to go on trips to keep my air miles account in the black. (Two of those statements are untrue.)
Back in the office and the three-day South Africa jaunt now doesn’t seem like one of my better ideas. Why go on a launch, especially in our press week? The reasons are part personal and part professional. Magazines should carry the editor’s byline on pages other than the leader column; readers want a relationship with the editor; giving them what they want (or don’t want) to hear about an important car is the most effective way of doing that. Nevertheless, today is press day and there is a lot still to be done. Still, think of those air miles.
I don’t like it but I have had to work a lot of weekends since taking over at Top Gear in June. There is just so much to be done. Nothing seemed to matter today after Jonny dropped that ball in the slot, did it? We’re shooting the cover today – even though yesterday was press day.
After a long and belligerent stand-off with Mercedes-Benz, we’d finally got access to an SLR to photograph in the UK. What was wrong with photographing it in South Africa? The rows and rows of hacks on the BA54. All our rivals would have (if they could meet their own deadlines) the slightly uncomfortable images of the SLR charging around South Africa. We had to have something different.
The January issue of Top Gear
And something different is emerging on a Mac in front of me. A brilliant three-car image photographed in studio conditions in Acton a day after our deadline. They are superbly styled by Crystal McClory and art directed by Charlie Turner and perfectly reflect our loose theme for the issue, “Racing in the Street”. Sunday is spent with the specialist retouching operation at the repro house. There’s a lot of work to be done. Charlie, who joined about one month after me, has been the key to the fairly dramatic turnaround in TG’s fortunes; the all-weekender I only briefly join him for is typical of the man. He’s a star and never stops throwing his enthusiasm around. But hands off! You couldn’t afford him anyhow.
I still have a story to write. I resist the urge to check out Andrew Frankel’s (one of News Corp’s slumbering duo) SLR story in The Times. But I do check out Ginny Buckley in the NoW; she’s running some more Acton studio images of ours. Only these aren’t of an SLR, but a nearly destroyed Toyota Pick-Up which stars in tonight’s Top Gear TV show. We’ve been working much more closely with the show since June and PR-ing our stories has been a priority.
Dunno how how much the spread in the NoW helped but last night’s TV show got 5.4 million at its peak. It’s on a real roll, picking up 200,000-odd viewers with each edition. Doesn’t take many of those to decide to pick up our mag to make a difference to the circulation. And pick it up they will.
Charlie and I have been focusing on reducing the reasons “old Top Gear” used to give samplers not to pick it up.
We’re slicker now, flat-planned like a men’s mag, funnier and sexier. We are the mainstream car mag, but we’ve only just started acting like it.
I’ve resisted all day the urge to pause. Christmas schedules mean the next issue needs to pass two and a half weeks from now, although Charlie is shooting the cover as I write. So one less page to worry about. I’m pretty tense today, since I can only wait now and see what rivals Car and Evo have done to counter “Racing in the Street”.
One relief is that my old mag, the weekly Autocar, could not find a way around its deadline issues and does not have the SLR on the cover. Autocar can be super-responsive and take the shine off sales of the monthly big beasts. Not with this week’s cover they won’t.
I’m fucked. Six months of pretty hard grind catches up with me and I wake with a cocktail of ailments. Before I get to the GP there are are two texts from Adam Waddell, my publisher and the architect of the changes at Top Gear. The first says that sales figures for the November issue – the first with a double cover – look handsome. The second is about the latest edition of Car. It failed to get an SLR for the cover and used an old PR image.
Busted! Adam has biked round a copy of Car and an early TG. I’m off to bed with my antibiotics and a couple of good mags to read. Well, one cracker.