I think his name was Hans Lehmann. He was the man for whom the dubious job description 'car scoop photographer' was invented, and his ability of snaffle out disguised prototypes as they performed pre-production testing on public roads was legendary. He must have made a small fortune in his pomp, and no one could deny he didn't earn it. I remember the great George Kacher following him for a story in Car, in which I seem to recall they scooped the then years-from-showroom ready E36 BMW 3-Series, and in an effort to thwart their snapping some large German chap lobbed rocks at them both.
Sadly for you lens-fetishists, this is not a piece about scoop photography. It is instead concerned with the way car makers reveal their new products to the world. Back in 1990, Hans Lehmann was about the only way you could lose control of your secret new model. Most makers waited for a large car show or an event of their own making, sprinkled some booth girls and cloth over their wares and, POW! – off came the covers. But in the past twenty-five years that single, brisk event has become the process of gradually disseminating information about the new car into the public domain. And it has become so random and, at turns, false, idiotic and nonsensical I wonder if there's any method in the process at all.
Thankfully good 'ol Henry reminded us exactly how it should be done last week. At the interminable Detroit Auto Show, an event which never hosts anything worth seeing (what idiot wrote that?) Ford showed the writhing masses how to launch an automobile. No pre-leaks, no briefing, no slipping some photos to your favorite book editor. Just build a near-as-damn production Ford GT for next year, cover it in cotton and whip that mo-fo into the public gaze. I could feel the warm glow of Cobo trouser tumescence from 4,000 miles away.
The process was so utterly joyful. A timely readjustment of what has surely become the least impressive part of this industry we love: The gradual new-car reveal. Like a glacier; but less exciting to watch.
I've yet to have anyone in a suit tell me categorically that the initial reveal of a production car has a lasting affect on lifetime sales, and that in itself could be seen to render any discussion around the topic perfectly irrelevant, but actually I find sitting back and watching brands try and find ever more ridiculous ways to leak, counter-leak, pretend leak and then deny the pretend counter-leak, one of the better spectator sports. Like watching old people fist-fight, it's compellingly risible. And it serves as a telling metaphor for the psyche of the entire company.
Why would BMW, for example, take finished production cars to auto shows, have Jurgen kick the wing-mirrors from the doors and plonk on a license plate reading 'Concept?' It's madness. It's also a fantastic sport for the terminally irritating twat like yours-truly. The game goes: find an important BMW person at the show and ask if it's the finished car, which clearly it is.
They are contractually bound to say, 'It's a concept," the way a nightclub bouncer stood at the door of a half-empty club tells ugly people "Full tonight." They can only deliver the message without making direct eye-contact.
"But it's a finished car without mirrors, I've looked underneath and it has finished suspension. It must drive?"
The mood deteriorates, jaws clench: "At this stage, it's just a Konnnnnnzept."
You can see how this line of facetious questioning continues until I'm asked to leave the stand. A part of me hopes BMW now repeats its M-Concept 'reveals' to give children like me some fun at auto shows, but I can't be convinced that's the case. What does this say about BMW? It says it has a way of doing things, and it won't change that course for the sake of avoiding irrelevant little oiks like me.
Imagine if Ford had whipped the cover off the GT last week and when asked about its similarity to the production vehicle simply shrugged and said it was just a concept. There would have been civil unrest.
In fairness, it's nothing like as bad as the pre-organized 'scoop' shot. This is perhaps the most funked-up piece of PR/Marketing codswallop imaginable in the post-Lehmann era. It is in effect the fake-Lehmann, where a maker either tips-off a friendly snapper and drives a mostly un-covered car around until it gets papped, or more ridiculously papps it themselves and distributes the photos accordingly. An alien observer of this process would have to assume we've all gone quite mad.
They're all at it. Land Rovers always seem to be snapped with little disguise on the same road. Porsche recently left a completely undisguised 991 GT3 RS in the underground car park of the Dorint hotel, at the Nurburgring and... guess what?!?....someone took a photo of it and posted it on the internet!
The Porsche strategy for pre-releasing images of future models, or simply managing the spread of technical info is completely haphazard. This is a company which is more on-top of the tricky business of building great cars and selling heaps of them than just about anyone else, but like a penguin waddling on land, it really struggles with early-bird information and art-work.
How many Porsches have been leaked by someone stealing a brochure? Dozens. Or had documents leaked to, er, Jalopnik from some product planning meeting. The place is an information security colander!
And then when they tried to be deliberately open with us, there were twenty seven different pre-pre-pre tech interview/passenger rides/drive with one hand/drive with two hands events for the 918 Spyder. And by the time we saw the final thing and drove it in all its magnificence – and this sounds really awful – the car was somehow slightly less of an event because it was so familiar. The Ford GT will not suffer the same problem.
But does Porsche sell any fewer cars because it can't find an honest brochure printer? I seriously doubt it. And the metaphorical undertone for Porsche? That all it really cares about is making very, very good cars, and the odd leaked photo doesn't mean sheisse. I tend to agree.
Will McLaren regret this whole Black Swan business? Who knows. In light of Ford's straight-left-to-the-chops approach, and the response it has garnered, potentially. But then Ford uncovered the 'Stang 350 R and the GT knowing full well its only problem come production time will be choosing who will be able to buy them. The new baby McLaren has a much tougher job, and perhaps that requires less bullishness – an elongated strategy that builds awareness over time.
It's hard not to be completely won-over by the Ford approach. I loved it. I just sat at my computer watching the photos and comments come rushing through the channels. It was a return to the old, binary days of car reveals.
No fluff, no pre-drives, just a crackerjack machine, an instant news-forming meritocracy and the promise of it being built.
And I didn't even have to get on a plane or inhale one atom of journo-parp. Result.