One of life’s bittersweet things is if you live long enough, many people you love, like, and admire will predecease you. That is the way it always was and, for the time being at least, the way it must be. But such realism was cold comfort today as I sat down to write about a couple sad car-world deaths, only to read of another, which I mention first. Cancer has taken Roger Becker, the Lotus chassis engineer whose brilliant career with the Norfolk maker of lightweight sports cars spanned from Elan to Evora. Roger showed great kindness to me when I was a young journalist visiting Hethel and each time I went back. As a lifelong Lotus man, I’ll miss him and every “add lightness” thing he stood for. Instead of observing a moment of silence in Becker’s honor, imagine now the sound of a Lotus twin-cam being revved for a downshift ahead of a tight bend, navigated expertly.
Bill Baker’s secret was threefold. Range Rover would make its case by celebrating its authenticity, its inherent luxury, and its strong character.
Pause here, too, to conjure the sound of a rumbling V-8 successfully fording a rushing stream. I am also saddened to report the death of Bill Baker, also from cancer, at the too young age of 72. Modern Land Rover’s first PR guy following its return to the U.S. market in 1986 with the Range Rover, he — along with Land Rover of North America president Charlie Hughes — is owed a debt of gratitude not just by this reporter but also by Land Rover and, if you think about it, the entire automobile industry. After all, like Jaguar Land Rover, carmakers create a surprisingly large percentage of their profits today selling relatively low-volume luxury SUVs. Although a case can be made for the pioneering role of Jeep’s Wagoneer, Range Rover demonstrated most clearly the way into the upper stratospheres of cash money old and new. Baker, working for a fledgling U.S. Land Rover operation of fewer than 100 employees with a minuscule budget, was one of the grand architects.
A broadcast journalist from Cleveland, Baker was plucked to work for the dark side by Ford in the 1970s, then it was off to Volvo PR and Chrysler before signing on with Land Rover. In Baker’s obituary, Richard Truett of Automotive News summarized the challenge: “Not only was the Range Rover a new vehicle and brand in the U.S., it was creating a new segment—the luxury SUV.” Few in America had heard of Land Rover, and fewer still had heard of its upscale Range Rover offering. Among the few who did remember the American escapades of its parent, the former Rover Car Co., most were haunted by memories of diabolical reliability. Baker’s work was cut out.
His secret was threefold. Range Rover would make its case by celebrating its authenticity, its inherent luxury, and its strong character. This all made excellent sense when the task was promoting a British vehicle entering its 18th year of production with an even older — at a quarter century — powerplant.
Tellingly, the magic Range Rover-scape Baker helped create dovetailed neatly with the world view of this magazine’s founder. Resident Anglophile and influential dean of automotive journalism, David E. Davis Jr. was never happier than when shooting grouse in remote Scottish locations decked out in his finest English hunting togs, armed with the best shooting sticks and picnic hampers the British Isles could offer, and driving a Range Rover, of course. These Baker-led adventures, which took the cars and journalists not just to stately country homes but also to remote locations in Africa and South America, were lavishly photographed and written up in a way that would awaken the latent adventurer in all but the dullest souls. And they graced these pages with a frequency—based on Range Rover’s slight early sales—that was singular. Baker worked his magic on many men and women, but the way he helped turn the just-launched Automobile into a de facto house organ for his company was one for the books. It paved the way for excess coverage in competitor magazines and Land Rover’s glorious ascent to high-class status and mega-profitability while somehow managing to relegate mundane topics —such as rust, reliability, depreciation, and its punishing thirst — to the fringes.
No story about Range Rover’s success is complete, however, without a mention of the great engineer Charles Spencer King, its brilliant designer and conceiver. He also died prematurely when in 2010 at age 85 he was struck by a delivery van while riding a bicycle in a small English village. King wasn’t happy about the Range Rover becoming a status symbol, as I learned when I spent three days with him and Baker in one of the earliest production examples in 1996, touring the U.K. in a rally marking the 100th year of the British motor industry.
An old friend of King’s, Baker quietly rolled his eyes as the senior statesman spent the better part of our time together roundly criticizing the company’s direction following his retirement, but a good time was had by all. Except, that is, for me.
At dinner one night in Scotland, I ate a bad oyster. The following morning I felt like death warmed over, and a day spent groaning, gurgling, and sleeping in the back of the ancient Rover with noxious exhaust and gasoline fumes left no doubt that an epic chunder of thunder was in my near future. Through superhuman will, I’d managed to stave off the explosive moment. But as we pulled up to our hotel in Edinburgh around 7 p.m., time ran out. I jumped from the car, racing for the nearest bathroom. But what was this? A wedding party decked out on a red carpet and a photographer blocking my way in. Unable to hold on any longer, the Kodak moment was ruined in an instant as I projectile vomited just yards away from the blushing bride. Turning my head in shame from the astonished gaze of the mortified celebrants, I saw both Baker and King doubled over in laughter. Which is the way I will always remember them.