The North American Land Rover community has lost one of its pioneers this week. Many long time Land Rover fans will recognize the name of Bill Baker. Bill was enormously influential in the early marketing of Land Rover products in North America, particularly the Range Rover Classic. Richard Truett of Automotive News has penned a fitting obituary, quoted here in its entirety.
Bill Baker, the legendary PR man who played a key role in Land Rover’s successful return to the U.S. market in 1986, died Thursday after a battle with cancer at his home near Laguna Niguel, Calif. He was 72.
Baker, a broadcast newsman from Ohio, caught Ford’s attention in the early 1970s with his road test segments that aired in Cleveland. Ford offered Baker a job on its broadcast media relations team. Two years later, Baker moved to Volvo, and then held management positions at Fiat-Lancia and Ferrari.
Baker then worked for Sony Corp. of America. And in 1983, opened his own shop and worked for Chrysler before becoming one of the first American employees of Land Rover of North America in 1986.
Land Rover’s U.S. operations in the mid-1980s were small, fewer than 100 people, recalls Charlie Hughes, Land Rover’s North American CEO in the 1980s and 1990s. Baker, Hughes said, was given a small budget to promote a vehicle few Americans had ever heard of -- the Range Rover.
Not only was the Range Rover a new vehicle and brand in the U.S., it was creating a new segment -- the luxury SUV.
“We were a very small company and we knew we had to do some exciting things to get noticed. You turn Bill loose and all sorts of wonderful things happened,” Hughes told Automotive News.
The Rover name was somewhat tarnished with American buyers. In 1973, British Leyland, then owner of Land Rover, suddenly pulled the brand out of the U.S. market, leaving many of its dealers with nothing to sell.
Seven years later, the Rover name was back in the U.S. but on a car, the 1980 Rover 3500. A mere 1,254 units of the large V-8 powered five-door hatchback were sold before the model was pulled from the U.S. market after just one year. It didn’t help that the 1986 Range Rover’s 3.5-liter aluminum V-8 engine used the Rover 3500’s engine and was a GM castoff first used in a 1962 Buick.
None of that bogged down Baker.
As Land Rover was gearing up for the Range Rover’s U.S. launch, Rover executives in England stepped back. Still reeling from the embarrassing failure of the 1980 Rover 3500, the company could not afford another failure. They wanted Americans to run the North American launch, Hughes recalled.
“When you are launching a vehicle and you have a very small advertising budget, we just made a decision to make sure we’d spend whatever we needed to spend in the public relations area because we knew that money was going to be more important and more impactful.”
The Land Rover brand ignited in Baker a spark of creativity and passion that cemented his reputation as one of the most brilliant and strategic public relations executives in the industry.
Hughes says Range Rover got traction at launch in part because of the company’s catchy ads by Grace & Rothschild, which showed the off-road vehicle in places such as luxurious Long Island homes, but also covered with mud -- a first in automotive advertising -- and the creative way Baker promoted the brand and the vehicles to the media.
Baker dreamed up and then hosted extreme driving expeditions in North America, South America, and Africa that put influential auto writers behind the wheel of Land Rover’s rugged vehicles in extremely hostile terrain.
Baker knew one way to erase lingering quality concerns and other issues from the minds of skeptical reporters, was to let automotive journalists drive the rugged Rovers through streams, up rocky mountainsides and on dangerously slippery snow-covered roads.
Jean Jennings, former editor of Automobile magazine, said: “Bill Baker singlehandedly put Land Rover on the map at a time when there was virtually no product. His press trips spanned the globe, each a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Great Divide, Morocco, Scotland, Iceland, Belize, and on and on.”
“Land Rover/Range Rover would certainly not be the unquestionably authentic brand it is in the U.S. market were it not for Bill and Charlie Hughes building the stories, painting the pictures and making it thoroughly first-person for so many writers and journalists. His legacy will endure,” Jim Resnick, one of Baker’s former colleagues wrote on Facebook.
Stuart Schorr, vice president of communications and public affairs for Land Rover’s U.S. operations, said Baker defined the Land Rover brand in North America. “Everything we do today is informed by the vision and hard work of those Land Rover pioneers such as Bill Baker.”
Baker went into semi-retirement from Land Rover in 2003. But he stayed in touch with Hughes and with many of the journalists who attended his driving expeditions. He had been battling cancer and other health issues in recent years.
“Bill was critical to our success,” Hughes told Automotive News. “Arguably, he was the most creative PR person of his time.”
"Bill Baker, who put Land Rover on the map, dies at 72" was originally authored by Richard Truett and published at Automotive News on 2/17/17.
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