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My cloak and dagger meeting with mystery hypercar company | Thank Frankel it’s Friday

16th May 2024
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

A while back I did a job, one of the strangest of my career. For a start, I have to this day absolutely no idea for whom I was working.

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Most motoring journalists who have been around long enough for their names to have become reasonably well known, supplement the public-facing aspect of their lives with some moonlighting on the side. For many in an industry where work is increasingly hard to come by, it’s the only way to keep the bills paid. When it comes to these out of hours gigs we all have our own rules about what does and does not constitute a conflict of interest. I regard myself as a freelance writer for hire by any reputable organisation who I can be reasonably confident will pay up on time. But would I say I liked a car just because a manufacturer was paying me too? Personally, I would not, because I’d no longer be able to consider myself a journalist if I did, but others take a contrary view. And I don’t feel it is my place to judge them for that.

Besides, I have done plenty of jobs which have been paid for by car manufacturers, just none of them which involved any journalism. For instance, one used to pay me to show its chassis engineers how I go about evaluating cars so that they might learn the techniques themselves and be better at appraising both their own products and those of the opposition. Another used to drop a car off to me which I’d drive for a day before they took it away, made some set up changes, returned it and repeated the cycle over and over again. I really enjoyed that because – and here’s the key – they never told me what changes they’d made. Once I was convinced they’d made no changes at all and were just trying to catch me out. It was like a blind wine tasting and I really appreciated the discipline.

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My most recent slice of consultancy work didn’t involve driving at all. I was contacted by someone from an agency – let’s call him Fred – asking if I would be happy to be interviewed giving my opinion about the wisdom of a car company entering a new market segment. It would involve a trip to London which I didn’t much fancy making, so I made up a suitably outrageous fee which was accepted without demur. A date and time was set, an address was provided and that was that.

Having checked out the agency and gained sufficient reassurance that it was big enough to make getting paid a likelihood, I duly jumped on the train and turned up at the allotted time and place. There I met someone else – we’ll call him George because I never did find out his second name – who was charm personified and ran me through a few details. He’d be interviewing me on behalf of his client and no recordings would be made. And one more thing: his client – or representatives thereof - would be there in person, but behind a one-way mirror so they could see me but not vice versa. All frightfully cloak and dagger. 

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So, in I toddled and the interview took place. Every so often George would stop, pause while his client whispered something into his earpiece, then asked me a supplementary question. Once or twice he left the room to consult in person with his client returning with a fresh armful of questions. When it was all over, George stood up, shook my hand, and told me there was someone outside with a small present for me ‘for my time.’ So, I left the room to be met by a woman who handed me an envelope marked ‘travel expenses.’ It was full of £20 notes, adding up precisely to the fee I’d required for the job. I neither saw nor heard from him, her, or anyone else connected with the job ever again. But hell – I’d already been paid for it. What did I care?

Who was the client? I have a few suspicions but really not much more than that. Their questions were all about the hypercar market – how tiny boutique manufacturers like Pagani and Koenigsegg were faring compared to bigger players such as Ferrari, McLaren, and Lamborghini, and whether, if I were planning a new hypercar, I’d go down the internal combustion or the battery electric route. But whoever they are, I admire their courage. Entering any new market for the first time is daunting enough for the biggest car manufacturer. For one small enough to want to pay its consultants in cash, is another dimension of bravery. Whoever they are, I hope it worked and that I turned out to be worth a fistful of used notes.

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