That time I did work experience with Chris Harris in a strange new Audi
Working for free, making tea doing work experience at car mags is a rite of passage for any motoring journalist, Kyle Fortune looks back at a fun week
“You can sit there,” said Patrick Fuller, then Editor of Autocar. Over 20 years ago I was the work experience boy. That desk was Steve Cropley’s. I didn’t know this until a face I’d only ever seen in magazines walked into the office. He said a friendly hello, like it was entirely normal someone would be at his desk, grabbed something off it and sat down alongside. I offered to move, but he wouldn’t have it, leaving me to sweat over some first drive words that Fuller had tasked me with, having handed me the keys to an Alfa Romeo 146 Junior within the first few hours of arriving.
I wasn’t really there to write, I was there to muck in, moving and cleaning cars, helping the photographers, doing whatever was asked of me. The office was incredibly busy, people coming and going all the time, heading off on ‘launches’ grabbing keys to any of the seemingly huge number of new cars that littered the car park like it was entirely normal. Which is was. It was incredibly odd to be among it all, but, likewise, I never once felt I shouldn’t be there, there a real camaraderie and friendliness throughout the entire office.
The original Ford Focus was one of the highlights of Kyle's week at Autocar – it revolutionised how family cars drive
I’d read the names of these people alongside the words they’d written, seen pictures of them in the mag, but it was odd being among them. Colin Goodwin, fellow of DriveTribe, and a mate to this day, was sat at Cropley’s desk the following day, muttering something about Lamborghinis. Tristan Young arrived to be shown his desk over in the news section and the road test team was made up of Steve Sutcliffe, Andrew Goldby, Alistair Weaver and Chris Harris.
I never did meet Sutcliffe that week, but have countless times since, I delivered an Audi S4 down to Weaver at Chobham test track – another place I’d only ever seen in pictures in mags – returning in a Series II Disco, and did cornering shots in the then new, and revelatory, Ford Focus. It blew me away. Golby was an occasional sight in the office, bashing out words at his desk before disappearing again.
Harris was around, and I’d spend a few days with him. Most notably was when Peter Robinson, Autocar’s European Editor, popped up in the office, with the keys to Audi’s new TT – a 225 quattro. Robinson had driven it straight back from the launch in Germany, and the road test team were tasked with ‘figuring’ it.
Kyle isn't *that* old
That meant a trip to Millbrook test track, up the M1 from Autocar’s Teddington base. Harris grabbed the keys, and I asked if I could come along, looking at the empty seats at the roadtesters’ desks and explaining that Sutcliffe was away driving a racing TVR, Weaver a Caterham Academy car and Golby doing some video training. Leaving the office Harris uttered the line I’ve never, ever, let him forget since: “there are too many ****ing wannabe racing drivers and television presenters here.” I particularly enjoyed reminding him once in the pit lane at the Nurburgring 24hr, when he got out of his racing car before starting a piece to camera…
Driving up the M1 in the TT the effect that car had on the traffic was incredible. We’re talking the pre-smartphone era here, which means we weren’t the subject of pointed cameras, that too explaining why I don’t have any pictures of that week at Autocar, though there is a shot of me driving that Focus around a bend at Chobham. No driving the TT – instead I sat in the passenger seat (in a LHD car) watching people gawp in wonder at Audi’s cool coupe. On the M1 in traffic we could well have been sitting in a spaceship such was the reaction to it.
Harris didn’t seem to notice, more concerned about the traffic slowing our journey to Millbrook. We were signed into the test facility with notoriously tight security given how many pre-production cars are tested there. It felt like being let into the inner sanctum of the car world. Harris would use the mile straight to get acceleration figures for the TT, and also take it for a run around the alpine road and handling circuit. I was along as ballast, all those drives seeing me thrown around the interior of a car in a manner I’d never been before.
Numbers collected, we headed back south. For Harris it was just another day in the office, but for me it cemented that this is what I wanted to do. I’ve been lucky enough to do exactly that, and still regularly meet many of the people from those early days on the odd little world we co-exist in. It’s not work, it never has been, but it’s been, and remains, one hell of an experience.