High Anxiety: Thatcher behind the wheel of a Rover

By Lydia Willgress in London
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Margaret Thatcher behind the wheel of a Rover 800 in Downing St.

Margaret Thatcher behind the wheel of a Rover 800 in Downing St.

 Aides’ terror over drive for cameras

When Margaret Thatcher was approached to test-drive a new Rover, her aides agreed it would be a good thing for the prime minister to be seen promoting a British car.There was just one concern - her lack of ability behind the wheel.

In fact, senior staff appeared to be so worried that she might crash during the publicity stunt in 1986 that they organised for the vehicle to be smuggled to Chequers so she could practise.

The 1986 Rover 800.

They were also haunted by the memory of a red car being delivered to Downing Street, matching the Opposition’s colour instead of the Conservative Party’s blue, newly uncovered documents show.

The private papers, released this week by the Margaret Thatcher Archive Trust at the Churchill Archive Centre in Cambridge, show that the prime minister’s agreement to test drive the flagship vehicle for Rover’s 800 series caused quite a stir.

Aides had told her that a public outing in the vehicle would demonstrate “we still love Leyland” as the state-owned motor company was renamed Rover Group.

Avoiding undignified slip-ups

A number of letters were sent between staff as early as April - three months before the event - as they discussed the best way to avoid undignified slip-ups.

Their first battle was over the colour of the car. Bernard Ingham, Mrs Thatcher’s chief press secretary, remembered a time when “they brought a blue (not a red) car” to Downing Street, while private secretary Mark Addison was forced to make sure they were “fully aware of the importance of getting the right colour this time”.

It was also decided that to ensure Mrs Thatcher’s performance for the cameras went off without a hitch - or a shunt - the vehicle would be taken to the prime minister’s country house retreat the week before the live event.

Plans were put in place to ensure the press did not discover what was going on, and members of the public did not see the car.

On July 4, the details were revealed in a note to the prime minister from Mr Addison.“You are trying out the Rover 800 tomorrow at Chequers between 10.00 and 10.30 to familiarise yourself with the car before the test drive in front of the cameras in Downing Street next Thursday,” he told her.

“The car will be arriving, covered, towed behind a Range Rover... This is only an opportunity to familiarise yourself with the car. There will be no publicity.”

A separate note gave further detail. The Rover would be pulled by a white Range Rover and would “arrive under cover, for obvious reasons, on a trailer”.

She would be shown it by Ray Axe, the chief designer, as well as the director in charge of the project.

Mrs Thatcher insisted she wanted to drive the car from the front door, before reversing up a side street and returning. “You would need to feel fully confident about manoeuvring the car into the side road and back out again,” Mr Addison warned.

Chris Collins, a historian at the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, said aides may have had a “dark fear” that it would all go “horribly wrong”.

He said part of the problem was that, not needing to drive in her position, she was no longer familiar with “the machine”.

“She hadn’t driven for many, many years - maybe 10 years since she had been round in a car, with herself behind the wheel,” he said.

“I wouldn’t think she had driven since 1975 - except for the previous attempts to do this, of course. There may be a memory of a previous drive that had gone wrong.”

Despite fears, the stunt went well and the prime minister later wrote to Graham Day, chairman of Rover group, to say she had “very much enjoyed” driving such a “splendid” car.

-The Daily Telegraph

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