This is the farcical story of British Leyland (aren’t they always?) and their woeful approach to product placement. Be warned though, you’ll probably do a bit of Googling after you’ve read it all and, like me, lose umpteen hours to YouTube episodes of bad ’70s crime capers and ogling  pics of twenty-something Joanna Lumley and/or wide-bodied racing Jags.

I still find it a bit weird that the venerable British Motor Corporation, who’d chucked wads of white fivers at its Works Competition Departments in the 50s and 60s, were a so slow to catch on to the benefits of product placement on the big screen. Most folks already know that BMC were very slow to cough up keys for the original Italian Job, and would only supply six cars at cost price to Paramount. In all 16 mk1 Mini – some boggo 850s disguised as tweaked Cooper S – were destroyed during filming, and sad as it was to see them plummeting to their (unlikely) fiery deaths from Alpine passes, it was small change really. Annual sales of Austin/Morris Mini boomed in the wake of the 1969 blockbuster, peaking a couple of years later at 318,412. BMC got lucky that time and you’d have thought its top brass would have learned a valuable lesson in the power of product placement thanks to the Italian Job.

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So in 1976, when ITV planned to produce an updated series of the ‘60s crime caper The Avengers British Leyland were keen as mustard to get involved and offered the production team free reign over its fleet of top end sports and executive motors. An XJ-S, XJ12C, Rover SD1, MGB, Range Rover and a TR7 were cherry-picked by the equally excited production team and filming began. However, PR and quality control were never BL’s strong point. When Purdy’s yellow TR7 broke down they replaced it with a red one, which wasn’t great for continuity; when Gambit’s XJ-S overheated the crew had to hire a replacement because strikes had dried up stocks of new ones; and Steed’s Broadspeed-styled V12 XJC was considered undrivable, even by the stuntmen.

 

But, by far, the best story I heard was about the MGB Roadster delivered by BL and parked in the corner of the film lot. The poor old stunt driver wrestled with the gearbox for nearly an hour trying to select reverse and eventually had to push the car out before filming could begin. It was only later he discovered that the gearknob – on which the gear gate pattern was embossed – was actually from an Austin Princess where reverse was on the opposite side to the MGB’s!

The New Avengers Producer, Brian Clemens, publicly claims he never bought another British car again, and when he went on to produce The Professionals in the early ‘80s he used the Capri 3000S, Granada and RS2000 of BL’s main rival, Ford. And they, as all ‘80s kids will tell you, were ruddy brilliant … and so were Dodge Chargers in racist paint jobs and black 3rd-gen Trans Ams with A) giant golden birds on the hood or B) red strobe lights – ’80s kid was an idiot.

Thirty years on Rover’s new German overlords were a bit more PR savvy. For the filming of the 2003 Italian Job remake BMW happily gifted the film crew 32 MINI to use as they wished. And even though that film was slightly pants US MINI sales still shot up by 22% the following year. If there’s ever a third remake I’d love to see a big-assed Countryman trying to get through that sewer pipe; that’d be hilarious.

Dr. O

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