In many ways, Michael Cook is responsible for the vision that most Americans have of the sporting, carefree lifestyle of the British sports car owner. He, along with 22 other remarkable individuals, will be inducted into the British Sports Car Hall of Fame on June 2, 2017.
For more than 30 years, Mike Cook’s job was to publicize and promote British cars in America. From the height of the sports car craze in the late ’50s to the end of the era when Jaguar ownership passed to Ford, Cook helped create the image of the marques, generate media buzz, launch new models, and publicize racing successes.
He was at the heart of the marketing effort to make Americans fall in love with British cars and turn them into loyal enthusiasts. And it was a resounding success.
How did Cook get to this point? It began in 1958 when he was fresh out of college. He sold his first British car, a 1955 Triumph TR2, in order to buy a plane ticket from Ohio to New York City, where he hoped to land an advertising job. Standard-Triumph hired him as assistant advertising manager and secretary of the Triumph Sports Owners Association.
“In the late ’50s, sports car mania was sweeping the country,” says Cook. “Enthusiasm for Triumphs, MGs, Sunbeams and Jaguars was terrific, and I was enthused to be part of it all.”
Cook eventually moved up to become advertising and public relations manager for Triumph in America. He left for a one-year stint at Mobil Oil, but returned in 1968 as the corporate public relations manager for British Leyland, promoting famous marques Triumph, MG, Jaguar, Rover and Land Rover. After this company met its demise, he became the product publicity manager for Jaguar in 1982. Cook touted Jaguars for nearly a decade until the company passed to Ford, and then he decided to pursue freelance writing on automotive subjects. What a career ride.
The focus of Cook’s work was promoting the vehicles themselves, but he also got involved in the spin for the foundering British Leyland corporation. “Although there was a sound, profitable organization in North America, the British Leyland parent company was hopeless, badly managed and underfinanced,” says Cook.
My biggest challenge was trying to keep up customer enthusiasm and loyalty in the face of product quality problems. It wasn’t a challenge to sell the cars—we were selling 30,000 MGBs per year 15 years after it went into production with virtually no changes. But there was always a fine line between selling cars and then backing it up.
Publicizing racing results was the most interesting and enjoyable aspect of the job, according to Cook. In addition to factory racing efforts, the company had a huge support program for SCCA racing, offering prize money for every class that featured a British Leyland car.
Note: This story originally appeared in Moss Motoring, January 6, 2009.
Note: This is part of an ongoing series focusing on the 23 individuals who will be inducted into the British Sports Car Hall of Fame in ceremonies on June 2nd, 2017, at the Hall of Fame in Petersburg, VA.