Bill Baker, the legendary PR man who played a key role in Land Rover’s successful return to the U.S. market in 1986, died Thursday after a battle with cancer at his home near Laguna Niguel, Calif. He was 72.
Baker, a broadcast newsman from Ohio, caught Ford’s attention in the early 1970s with his road test segments that aired in Cleveland. Ford offered Baker a job on its broadcast media relations team. Two years later, Baker moved to Volvo, and then held management positions at Fiat-Lancia and Ferrari.
Baker then worked for Sony Corp. of America. And in 1983, opened his own shop and worked for Chrysler before becoming one of the first American employees of Land Rover of North America in 1986.
Land Rover’s U.S. operations in the mid-1980s were small, fewer than 100 people, recalls Charlie Hughes, Land Rover’s North American CEO in the 1980s and 1990s. Baker, Hughes said, was given a small budget to promote a vehicle few Americans had ever heard of -- the Range Rover.
Not only was the Range Rover a new vehicle and brand in the U.S., it was creating a new segment -- the luxury SUV.
“We were a very small company and we knew we had to do some exciting things to get noticed. You turn Bill loose and all sorts of wonderful things happened,” Hughes told Automotive News.
The Rover name was somewhat tarnished with American buyers. In 1973, British Leyland, then owner of Land Rover, suddenly pulled the brand out of the U.S. market, leaving many of its dealers with nothing to sell.
Seven years later, the Rover name was back in the U.S. but on a car, the 1980 Rover 3500. A mere 1,254 units of the large V-8 powered five-door hatchback were sold before the model was pulled from the U.S. market after just one year. It didn’t help that the 1986 Range Rover’s 3.5-liter aluminum V-8 engine used the Rover 3500’s engine and was a GM castoff first used in a 1962 Buick.
None of that bogged down Baker.
As Land Rover was gearing up for the Range Rover’s U.S. launch, Rover executives in England stepped back. Still reeling from the embarrassing failure of the 1980 Rover 3500, the company could not afford another failure. They wanted Americans to run the North American launch, Hughes recalled.
“When you are launching a vehicle and you have a very small advertising budget, we just made a decision to make sure we’d spend whatever we needed to spend in the public relations area because we knew that money was going to be more important and more impactful.”