Gold Leaf tobacco’s arrival in Formula 1 changed the sport’s commercial perspective forever. We spoke to Tim Collins, the man who made sure the deal went through… yet came within a whisker of calling the whole thing off
Writer Simon Arron
The stage was set, the cars primed for launch in two-tone red and white with subtle gold pinstripes. It had all been very hush-hush, because secrets could still be kept in the 1960s, but Gold Leaf Team Lotus would soon become part of motor racing’s everyday lexicon. The press had long since been invited to ‘a major announcement’ and everything was ready. Everything, that is, bar one trifling detail: the final contract was still missing a couple of signatures and the clock was starting to tick…
But first, a little social and sporting context.
“I was promotions manager for Player’s Tobacco,” says Tim Collins, now 80, “and we were very keen on establishing strong brand identities. Part of my remit was to look at different sports. We ended up sponsoring cricket’s John Player League, for instance, and one of our first ideas in motor racing was to buy Silverstone and rename it the John Player Circuit. We got very excited about that and lots of friendly conversations took place, but our promotions agent – a chap named Ken Best – looked at the various avenues we could take and we ended up sponsoring a national autocross championship, via Player’s No6. It sounds a bit odd, looking back, but we got a lot of exposure from that.”
This, remember, was a time when the world was finally waking up to the potentially harmful effects of smoking, even though it had been common custom for at least 250 years. The Royal College of Physicians began campaigning for publicity restrictions in the early 1960s and cigarette advertising was banned from British TV beyond August 1965 (although cigars continued to smoulder on the box until 1991). It hadn’t been all that long since newspapers had carried ads bearing slogans such as “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette” or “Craven A, the cigarette for me” next to a picture of England footballer Stanley Matthews, fag on the go and broad smile on his face…
Fresh enlightenment was good news for the broader public, but the tobacco industry was quick to seek alternative promotional streams – and by the mid-sixties there was another sub-plot bubbling under.
Collins says, “Word was going around that the government was going to ban coupon cigarettes [which came with vouchers that could be exchanged for gifts – the more you smoked, the bigger the potential bounty]. We had two coupon brands – and one was Player’s No6, which in its first year became the most successful consumer product ever launched in monetary terms. By about year four it was rumoured that the duty we were paying was covering the basic cost of running the British Army of the Rhine. That illustrates how big those brands were.
“Anyway, I got a memo saying that a ban might be imposed [it wasn’t, in the end], so we needed to promote a non-coupon brand – and the only existing one we had was Gold Leaf, which at the time was perceived as slightly old-fashioned. I was asked to come up with ideas to jazz up its image and make it look more modern. That’s when I started to think about Formula 1.
“Ken Best suggested that we should look at Lotus, so I spoke to Colin Chapman and we began to discuss terms. It all happened fairly quickly, over two or three months, and we didn’t talk to anybody else. Besides, Colin offered us a dream team of Graham Hill and Jim Clark, so why would we have wanted to go anywhere other than Lotus?”
But there was one crucial sticking point, which is where we came in.
“As a strict marketing person,” Collins says, “I felt our brand name had to be an integral part of the operation – hence Gold Leaf Team Lotus. But Colin very much wanted it to be Team Lotus sponsored by Gold Leaf. That would have been a deal-breaker for us and we wouldn’t have signed on those terms.
“That apart, everything had been agreed – but we were still debating the point on the night before the scheduled launch. My chairman said everything had to be signed off by 10.30pm – as Gold Leaf Team Lotus – or telegrams would be sent out cancelling the press conference. It all got rather tense. I was there as a middle manager from a tobacco company, while Colin was there with Fred Bushell, his financial advisor. Colin wanted to know whether I was empowered to make any of these big decisions. I told him I was and gave him my chairman’s home number, saying that Colin could ring him as long as it was before 10.30. If there were any queries beyond that point, the whole deal was off. I think he was amazed that we were so cool about it, but he had very little room for manoeuvre. He finally agreed to our terms, so the launch went ahead and the rest is history. Before we came in Colin’s biggest sponsor had been Esso, but there were never any demands for strong branding.”
When the Gold Leaf colours first appeared on track, in the Tasman Series early in ’68, the branding incorporated a bearded sailor whose face adorned cigarette packets. And then a single Lotus 49 was rolled out for Graham Hill at the Race of Champions, Brands Hatch, on March 17.
“When I arrived there was one hell of a hubbub,” Collins says. “London Weekend Television was covering the race and was worried about the car looking like cigarette advertising. Colin loved a bit of drama and put me on the spot, asking whether or not we were going to take part. LWT objected to the sailor logo, so I suggested we replace it with a white circle and a black question mark. Thereafter we changed it to a Union Jack and the TV firms couldn’t call it cigarette advertising because the altered logo was simply the team’s name.”
The project was still in its infancy when tragedy struck, Jim Clark dying at Hockenheim on April 7 after his Lotus 48 left the road and struck an unprotected tree. “My day to day contact at Lotus was Andrew Ferguson,” Collins says, “and he told me that he wasn’t sure whether Colin would actually carry on after Jimmy’s accident. Andrew was one of those who helped nurse the team through a dreadfully tough period, though, and we went on to win the world championship with Graham.”
On the day Clark died, Jackie Oliver shared the class-winning Gold Leaf Lotus 47 with John Miles in the Brands Hatch Six Hours – and was subsequently chosen to partner Hill in F1.
“It was a terribly difficult year,” says Oliver, “and I’m not sure I was much of a replacement for Jimmy. It was [racing manager] Jim Endruweit who put my name forward, but Colin never really wanted to do it. He’d have preferred another successful F1 driver, but the season had already started so they bunged me in. I think Colin saw my role as winning races in the home market to drive up customer car sales. He wanted me in the team, but not in an F1 seat!”
Both men moved on at the year’s end, Oliver to drive for BRM and Collins to work for Suttons Seeds, but Tim – whose love of cars was fired by his racing uncle Geoffrey Crossley, whom he’d watched at Brooklands in 1938 (“I still have the poster”) – remained in touch with his tobacco contacts. “I wasn’t directly involved with the John Player Special Lotus deal,” he says, “but the marketing director was a mate and we talked about it a lot. Player’s wanted an international brand but didn’t have one, so created John Player Special and used F1 to promote it. That was a quicker, much cheaper way to gain exposure than by placing advertising around the world.”
He and Oliver have been close friends since their 1968 season together – and have on a couple of occasions come close to striking collaborative deals.
“I put together presentations for Jackie when he was running Arrows in the mid-Eighties,” Collins says. “We came very close to getting De Beers on board – and Jody Scheckter had agreed to come out of retirement to race for us. I persuaded him over a very agreeable lunch in Montréal. The car was going to be called The Diamond Special, promoting diamond retailers around the world rather than De Beers directly. Some within De Beers were keen to do it, but others wanted to stick with horse racing and the deal never happened.”
Oliver adds, “We got something from the negotiations, though, because we picked up some industrial diamonds and used them to stop the bottom of our sliding skirts wearing out…”
And then there was British American Tobacco. “When Tom Walkinshaw and I joined forces at Arrows in 1996,” Oliver says, “I’d heard that BAT wanted to become involved in F1 – and I knew they didn’t want to sponsor a team but to be the team. I called my old friend Tim and we made a presentation to Tom. He ignored what Tim told him, though, and BAT ended up buying Tyrrell. I went ballistic and that was the beginning of the end of my relationship with Tom. Ultimately, that deal could have saved Arrows.”
Arrows withered during the 2002 campaign and ever-tighter legislation made it clear that tobacco sponsorship would soon be snuffed out, too. F1 managed to obtain a temporary stay of execution, but cigarette logos were mostly gone by the middle of the decade – although Ferrari continued to appear on entry lists as Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro until 2011, the tobacco suffix finally being dropped halfway through that season.
“When we came in,” Collins says, “the deal cost £95,000 for the season and extended to all of Team Lotus’s racing activities, from F1 through F2 and F3 to the Europa-based 47 GT.”
By the time the tobacco companies withdrew, it’s estimated that their collective seasonal sponsorship spend – on F1 alone – was north of £210 million.