My typing fingers suddenly froze while I was writing this. In another part of the house, Sue Baker was on Radio 4’s Six O’Clock News. Until Monday this week, this would probably have been because she’d been called by a frazzled news producer, last-minute as usual, to give her motoring expert’s view on a story. That might range from a car manufacturer mega-merger or autonomous vehicles to speed limits or drink-driving. Or parking – British listeners love controversy about parking.
This time, though, the story was Sue Baker. Poor Sue had finally succumbed in the horrendous, unequal battle against motor-neurone disease and passed away peacefully, aged 75. And this was a fulsome, four-minute piece about her life and achievements. Let’s face it, you never hear primetime tributes to motoring journalists. The only other ones I can recall are Raymond Baxter and Murray Walker. They – we – are an odd bunch of hacks, a ragbag of engineering graduates, public-schoolboy speedfreaks, data-nerds, horsepower-whisperers and freeloaders, enriched with assorted Alan Partridges and, these days, selfie-stick influencers. You might enjoy our stuff but you won’t know us and, mostly, the BBC won’t give us spoken obituaries.
Sue, however, was different. She’s been in all our homes because, throughout the 1980s she was on the presenting team of more than 100 episodes of Top Gear. Not quite the first female presenter (that was Angela Rippon) but the best-known by miles. She was also frequently up at dawn as the BBC’s Breakfast Time motoring correspondent, and presented Rally Report – one of her most memorable assignments was co-driving with Michele Mouton in an Audi Quattro in 1983.
We’ve been inured by the Clarkson/May/Hammond era of the show to regard earlier Top Gear as sedate – a small-screen motoring magazine show rather than explosion-filled light-entertainment. Actually, it did a high-quality job of lassoing all the new models and car-related topics into a relatable half-hour, and Sue was brilliant at it, steady-eyed and charismatic as she donned a helmet and lowered herself into a racing car cockpit; or reported from the Birmingham Motor Show; or stood next to a caravan and somehow got you interested in towing; or, of course, chatted away lucidly to camera from the driving seat of a new car as a gorgeous location (or the West Midlands) spooled past in the background.
She made it look easy, and blazed a trail for female TV presenters. Yet even before she was famous on the telly, Sue had broken barriers. Educated at Chislehurst & Sidcup Grammar School and then trained as a newspaper reporter at Harlow College, her first patch in the late 1960s with the Kentish Times extended out to Brands Hatch, and she persuaded her editor to print her race reports. That got her noticed by the circuit’s owner John Webb, and before long he’d taken her on to run his Motor Racing News Service. PR, though, is where journos go when they stop reporting, and Sue was soon away from the pit and paddock and up in Fleet Street – London’s newspaper bullring – as a reporter with the Evening News, and shortly after its full-time motoring correspondent. That made her the first woman in the country with such a position, and Sue was one of a tiny handful of women on the new car launch merry-go-round of airports, motor shows and test tracks. Despite the casual misogyny of the time.
By the late 1970s that would, naturally, have included glamorous press trips in exciting locations – business class flights and sumptuous hotels. But it was hard, unrelenting work of concise, easy-to-digest stories, and nightmare deadlines, all done without a laptop or the internet. And Sue was married to John, a Navy helicopter pilot, with a family life. Indeed, when she stood up to accept the first female chairmanship of the Guild of Motoring Writers’ annual dinner in 1978, the bump of her first pregnancy was obvious under her evening gown.
In 1982 Sue became motoring correspondent of The Observer, again breaking new ground as the car guru on a fully-fledged British national newspaper. She held that position for 13 years, fitting it in with Top Gear filming, and attending literally hundreds of new car launches all over the world. Sue was notorious for her breathless, last-minute arrivals at airports, but always made the flight. Then she transferred her prolific workload and professionalism to freelance life, feeding countless magazines, newspaper and websites.
A great many car writers owe their confident start in ‘the business’ to Sue. I’m not sure if she liked the nickname ‘Ma Baker’ (she was a ma of two, Ian and Hannah, and grand-ma to two more) but she seemed to go out of her way to be friendly and encouraging to rookie journalists.
On big press events, the laconic ease with which the old guard process an avalanche of information, and the robotic confidence of car industry execs, can intimidate the newcomer. Sue could spot an apprehensive newbie and welcome them into the fold, opening her metaphorical handbag of hints, tips and contacts with extraordinary generosity, and then be a firm friend evermore with an amazing ability to remember (she was a MENSA member) what you were up to.
I think many people on press trips were secretly relieved to be paired up with Sue for a day’s drive. Not only would she be great company but you’d be certain her excellent, confident driving would not be the dice-with-death in prospect with some of the more testosterone-troubled members of the media pack.
That was the warm, friendly and thoughtful side of her. Yet almost to the very end, when she was confined to a wheelchair and converting her house for indoor driving, she could switch into being an exceptional pro at the first tap of the caps key. As Martin Gurdon, one of Sue’s many commissioning editors, says: “Many journalists offered nothing but road tests but Sue, whose profile and experience eclipsed virtually everyone else, had an endless fund of good ideas. Her copy was always the right length, immaculate and on time. She loved cars and she loved to work, and would put the same effort into a down-page, 150-worder about people in Catford restoring Ford Capris as she would a cover story.”
Sue Baker, motoring journalist and TV presenter, was born on May 9, 1947. She died of motor neurone disease on November 14, 2022, aged 75.
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