Colleagues and friends pay tribute to Friend of the Guild and long-time Mercedes-Benz PR Erik Johnson, who has died at his home in Poole Dorset at the age of 90, following a short illness.
Former Mercedes Benz Communications director
Erik played an important part in the story of Mercedes-Benz in the UK, primarily thanks to his long service to the company as public relations manager. From 1962 until 1987 he represented the brand to journalists, made incredible contacts and friends, and left a long-lasting legacy that echoes through to this day.
Erik retired back in 1987, and even when I joined Mercedes-Benz some 14 years later, his name and his reputation were still well-known among colleagues and writers.
One of his fellow PRs in the 1980s was Nigel Emms (who himself later became a public relations veteran of some repute at Iveco). Nigel said Erik was ‘the best-connected guy of his generation in Fleet Street’, then the home of UK newspapers.
Described by Nigel as an ‘absolute gentleman’ and a ‘bon viveur’, Erik used his skills to ‘get the first airbag on British television’ and even got the UK’s press excited at the introduction of the ‘jumping windscreen wiper’.
He could conjure a compelling story out of a technical feature. Nigel also told me Erik was very good at ‘handling situations’ – which is PR-code for turning a potential problem into an opportunity. I’ll give an example.
Terry Davies, the late chairman of Gohebwyr Moduro Cymru (Welsh Motoring Writers) once told me of a media test day at Silverstone, in the early 1970s.
Manufacturers had cars for assessment on track and the roads surrounding the circuit. Erik, in his PR role, beckoned Terry into a pit garage and asked if he’d mind being a passenger for a few laps.
It was because the retired racing driver they’d brought along for the day had nothing to do, and was just waiting, parked, behind the wheel. He couldn’t let him get bored or irate.
Obligingly, Terry sat in the large saloon, and indeed beside him was the ‘old driver’. The old driver in this case was none other than Juan Manuel Fangio, five-time Grand Prix World Champion and still regarded by many as one of, if not the greatest, Grand Prix drivers of all time.
Fangio took them around the track at colossal speed, gracefully passing much faster sports cars (like the De Tomaso Pantera) with barely a movement of the wheel. And Terry still spoke of this, to me, some 30 years later. Fellow writer LJK Setright confirmed the story in a separate anecdote.
That is excellent PR – creating a moment around a car – and a story that lives on in the memory. It all really epitomises Erik Johnson, for me. He knew a lot of the great names in the company’s past – Fangio, Alfred Neubauer, and Rudolf Uhlenhaut, with whom he regularly sailed. Erik wrote extensively, and was a stickler for accuracy and history.
In my formative years as PR manager, Erik would make notes at my annual Mercedes-Benz Club presentation and, with his wife Dora at his side, would then quiz me on details over dinner. I still refer to Erik’s excellent book The Dawn of Motoring, and have a copy at home and another copy in the office. I think he was testing my Mercedes mettle with his perceptive probing, and it was very clear that although long since retired, he had never lost his interest in or connection with the company.
In more recent times, Erik and I enjoyed each other’s company, and we would email each other about his cars or about newsworthy company moments. We last met at the Mercedes-Benz Club’s Christmas party in 2018 – two former PR men, both in silly festive hats, and had a photo taken together, which I then tweeted. Many journalists commented on the pic, which shows how long and how fondly Erik remained in their memories.
It was August 9, 1983 and there I was having dinner with Joanna Lumley, Stirling Moss and Erik Johnson.
It wasn’t every day you sat with National Treasures. Celebrities of one sort and another yes. National Treasures not often; Lumley and Moss treasures beyond question yet for motoring writers, Erik Johnson exemplified another sort of treasure. A top motor industry PR, he took the Guild of Motoring Writers seriously.
It scarcely mattered what you wrote for; if you were a member you were heard. The Guild, in recognition, elected him a Friend.
We were in Italy driving over the 1955 Mille Miglia course, which Moss won in a Mercedes-Benz 300SLR. Johnson, head of public relations at Mercedes-Benz UK, arranged the expedition to publicise its new 190, a saloon about the size of a Cortina.
I was doing a piece for The Sunday Times Magazine and Johnson had a publicity gig going with Joanna Lumley. In some mountain retreat Moss was his customary talkative self. What a hero. I had watched him win the British Grand Prix at Aintree the year he won the Mille Miglia. Joanna Lumley, unforgettable. Stunning beauty, liquid eyes; she even seemed to pay attention to whatever you were saying.
Senior industry PRs tended to be directors or vice-presidents in those days and Guild membership opened their doors. I was a road tester for The Motor and fresh to the Guild. Johnson kept our conversation going even when I became a struggling freelance.
There was a queue for Mercedes-Benz test cars. Access to its boardroom on Great Western Road, when they were still building the Hammersmith flyover, was crucial. Johnson provided it without a break and with consummate style. He provided access to Rudi Uhlenhaut, Juan Manuel Fangio, Moss and more, right up to his retirement as General Manager Public Relations Mercedes-Benz UK in 1987, after 25 very distinguished years. A great communicator and fond friend.
Former GOMW chairman
Erik was always a great companion on a long drive, with entertaining conversation and had a great show of patience against all adversity.”
Stuart says that things didn’t always go right for Erik, one incident he recalls happened at Mallory Park where had loaned the newly arrived and immensely powerful 6.3-litre to ex-Formula One driver Innes Ireland to carry out some demonstration laps between races.
Unfortunately Innes suffered a puncture on the way to the circuit, and arrived very late saying that he needed to check the tyre pressures. No time for that, said Erik; they’re waiting for you.
Innes went off at high speed but lost it in a big way on the last corner before the straight where all the spectators were thronged and finished with the car on its roof. It was all the more unfortunate that the new 6.3 was the managing director’s personal car.
Frances ‘Erik’ Johnson started his working life as a journalist training on the Bedfordshire Times before joining the Oxford Mail in 1950 and the Watford Observer in 1954.
His transfer to public relations took place in 1958 when he began working for the London Press Exchange and later for BBD&O and Grey Advertising prior to joining Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union in September 1962 after a period working for Auto Union as a freelance.
His rose through the ranks and retired after 25 years with the company, as general manager public relations in December 1987. He was well known to many GOMW members and remembered for his many unique press events and promotional campaigns. He also supported numerous Guild initiatives and events.
During his working career he also found time to race DWK Junior and Auto Union sport prototypes before turning to sailing, a hobby he continued when he moved to the south coast.
“Dad’s great passions were Mercedes, motor racing and sailing,” commented his daughter Laura.
In retirement Erik maintained close links with Mercedes-Benz journalists and the Guild. He was a regular attender at the GOMW annual dinner and awards and along with his late wife Dora took part in at least one Guild Euro Classic.
The Guild sends its deepest condolences to his daughter Laura and her family.
Photo: Erik Johnson (left) outside the Guild Chalet at Silverstone presenting a framed photograph to Stirling Moss which he is accepting on behalf of the BRDC Collection. It shows Moss and Denis Jenkinson after winning the 1955 Mille Miglia in a Mercedes-Benz 300SLR being congratulated by Alfred Neubauer the Mercedes-Benz racing director. On the very left edge of the frame is their engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut. The photograph was hung in the Guild Chalet until the building was demolished to make way for the new BRDC club house.