In what has become a very sad month for the Guild, many members will already be aware of the passing of our Vice-President and former Chairman Sue Baker, after a long battle with motor neurone disease. Sue died peacefully at home early on Monday morning at the age of 75, surrounded by her family.
Few motoring journalists have made their mark on the industry as did Sue – while she found fame with an 11-year stint as a presenter on the BBC’s Top Gear, she was also a pioneer and lifelong advocate for women in journalism. The fact that her passing was marked in most national newspapers speaks volumes for the enormous role she played in the motoring media for many years.
Sue got the motoring bug at an early age and when she started work as a trainee on the Kentish Times she managed to persuade the editor to publish her reports on races at Brands Hatch. These came to the attention of John Webb, the circuit’s managing director, and Alan Brinton, editor of Motor Racing magazine (and Guild chairman) who employed Sue to run the Motor Racing News Service based at the circuit.
Her next step in the world of journalism was to the Evening News, where she was taken on as a general reporter but soon graduated to motoring correspondent and became, with Judith Jackson and Anne Hope, one of only three women in Fleet Street specializing in motoring.
In 1978 Sue was elected the first female Chairman of the Guild; at the Annual Dinner, pregnant with her first child, she was presented with some baby bootees knitted by Tom Leake, the outgoing Chairman.
Ever-ambitious, Sue also became well-known for her TV appearances on the original Top Gear programme and BBC Breakfast Time. In 1982 she moved newspapers to The Observer, where she was motoring editor for 13 years before establishing herself as a freelance.
She worked in Fleet Street for 23 years and was at the BBC for 11 years, before she left to have her daughter, Hannah. Her older son, Ian was extremely proud when his mum picked him up from school, usually in something fast and flashy.
Sue’s capacity for work and eagerness to write meant that she was never short of outlets and editors appreciated her professionalism: always clean copy, well constructed, to length, and on time. Behind it all was a joy for life, a love of nature and travel and a keenness to participate in all sorts of activities; she gained a racing licence early in her career and was an experienced rally co-driver (notably winning the 1983 Audi Sport National Rally with Michelle Mouton in a Quattro).
Social media could have been made for Sue; she was as busy on her phone as the most tech-savvy teenager. The extensive network of friends and contacts that she cultivated was invaluable when she became chairman of the Southern Group of Motoring Writers, secretary of the Fleet Street Motoring Group, a Trustee of the Guild’s Benevolent Fund and a Guild Vice President.
Even when she was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and confined to a wheelchair, Sue maintained her sense of fun, cheerfully continued communication by phone and laptop, and had a ready smile for anyone she met in person.
Southern Group chairman Ian Robertson first got to know Sue, “like many other teenage boys”, by watching her on television, on Top Gear. “That was back in the days when wheel spins were frowned upon, and presenters were forced to reshoot. And of course, that was before Jeremy Clarkson appeared and changed motoring television for ever.
“When I joined the industry in 2007, Sue took me under her wing and introduced me to everyone that I needed to know,” Ian added. “She would say to them, ‘Have you met Ian Robertson?’. She had a great knack for reading the room and seeking out anyone new and bringing them into a conversation and making them feel welcome. She would often suggest driving together at a new car launch, putting them at ease.”
Martin Gurdon described Sue as having a warmth to her, an almost parental kindness that came from liking people and wanting to know more about them. “This was a brilliant asset for a journalist – Sue was the genuine article and never made people feel as if they were recourses to be mined. They always had her complete attention, and she was a good listener.”
“One colleague described her as his ‘motoring mum,’” Martin added, “which resonates with me and I suspect a great many of us who were near contemporaries, young enough to be her children and more recently her grandchildren. It’s no surprise that some of Sue’s journalist friends nicknamed her ‘Ma Baker.’
“When I first met her at a Geneva Motor Show dinner in the mid 1990s, I was chaperoning a very green, very young journalist who was new to the industry. I realise now that she took both of us under her wing, making suggestions of people we should speak to and facilitating introductions. We’d never met her before, but that didn’t matter, and over the years I saw her show similar generosity to many other colleagues.”
Martin worked closely with Sue for many years, including when he was commissioning editor for an Evening Standard motoring supplement. “Many journalists offered nothing but road tests, but Sue, whose profile and experience eclipsed virtually everyone else, had carefully read the supplement and understood what we needed – she had an endless fund of good ideas.
“Her copy was always the right length, immaculate and on time. She was ambitious and competitive, but completely free of the ‘don’t you know who I am?’ egoism displayed by a few contributors whose talents she completely eclipsed. 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.”
Martin also came to appreciate what a trailblazer Sue was for women in automotive journalism in particular, and national newspaper journalism in general. “She started her career during the early 1970s in an industry where casual misogyny was rife. Her success helped open doors for succeeding generations of talented women writers.
“Some of her motoring journalist friends will also cherish serial memories of being in airport departure lounges waiting for a determined, compact figure hauling a wheeled suitcase to puff into view as their flights were called for the umpteenth time. Sue’s heroically last-minute time keeping was entirely consistent, but then, so was her kindness, professionalism and positivity. She was greatly loved, and will be greatly missed, but she deserves nothing less.”
Southern Group founding chairman David Ward described Sue as “always fabulous company, kind and considerate – and patient particularly when I made the all-too frequent mistake of missing a turning on the test route when we didn’t have sat nav in those days. She always had a smile and was an excellent conversationalist on so many subjects.”
Among many personal memories David remembered an incident on a drive to the Geneva Motor Show. “We were stopped by some obnoxious French traffic cop claiming she was speeding… her French-speaking skills were excellent, unlike mine, and she stood her corner to deny the accusation and in the end the officer, taken aback at her explicit response, quickly waved us on our way with an apparent apology!”
Sue’s enthusiasm extended well beyond journalism and she was a tireless advocate behind the scenes for the Guild. “Sue was the driving force behind the two Guild stands at the Beaulieu Autojumble which raised in excess of £7,000 for the Guild Benevolent Fund,” recalled former Honorary Secretary Chris Adamson. “She came up with the idea, drove the van full of the books and press packs and spent the whole weekend manning the stand.”
Sue’s husband John Downing died in 2019 and now her devoted children Ian and Hannah have to come to terms with the loss of both parents. The Guild sends them sincere condolences.
The Guild thanks the several members who have written to share their memories of Sue. News Briefs editor Andrew Charman particularly thanks Ray Hutton and Ian Robertson for their assistance in compiling this tribute. We understand that a celebration of Sue’s life is planned and we will share details through News Briefs when they are released.
Sue receives the Guild’s Pemberton Trophy, awarded for an outstanding contribution to the cause of motoring, from then-Chairman Guy Loveridge in 2014.