Theme: Glamour – Motor Shows

I’ve been to just two motor shows and I found nothing glamorous about the aching feet and expanses of leased carpet.

2011 Berton
2011 Bertone

[It’s a coincidence that we posted an essay on this topic only yesterday. Simon Kearne, the editor, asked for more articles on this theme so I feel I must oblige even if it means a repeat. That said, Sean took a different tack and if you don’t like his dry, elegant style you can sample my self-consciously writerly gimmicks and see if you prefer that approach].

As a regular paying customer to the pompously named Automobile Salons you don’t see a great deal of the same visual excitement as the press do on the opening days. The models have usually gone away and the folks stalking the stands only want to harden the sell. They don’t even want to give away brochures let alone allow you into the car (if it’s a fancy one). They can see your bulging plastic bag full of souvenirs and the welts on your hands. Real buyers might have one brochure tucked under their suited elbow.

A proper Automobile Salon would feature luminaries perched on dainty chairs encircling a new concept car. They would exchange catty witticisms and propound their theories in chapter length sentences. We, the proletariat, could look on and feel intellectually enriched.

1980s car show:
1980s car show:

That’s not where we are. We are at car shows, blunt and simple. Quite a huge amount of effort is expended on motor show launches and stands nonetheless. Teams of architects who specialize in such things put in as much effort per square centimeter as they would for a real building, perhaps more. I can’t imagine what sort of screening the models undergo before being permitted to put on their uniforms and stand in the way of the cars. It’s about visual impact and creating impressions that are supposed to underline whatever it is the car company wants you to notice (never anything different is it? “new” “young” “prestige” always crop up).

For some firms these firework displays of colour, light and pretty skin fit into their profile. For others it doesn’t ring true. How glamorous need Dacia, Porsche or Peugeot be? For all of them it is superficial and ephemeral. Even the people who are at the very front of the queue, on the first hour of the first evening, among the important ones, still end up standing about and chatting. If they are lucky the fizzy wine will be served in glass flutes and not plastic ones. We showed a photo last week of the launch of the Lincoln Continental. I noticed the people in the background stood around in groups as if at an office coffee break. Can’t they do that somewhere else less noisy and stuffy? And they are among the select.

gm car show Opel GT
How it used to be:

The lesson here is that the most unglamorous thing is to stand by while someone else does glamour. Even being in the same room as glamour is a demeaning and reducing experience. Motor shows would be a lot less horrible if nobody big had ever been near the place, to remind you of the tiny smallness of your existence. There are lots of reminders of how inconsequential one is: alps,  the sunrise over the smouldering rubbish tips of Cairo, seeing the streaming crowds at the Embankment Tube station.

You are a casual by-stander for those whereas the motor shows are something one pays to experience. I would guess that the allure (the marketed allure) is not only about a chance to press  your oily nose onto the DLO of an Aston Martin. It is also about tottering on the same stands where the consequential, influential and lip-glossed have trod as if you will gain some of their status by gathering the molecules sloughed off their hand-made footwear.

Evidently glamour is intransitive. Car shows are only a place to look at a lot of cars at one time. Maybe you might get to take home some glossy pamphlets. And maybe the footsoreness will pass quickly. Everything else is an illusion shimmering on a quickly evaporating puddle of cheap champagne.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

10 thoughts on “Theme: Glamour – Motor Shows”

  1. I used to enjoy the comparative lack of glamour at the Birmingham Motor Shows. The mile long trudge across multiple windswept NEC car parks before and after; the waft of bacon butties from vans between halls; wet acrylic carpet and the heaving, sweaty sports coat wearing masses.

    Ford and Vauxhall always had the biggest stands, of course, caught in a tedious and perpetual lockstep for who could dominate the increasingly unimportant UK market. Personally I always enjoyed lavishing attention on those marques whose products did not grace our roads in huge numbers, which at that time (the early 1990s) used to include BMW and Mercedes. How times change.

    The only stands that were fenced off were the likes of Rolls Royce, presumably so that the great unwashed could not ruin their pristine white Connolly Leather seats, hand stitched with immense skill by a bloke paid £2.90p/h who has worked in the Crewe factory since 1928, with their brochure print smeared fingers and dirty jeans-clad arses. But for the most part, cars were plonked straight on the show floor, allowing you to mill around them at leisure. (Or at least queue up to wait for a bloke from Droitwich to exit the driver’s seat, so that myself and a mate could sit in the front and prod every surface with our greasy digits.)

    Even in the midweek, the Birmingham Show was always heaving. I remember the year that the XJ220 launched, unless you had sharp elbows you literally could not get within 150 feet of the car, the Jaguar stand was so packed. Ditto every time TVR launched something, which for a while felt like every year. How the organisers could not make the event pay, I will never know. Perhaps car companies would have appreciated a greater share of the revenue to offset the costs of their gaudy and wholly unnecessary stands. Perhaps it was just badly organised. Perhaps it was a bit of both. But as the locus of car manufacturing moved steadily away from the Midlands, so the Birmingham Show became less and less of a priority for manufacturers. Eventually the NEC show was replaced by half-hearted events in London. It wasn’t the same.

    A great shame, I think, and a short sighted one. Motor shows are a far better way of perpetuating the idea of the car as a cultural or ideological construct than a dismal car supermarket. Shows are a place for unreconstructed males (and some wives and/or girlfriends) to indulge their interest in cars. In spite of the taxes and the constant nannying, the UK remains a nation of petrol heads. For these reasons, I would argue that the UK deserves to retain its own resolutely unglamorous show. I mourn its loss.

    1. Ah, you see for me, despite my dissatisfaction with shows posted elsewhere, the NEC was always a usurping newcomer, the real Motor Show stopped when it left Earls Court. Not that I’m being a Capitalcentric elitist here – the only times I visited I was firmly a provincial lad.

      The first time I went with my Mum, and we both fell in love with a Lancia Flavia convertible which we then spent several weeks trying to persuade my Dad would be a practical proposition. Unsuccessfully.

      Second time I went with a friend. Ignominy of ignominy, we were ejected from a Hillman Imp by a salesman saying he had a ‘proper customer’ and I wrote a pompous letter of complaint to The Motor as well as the Managing Director of Rootes, Gilbert Hunt. The letter to The Motor was printed and Gilbert Hunt wrote back apologising. I felt terribly proud with myself.

      The last time I went with my Dad who used his age and business cards to get us access to various stands, getting me a bunch of brochures and persuading both me and the salesmen that he might be in the market for a Maserati Quattroporte or an Iso Fidia/S4. Was he really? To this day I’m not entirely sure, but after the Hillman Imp affair I was able so sit smugly caressing the Maserati’s Nardi steering wheel for a few minutes, intoxicated by the smell of soft leather. But yet again, my dreams of Italian Glamour were to be shattered.

      Perhaps it’s the suppressed memories of these disappointments that has turned me against Motor Shows.

    2. The NEC dwarfed Earl’s Court, making for a gargantuan motoring buffet. That said, I would travel to a UK motor show at Earl’s Court, were one to be offered.

  2. I haven’t been to a car show for a long time. But I did go to an open day event at Goodwood last summer, which was quite fun. A lot of enthusiastic owners brought along their own cars and were happy enough to chat (and let people sit in them). My favourite was a well-used Bristol Fighter, which I admired very much for its narrow and idiosyncratic design.

    Anyhow, alongside the privately-owned cars, Rolls Royce had also parked a couple of cars, one of which being a black ‘drop head’ Ghost with orange leather seats and matching orange coach line. Fairly brash, but a four year old who was their with his father thought it was the coolest thing he had ever seen. Would the company representatives let the boy sit in the car, asked the father? Not a chance, they replied, and the two of them walked away, visibly disappointed.

    What stupidity on the part of Rolls Royce, I thought. Of course, a four year old does not have £250k to splurge on such an extravagant car, but who knows what just 5 minutes sitting in that car could have kindled in the mind of both father and boy? Why put an object on public display if you won’t even let people touch it or sit in it, let alone go for a spin?

    1. You are quite right, who knows who that boy might grow up to become?

      In my sphere of existence I have worked with many marketing people. The good ones add value to an organisation through their hard work, warmth and communication skills. The worst and sadly more prevalent type are simply gobs on sticks and almost entirely devoid of human empathy. This second kind also tend to be childless or so self important that they might as well be. Who does not want to make a small boy happy? At the very least, from a purely marketing perspective, the occasion would have generated a halo story for their Twitter feed. I pity them.

    2. Exactly. Salesman need to play the long game as well. The story I recount above means that I would never, ever dream of buying a Hillman yet I would countenance a Maserati.

    3. And Jacomo, the Bristol Fighter is indeed underappreciated. In the twilight days (though we didn’t realise it) of Bristol Cars under its previous owners, Mark Hamilton and I visited the Bristol Showroom in Kensington and had the niceties of the design pointed out to us by an almost evangelistic Toby Silverton. He made it seem a very credible proposition.

  3. Intriguingly, on an ‘attracting the masses’ level, most major motor shows still seem to be doing okay- even last year’s utterly depressing Paris event (allegedly) boasted healthy numbers of regular visitors.

    So one can assume it’s the press coverage aspect that’s the main driving force behind the downfall of the motorshow. And it’s relatively easy to see why, as there’s now not just a handful of ‘must-attend’ events (like Frankfurt/Paris, Detroit, and Geneva), but also an increasing number of fringe shows – Goodwood, Villa d’Este, Pebble Beach and the likes. All of these started out as vintage car shows, but have since taken on an altogether broader significance.

    Again, it’s easy to see why: A park in Cernobbio or a golf course by the Pacific Ocean are considerably more appealing locations than some hot, stuffy hall. On top of that, more focussed reporting used to mean any car shown at these exclusive events would get undivided attention (though in the case of Goodwood at least, that’s not quite the case anymore).

    Then there’s the CES, which has become a must-attend event to those concerned with the digitalisation of the automobile. Also in the US, LA and New York have simply taken over from Detroit as the significant motor shows, which has suffered not just from the domestic industry’s malaise, but the fact that most journalists are perfectly content with not having to travel to Lake Michigan in January, when that place is supposedly as inviting as Irkutsk. The claim that the US is lacking a main motorshow event is therefore only half the truth: Pebble Beach, CES, LA and New York have simply taken Detroit’s place.

    Another factor contributing to the traditional car shows’ struggles is the attitude of their organisers. The VDA, who’s in charge of the IAA, used to charge the manufacturers ridiculous fees for the privilege of exhibiting at Frankfurt. I doubt it was much different at Palexpo or Paris Expo. This policy certainly contributed to the manufacturers jumping at the chance to show there goods some place else.

    On top of the changes the shows themselves have undergone, the way they are reported on has evolved dramatically, as well. At last year’s ill-fated Grand Basel (the ‘Art Basel of Cars’), the group of people known as ‘Influencers’ was treated to dedicated tours of the cars on show, by the organisers themselves.

    Despite all of these factors and changes, I personally find a well organised, traditional car show still highly valuable, from a reporter’s point of view. It’s still the best context in which to compare and contrast the industry, get to talk to people and attain an overall impression of what’s what with each manufacturer and the industry as a whole.

    Once air travel ceases to be so ridiculously cheap, I fully expect a convergence of the motorshow scene, incidentally. Journalists/publications paying their own travel expenses will focus on those events offering a broader scope of the industry. And even the manufacturers might not be so generous towards journalists/’influencers’ anymore once the going gets tougher and air travel/charter plane rates become painfully expensive.

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