DTW’s roving reporter packs his bindle and heads for the bright lights of the London Motor Show.
At one time, the British International Motor Show was petrolhead nirvana. From humble beginnings in the early 1900s, it became the UK motor industry’s biggest event, an opportunity to polish its chrome work to a high shine and have it smudged to oblivion by the greasy fingers of an eager public. Held yearly from 1948 at London’s Earl’s Court, the show found huge popularity in the postwar period as car ownership took off.
1978 saw the event move to the heartland of the motor industry, Birmingham, and a change to a bi-annual format. That year over 900,000 car fans descended on the cavernous halls and ample parking of the National Exhibition Centre to slam doors, ogle the promotional dolly birds and load up with loot. It was not to last.
An “international” motor show is something of a misnomer, as such events always reflect the fortunes (or otherwise) of the host domestic motor industry. During the 1990s, at a time when its Frankfurt equivalent was growing in prominence, support for the British International Motor Show was softening. Tickets sales trended downwards, prompting international manufacturers to scale back their commitment to the event in an unvirtuous circle.
By the 1998 Birmingham show, simultaneous debuts from the Jaguar S-Type and Rover 75 could not mask the underlying stress of the UK car industry and its biggest show. (Indeed, BMW boss Bernd Pischetsrieder’s Rover 75 launch speech at the show was blunt about their British outpost’s prospects, damning both car and company before sales began.)
The British International Motor Show staggered into the new millennium, returning to London in 2006 and 2008. But the mass market car makers that drove the event had largely departed these shores. With no local pride at stake, penny pinching international manufacturers reacted to the global crash by pulling out of the British show en mass. The axe finally fell in 2010.
The UK remains a huge market of car enthusiasts, so it was with some goodwill that a new event launched in 2016: the London Motor Show. Hopes of an event reprising the podiatrist-troubling scale of Earl’s Court or the NEC have been swiftly dispelled, the Battersea Park venue offering but a single large hall augmented by a secondary marquee, with more vehicles dotted around outdoors. Support from the big manufacturers is conspicuously absent, the void filled by niche manufacturers, car dealerships, tuners, vehicle hire firms and livery services.
Irrespective, there is much to see. The cars on show reflect local tastes: a smattering of supercars, 4x4s and classics stand cheek by jowl with humdrum congestion charge dodging hybrids and EVs. Something for Knightsbridge one-percenters, their domestic staff and Foxtons estate agents alike.
Here are some highlights.
Did I say highlights? I meant lowlights. This Kahn-ified Landrover features leather lined bucket seats, a leather wrapped dashboard and bolt on wheel arch extensions, and is offered by The Chelsea Tractor Company (honestly, that’s their name). The onlooker’s face says it all.
Something to cleanse the palette: a lightweight E-Type. That’s a million quid, right there. Worth the money? I’ll leave that open to discussion.
A gratuitous over the shoulder shot of an Aston Martin Vanquish. Also on display was a DB11; I have to say I’m still not completely sold on the more “technical” look of that car.
More Kahn butchery. Under the body of this “Vengeance” is an Aston DB9, one of the prettiest cars ever made. Honestly, this type of thing should be made a capital offence.
Morgan is one of the few brands with a proper presence at the show. This Selfridges Edition EV3 oozes fun.
David Brown Automotive are showing two cars. I was prepared to dislike their reinvented Mini but the quality is exquisite.
The David Brown Speedback GT is a quite different kettle of fish: a Jaguar XK rebodied to look like an Aston Martin DB5. Again I was prepared to hate it but came away impressed.
Something rather more mundane: the new Insignia. Garnering little interest amongst the more exotic cars (the two people in the picture are Vauxhall stand keepers), I found it very convincing inside and out.
Vauxhall too boring for you? All right, here’s a Lamborghini. Happy now?
A Rolls Royce Ghost with a purple and black interior. Money, taste, etcetera. This car has paint blacker than the jokes in an unpublished Frankie Boyle Guardian column.
Talking about paint, this BMW 7 Series is a deeply lustrous shade of Stockbroker Blue. Who says BMW paint is rubbish? (Me, usually.)
The biggest buzz at the show surrounds this Tesla Model X. Build quality is surprisingly good, the flat floor making it incredibly spacious, and the gull-sorry falcon wing doors are a lot of fun.
Spot the difference. One Giulia is a 2.0, the other is a 2.9 producing 500bhp. That they look so similar inside and out is a masterstroke by Alfa Romeo, I think. The interior is miles ahead of an XE.
There is more of course, including American imports and a host of classics. For £15 the London Motor Show offers fair value and I very much enjoyed the two hours it took to circulate round the exhibition.
And yet I cannot help but compare with what used to be; those old British International Motor Shows that filled multiple halls with gleaming metal and the thousands upon thousands of people who came to look, touch and smell hundreds of cars.
The London Motor Show is a tasty morsel served to a British public hungry for more. Whilst the conditions that fostered the huge SMMT supported shows of the past are gone, I have no doubt that demand exists for a show of far grander scope and ambition. Here’s hoping.
The London Motor Show is on until Sunday the 7th of May at Battersea Park. The DTW correspondent paid for his own ticket, travel costs and M&S sandwiches.