► The future of the traditional motor show
► Gavin Green ponders outlook for trade fairs
► Will auto shows exist in 10 years?
Top car companies should be at top car shows. For me, this is as straightforward as Rolex displaying tasty timepieces at the Baselworld watch fair, and dogs with posh names like Fenton of Kentwood and Brookewire Brandy of Layven (both past winners) starring at Crufts.
So I was very sad to see Jaguar, Land Rover, Ford, Volvo and Opel/Vauxhall absent from the recent 2019 Geneva motor show. This is the greatest car show on Earth, has been for at least 40 years, attracts the world’s top car executives, designers and engineers and – just as crucially – brings in more than 650,000 paying customers. Significantly, 30 per cent are aged between 15 and 29 – important, as car makers try to woo millennials – and half come from outside Switzerland. This is the world’s car show.
Motor shows have been haemorrhaging exhibitors for years, of course. The London show at Earls Court was once the most spectacular car fair in the world – notable for girls disrobing as well as cars unveiling – before it slowly ground to a halt, like the traffic outside on Warwick Road.
The Detroit show (above)is a shadow of its former self, sadly mirroring the fortunes of the city. Last year’s Paris show was without Ford, Fiat, Volkswagen, Volvo, Vauxhall/Opel, Nissan, Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Jeep, Aston Martin and Mazda. The French makers – who did attend, and in force – briefly looked like they ruled the world.
One reason Geneva is so pleasant is that it’s in a neutral country that doesn’t have a motor industry. So the Germans can’t flex their muscles, the French can’t preen, the Japanese can’t pretend that electric wheelchairs are the answer to the world’s transport needs, and the Chinese can’t copy Range Rovers and Mercedes-Benzes with impunity. The only problem are the prices demanded by Swiss hoteliers.
Notwithstanding the lack of a few major players, it was another very good Geneva show. Instead of the big names, there were many new names, mostly electric start-ups. These included a familiar name (Piëch, run by a son of the great Ferdinand) and an historic name (Hispano Suiza). Tesla’s high share price has convinced investors to back electric. Now all it needs is for car buyers to do the same. And for an electric car company to make some money.
Car makers desert shows to stage their own events, to divert more money into Mark Zuckerberg’s social media pockets, and to attend consumer electronics shows such as the CES in Las Vegas. Or because they’re currently skint (Ford, Jaguar Land Rover, Vauxhall). As we head for our brave new electric, autonomous and fully-connected AI future, many car companies now think shows like CES are more important than any motor show.
Well, of course the car business is changing. But if cars are to be merged into general consumer electronics, then it’s a very sad day for this business and this enthusiasm we share. I go to shows such as Geneva to ogle the hardware: exquisite new Ferraris, their V8 twin-turbo engines gleaming; carbon-bodied McLarens of fine form and function; fascinating new baby cars (Fiat’s Centoventi, Citroën’s Ami One and Honda’s e Prototype, all at Geneva) that may yet revolutionise city transport; Rolls-Royces as beautifully hand-wrought as any man-made object; new technology that will change my world. And all under one roof! By all means leaven this hardware-fest with software updates, but when the big news is the cloud, connectivity and CarPlay, I’ll leave and go kick some tyres in the car park.
Car shows may change and probably should. The Festival of Speed is now the de facto British motor show organised by the car world’s favourite entrepreneurial duke. The last Paris show went way beyond the halls of the Porte de Versailles, including test drives at the Place de la Concorde.
That’s all fine. But when cars become mere consumer electronic goods, bit parts at the CES, they cease to be special. And that’s when this business falls apart and loses its love.
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