Blog : Whatever happened to the British motor show?
Fifteen years ago this week, car show fever was sweeping across the land. Birmingham’s NEC played host to the British International Motor Show, and it was an absolute corker. And that’s because in 1998, we had two new stars on show, the Rover 75 and Jaguar S-Type. It’s funny to think that this was probably the last time that we were treated to a truly international motor show on our shores – one that boasted great model debuts, and big budget stands from all the important players.
In a way, it marked the beginning of the end of a great era for the British motor industry – and perhaps in hindsight, the beginning of an exciting new one – but only after some traumatic years in the wilderness. But why should that be the case now? Isn’t it time we brought back the British motor show?
The British motor show used to be something of an institution – and in the post-war era, we were truly spoiled by some great events – hosted at the Earls Court Exhibition Centre in London all the way through until 1978, when it was usurped by the shiny new National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. There have been some memorable ones along the way. In 1948, the world’s fastest production car, the Jaguar XK120, was launched alongside the Austin Hampshire and Morris Oxford. In 1959, the Mini, Triumph Herald and Ford Anglia 105E vied for attention, while in 1962, we were treated to the Ford Cortina and Morris 1100.
As the years passed, and the British motor industry weakened, the flagship show proudly flew the flag, putting on a brave face, showing the world, we really were a driving force in the industry – even if that wasn’t always the case.
When the International Motor Show moved to the NEC, the short-lived Earls Court Motorfair took up the slack every other year that the biannual Birmingham event wasn’t playing. Or at least it should have been – it was cancelled at short notice in 1979. In 1980, and in Birmingham, the motor show was a classic – after years of battering, BL had something good to show – the Austin Metro. It was the star of the show, alongside the Ford Escort MkIII and the Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit.
After a faltering start, the Motorfair came back the following year to showcase the Triumph Acclaim. But it wasn’t enough to truly challenge the main event in Brum.
But Brum itself was on the wane. The 1994 Jaguar XJ and Range Rover P38 debuts were memorable, as was 1998′s Rover vs Jaguar benefit – but reflecting the UK’s lessening importance on the international motor industry stage, the shows that followed were scaled back. Moving it from the traditional October slot to May in 2004 wasn’t a great move, and then the 2006 and ’08 shows at the ExCel in Docklands could have been great – but again, poor calendar placement, and a lack of genuinely new model announcements signalled the end. We’d joined the second division.
Since 2008, we’ve not had an international motor show in the UK. And that’s a shame, just as our industry has been enjoying a thoroughly welcome renaissance. It’s not hard to imagine that had we been treated to a 2013 event, and with a bit of jiggling, we’d have been enjoying world premieres of the Range Rover Sport, Jaguar F-Type and MINI. Heck, we could have even seen the MG3 on the International stage – I really do think Longbridge would have put on a show on its own doorstep. But can you imagine it – this would have been a great year for a British motor show.
Instead, we’ve had to see these cars at Frankfurt, Tokyo and Los Angeles, instead of their spiritual homes, here in Blighty. Okay, so they’re expensive to host and display for the manufacturers, and to attend and visit for us, and some would argue that motor shows are becoming increasingly irrelevant, in today’s internet-enabled cash-strapped world. And it’s perhaps debatable that the public appetite for a good motor show might be on the wane anyway, but I’m not so sure – and besides, it’s also a matter of national prestige. We have a great motor industry, so why not create a focal point by having a truly global motor show here?
Come on Britain, we deserve it!