Blog : Whatever happened to the British Motor Show?

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Keith Adams

Clarkson: 'For me, the Rover 75 is the star of the show'
Clarkson: ‘For me, the Rover 75 is the star of the 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. 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. Why should that be the case now, though? 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. Well, 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. However, it wasn’t enough to truly challenge the main event in Brum.

Brum itself was on the wane by then. 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 2008 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. Can you imagine that? This would have been a great year for a revival of the British Motor Show.

Instead, we’ve had to see these cars at Frankfurt, Tokyo and Los Angeles and not in their spiritual homes, here in Blighty. Okay, so motor shows are expensive to host and display for the manufacturers and to attend and visit for us, while some would argue that they’re becoming increasingly irrelevant in today’s internet-enabled, cash-strapped world. Additionally, 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!

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Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

56 Comments

  1. Surely, now we have Goodwood? Much more exciting and dynamic, with massive stands akin to Birmingham. I recall the XJ220 launch, and the excitement of the indoor venue, but Goodwood is even more British, arguably, and with better ways to view cars than just a static stand with brochures, with reps standing about. To hell with the good old days, you can’t stage a military flyover indoors!

  2. I disagree; Goodwood is NOT a patch on the old motor shows of Earls Court + NEC. There are alot fewer cars at Goodwood,than at the “original UK Motorshows”…and I think Goodwood only do it,along with the manufacturers, as there is nothing else in the UK (so they deserve a pat on the back…but feel they would be happy to leave it to the NEC and have the main one,this time of year)
    Just go up to the NEC Classic motor show, in a few weeks time and also look at what cars we still manufacture (under foreign ownership) to see what a “petrol-head” country we still are.
    And I think the NEC are “missing a trick” (income) here…as if they resurrected it again…people would come flocking!
    Even better; Have the Motor show at the NEC ..and the “old” Motor Fair, in London ,every other year…at say the Excel, like they did do a few years back.

  3. I still enjoy my annual Autumn visit to Birmingham NEC, but these days for the National Classic Car Show. Same cars as before, just 30 years older!

  4. @2 – Indeed! I now see all the same cars at the Classic Show that I once saw at the Motor Show all those years ago!

  5. Goodwood?

    Its a bloody awful event akin to a bunfight – a pain to get to – too many people hemmed into confined spaces – and dustier than an Arabian sand storm when the weather is nice.

    The NEC felt perfect with plenty to see, eat and plenty of places to park yourself when you feet were tired.

    Walking into one of the halls would infect even the most uninterested driver with passion and British pride – even if you didd’nt have a pot to p*ss in, you felt like a king.

    BRING BIRMINGHAM BACK!

  6. I was at both the Docklands shows in ’06 and ’08 (the two big stars of the latter being the Fiesta VI and the Insignia) and I thought they were great shows, good venue and they DID try really hard, but – trying to entice people from elsewhere to London in middle of tourist season when hotel rates are sky high (and when many are on holiday anyway) was probably a factor.

  7. “Some would argue that motor shows are becoming increasingly irrelevant, in today’s internet-enabled cash-strapped world” – I’d agree with this viewpoint. Motorshows are just expensive piss-ups for salesmen and journalists, funded by the dumb paying public. Would much rather spend my money on visiting Goodwood FOS or a classic show.

  8. I must admit that I do miss attending a British motor show. Earl’s Court always felt rather crammed in but at least the venue had an atmosphere about it. I certainly remember the Motorfair events of 1987 and 1989 with much fondness, even though driving there was a definite no no for me and the train fare from Devon very expensive. The very last British Motor Show that took place there was in 1999.

    As for the National Exhibition Centre? Well, this will be my eighth consecutive year attending the Classic Motor Show and it has now become a two-day affair for me because there is so much to see. I also like the natural way the organisers have now placed the Land Rover and Range Rover clubs near their spiritual parent, Rover, to provide a subtle reminder of how it all started out. However, costs prohibit the organisers from hanging large marque banners or signs from the ceiling, just as you found at new car Motor Shows up until the 1970s.

    As for the National Exhibition Centre itself? I’m afraid I have quite a few misgivings about this venue. The organisation of traffic management getting to the venue from Bickenhill Lane is extremely poor and does not improve with time. The awful dim orange lighting inside a number of the halls has not been updated since the 1970s and it does at time feel very impersonal and like a group of glorified cattle sheds. Sorry, Birmingham, but I have raised these issues with the NEC itself and they seem happy to issue the same dismissive corporate letter.

    However, I do agree that Birmingham is the place to stage a British Motor Show as aside from the misgivings I have raised about the NEC as a venue, I do get an immense sense of pride visiting the spiritual home of the British Motor Industry, and at the same time also feeling saddened that we let it down.

    Someone mentioned Goodwood. Fine, if you want to go and see the expensive offerings, specialist models or just sports cars. There is too much elitism about what the organisers are prepared to accept for display purposes. Motor shows should not be just for the benefit of the well-healed, salivating school boys with a bare bedroom wall to cover and certain motoring journalists with a large ego to bare.

  9. I liked the Excel shows too, but sadly the UK is not as important a market as people in this country seem to think it is.

  10. I agree with excel monkey, to a point.

    With the internet and what have you, I can read up all about the new Range Rover Sport on the Land Rover website and even play around with it’s configuration, all while at home, when I want, for as long as I want.
    And all for free!

    But even so, there’s nothing like actually being there…

  11. #9 – David, I noticed you wrote “I do get an immense sense of pride visiting the spiritual home of the British Motor Industry, and at the same time also feeling saddened that WE let it down”.

    Unless you were on the production line or in the management offices, why do you use the term “we”? Do you feel a personal guilt for not buying sufficient quantities of Maestros and Rover 45s to keep BL/Rover afloat?

  12. In my youth I remember Motorfair at Earls Court and the Worthing Motor Show held on the green. That was it then as far as I was concerned.

    I think now there seems to be lots of smaller (and free) regional shows which get bigger each year so there is no need for the big national shows – Canary Wharf is one I recall that grew from a small show in 2002.

    I think they are irrelevant nowadays as you can look at new cars on the internet, but I will always remember the thrill of going on the RR and Bentley, Ferrari and Lamborghini stands with the fully uniformed doorman allowing several people on at a time. Maybe if I was lucky I got a price list….

    The problem was also it was never cheap. Taking a family with the associated travel costs would put most people off especially in these ‘economic woes’.

  13. How much of the NEC does the classic car show fill?

    Why not combine the classic car show and the motor show (if there’s room without compromising either event) and use some dual entry tickets?

  14. Been to 2 Motorshows. Earls Court in 1968 with my parents (it was an adventure for a 13 year old lad). Also went to NEC with a friend in 1980 – a memorable experience! In those days I owned a Datsun Cherry so was interested in their stand and also the launch of the 5 door Honda Quintet. Great memories, I wish I could repeat them.

  15. I think there was a lot of, frankly snobbery and laziness, eg from “muttering rotters” who couldn’t be bothered to travel outside the M25, which pulled the motor show back from the Midlands down to London. I would prefer a show at the NEC, despite its stated disadvantages, especially since it’s home ground to JLR, Toyota, etc. Perhaps they should take a leaf out of Top Gear’s book (even invoke the Top Gear franchise?) and extend it to a show of all vehicle types, especially if hands on, rather than just static displays, as much as possible?

  16. The Motor Show seemed to go downhill after the move to Birmingham, despite the NEC being a far better venue than Earls Court. I remember one commentator saying that residents from the South East – where he reckoned most car buyers and enthusiasts lived(he really said that) – wouldnt want to travel to somewhere as gastly as Birmingham. I really dont see the issue. The NEC is only a little over an hour by train from London. Frankfurt isn’t the capital of Germany, Geneva isn’t the capital of Switzerland and Detroit isn’t the capital of the US – but all are deemed appropriate to host their national Motor Show.

  17. Wasn’t part of the problem that manufacturers found that the cost of attending such shows simply wasn’t worth it.

    I remember going up to the NEC when it also contained commercial vehicles as well, which really made it an interesting day out.

    Haven’t events like Top Gear live taken much of the public interest?

  18. @ Excel Monkey (Comment 12):

    Quote: “Unless you were on the production line or in the management offices, why do you use the term “we”? Do you feel a personal guilt for not buying sufficient quantities of Maestros and Rover 45s to keep BL/Rover afloat?”

    A good point that I an happy to clarify. I certainly don’t feel a personal guilt for not buying enough Maestros and Rover 45 (and other models). I bought what I could afford at the time and to this day still happily drive Austin Rover Group and MG Rover Group vehicles. If I had more disposable income I would add further examples without question. They do the job without complaint and I have a great deal of pleasure owning them.

    I did not work for the company in any way although have always been very supportive of British manufacturing interests and have seen the potential there (based on the ideal of having the right management in place, a long term strategy rather than merely looking at short term gain through hasty cost cutting, and ultimately generating sufficient funds to achieve long term sustainability).

    The ‘We’ reference was as in ‘we’ the British buying public and ‘we’ as a country led by Governments who were not committed to the long term (this is also evident with plans to sell off RBS at the earliest opportunity rather than keep it as a long term concern where it could deliver additional financial benefits to aid Government finances).

    @ richieH (Comment 14):

    Until a few years ago there was the Top Gear show held at the same venue and over the same weekend, which attracted a number of manufacturers. However, I think combining the two would inevitably result in the Classic Motor Show contracting in size and there being fewer club displays, due to the organisers receiving a good income from traders and trade stands.

  19. 2006 and 2008 had too major launches, the New Vauxhall Corsa and the Vauxhall Insignia, and they are just of the top of my head.

    The UK motor-show is now Goodwood, it is thee place to go to to see new cars, world launches and sneak peaks.

  20. As for the comment about Goodwood being for sports cars and expensive cars, RUBBISH, if you think that you have either not been or chosen not to look properly, yes there are Bentley’s and Rolls Royce’s, but also, Nissan’s, Peugoet’s Citroens’s, Mazda’s and so on and so on.

    Goodwood has it all, from out and out top of teh range cars, to rally cars, sports cars, F1 and grannies little run about, so that is the place to go to.

  21. #17 – LOL @ “muttering rotters”, maybe I should change my username. The reality is that if you want celebrity patronage and media coverage (as most motorshows do), then you can’t have the event outside the M25. Some journos even moaned that the Excel centre was too far out of town when events were held there.

  22. The gravity of the motor industry has moved definitively to Germany/Japan and yes still the USA….would they consider motor shows irrelevant? Probably not. Would Brits whose auto industry is now largely irrelevant (and foreign owned) say they are irrelevant? Probably.

  23. @26?? Huh?? The man states facts and you call him a loser? I think you might want to class yourself in that bracket sir.

  24. I attended Motor Fair 30 years ago and the main attraction for me was the Opel Monza, which has been largely forgotten now, but in 1983 was a worthy competitor to a BMW 6 series for far less money. I remember the car really standing out from the others as it looked like a really well designed and exciting looking car.

  25. I attended the ’98 NEC show, as pictured, and remember Clarkson, Quentin Wilson et al milling about. The Rover 75 was undoubtedly the star of the show. I also seem to remember Clarkson causing some controversy by calling Hyundai’s design team ‘dog eaters’, and calling the newly launched Nissan Primera mk2 (I think?) (Datsun to Clarkson) ‘crap’. Good show IIRC. Would I go to a 2014 NEC motor show? Nope. I can’t find much to get me interested in modern cars, JLR products aside. Perhaps that’s why the British motor show died – the exhibits would bore us all to tears!

  26. Hey, ExCel ’08 had a Hyundai Grandeur on show! Obviously, with such a peak being reached, the show could never be topped…

    The real reason the show’s passed into history? The uptake of information being requested online, whether via website configurators, or directly mailed brochures. I don’t really like the change, but the shows were there to sell cars, so marketing must apply to those who actually buy new – not enthusiastic tightwads.

  27. The photo at the top and Clarkson’s comment – At this time it really seemed that Rover had returned and the events of 2005 were hard to imagine. It’s all been said before but how very sad…….

  28. The Classic Car Show in November is massive; I never get round it all. So why can’t the manufacturers get together to put on a Motor Show for new cars ?

    Last one I attended was 1998, where I saw the Rover 75 with the engine and the colour I eventually was rich enough to afford used in 2007 and for £4500 too ! What a wonderful car it was, I don’t know why I changed it for a Jaguar ! I suppose coming up to retirement, I wanted to have another Jaguar before I got too old and had to drive a Nissan Note.

  29. were these the days then before clackson and co were payed to rubbish BRITISH products by the motoring press??? and praise anything german to the hilt no matter how ugly and overweight it was!!!!

  30. Ironic: The last decent motor show gave us 2 cars that looked to Britain’s past and then come along several posters who suggest some retro shows are the replacements.

    Come on Britain look to the future, if we have any?

  31. The Motor Show in London Earls Court died a death by multiple cuts, the manufacturers called time, trickling away, BMW were one of the first and set the ball rolling.
    Question, why pay an entrance fee? The Dealers do not charge to enter a Showroom to look at a car, which is all the Events proved to be

  32. The Motorshow and Motorfair were seen by the industry as sales events rather than showcases for new models (like Geneva), and as such were an abject failure as they cost a lot to set up for not a lot of return. Most of the stands just looked like the showrooms from your local town freighted into a bigger hall.

    One of my lasting memories though was the cigarette companies who sponsored the F1 teams handing our free smokes!!

    Changed days….

  33. The Toyota stand at the Goodwood Festival of Speed cost £600,000 and looking at other manufacturers stands there they must have all cost around the same, if not more.

    It costs a fortune and the money is better spent on their advertising budget, which is probably why manufacturers now sponsor TV programmes and have more advertising instead.

    Which makes sense, really.

  34. Gooodwood is multifaceted, a real delight. It has bucket loads of prestige too, and is unique. It is respected by the international car industry and is not, dare I suggest, stuck in a Midlands-centric past where a Pringle jumper, some brochures and a dolly bird were considered exciting.

  35. @39, and your point is, the cost of a stand at most motor shows start at around theh Million dollar mark, most cost far more, last year VAG spent I believe in the region of 5 million on one motor show, so your £600,000 (Which will be reused elsewhere thus makeing it cheaper)is a tiny drop in the ocean.

    Goodwood, also has the added benefit of the moving motor show, classic car, rallying, sports cars, F1, motorbikes, UK, European and World launches, 4×4 racing and off road, as well as all the many hundreds of associated stands.

    We will be there for two days next year, as this year one was no where near enough to see everything.

  36. I remember visiting the international motorshow in 1988 as a kid and seeing the XJ220 for the first time – used to come back home with bag fulls of brochures and freebies. Loved it 🙂

  37. The only one I really remember was, I think, the 2002 show because of the TCV concept, thinking maybe finally Rover were about to make a really great looking car. Then in 2004 I went along as I had just ordered my 45 Saloon in Connoisseur trim and Ski Blue paint and at that point hadn’t seen one in the flesh as it was the new facelift model. I vividly recall wandering around the Rover stand and feeling nauseous when I saw the CityRover for the first time, and being even more concerned when I sat in it. Dreadful, and a shame it was to be their last ever show – what a sad way to go out!

  38. James, @ 47, the City Rover proved the writing was on the wall. At the same time they launched the MG ZT V8, a far more exciting car with a proven Ford V8 and 155 mph performance, which is what they should have been promoting. This had the potential to be an excellent car, no K series and an American V8 under the bonnet, but instead MG Rover let it slip out with little fanfare and instead promoted some vile, badly made supermini from India.

  39. @Glenn Aylett:

    The reason for MG Rover Group attending the 2004 Motor Show Live was to promote all its models, not just the slower selling ‘halo’ models such as the MG ZT260 and others.

    I agree, the CityRover was not an appealing car, but it was there on the stand to attract the interest of those wanting a small, economical car. If it achieved some sales as result of this, then it was worth being there, despite the other messages it was sending out. MG Rover Group could not afford to be picky by that time and needed to sell everything it was directly and indirectly building.

    I spent a lot of time on the MG Rover Group stand at that particular show and the CityRover did not take centre stage on the Rover ‘half’ of MG Rover Group display, but was parked on the outer edge of it.

    There was also good coverage given to the MG ZT260 on the stand, with a silver saloon version and a Monongram colour ZT-T which took the place of the Bonneville ZT-T based speed trials car.

    The MG ZT260 certainly attracted a reasonble amount of publicity from the company, with its own dedicated sales brochure, an advert or two in the print press (again, it was more important to promote and sell more volume oriented models) and some large banners inside dealer showrooms (one of which I managed to salvage from a dealer who wanted to throw it out).

  40. I’m not denying the MG ZT 260 was the be all and end all of MG Rover, but the City Rover was a sign the company was on its last legs.
    However, back on topic, 1983 was quite a significant year at Motor Fair as the Austin Maestro, Fiat Uno, Pegeot 205 and, of course, the Opel Monza and its saloon brother, the Senator, were updated.

  41. I’ve got good memories of a motor show being held in the Kelvin Hall, Glasgow in the 1960s.
    I was fascinated with these cars with glass bonnets, boots and doors, and sat in Jim Clark’s Lotus F1 car.
    It’s a shame we didn’t have digital cameras back then, happy memories indeed

  42. I had a try of a city rover at the weekend. TBH the quility is there where it actally matters, the mechanicals. Yes the interior is plasticly, and it feels cheap, but it drives OK, feels no worse a place to sit that a corsa, slighly better to drive. Had they not got greedy and priced it where the car it was based on was aimed at I belive it would have sold, I don’t believe it would have ever saved rover on it’s own. The price they are now I think it’s worth haveing one as a winter sacrifice to save somthing worth keeping form the salt. It’s dry, starts stops and just works, fairly simple as well

  43. The first Motor Show I went to with my Dad was in 2002 at the NEC, really enjoyed it and went to the next one in 2004, which was the first time I drove a car (at the age of 16), a BSM Corsa very slowly around a track they had set out. I also remember watching a performance/show somewhere outside the Arena that year, can’t remember what that was called, did anyone else go to that? There was a Jaguar XJ220 and a team with Citroen C2s. I remember seeing the new facelifted MGs and Rovers that year too. I was disappointed they moved it to London after that, a bit too far for me, otherwise I would’ve kept going.

    I know the internet allows you to configure a new car from the comfort of your living room these days, but as someone else said, it’s just not as good as being there! I quite fancy going to Geneva or Frankfurt one of these days though.

  44. The UK car industry has obviously changed, and the owners of the marques that make it up these days would probably rather show off new products at ‘domestic’ shows.

    Also, a modern motor show would be boring given the lack of excitement in the new car market.
    It would be a sea of grey photocopied Qashqai copies.

    I recall the Ulster Motor Show of the late 80s / early 90s, had a good selection of cars – the new mk3 Fiesta, R8 – as a young child used to collect all the brochures, promotional badges, pencils etc. They even had a Dodge Viper(!)

  45. I came to this site because I was checking for the date that the last Motor Show was held at the Birmingham NEC for a post that I am doing for my blog concerning this year’s Goodwood FoS. This is what I have said in the introduction to the post –

    Goodwood Festival of Speed just gets better and better. By good fortune I have been able to attend three years in succession and in terms of what there is to see and do each subsequent year has been better than its predecessor. Having said that, I don’t suppose anything will surpass last year’s drive up ‘The Hill’ in a Peugeot GTi, for me.

    As I said in last year’s post, there maybe some purists who regret that the GFoS has moved away from its 1993 roots when it was predominantly a ‘Hill Climb’ event. However, from a national point of view we have to be proud of this ‘World Class’ all round motor event that GFoS has now become. I also suggested that this event has now replaced the old ‘British Motor Show that used to be held every October, first at Earls Court London then the NEC, Birmingham. the last such event being held in May 2004.
    As frequent attendee at both Earls Court and the Birmingham NEC, I can honestly say that the buzz that I used to get when attending those events, in their heyday, is certainly present at Goodwood. Even to the extent that some manufactures are now choosing to launch new models here.
    I am pleased to see that the media is now also seeing Goodwood FoS as being a worthy successor to those shows of old.

  46. When the largest British OWNED car company is Morgan, and with the chance of Brexit killing off the rest of British motor manufacturing, it’s hardly surprising that the country that only 60 years ago had Europe’s largest car manufacturer doesn’t have a national car show.
    After all why should a country that runs it’s manufacturing businesses so poorly have anything to celebrate?

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