Memories : Geneva Motor Show, 1983

Geneva motor show 1983

It’s the first major motor show of 1983, and the halls of the Palexpo in Geneva are filled from cheek to jowl with some of the most exciting new cars on sale. Motor industry executives, journalists and punters love this event because as the first major show of the year, the entire automotive world turns up – from the smallest specialist manufacturers to the bosses of the biggest companies in the world. And this one promises to be a classic.

Austin Rover might be a smaller exhibitor at the event, but it’s hoping to make an impact with its latest debutante, the Austin Maestro (below). The new front-wheel-drive challenger is set to bring the British company nearer to the front of the hatchback pack – and, at the show, ARG executives are optimistic about its chances. Commercial Director Mark Snowdon reckons, ‘Maestro’s unprecedented breadth of appeal will enable Austin Rover to go out and win new business from other manufacturers. There is no definitive car right at the centre of the medium sector. We believe that Maestro has the credentials to become the definitive medium car.’

Sneak to the back of the stand, and what do we find? This Rover 3500 Vanden Plas (above) is all but being ignored. Now very much in the twilight of its years, the dear old Rover SD1 is still a handsome beast, and has matured into a muscular good-looking executive fastback that’s enjoying something of an Indian summer in its home market. In Europe, it’s very much a niche product, despite being marketed as a car for Europe when launched way back in 1976. Although it should be well past its prime, there’s still much love for it in the post-Audi 100 aerodynamic world that’s beginning to unfold ahead of us.

What else was at the Geneva show in 1983?

This was an epochal motor show, even if we didn’t all know it at the time. New metal was there, and lots of it – the aforementioned Audi 100 made its debut in Avant form, while Opel formally launched the Corsa, which would eventually head to these shores as the Vauxhall Nova. We also saw the Peugeot 205, Fiat Uno, three-cylinder Daihatsu Charade, and the Talbot Samba Rallye for the first time. Other first timers were the Fiat Strada Cabriolet, Ford Sierra XR4i, Mitsubishi Pajero (Shogun), which would end up being one the most influential cars of the 1980s (even if we didn’t know it at the time), the Renault 11 and BMW 3 Series Baur Cabriolet. The big-hitting Citroën BX and Ford Sierra were already pretty familiar by this time, having debuted the previous autumn. As we say, a show of groundbreakers.

Probably the most significant engineering debut at Geneva was Saab’s 16-valve four-cylinder turbo APC engine. Although we didn’t quite grasp it at the time, this engine would end up being the template for all modern four-pots in use today. ‘We increased the power output by 10% while improving the fuel consumption by 10%,’ said Chief Engineer Gunnar Larsson. ‘The basic unit makes 160bhp, but the intercooled version makes 180bhp, and thanks to the APC system which allows for a higher boost pressure for a short period of time, both engines will make an additional 20bhp.’ By the end of the 1980s, pretty much all executive cars were powered by engines similar to this, including the Rover 800, which replaced the Rover SD1.

What also made this show so special was the sheer number of exciting concept cars. We’ll forget the Zagato Zeta 6 (a Porsche 928 ever so gently remixed) and Bertone Delfino (which managed to make the Brutalist Alfa 6 look exciting) as motor show flights of fancy. However, the motorcycle-powered Ghia Trio was an absolute delight, hinting at a city-car future that never really came into existence, while the Ford Probe IV proved you could produced a five-seater family car with a drag coefficient of less than 0.20. The world has yet to catch up with that one…

Wish you were there?

Austin Maestro Vanden Plas at Geneva 1983 (Image via, Automobil-Revue)
Austin Maestro Vanden Plas at Geneva 1983 (Image via, Automobil-Revue)

Thanks to Andrew Ryan for supplying the Rover SD1 image

Keith Adams


  1. While the V8 Rover was strangled by taxes on engine sizes and high petrol prices in some European markets, the 2400 SD, which was almost ignored in Britain, was doing very well in France and Italy where diesel was cheaper than petrol and engine size taxes weren’t as punitive on the smaller engine. Improved quality and reliability on later cars meant the SD1 wasn’t such a gamble.

  2. The zagato zeta 6 was an alfa romeo gtv clothed in a rounded body, compared to the squared suit of the donor car. Alfa at the time rejected it as they were financially struggling, and zagato never produced it. However if you look at the 90s Lancia Hyena also designed by Zagato you can see the DNA of the Zeta 6.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.