Motor Show Memories

With no London Motor Show in 2001, in spite of an attendance of 365,000 in 1999,1 am reminded of past Shows I went to. Evoked by those wonderful 6d Special Show Numbers of The Motor and The Autocar, bulky and packed with pictures, reviewing and reporting, my school studies were distracted for a couple of weeks; I had to go to Olympia and Earls Court.

The Olympia show dated from 1905, and by 1920 exhibited 179 different makes of car, which had reduced to 77 five decades later at Earls Court. The coach-builders had 61 stands in 1927, only nine in 1970. To a boy, collecting catalogues in a free Trojan carrier bag and examining the great variety of cars, it was wonderful. There was even a Zaporozhets from Russia on show in 1961.

The move to Earls Court came in 1937, parking so difficult that I called it a motor show you couldn’t attend by car. After the war, the SMM&T held a very special 9.30 am breakfast for its members and for the Press. Despite starting from home very early, I found the special car park full; so in spite of the ‘gilt-edged’ invitation, I had to leave the road-test Maxi in a distant side street, where unless you paid a crowd of urchins to wash it, they would probably knife its paintwork. Very cross, I went to see my PR friends on the tyre stands, only to find these had been banned that year, although one hall was full of caravans, prompting my comment that you don’t have to tow a ‘van, but a car cannot run without tyres.

Motor Sport had its own stand, to which Mike Hawthorn once came absolutely on time, to present some prize or other to a reader, in spite of his very busy schedule and being surrounded by admirers. Jenks used sometimes to go around with me, adding pithy comment for my annual `Showtime Soliloquy’ articles.

Seeing that Morgan had left the word ‘Rover’ on the camboxes of the new Plus 8, he said that perhaps they could not afford to machine it off, and being refused admission to a Bertone Tipo 33 Alfa Romeo, he remarked that if you can’t get into a car you can’t drive it. The TVR Vixen S2 he likened to a Porsche that had been shunted in the rear quarter, its chassis reminding him of a five-bar gate. At a door labelled ‘Fleet Sales’, he enquired if the cars were for the Navy only, and after finding access to the Maserati stand to be by invitation only, he rushed off to see the Ferraris.

He showed little interest in the almost nude PR girls, of whom I only managed to sneak a picture of a bikini beauty sitting on a bonnet into Motor Sport when Mr Tee, its proprietor, wasn’t looking. When BMW had two lion cubs in tiny cages to draw attention, I knew we would have an animal-loving nation behind us when I wrote that Shows were bad enough for humans and that animals should be spared. Uncaged flamingos appeared on another stand, and Colt had ponies on its stand.

Competition cars were once an important feature, Lotus showing the Ford-powered Indy-winner and an F1 car in 1965. BMC proclaimed the rally successes of Paddy Hopkirk as teaching it more than racing could.

A cartoonist depicted me with one eye as a VW badge, the other as a Mercedes star, thinking I was in the pay of these companies (not true!). The BBC’s Richard Dimbleby was taken to task in 1961 by BMC, soon to be a corpse, for daring to criticise our motor industry when MGs and Sprites were selling well.

Overcrowding — 275,000 in 1927, 660,000 by 1965 — was alleged to cause the infamous ‘Show cold’.

Having interviewed Rolls-Royce’s Chief Engineer about the outdated Clouds, I felt obliged to write an apologetic couplet, “Oh Mr Grylls, whatever shall I do? I have praised Mercedes, but now there’s a new car from Crewe,” when the advanced Silver Shadow appeared in 1965.

When (Sir) Jack Brabham’s agent rang me to ask how Jack, just in from Australia, could get into Earls Court as he had failed to get him a ticket, I said, “Tell him, if all else fails, to put on a boiler suit, carry a pail and mop, and walk in by a back door.”

There were no shows in London, Paris, Turin or Frankfurt in 1977, but the Prince of Wales opened a Welsh one. The NEC at Birmingham, to which the Motor Show then moved, took 20 months longer to complete than it did to build Brooklands with primitive machinery 70 years earlier. A place of vast halls, where, as well as cars, commercial vehicles and caravans could be shown, its car parks so vast that I once lost a car in one and couldn’t find it in spite of taking a taxi to drive about looking for it

I have endured and enjoyed many Motor Shows, but obviously static cars on stands can never compare with those active on road or circuit.