Matters of Moment, November 1978
About this time last year we remarked that you could have the Soliloquy but not the Motor Show, for after a very long run the Earls Court Exhibition in London had come to an end. This year you can have both, because a Brave New Show has been held at the vast complex of the National Exhibition Centre on the outskirts of Birmingham, standing in an area greater than that of London’s Hyde Park. We taxpayers contributed 1 1/2-million pounds, and the Birmingham rate-payers 15.7-million pounds, towards the construction of this great show-place, which was approved by Birmingham Corporation and the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce nine years ago. It represents an important site, with Edward Heath (remember him?) cutting the go-ahead tape and HM The Queen formally opening the completed complex, which had taken 30 months to complete, which you might, or might not, compare with the building of Brooklands Track in nine months, on a bigger site, before the advent of modern construction and earthmoving machinery, 67 years earlier . . .
Whether Birmingham was the right place for the 1978 British Motor Show will no doubt be debated for a long time to come. The Motor Industry started in the British Midlands, it is true, but Coventry (with Daimler) can claim priority. Enthusiasts may say that fine motor cars are made also in other less-industrialised places in this country, such as Hethel and Caterham, Bristol, Luton and Crewe, and Thames Ditton if you like. Also at Dagenham, when the work-force obliges. . . Whichever is the correct, or ideal, place for the display of the Motor Industry’s products, motor shows are to ordinary car users, the Trade and Industry, what motor racing and rallying are to the enthusiast. Moreover, motor exhibitions, like the late-lamented Riley car, are (almost) as old as the Motor Industry itself.
There was that pioneer effort of Sir David Salomans at a field outside Tunbridge Wells in October 1895, when, we are told, some 10,000 curious people went to see the new horseless carriages, even though these comprised only a very low-powered Peugeot, an equally “rice-pudding-skin-pulling” Panhard-Levassor, a De Dion Bouton tractor driven by steam, and a fire-engine drawn by horses but admitted on account of its Daimler petroleum-motor pump. Those Victorian equivalents of we who flocked to the NEC last month must have been divided into strong anti-motor car factions, those who were amused by what they recognised wrongly as a mere passing passion, and those with sufficient sense, and sense of adventure, to hail the automobile, however crude, with enthusiasm. One imagines that the “horsey”-fraternity were in a considerable majority . . .
From those humble beginnings the British Motor Shows emerged. They were held at the Agricultural Hall in London’s Islington. They graduated to Olympia, where the post-Armistice boom in motoring, following the pattern of the cyclecar boom of 1912, caused the thing to overflow into the somewhat-distant White City, an inconvenience solved by having a fleet of solid-tyred omnibuses to convey those visitors who had not already wilted or paid out for their new cars between the two exhibition halls. For years this Olympia Motor Show was the great annual winter event, where you could gaze in awe at cars from the Leyland Eight, dubbed “The Lion of Olympia”, to the latest Phantom Rolls-Royces and W.O. Bentley’s great 8-litre masterpiece that frightened R-R into bidding in secret for Bentley Motors Ltd. You could collect catalogues in your Trojan carrier-bag, you caught cold, you queued for expensive refreshments, and unless you were singularly well-endowed, you just dreamed of purchasing a 30/98 Vauxhall, a 3-litre Bentley, a 37.2 Hispano-Suiza, a Farman, a Bugatti or whatever took your fancy . . .
Olympia, you see, was an institution, dating from 1905, before the Kaiser Interference, when military bands used to play by permission of Colonels Commanding, the catalogue was gold-lined, many makes on the elaborately-decorated stands were forgotten after the war, and where the cost of admittance and the price of food and drink were all incredibly low, even compared to those prevailing in the 1920s which is yet another emphasis on the galloping-inflation that has for so long gripped this country. Olympia looked like going on and on for ever, like the present Labour Government, but in 1937 everything was transfered to Earls Court. One remembers this as a gay Show, easy to walk round and to meet one’s friends in, which may or may not be true of the NEC. Earls Court was draughty, you had to wait hours, it sometimes seemed, to get fed, after descending into the bowels of the hall, and this was, par excellence, the Motor Show at which, if you came to visit it innocently by car, you couldn’t park anywhere not even early on Opening Day, when armed with a pass of the highest order, inviting you to meet the topmost-brass of the organising SMM & T. (There were far-away side streets, of course, in which you could leave a car, in the “care” of urchins who thought nothing of running a knife along its paintwork if you foolishly didn’t tip them . . .). On a later page we may be able to tell you whether the NEC has solved that dilemma, or whether, just as it was better to Take the Tube to Earls Court, it is essential to Go by Rail to Birmingham; daft, perhaps, to hope to get to a motor show in a motor car . . .
The primary purpose of a Motor Show is to publicise a Motor Industry’s wares and unfair advantage between exhibitors must be avoided as far as possible. Originally uniform stand-signs were insisted upon by the SMM & T. In later times Show-Biz gimmicks have intruded female glamour, in bikinis, then top-less, on Press days, and we seem to remember birds of another feather, and even lion cubs . . . The transfer of our major Motor Show to Birmingham, for better or worse, seems to have accentuated this aspect of proclaiming the products of a great Industry to the customers. There was the “On The Streets” display of racing and other fast cars on public roads in the heart of Brum; but were the cars allowed to go as quickly as those Grand Prix Mercedes-Benz that ran through Berlin at Hitler’s behest, before one pre-war German Motor Show? – see report on page 1666. A week later a massive parade of historic vehicles from Stoneleigh Park, through Coventry, to Birmingham was put on, as a foretaste of what the NEC had to offer at its brave new motor show, of which a report follows.
To publicise the new Birmingham Motor Show a parade of 175 varied vehicles took place from Stoneleigh, through Coventry and Birmingham, to the NEC on the preceding Sunday morning, organised by the IBCAM and sponsored by Bayer UK Ltd., a branch of the great German chemical firm, who make, among many other products, plastic car-bumpers – and as so many of the cars taking part hadn’t a bumper between them, this was a gallant gesture. The Cavalcade was a reminder of 75 years of Motor Show Biz, commencing in 1903 at the Crystal Palace, then as sensational a place as the NEC is today.
I was invited to go on the run in the Midland Motor Museum’s 1929 38/250 SS Mercedes-Benz, the car with which Malcolm Campbell made fastest-time in the 1930 TT, at 71.53 m.p.h. Campbell also held the Class B Mountain lap-record at Brooklands, at 73.89 m.p.h., so GP10 is a noteworthy motor car. Last month D.S.J. said of it that it had sat in its clinical surroundings while those Ards TT commemorations were taking place and that he heard it sigh in its supercharger and saw it shed sad tears in its headlamps because it wasn’t there. So I am glad to be able to prove that it is nevertheless in fine running order. As we assembled in the garage at Bridgnorth at 6.30 in the morning I looked in the great car’s headlamps, but could see no tears, and it is far too nicely restored to suffer from condensation. . . Later I was to hear not a sigh but that sirenwail from its supercharger which is legendary from all true Mercedes-Benz of this kind . . . Pressure was pumped-up in the huge petrol tank, a few strokes given with the Ki-gass, the starter-button was pressed, and the great o.h.c. six-cylinder engine rumbled into life. I was soon to discover, as Motor Sport’s testers did some fifty years ago, that the back seat of an SS Mercedes is not a very comfortable place. You sit high, out of the protection of the windscreen, and the suspension beneath you is noticeably hard, nor is there much support for one’s back – all a reminder, if ever one were required, that this is a sports car. Moreover, we had rain, buckets of it, as they did in Ulster. This didn’t detract much from the fun of the thing. The enormous, very clearly-calibrated tachometer, twice the size of the speedometer on its left, showed revs. between 1,500 and .2,000 r.p.m., as Michael Barker coped with the fog and went inaudibly from top gear to third, and back again. So high-geared is the 7,069 c.c. Mercedes-Benz power unit that it was never, all that day, taken above 2,500 r.p.m. Thrice, however, I was to hear the banshee scream of the Roots blower, that provides such impressive acceleration from these low engine speeds, when the accelerator is fully depressed.
I cannot say much of a Cavalcade of so many different vehicles for which no programme was issued. We overtook a low-chassis 4 1/2-litre Invicta with its hood up, and a Bentley, permissible because the Mercedes engine had stalled under a convenient railway bridge soon after the start and there was time to make up. That odd Edwardian Austin landaulette was seen to be in trouble, attended by a solid-tyred Trojan. A 1913 bull-nose Morris-Oxford two-seater was boiling. The 1905 Brown tourer made an interesting contrast to the Stratford Museum’s big Hispano-Suiza coupe and fun-and-games were provided by the dedicated, overalled, soot-smeared crew of the Land’s End-John O’Groats Super-Sentinel steamer. Coventry Museum’s big o.h.c. Maudslay was going well and I spotted that odd little Peugeot Quad with camion bodywork . . .
At the NEC many people realised how wet they had got. But there had been the compensation of an impressive number of people who had turned out on this rainy Sunday morning to see the cars go past – I noticed also at least two dogs who were definitely enjoying the novel sights and sounds. After speeches about the Motor Show by the President of the SMM & T and the Mayor of Birmingham, etc. we saw the GKN digital-clock unveiled and, more interesting to me, a parachute that not only fell into the NEC lake but rose from it – to a person of my age parachutes only come down.
Driving GP10 home to the Midland Motor Museum I was confronted again by that impressively-well-stocked dashboard and big steering wheel, typical of 36/220 and 38/250 Mercedes cars. The top of the two-pane windscreen folds down on GP10 for clear vision in rain, the driving seat holds you firmly, the long many-louvred bonnet stretches away ahead, to the great vee-radiator topped by an enormous filler-cap proudly carrying a Three-Pointed-Star . As one would expect from a car designed by Ferdinand Porsche and made by Mercedes-Benz, the steering is not over-heavy nor too highgeared, the clutch action is light but with plenty of bite, the brakes feel adequate under the small r.h. pedal, and a tall hand-brake rises to the left of the central ball-gate gear lever. After a very slow change out of 1st into 2nd gear the other upward-changes are a delight, especially the short movement of the long lever back into top. The downward changes take some mastering, as while double de-clutching only a slight increase in revs. is needed; otherwise the gears graunch loud protest. Once mastered, however, what a splendid car this is, Lord of the Roads in its day. After Campbell disposed of it GP10 went out to Canada but was brought back recently by the Hon. Alan Clark, from whom Bob Roberts acquired it. It runs effortlessly at the legal speed for ordinary English roads, pending a mechanical overhaul in the Museum workshops, after which I expect it will be driven considerably faster, in appropriate places . . .
Back at the Museum we found plenty of visitors looking at the exhibits in the nicely-laidout hall, a new inmate being the ex-Neil Corner V12 Sunbeam Tiger, standing beside the Napier-Railton, where the similarity of the Reid Railton-designed front axles was clearly evident. – W.B.