Motor Show Review

(NEC, October 18th)

So, the Cavalcade concluded – incidentally, the Midland Motor Museum ran Wright’s 1951 Frazer Nash in it as well as their Mercedes-Benz – my next task was to go to the NEC Motor Show, in satisfactorily multi-cylinder style in the glass-roofed Editorial Rover 3500 (it has recently been Skyported, of which more next month). A press ticket did not enable one to park very near the NEC buildings but the shuttle-service of Bedford coaches functioned well, at all events on this occasion. The main Exhibition Hall was not too large to walk round, was brightly-lit, well-ventilated, and generally the impression was very favourable. More stands offered hospitality to tired journalists than at Earls Court and although the Fiat Press Club had no food when I became hungry, I was soon being looked after nicely by Volkswagen GB Ltd., who had tables set out on their stand among some of the finest small cars you can buy. It was quite like old times. . . .

Written within a few hours of our printing deadline, this is not so much a Show Review, more a Stop-Press walk-about. The first thing to strike one was the fact that there were no cars on the vast expanse of the Ford stand, although the turntables were revolving. So the grab-grab Unions can take pride in having removed a great name from the most important 1978 Motor Show, in their efforts to gain a stranglehold on the management, which is only trying to follow the policy dictated by a Labour Government. Next door, the Vauxhall stand was full of good cars, and British Leyland had the greatest display of all – the size of Ford and Vauxhall combined, and also the most noisy, perhaps to try and convince British taxpayers that they are getting value for their money! A too-loud band played as each BL product emerged on a railway, through multi-colour curtains, and Leycare, and no doubt Super-Cover, was lauded to the rooftop. As I watched, a Rover “railcar” emerged, “driven” by a girl – which seemed undignified for this very respected make, cleverly engineered by Spen King. But I was glad to find all the sports cars, MG Midget, MG-B GT, Triumph Spitfire and TR7, among the Leyland exhibits.

There were the usual Press Day gimmicks, such as scantily-clad females, ponies on the Colt stand and a Honda Civic band. BMW were verbally telling us about the merits of their exciting new M1 mid-engined coupe. Lotus had a very dignified display, with an Esprit revolving on a turntable, which gave a good view of its shallow seat cushions, stubby gear-lever, and near-horizontal steering-wheel. The greatest F1 car of them all, Andretti’s Lotus Type 79 JPS Mk. IV, was modestly displayed where no one seemed to have noticed it, with huge cut-out letters spelling “L O T U S” as a background. There were other competition cars, too. I found Stirling Moss momentarily puzzled at finding an F1 Ferrari keeping company with Lancia and Fiat rally-saloons, until we realised they were all displayed under the Fiat banner. Mercedes-Benz had the mud-plastered Cowan/Malkin South American Rally winning 450SLC on a stand that contained sectioned engines that would run electrically if visitors so wished, as well as their diesel-engined C.III Mk. 3 record-breaker, the stand being picked-out by an enormous Three-Pointed-Star. BP showed a Warwick Trailer’s F3 March 783 and on the Morgan stand Peter Morgan was to be found with the DB3 Motors’ Prod-Sport Championship-winning Morgan Plus 8, which uses a Moss 4-speed gearbox as this has more acceptable ratios than a standard Rover 5-speed box. Morgan 4/4s now comply with Export regulations, by the way. But the racing car that stole the Show was surely Renault’s Alpine A442B, Le Mans-winner? Let us hope an F1 Renault occupies the same place, next time. On a sporting note, this stand had a Renault Gordini 5 going downhill, on a white plinth. Honda showed a 1960s Firestone-shod Surtees F1 car.

The Rolls-Royce exhibits were so dignified as to be almost overlooked, but an interesting facet was the wipe-wash now used for the Silver Shadow’s headlamps; R-R do not use anything so common as rubber for these wipers, preferring nylon brushes, supplied, would you believe, so rumour says, by Kleenezee. Even more sombre-looking were the fine cars on the Lancia stand. Opel had the new Senator and Monza models revolving together, and Vauxhall showed their new German-built Royale. The Royale looked warmer and more attractive than the Opels. These GM cars approach the class occupied by Jaguar, Mercedes and BMW. It is curious that in-spite of Socialist inflation several manufacturers are hoping to up-grade their image to this luxury level. At one time cars knew their place; Rolls-Royce, Daimler and Lanchester were a cut above, for instance, Vauxhall, Wolseley, Crossley and Armstrong Siddeley etc., even in prosperous times. Today we have Opel/Vauxhall, Volvo, Renault and others casting envious eyes at the upper-class cars from Coventry, Munich and Stuttgart. I like the Opel formula, however, of a truly simple six-cylinder engine, however “lux” the shell it occupies. It recalls the incredibly indestructible Chevrolet “Stove-Bolt Six” or “Cast-Iron Wonder”, and in this respect GM have turned the clock back. However, whereas that now-historic Chevvy had conventional push-rods to prod the valves above its pistons, the new Opel six-cylinder engine has that neat GM camshaft-in-head valve layout, with hydraulic tappets.

In terms of technical innovation, I have been saying for years that Mercedes-Benz make the best-engineered cars in the World and their adoption of Bosch anti-lock braking endorses this. Note, too, the use of i.r.s. on the biggest Opel/Vauxhall cars. At the other extreme, the air-cooled twin-cylinder engine has contrived to survive, for Citroen showed the Visa, and a Dyane 6 and a 2CV6 and Fiat still had a 126 among their wide range of cars. The Citroen Visa, of course, also comes with four cylinders for the sophisticated customer!

The Saab 900 was there, and there was a sectioned Saab turbo engine on this stand, for those anxious to probe the mysteries of this power booster. The Peugeot stand had a blue arch and lots of big blue “ship’s ventilators”, as if to suck in the rest of the European motor industry. Incidentally, I was relieved to see that both Toyota and Colt were present, because their PR departments have left unanswered recent correspondence. Which leads me to remark that after Motor Sport’s recent Editorial about the Japanese invasion, Mazda were first, closely followed by Datsun, to take up some of the points raised; so full marks to the PR departments concerned – you may expect some Mazda and Datsun road-test reports quite soon, which accords nicely with my intention not to overdo publicity for Oriental motor cars.

On the first Press Day at the NEC the TVR and Subaru cars were only just arriving, but at least they got there, unlike the Fords. A Subaru pick-up was seen to be upended. I noticed that the Subaru 1600 bore the legend “front-wheeldrive” and also “5-speeds”. A Fiat X1/9 also had a “5-speed” label, so perhaps the number of speeds in the box is about to become the next status symbol? The Ferrari stand was fascinating as usual, with 308GTB, 308GTS, 308GTH, 512BB, and 400 Auto models on a stand barred to ordinary humanity. Maserati countered with Merak SS, De Tomaso GTS, Khamsin 4.9-litre V8 (“174 m.p.h. Price on application”), Kyalami, and De Tomaso Longchamp. Somehow I overlooked the Aston Martin stand. This time the stand of the National Motor Museum was properly displayed with well-lit exhibits. They comprised a fine 1909 Roi des Belges 40/50 Rolls-Royce in a tableau depicting an Edwardian open-air social occasion, backed by the “Prince Henry” Vauxhall, the Alfonso Hispano Suiza, a 1913 Argyll saloon, the 1913 NB tourer, the 1913 Tipo 51A Fiat two-seater, and that astonishingly lofty 1913 Thames coach from which those who were allowed on the upper-deck got a fine view of the race-courses it apparently used to visit. Curator Michael Ware must have been pleased with the NEC setting for this museum stand.

Reliant had several SE6 express-estate-cars on show, and a solitary Kitten for the m.p.g. stakes; one of the SE6s angled at 45 deg., and AC showed two mid-engined 3000s, to remind us that they are not quite still-born. The Coachwork Section was small this time and part of the show in the Main Hall. Bertone had a stand displaying Lancia and Fiat coupes, a Volvo, and an experimental effort, etc. Crayford showed their well-known convertibles, and you could ogle the Ogle 10/20 Glassback. Among the car exhibits, Vauxhall had their experimental project as a centrepiece but Porsche were well content with “The Car of 1978”, in the guise of the new water-cooled, front-engined 928.

The Accessories were housed in a separate hall, but it was difficult to find one’s way about and many of the stands were incomplete. – W.B.