Were Vintage Motor Shows Actually All That Different?
Written by Doug Nye // Photos courtesy of The Revs Institute
May I suggest you brace yourselves. This is because you are about to witness a hefty guy trying to skate on incredibly thin ice. Why so? Because while I might have established some kind of track record as a motor racing historian, my abilities as a motoring journalist—i.e as one who writes about everyday motor cars—are just about matched by my achievements at hang-glider stunts. I have never, ever, been terribly interested in road cars apart from sitting in the driver’s seat of a favoured few, and mashing the loud pedal. To me they have always been about as interesting as any other utility device, like a vacuum cleaner or a dish washer.
And yet against this background I am taking the decision—Star Trek-style—‘to boldly go’ where it is unwise to venture. And that, in my case, is to extend my brief as a consultant to the Revs Digital Library to take a look at motor show coverage preserved therein from bygone years.
Now back in the 1970s I was commissioned by Tony Hogg—late and much-missed Editor of Road & Track magazine—to cover the European automobile salons for the publication. My brief was to make the shows into happenings, events, a bit of informative fun…to put some life into the reports.
I must confess—at the range of all these intervening years—that the reason I accepted Tony’s commission had more to do with the fun of enjoying some all-expenses paid European motoring with my photographer colleague—the late Geoffrey Goddard—than with actually seeing what Ford or GM, Opel or Porsche, Lamborghini or Lancia, Renault or Fiat might be showing off for the delectation of the great unwashed public.
Some of the styling exercises that we saw were clearly of more interest. At least they offered something in most cases truly creative: demonstrating latest thinking, innovation, perhaps in the best cases some really influential future design trend-setting. But more of the time to me these Motor Shows were just a major manufacturer-backed little boy exercise, all lined-up to see who could pass water highest up the wall…
I remember there was one Turin Show to which we were invited by the locally-based Fiat company. In those days essentially mighty Fiat really was Italy. If Fiat sneezed then Italy caught a cold.
I doubt in essence that much has changed, but Fiat booked one of the finest hotels in Turin to accommodate we gentlemen of the international motoring press, and the best, the finest, the most capable, the most knowledgeable accepted their generous cost-no-object invitation. And so did Geoff and I.
So Fiat flew us in from London Heathrow and bused us into the city from Turin Airport, also known as Caselle and the site (in my view of world history) of Alberto Ascari’s shake-down tests of Lancia’s magnificent side-tanked D50 Formula 1 car in 1954. So that was interesting to me.
Fiat accommodated us, its guests, in the swanky five-star Principe de Piemonte Hotel. The bunch of British press with whom we travelled were a jolly lot, but I gained the distinct impression that here was a group of professional motoring journalists: the majority of whom were not really specialists at all, but the poorest of the reporter pool from national and regional newspaper offices around the country. Many of these guys were really the ‘hacks’ found most wanting by their editors. When it came to handing out briefs at some editorial meeting the post of ‘motoring correspondent’ had come up, and generally it was a job given to probably a popular—but often essentially past-it, or never-up-to-it—hopeless-case staff member.
It was rather like an old friend of mine who spent nine years in the Royal Navy. On his first day assigned to the aircraft carrier HMS Bulwark he and his fellow recruits were lined-up and the Sergeant-at-Arms barked at them “Welcome to my war canoe! Now then, you ‘orrible lookin’ lot, which ones of you can drive a motor vehicle?”. Every new recruit stepped forward, with the exception of my pal Chris, who was not, let it be said, the best coordinated of chaps, and he had never even learned to drive.
“Right then”, bawled the Boss, having made his instant decision “You” he growled, pointing a horny forefinger straight at Chris, “You…will be driving the Coles crane”. And so it became poor Chris—the non-driver’s—job to drive the mobile crane around Her Majesty’s carrier deck, toting spares, munitions and—eventually—clearing wrecked aircraft from the ship’s flight deck. Needless to relate, his tenure as crane driver ended badly, as one day while that tall grey warship was actually moored alongside in Portsmouth Harbour he got his control coordination screwed-up. He actually managed to back his Coles crane clean over the round-down at the ship’s stern, and dropped the lot into the cold green sea…
Back to my national and regional newspaper motoring correspondents in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. We all duly did our duties at the Turin Salone dell’Automobile. As a tee-totaller I recall watching in awed amazement as the consumption of spirits and aperitifs and beers and wines accumulated on every manufacturer’s stand, and with some tolerance as the after effects became very apparent amongst my temporary colleagues.
This really wasn’t like our normal fare of hours spent shivering in the mist and rain out in the backwoods covering a 1,000 Kilometre race at the Nurburgring, maybe munching a stale cheese sandwich. It wasn’t like blistering sunshine on the harbour-front at a Monaco Grand Prix, or suffering the wind and driving rain on the bleak old aerodrome circuit at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix. But it was fascinating to see how the everyday press was being force-fed hospitality, mixed with some handy press-release material, by big-time hard hitters of the worldwide motor industry. And then there was the huge gala dinner that evening, and the luncheon next day, not to mention the big breakfast briefing too…what budgets those PR departments must have had.
I found the entire experience quite an education. And then we came to the day of departure from Turin, the Show’s press-preview over, and the Fiat coaches lined-up to carry the world’s motoring press from one of the world’s finest hotels back to Turin-Caselle Airport, and our flights home.
We all struggled onto the coaches with our bags and camera cases, and one of Fiat’s incredibly obliging PR guys began to check us all off against his name-list on a clipboard. Oh dear—one was missing—a mainstream British national newspaper journo, no less, a real luminary of the British Guild of Motoring Writers. I was sitting there waiting with all the rest, gazing with interest out of the coach window towards the wide, curving steps leading up to the portico and main entrance of that five-star hotel. Where had ‘The Daily Bugle’s star motoring correspondent got to?
And then with a flurry those revolving glass doors revolved, and here into sight he burst, immaculately-suited but plainly flustered, all flailing arms and legs, late, late, plainly “I must rush I’m late,” a suitcase plus camera bag in one hand, attache case and a plastic carrier bag containing three bottles of wine in another.
He successfully pattered down the first three steps towards us, perfectly fine, but then he tripped, and fell.
As he flung his hands out to save himself his three bottles of wine launched into space, two smashing upon impact, the third miraculously surviving. But what most riveted my gaze was his suitcase, which somersaulted end-over-end then bounced once, bounced, as if slow motion, twice and then on the third impact—it burst wide open. And out of it (again as if in slow motion) showered a shirt, a wash-bag, spare shorts and socks…and the entire, total, contents of his hotel room’s minibar.
The shower of spirit miniatures alone provided quite a spectacular display, if simply due to its volume…there were miniature bottles of Scotch, gin, vodka, Martini, but there were also the mixers, and the olives and—dammit!—peanuts and cashews too. He’d nicked the lot.
I thought then, and I believe now, that this really was a pretty shabby way for anyone (never mind a representative of the British national press corps) to repay any host corporation’s generosity, even if it did (plainly) expect some kind of favourable publicity in return.
At that point, I figured that I was best advised to keep to the specialist sporting world that I knew best, and in which I was both most interested, and most comfortable…and slowly we eased away from the motor show coverage, away from all those ‘proper’ motoring writers, and, as far as I was concerned: I got myself onto thicker, safer, ice.
But for those whose real bag is production car history, street cars, the Revs Digital Library today can offer some pretty fantastic coverage of such great past shows as the New York, London, Geneva, Turin, Frankfurt and Brussels Motor Shows and Salons. As you can see from the range and variety of shots we have picked out for you right here.
The truth is that there’s always far more to the historic and antique motor car world than any single, solitary, specialist field of interest, such as my competition fixation, and of course a real old-car guy will just find something to love in every bit of it. My mindset is not quite so liberal, nor so wide-ranging, but I heartily commend our Library’s content to all of you whose mindsets are.