Geneva Shows Automakers Have Got Their Mojo Back
By: Ben Oliver
From outlandish concept cars to incredible supercars to that bizarre Sbarro Evoluzione, the 2011 Geneva Motor Show will be remembered as the moment the auto industry got its mojo back.
It was a fun show from start to finish, which says a lot because auto shows haven’t been much fun lately. It’s been awhile since automakers, their sales in freefall, could afford the concept-car eye candy that packs the stands at Detroit and Frankfurt and Tokyo. In some cases, they couldn’t even afford the stands.
Longtime industry watchers like me use auto shows to measure the industry’s fortunes, and the past few years have been brutal. The once mighty British International Motor Show died like an old MG with dodgy electrics. Tokyo was nearly canceled, and it wasn’t uncommon to see even the big guys bow out of shows like Detroit and Frankfurt. That’s like movie studio execs skipping the Oscars.
But my benchmark for automotive misery was Paris in 2008, just as the banking crisis was hitting Europe. Yes, there were plenty of concepts and new models on display, but they’d been budgeted and built before the storm rolled in. Everyone looked dazed, confused and frightened. Even the talismanic and far-sighted Carlos Ghosn, head of Renault-Nissan, told me he had no idea how it would shake out. All bets were off, he said.
The bets were back on in Geneva.
This year’s show proves the industry has rediscovered, among other things, its sense of fun. Optimism has returned, along with the supercar. Nothing says unbridled optimism like rolling into town with a 700-horsepower carbon-fiber rocket that does zero to 60 in 2.9 seconds.
Geneva always has been insulated from the ravages of the downturn. Industry bosses like the show. It’s small, it’s within walking distance of the airport and it’s close to the headquarters of all the big European automakers — yet neutral ground. No one bails on Geneva, if only because it’s where everyone goes hoping to get poached for a better paying job.
Geneva is where you get the maddest selection of cars. All the major design houses — Pininfarina, Bertone — attend, as do insane tuners and customizers like Hamann and Mansory, which unveiled an utterly bonkers Ferrari 458. Geneva is the only show Bugatti bothers with because it’s the only show its customers bother with. If the cars on its stand aren’t sold before rolling into Geneva, they are by the end of the first press day.
Even by its own unusually high standards, this was a good year for Geneva. Supercars dominated, with Lamborghini and Ferrari bringing all-new V-12s. As if that weren’t enough to incite some serious lust, we also saw new models from Aston Martin, Pagani, Koenigsegg and Gumpert. You wouldn’t have seen this kind of display a year ago, or at any other show.
The concepts were no less impressive, and they highlighted how thin the offerings have been at other recent shows. Concepts are important because they show where the industry is headed and hint at future models we mortals might afford. My personal favorites included the Mini Rocketman, Volkswagen’s Kombi-inspired Bulli, the sexy Alfa Romeo 4C and BMW’s sharky Vision ConnectedDrive roadster.
There were, however, a few things missing. There was no obvious “green” theme like we’ve seen at most other auto shows recently. Every major maker had some sort of EV or hybrid on display, of course, but they didn’t make headlines. Green is mainstream, something we’ve come to expect. We also didn’t see a lot of major new global models from major automakers, certainly nothing on the scale of a new BMW 5-series or Mercedes-Benz E-class.
Freed from the need to check out anything dull but important, we could wander Geneva staring in slack-jawed wonder at the best display of auto porn we’ve seen since the economy collapsed. And we could wonder the same things we wonder at every show. Things like why Chinese engineers are allowed to photograph the most obscure parts of their Western rivals’ latest models. Or why automakers continue populating their stands with tall, angular women wearing very little. That “marketing” tactic ought to have died off in the ’70s.
Some argue auto shows ought to die off too, that the Great Recession dealt them a killer blow. It’s possible we might see a few more perish, replaced by hi-def 3-D renderings of cars easily viewed from home on the internet, configured any way you like and examined without some guy in a bad suit blocking your view.
It’s worth noting that Ford boss Alan Mulally skipped the first day of Geneva to deliver a keynote at the big CeBIT tech show. These days the auto industry is as much about consumer electronics as old-school manufacturing.
But if they do perish, Geneva will be the last to go, and it undoubtedly will go out with a bang. Anyone who loves cars should catch a flight to Switzerland and see it while they still can.