Letter from Europe
24 November 1998
European Bureau Chief
Like just about everybody else in Britain I was convinced that moving the annual British Motor Show from London's Earl's Court to Birmingham would be an unmitigated disaster. Let's be honest- for a while it certainly was. The restaurants in Birmingham, well, the less said the better really, in those days the City was a dump. It is nice to be able to report that things have improved dramatically. I still have not been back to "Hotel Robbery" but everything else has changed for the better. For the uninitiated this was and maybe still is a hotel near the Show which in the early days was appalling. Expensive and awful with outrageous prices. Luckily, these days there are others, a lot better.
The most important thing of course is the Show itself which was a pale shadow of Geneva and Paris ever since the early 80s. What a difference a few years make..I can honestly say that the 1998 British Motor Show was better than either of the others! There were major launches such as the Jaguar S class and the new Rover 75 as well as all those lovely small British makes one does not find in Frankfurt or Paris or anywhere else for that matter.
Because Lotus seem to change owners more often than most Michael Schumacher supporters change their underwear it is hardly surprising that their delightful Elise will not make it to the US. More the pity because it is truly magnificent, the nearest thing to a go-kart . Then of course there were the Alfa Romeos, one of life's truly great automobiles. What possessed their owners Fiat to pull out of the States just as they got the product right I know not but then I never was a corporate person.
One company that got me really steaming at the Show was Citroen. They came out with a car called the Xsara Picasso! I don't care how many- if any- francs or dollars they gave to the family or a foundation but is nothing sacred? Can we please stop this before it gets out of hand?! Are we about to have the Dodge Degas, the Chevrolet Chagall and the Renault Renoir? Yuk. I just hope that what happened to Citroen under its Peugeot masters will not happen to Chrysler.. The once great French firm is now desperately trying to re-establish its identity, I just hope it isn't too late.
The new Rover is the company's first under its new masters-BMW. We've yet to drive it but as a former owner of 3 Rovers over the best part of 25 years I am approaching it with a massive dose of trepidation. The company has lost more money for more owners in its history than few others in the automotive industry so whether the men of Munich can finally turn it round is still open to question. As they say-the jury is out. Last time I heard the British tax payer was in.. again.
On the other hand Jaguar seem to be emerging as a major rival to BMW. Whilst the new "S" class may be sharing some components with Ford to my mind it is still very much a Coventry designed car with the best of British and the best of Ford quality control-so sadly missing in the olden days- rolled into one. This is yet another car we won't get a chance to drive until early next year, in this instance I must admit I can hardly wait. There is an interesting rumor floating around at present about Ford leaving Grand Prix racing and handing it over to Jaguar, its fully owned subsidiary. According to those "in the know" the Detroit giant reckons it would make more sense for Jaguar to take on Mercedes and soon BMW on the race tracks. Frankly, I would wait until the team becomes more competitive, if ever. To my mind there enough of an aura around this great British make without tearing round Monaco or Silverstone and probably not winning. With no disrespect to my old friend Jackie Stewart his chances of winning in the foreseeable future are remote to say the least and whether you call it a Stewart, a Ford or a Jaguar without one of about four major talents in Grand Prix racing-all spoken for- they might as well leave Jaguar well alone. The Stewart -Ford driven by Johnnie Herbert coming third behind Schumacher's Ferrari and Hakkinen's Mercedes sounds acceptable to most potential car buyers but the Jaguar coming third would not sound so good. After all Toyota and Lexus are doing very well thank you without going anywhere near F1 and the same goes for Volkswagen.
Anyway, I digress. Back to Birmingham. Maserati is one THE great names that might be coming back into the States now that they are owned by Ferrari. On the other hand Morgan and Marcos, two delightful small British makes definitely won't.
Skoda, the butt of a million jokes is making a huge come-back courtesy of owners Volkswagen although I cannot quite see them making an attack on the US just yet. The crowds went crazy for the new Beetle, apparently the UK has 4500 orders for the 3000 cars they've been allocated..hardly surprising as people still stop and stare in California a year after its introduction.
The Ford Focus is a big deal across the pond, from what I can gather it will not get to the States until sometimes in 1999. It will replace the Escort all over the World with dynamic styling and a whole range of new, exciting ideas.
Going from Birmingham to San Francisco was a bit of a come-down in terms of auto-shows, that's for sure. To be fair SF is not pretending to be one of the great, cannot afford to miss shows. Right now it is unfortunately on the show circuit from what I can gather. Meaning- the same cars and the same -rather tired- demonstrators in SF one week, Seattle the next, Sacramento the week after. It was nice to see Ferrari of San Francisco taking the trouble to display Gilles Villeneuve's legendary racing car as well as their current range of cars. In total contrast to Porsche who really seem to have placed a carrot in a place where it really does not belong. All the cars were firmly shut, even on Press Day. Some were pre-sold said the lady rather firmly so we could not possibly open those. Seeing that they had four cars on the stand all told pointing out and opening the ones owned by the factory really would have been asking too much. Talk about unhelpful and silly..The Boxster is in direct competition with the BMW Z3 and the Mercedes SLK and we had no trouble getting into either of those. Pathetic is the only words I can think of. I found the Cadillac Escalade farcical until someone reminded me that there is a waiting list for its rival from Mercury..one would think that there is a Berlin Wall with guards at the entrance to Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles and only cars/ trucks with the "right" name badges will be allowed in. Rather sad really if you think about it. Best part of 50 thousand dollars for a Chevy truck with a different grill and a bit of leather..
Now there is a bit of a lull before the LA and Detroit Shows . TACH will of course be there to let you know just what you will be driving in Year 2000 and beyond.