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Letter from Europe: Geneva, VW, F-1, "Failed in America", Monoco Travel Tips, and Other Tasty Tidbits from Across the Pond

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Monaco Harbour

By Andrew Frankl European Bureau Chief

The Geneva Autoshow is particularly interesting for car buffs who appreciate that there is life beyond SUVs, Toyota Camry’s and Honda Accords. The whole place is considerably classier than Detroit or LA, the emphasis being on product and not on 3000 dollars cash back!

As Geneva is in Switzerland which has no auto industry it is, as the saying goes, a level playing field. Consequently companies such as Peugeot and Renault have equal exposure to Ford or GM. Both of these French companies were in the States a few years ago and both failed miserably which is a great pity.

At that time their cars were, shall we say, modest, these days both make excellent ones. Peugeot in particular make exceptional diesel engines a must in cost -conscious Europe. I dare say people would be equally cost-conscious in the States if they would have to pay European gas prices.

Another great marque which retired hurt from these shores is Alfa Romeo. Their latest designs are simply stunning and it is a great shame that their return is highly unlikely.

Both Ford and GM are struggling in Europe, not because their cars are inferior but because the competition is so ferocious. VW’s brand new Golf already comes with discounts much to the chagrin of the shareholders who have been regarding the Golf as a cash cow.

To this day I cannot understand the logic of spending a fortune on Lamborghini, Bugatti and Bentley, I cannot help feeling that the directors were suffering from illusions of

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VW Phaeton
grandeur which is costing them clearly now. As for the VW Phaeton-the mind boggles. Why are they trying to take on BMW, Mercedes and their very own Audi? Not that the car is bad but in people’s minds VW make small cars. Time will tell. Right now it is selling in very small numbers indeed.

Stars of the Show: well, from an American point of view it

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MINI Convertible
has to be the new Mini Convertible. The existing Mini is already one of the surprise hits of recent years and I am certain that the new open top version will be an even bigger
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Masarati Grand Sport
hit in Miami and California. Friends of Maserati will appreciate the new four-seater Quattro Porte which will be a serious challenger to BMW, Audi and Jaguar.

The 2004 Grand Prix season has started with a whimper in Australia and unless there are changes the outlook is not very good. Right now qualifying is longer than the race itself. The reason…pure greed. The teams will do anything to get TV exposure and they’ve dreamt up this ridiculous scheme in conjunction with the FIA…the sport’s governing body. Even F1 czar Bernie Ecclestone is appalled as are the spectators and the viewers.

Having said that watching a race in person can still be great fun, especially in Monaco…for the inside scoop on how to get there and how to have fun there, read the following:

The Travel Wizards
By Andrew Frankl European Bureau Chief

If you are a true Grand Prix enthusiast the chances are that you will have been to some of the races. At a guess I would suggest that you’ve either been to the Monaco Grand Prix or are hoping to go there one year. Most popular item number two has to be the race at Monza combined with a trip to the Ferrari factory.

There are literally hundreds of travel agents all over the World who would love to have your business, but only two stand out. One is American; Grand Prix Tours of Newport Beach, California, the other is Page & Moy from Leicester in England. What these two companies don’t know about Formula One hasn’t been invented. Page and Moy have been in business for the best part of 40 years and I have been a customer of theirs for most of that time.

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In the early days it was one old bus full of enthusiasts to Le Mans or Spa, this year they had a luxury liner outside Monaco harbour full of happy, and I hasten to add seriously wealthy customers. Barry Simpson and his partner Gerhard Widtmann have been in business for 20 years, they had about 250 customers in Monaco on yachts, cruise ships and luxury hotels. As a result of a multi-million dollar investment by the Principality the harbour has been extended enabling Simpson’s boat to be moored there. As he pointed out having cruise ships bobbing up and down a mile or so out may look very pretty and romantic, getting into dinghies when there are 3 ft swells to get ashore is considerably less fun, especially on the way back after a gastronomic extravaganza!

Costs, well to be honest it is a case of, if you have to ask how much?... you probably can’t afford it. A slight exaggeration perhaps but don’t expect any change from $5000 dollars. Of course the optional dinner at the Hotel de Paris can set you back another $1000 or so, consequently my advice is either do it properly with the best seats, business class flights and lots of spending money or get up early and watch it on TV.

Page & Moy can be a different proposition, after all a coach full of enthusiasts can get to Monaco from the UK in about 16 hours and therefore their cheapest options, staying in two star hotels in Nice start at around $500 dollars.

With the help of the big screen most of the action can be followed even from the cheapest seats and with the help of an excellent local supermarket good food and wine can be had for very little money indeed. Which is not to say that you can’t spend thousands with Page & Moy, this year not only did they have a huge cruise ship (the Silver Shadow) but also had on board the legendary Stirling Moss to talk about the track and his greatest victory when he kept behind him Phil Hill and Ritchie Ginther back in 1961. (Phil was staying on Barry’s ship incidentally.)

Funniest moment of my interview with Simpson came when I’ve asked to meet some of his American clients. He duly pointed out four of them from, wait for it, from the Ukraine! As they say in court, no further questions your Honour!

David Short joined P&M in 1974 and is now part-owner of the company. I am sure one day he’ll write a book on all the various dramas…clients getting lost or at least losing their passports, but the one story he did tell me was very moving. For years and years a gentleman came down from Britain for the Grand Prix and loved every minute of listening to the engines. He was also completely blind.