For years, London was the home of the motor show. But times have changed. First, the Motor Show moved from Earls Court to Birmingham, but before long, it had disappeared completely. Today’s equivalent has got bigger and gone outside – to Goodwood. The West Sussex stately home hosts the Festival of Speed which is now as much about displaying new cars as it is about racing quick ones up the hill. Goodwood of course is also the home of classic cars which rev up around the old motor circuit every September.
London meanwhile hosts Salon Prive, the country’s most upmarket automotive event held annually at Syon House. Apart from the occasional Concourse de Elegance, there’s no other major automotive show in the capital. Until now. Early January saw the arrival of a brand new event, The London Classic Car Show. Put on by the same team behind Top Gear Live, on paper it sounded like a hybrid between the aforementioned Top Gear show, which itself has moved away from London, and a traditional motor show. In reality, it fell somewhere between the two: a static exhibition with a track running the length of the venue where cars could be driven.
The first thing that strikes you when you arrive is how crowded it is. From the amount of people milling around, it’s clear it’s meeting a demand. But it’s not just crowded with petrolheads, it’s crammed with exhibitors. Compared to the open spaces of Goodwood, this is as congested as Central London’s streets. One tiny stand butted up against another. Visually then, despite some of the exotica on view, it just looks a mess, With few exceptions, those spaces are jam-packed with cars. Impressive to look at it most certainly ain’t. And that’s such a shame when there are so many beautiful cars on display.
But it’s not just cars. Alongside some of the obvious car-related things, like automotive art, memorabilia, magazines and accessories, there’s an abundance of providers of stuff, stuff like e-cigarettes, wills and a lot more beside. In places, it felt more like a market than a show.
At each end, there were two ‘exhibit’ areas. Of the two that attracted the most interest, one was pretty impressive, whilst the other was pretty hopeless. The career of legendary F1 designer, a recent recipient of an OBE, was celebrated with a collection of the cars he’d grown up with and had been inspired by, alongside those he designed and those he now owns and races. Whilst it wasn’t especially imaginative in its design, it was spacious and informative and the cars were well lit. More themed exhibit space such as this must surely be the way forward for future events.
Way less successful was James May’s ‘Cars That Changed The World’ In reality, it was lot of space given over to, frankly, not very much. Most of May’s choices have already been aired in his TV series and this was an uninspired and creatively bereft exhibit that showcased his typically idiosyncratic selection. It was something of an exaggeration to bill this as anything ‘provocative’ Indeed, the final exhibit summed it all up: a vacuum cleaner bag spilling out its contents. It really was pretty rubbish.
What should have been one of the highlights of the show, also didn’t live up to the hype. A few years ago, before it became the huge touring franchise that it is today, Top Gear Live was held at ExCel. It too featured a track on which cars were driven, but the big difference was at Top Gear the track was longer and the cars were driven with gusto. This was much more sedate and, whilst it was an opportunity to see classic cars on the move, by comparison it was underwhelming to say the least.
For me, two of the most interesting exhibitors just happened to hail from Sussex. Eagle began by restoring E-types. Today, they build their own versions of the 60’s icon, the stunning £650,000 Speedster, one of which Simon Cowell recently bought and their latest, the thrilling Low Drag GT. Theirs was the best stand at the show and it included Martin Brundle’s black beauty. Also working his magic on the E-type was Sussex-based automotive sculpture Robin Bark, whose stylised hand-crafted aluminium models looked like they were in motion, even though they were standing still.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment was something that really should have been the star of the show. The iconic Citroen DS celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. I spotted four ‘Goddesses’ at ExCel, but none were displayed with any of the style or imagination you’d have expected. In fact, they were just another classic car crammed into the venue.
Judged solely by the numbers of attendees, the organisers will doubtless consider this maiden event a big success. But even taking into account that it was its first-time, they also would do well to recognise that ‘experiential’ is the buzzword for live events today. Static exhibits are never going to provide a memorable visitor experience, and having a few cars driving down a track a couple of times a day is simply not enough to create any kind of spectacle. There’s a reason why traditional motor shows disappeared: they weren’t stimulating enough to visit. Despite its proclaiming to be something different, the London Classic Car Show is more throwback than thrillzone.
Perhaps the organisers were playing it safe, more likely exhibitors were cautious of spending heavily at a brand new, untried event. The numbers who came, at least on the day we were there, suggest it is fulfilling a demand. Hopefully, next time it will be bigger, better and a lot more exciting.
Photo by Images Out Of The Ordinary