The French are well known for their love of philosophy. And we’re leaving the Mondial de l’Auto, to give the Paris motor show its proper name, with some fairly existential questions – particularly about the future of these events.
It had its moments, of course – seeing the great Giorgetto Giugiaro proudly exhibiting a new concept at the age of 80 was undoubtedly one, while several cars including the pretty Peugeot e-Legend, the oh-so-French Citroen DS 3 Crossback and the thoughtful Renault EZ range were very worthy of scrutiny. And it’s always useful to get all the automotive higher-ups together in one place, even if they’re insanely busy and access to them is mostly fiercely guarded by stroppy PRs.
There was even one proper old-school car launch in the form of Vinfast’s enthusiastic extravaganza, which featured acrobats, a beauty queen and a totally random celebrity in the shape of David Beckham.
But from the perspective of a journalist, or an enthusiast, the show was somewhat disappointing, simply because so much of the content had already been released elsewhere previously – either by accident or, more usually, by design. Many of the cars had been officially launched several weeks beforehand, complete with excellent pictures, comments from all the personnel involved and a full set of specifications.
Quite a few manufacturers had already held official pre-launch events at which hand-picked journalists could see and sometimes even drive the cars, all well before the show’s press days. If you clicked on any of the links above, did you spot how many were from days or weeks before the show?
All you could hope to get at the show were worse pictures, thanks to the usual spotty, glare-inducing lighting, and possibly an interview with somebody responsible for the car in which they would repeat pretty much exactly what they’d told their company’s marketing team several weeks previously for the press release.
And even those cars which hadn’t been given an official early preview were exposed anyway. For instance, BMW’s normally airtight secrecy sprang a large leak, with a full set of pictures of the 3 Series everywhere on the internet before the show opened. In an online age, information spreads fast and widely.
There are sound reasons for jumping the gun from the manufacturers’ point of view, of course. Getting your car out early ensures that it won’t be drowned out by the noise of the many simultaneous launches at the show, and it’s much easier to control the story too.
But while this may all sound merely like jaded hacks whining, this was an issue that we heard echoed on all sides of the industry too. For manufacturers, these events are incredibly costly, and there are now many more ways to promote their products to the trade and public than in the heyday of the grand motor show, when eager customers would flock to admire the shiny metal and lay down deposits on the spot. Do the OEMs really need to spend all that money on a real-world event, when would-be buyers are doing their vehicle shopping online?
Some had clearly already made that decision. This year’s Paris event felt sparsely populated, with acres of empty carpet where there should be vehicles, thanks to absences from big names like VW, Volvo, GM and Ford among others.
There was an entire hall full of a rather lovely but very widely spaced array of classics, many from the Renault museum.
Then there was the ‘mobility’ hall, with a rag-tag mixture of highly random exhibitors which had a slightly desperate air of space-filling.
In a conversation with the team behind one of the other major motor shows, they revealed that they were confident about next year’s event but simply had no idea what would happen after that. Which feels quite accurate to us. Detroit is moving its date after the next show in an attempt to rejuvenate itself, while the LA show is moving much more in a CES/Ted Talks direction (with some success). Tech show CES itself has possibly become a victim of its own enormous success (see also SXSW) and there is no longer a real global-level show in the UK, Italy or many other large markets. Unless, of course, you count Goodwood or Villa d’Este, which many do, along with Pebble Beach. Those events are increasingly becoming alternative car launch venues.
So are we seeing the sunset of the traditional motor show era? As French philosopher and world-class misery-guts Jean-Paul Sartre put it, “every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.” Which is a little harsh, even for us, but you can see the point. While we wish no ill-will to the great shows – at their best they can be splendid, exciting things – they may be starting to feel more than a little irrelevant.