It seems like a lifetime ago, an almost nostalgic memory from another age before BMW and Ford sold out and the Indians and Chinese swept up what remained of the West Midlands car industry.
Almost exactly 16 years ago, in late October 1998, the British International Motor Show was in full swing at the NEC, with the world’s motoring press in attendance to witness the launch of BMW’s Rover 75 and the Jaguar S-Type, amongst other models.
I had taken my place at the Jaguar eve of launch dinner alongside fellow table guests, including the late Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman of Countdown fame, national TGWU car industry leaders Tony Woodley and Jack Adams, and assorted Jag executives.
The room was awash with glamour and celebrity. Jaguar owners were out in force, including Kenny Dalglish, Alan Shearer, Coventry MP Geoffrey Robinson and scores of other public figures.
Tony Woodley, whose reputation as a hard-as-nails union negotiator preceded him, unwittingly amused the table by asking Carol Vorderman what she did for a living. I don’t suppose Tony had bothered to watch too many episodes of Countdown whilst he was fighting to preserve the British car industry.
The Jaguar S-Type dinner was a blue riband celebratory occasion, but that 1998 Motor Show was to be dominated by BMW’s bolt from the blue, delivered to a phalanx of pressmen, TV crews and photographers in an obscure hall at the edge of the labyrinthine NEC complex.
In a transparently stage-managed press conference late in the afternoon following the glitz and euphoria of the morning’s Rover 75 launch, BMW Chief Executive Bernd Pischetsrieder announced that the Longbridge factory could face closure if shopfloor productivity didn’t improve.
Although nobody outside the highest echelons of BMW sensed it at the time, that was the moment that was to change the face of volume car-making in the West Midlands for ever, at least as far as Longbridge was concerned.
Within 18 months BMW, despairing of £2 million a day losses at Longbridge draining the Munich paymasters, had offloaded Rover for a ceremonial £10 plus a £500 million long-term loan bounty to help ease the debt burden for John Towers’ ill-fated Phoenix consortium.
The Pischetsrieder announcement at the NEC in 1998 was to prove the beginning of the end of Britain’s best known car factory as a volume manufacturer.
I thought of that day in 1998 – and other memorable trips to the NEC Motor Show in subsequent years – as the Paris Motor Show cranked into gear last week, a Gallic feast to savour, hosting some of the world’s biggest car launches, from the likes of Audi, Ford and the aforementioned BMW and Jaguar.
In years gone by, the Paris show would have been swiftly followed by the NEC spectacular, which attracted nearly one million visitors in its heyday. There were 709,000 visitors to that 1998 show alone.
But it’s now 10 years since the last British International Motor Show at the NEC – and six years since the show’s last appearance in London.
Ironically, MG Rover may have been a catalyst in the demise of the NEC show, with John Towers declaring after the Longbridge takeover that the fledgling firm was pulling out of its local show.
He told the Birmingham Evening Mail in May 2000: “You do not sell cars at Motor Shows. You just think about who goes to Motor Shows – motoring journalists who never buy a car in their lives.
“It just does not pay, it is an extremely expensive hobby. We are talking about millions of pounds on each show.”
The MG Rover pullout led to a domino effect of other bigger players in the global car industry turning their backs on the British event, which then drastically slimmed down.
The NEC event, which ran intermittently from 1978 to 2004, became a distant memory as the show switched to the ExCel Exhibition Centre in London’s Docklands in 2006.
It finally bit the dust, quite possibly for good, after an unhappy last ExCel appearance in 2008. Shows pencilled in for 2010 and 2012 were subsequently cancelled.
But the world was a different place back in 2008, 2010 or even 2012, with the recession still fresh in the minds of the men who run the global car industry.
Conditions had been so grim that even Jaguar Land Rover was teetering on the brink in early 2009. Look where they are now, largely thanks to Indian owners Tata holding their nerve in the eye of the storm.
Today, the new models behind Jaguar Land Rover’s splendid recovery are invariably premiered first at the likes of Geneva, Paris, Los Angeles and Tokyo, not the NEC, just down the road from factories at Castle Bromwich or Lode Lane.
It’s only fair to recognise that the British car industry is now foreign-owned, with profits going back to shareholders in India, Japan, Germany etc, but surely some financial support for a biennial event in the UK would not be too much to ask from the big beasts of motoring who plough around £1.9 billion each year into the UK car industry.
Whether the NEC – or indeed London – will ever again host the sort of show which in its heyday attracted nearly a million people to view the latest models and hi-tech motoring gadgetry is highly debatable.
The British Motor Show was an institution for decades. Post-recession, it deserves another outing.