Paris is home to the fictional Phantom Of The Opera.
However, there is a very real spectre hanging over the world’s car industry as manufacturers gather in Paris for the city’s biennial Motor Show – or Mondial de l’automobile to give it its grandiose Gallic handle.
Like every motor show in every city in the world, Paris is a tribute to auto porn, a celebration of metallic glamour aimed at prising pounds, dollars, euros, yen, rupees, bahts and riyals out of the bank accounts of those who rate form and prestige ahead of practicality.
It’s why automotive executives who go these affairs talk about cars as “an emotional performance vehicle” (John Fleming of Ford on the new Ka) and “a trend-setting travel companion” (Ian Robertson of BMW on the latest Mini variant).
But beneath this year’s upfront razzmatazz involving the latest Bond girl and men swooping down from the rafters of Paris Expo to whip the wraps off the new Mini was a tangible concern about the future of the “industry of industries”.
Press day followed hard on the heels of a raft of bad news stories centred on the slump in car sales not just in the countries worst hit by the financial meltdown, but around the world.
“This is very bad timing,” one executive was heard to say – very quietly.
And he’s right. When US taxpayers are being asked to bail out an entire industry renowned for greed, arrogance and stupidity (Wall Street, not automotive), when the world is staring economic recession in the face and millions throughout the world face the prospect of hard time, if not outright destitution, this seems to be no time to be trumpeting products that could soon become unattainable luxuries.
Carmakers are already cutting back on production but so far there has been no talk of redundancy, although more open executives like Jaguar Land Rover’s David Smith say lay-offs cannot be ruled out if the credit squeeze isn’t relaxed by the end of this year.
Another problem facing the likes of JLR is that along with mature markets such as the UK, the US and mainland Europe going rapidly backwards, the emergent giants such as Russia are, alarmingly for carmakers looking to them to offset downturns elsewhere, now doing the same.
Toyota and Ford are cutting their sales forecasts for Russia on predictions that annual growth is likely to slump from 25 per cent to just five per cent. That’s potentially bad news for Castle Bromwich and Lode Lane, whose products are leading the premium segment of the Russian car market.
Fiat has warned that the European market, already well down on last year, could shrink by as much as five per cent this year.
“Until this issue of the financial crisis is cleared up we’re not going to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Fiat chief executive Sergio Marchionne was quoted as saying.
So with manufacturers now fighting for every sale they can get, perhaps the Paris Motor Show hoopla makes a lot of sense after all.
Just hope the ultimate story doesn’t come to be written by a 21st century Gaston Leroux of Phantom fame.