Motor-show salesmen sign their own death warranty

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I KNOW it's a bad time for the motor trade. I know that. People can't afford new cars, right? Profits are down - what, 40 per cent since 1989? How many workers have been laid off? How many thousand? They're having a crisis. But I was thinking of buying a car, so I went to the Motor Show at the NEC in Birmingham for some advice. What did I want - a fast car? A big car? A sensible car? To start off with, I wanted to hear a good sales pitch.

I was prepared for the hard sell. I wasn't prepared for grovelling apologies. I didn't expect the motor trade to tell me, in effect, that I'd be better off not buying a car. These people are confused. They've lost their way. I don't know much, but I know you don't sell cars by telling people how bad cars are. A good salesman makes you believe his product is absolutely essential. A bad salesman fails to register his product in your mind. But what kind of salesman tells you that his product is dangerous and, what's more, immoral? What kind of salesman makes you watch videos depicting the harmful effects of his product? Answer: a salesman at the end of his tether.

I thought I wanted a car but now I'm not so sure. A car? Do you realise the trouble these things cause? At the Motor Show you couldn't move for videos of car crashes. The videos were trying to tell you about the safety measures being introduced by car manufacturers. Memo to car manufacturers: watching dummies being hurled around the cockpits of cars, or bonnets crumpling into each other, does not make you think of safety. It makes you think you'd be better off taking the train. Mercedes, Saab and Audi, some of the safest cars on the road, all showed slow-motion videos of their cars being smashed up. I kept watching the moments of impact, that sudden lurching crunch, the unpredictable patterns of steel deforming, glass shattering. Mercedes had a video of eggs being broken. It was all supposed to make you feel unsafe in a Citroen or a Renault, in a cheaper car. What it did was make you feel unsafe in a car.

Cars are dangerous. And they're also filthy. This was another big Motor Show theme; the air was full of calm male voices on tape-loops saying: 'Caring about the environment . . .' and: 'Clearly, Audi is committed to ecologically . . .' and: 'Saab cars combine concern for the environment with . . .' A Volvo spokesman was saying: 'But long term, there is one challenge - the environment.' Volkswagen had a recycling machine; you put bits of old bumpers in one end, and warm plastic Golfs came out of the other. Vauxhall had a screen of trees and put on an all-singing, all-dancing Green show; at the end, after the Wizard ushered in the new Cavalier, rain poured from a 20-foot plastic rainbow. Ford had a walk-in dome which flashed the words 'Concern for the environment.' And they were trying to sell us cars? Boy, were these people confused.

One stand was dominated by a Cleaner Motoring logo and a 20-foot tree. I approached the woman behind the counter; she jumped into action. '. . . It's a real tree, for instance,' she was saying, 'and theirs isn't' She pointed over at the Vauxhall stand. Then she said: 'If you enter our competition, you can have 250 trees planted in the county of your choice.' Who was this - Friends of the Earth? No, it was Lucas, an aerospace and engine-parts company. Along the aisle, Citroen, Ford, BMW and Volvo had unveiled environmentally friendly 'concept cars' - prototypes - which all looked like joke bubble-cars except for the Volvo, which looked big and lumpy, like a Volvo. I sat in the BMW concept-car, which was tiny and made out of things like recycled tyres; a fine idea, except that the battery, which gives you three years of snail's-pace motoring, costs pounds 26,000.

It takes three or four years to design a car, so a few manufacturers were caught with their trousers down, their 'latest' models having been designed in a bygone era. You should have seen the new Mercedes S-class: 'A fat car for a fat, rich man,' as one motoring journalist put it. And who'll buy the new pounds 150,000 Aston Martin Vantage? For Ford's new Escort Cosworth, a 150 mph joyrider's dream with a wing sticking straight out from the roof, the problem will be one of image rather than sales. If people can't steal it, they'll want to buy it. And it will be difficult to steal - it's been fitted with a new electronic locking system - you need two keys, but it can't be hotwired. Thieves will have to tow it away.

Poor old Porsche. As the quite-rich person's car, they've slumped dramatically in the recession along with all those quite-rich young men. They're trying to survive by niche-marketing: making fewer cars for a more specialist market. Their new 968 model, at pounds 35,000, is a harsh, uncompromising car with firm suspension and not many luxuries, apart from the engine: 'A car for slightly oddball people,' as the Porsche representative put it. This is the first year they've had an open stand; until last year you needed an invitation.

It's a bad time for the motor trade. They're on the back foot; they can only think out their marketing strategies the wrong way round, like someone trying to sell fireworks by saying the bangs aren't very loud and the sparklers don't sparkle very much.

Soothing New Age music was being piped out of the Ford display dome. Around the dome were the Ford concept cars - the bug-like Mystique, the ball-shaped Connecta, the trainer-mould Shoccwave, the rugged Seeka, the dinky Splash. Inside the dome, it looked like the night sky, dark with hundreds of pinpoints of projected light. There was a continuous video-loop of images from nature - petals, leaves, seashells. Rotating in the centre was the Focus - an old-fashioned topless sports car with the same 220 horsepower engine as the Escort Cosworth. What was the message? That sportscars were natural? That nature was like a sportscar? By then, I didn't fancy it as a means of transport. It looked too small, too dirty and too dangerous. And it didn't have a buffet car. -