Ford in the spotlight

Gavin Green visits the British Motor Show

Back in the Sixties, the British Motor Show was probably the world's best. Our car industry was big and dynamic, and the show was held at Earls Court, which was then trendy and hip rather than full of bedsits and tramps. And if the metal wasn't interesting enough, you could always look at the flesh - Earls Court was like Page Three on the podium. Being in London, the show was also more of a magnet for both beautiful people and car industry movers and shakers than today's show site, Birmingham.

Nowadays, sadly, the British Motor Show is internationally a second-rater. The only world debuts held at this year's Birmingham Show, which opened yesterday, were for a new Asquith Motor Carriage (who?) a black cab proposal, a new Marcos (which, to all intents and purposes, is only sold in Britain anyway), a new TVR (ditto) and - that's it. All the important new cars had their unveilings at the Paris Show a fortnight ago.

But while motoring hacks and those few Brits who ventured to the Parc des Expositions may have seen the new motors before, most British punters have not. And, this autumn, there are a lot of intriguing new cars about.

The twin stars of the show are, ironically, both at least part-British. The Jaguar XK8 is the latest creation from Britain's favourite sportscar maker: the last new Jaguar sportster was unveiled 21 years ago. Who cares if it's been seen in Paris? It's just gone on sale, it looks great, and advance orders are at record levels.

Ford now calls the shots at Jaguar, and is also starting to pump out winners of its own. It has two of the best new offerings in Birmingham: the baby Ka and the revised Mondeo.

The Ka, probably the single most interesting car at the NEC, is one of the boldest small cars in years, and certainly the bravest yet from Ford. It is aimed at the young and trendy, but, like all cars so directed, will probably be bought mainly by old folk who like to think young. It deserves to be a big success.

The Mondeo has been heavily reworked, especially the styling. Vast new ovoid headlamps meet big oval grille meet teardrop tail lamps: the one- time design dullard has come over all bold.

But motor shows, like fashion shows, are really all about style. And if you want to ogle something that looks good, head straight for the Mercedes stand and see the new SLK roadster, soon for these shores. Its stand-and- gawk gorgeous looks will be allied to a reasonable pounds 30,000-ish price tag.

Less beautiful, but still memorable, is the similarly priced Porsche Boxster - a poor man's 911. Much less beautiful, but still kind of handsome for a Volvo, is the Swedes' new C70 coupe, further confirmation of Volvo's determination of shed off its dull-but-dependable image. Val Kilmer, set to play The Saint in an upcoming movie, will be driving a C70 on screen, 30 years or so after Simon Templar fought the baddies and wooed the babes in his P1800, the last half-decent looking car that Volvo made.

Unlike the recent British Fashion Shows, the British Motor Show is not about to elevated back onto the world stage. Only a move back to London and a revival of our native car industry (one unlikely, the other very unlikely) would see to that. But there are lots of interesting cars at the NEC this year. Which, at the end of the day, probably matters more than where they were seen first.

The British International Motor Show, National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham. Open until 27 October, 9.30am-7pm (5.30pm on the last day). Adults pounds 9, senior citizens and children pounds 5.

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