MOTORING / Nice to have you back where you belong: After a 17-year absence, London is on the international motor show map again

Back in the Sixties, when the British motor industry was one of the world's biggest and London was the international style capital, Earls Court was the motor show that car company bosses wanted to attend. And they wanted their exciting new cars to be there, too.

In the Seventies, it all went wrong. Britain's biggest car show moved to the NEC in Birmingham, and has been second-rate ever since. Frankfurt, Paris and Geneva are the shows that the big names and important new cars attend.

But that may be about to change. After a 17-year absence, London has a proper motor show again, replacing the Earls Court Motorfair, which started as little more than a car supermarket but evolved into a reasonable showcase for the home car industry. The plan is for Earls Court and the NEC to host the official annual show alternately.

This year's theme is the renaissance of the British car industry. The Japanese are largely responsible for the fact that, by the end of this decade, Britain should have the second biggest car industry in Europe, just as in the Sixties. All the Japanese makers are making a big effort for Earls Court, even though it conflicts with the biennial Tokyo Show.

Important new Japanese cars include the Honda Civic coupe, at pounds 10,000 extraordinarily good value for a Honda; the Xedos 9, Mazda's new V6-powered flagship and further evidence of the inexorable Japanese drive upmarket; the Suzuki Cappuccino, a sub-Mazda MX-5 sized (and priced) roadster; and the Lexus GS300, little brother to Toyota's Mercedes S-class-rivalling LS400.

More surprising, and likely to get even more attention at Earls Court, is the resurgence of the British sports car industry. TVR, once a maker of odd-looking and very unreliable glass-fibre monsters but increasingly a serious alternative to a Ferrari or Porsche, unveils its first hardtop four-seater for 20 years - the Cerbera. The new 5.0-litre version of the Griffith, arguably the world's most handsome roadster (and certainly the best sounding), also makes its debut.

Last year, AC - best known for the Cobra - was owned by Ford. Now it is independent, and about to launch its first new car for 30 years, the Ace. It will be powered by a 5.0-litre American Ford V8, production starts soon on the Brooklands industrial estate, and the price will be pounds 50,000.

Still on a sports car theme: Lotus, after its acquisition by Bugatti, reintroduces the Elan; and Morgan introduces a new Rover-engined Plus Four. Aston Martin gives its new pounds 80,000 DB7 its first British airing, before deliveries next spring.

Chrysler, now sounding serious about greatly expanding its European operations, launches its 8.0-litre V10-powered Viper roadster on the UK market. One of the most eye-catching cars ever built, the pounds 55,000 Viper is big, noisy, thirsty and cocks a snook at the political correctness that the industry now likes to promote.

Porsche gives the new 911 its British debut, a month before sales start. It's not the all-new model that the company disingenuously claims it to be, but it's none the worse for that. Instead, revised styling, revised engines and new rear suspension have transformed the exhilarating but rather demanding sports car into a superb driving machine that can now be trusted not to wag its tail in the wet.

Back in the real world, Ford launches its 1994 model range, which doesn't look much different from 1993's although driver's airbags are standard except on the Fiesta (which gets the change in a few months) and the Maverick off-roader. Ford's only new car is the Probe, spiritual successor to the Capri. The Probe uses Mazda mechanicals, is built in America and goes on sale here next spring. Ford expects it to knock the Calibra (making its show debut in the V6 version) off the top of the coupe sales charts.

Rover is trotting out its restyled Hondas (200, 400, 600 and 800 ranges) and revamped old-timers (Mini, Metro, Maestro, Montego), most of which are now doing rather well on export markets.

The most important new mainstream car is the Fiat Punto. Bigger, better made and safer than the Uno, the Punto is a competent small car that should boost Fiat's sales here. It's quirky, but not too radical to put off conservative British buyers. UK sales start next spring.

Saab and Mercedes both unleash crucial new models: the new 900 and C-Class respectively. Watch out too for the Audi ASF, the aluminium saloon prototype that will sire a replacement for the big (in size) but tiny (in sales) V8, to be known as the A8. That takes the road early next year. BMW unveils a convertible version of the latest 3-series, which looks good and drives well. Peugeot launches a 306 convertible and a couple of hot hatches. Volkswagen unveils a Golf Estate and face-lifted Passats.

Korean makers Kia, Hyundai and Asia Motors (a newcomer to the UK) all have new models offering spectacular value, including a new Hyundai Sonata, and the Rocsta off-roader. And still on the cheap but getting less nasty front, Lada has a new Samara variant called the Envi - which wins the prize for daftest new model name.

From the ridiculous to the sublime: Ferrari is launching its new 456 GT on the British market at the London show. This is one of the most beautiful, most cossetting and fastest cars ever made - and, at pounds 147,000, one of the priciest.

London Motor Show, Earls Court, open 21-31 October, 9.30am to 7.30pm except Tues 26, Wed 27 and Thurs 28 (9.30am-9pm) and Sun 31 (9.30am- 6pm). Adults pounds 7.50 (except opening day, pounds 12), OAPs and children under 14, pounds 4. Discounts if you enter after 5pm, or book in advance (071-373 8141).

(Photograph omitted)

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