The British Motor Show: History in the making

The long journey of the British Motor Show by Oliver Foster, from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders
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The Independent Online

When it comes to exhibitions, they don't get much bigger than the British International Motor Show, hosted this year at London's ExCeL exhibition centre in Docklands for the first time. But do you know how long the show has been around? Here's the history...

At the turn of the 20th century, few saw a long-term future for the car. Small-scale motor shows existed but were dominated by several shady characters who did the industry's reputation no good whatsoever. Then, Frederick R Simms, who would later become the founder of the Royal Automobile Club (now known as the RAC), called a meeting in London, inviting all those considered to be the more responsible individuals in the industry. Simms' idea was to bring some order to what had become a rash of events promoting the newfangled motor car. This meeting marked the founding of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) and just six months later, in 1903, the doors opened on their first show with nearly 200 exhibitors.

The first British Motor Show, which opened its doors at London's Crystal Palace from 30 January to 7 February 1903, attracted over 10,000 visitors - not bad when you consider that there were only 8,000 private cars on the road at the time! But it wasn't the first show to be held in Britain: the horseless carriage exhibition at Tunbridge Wells in 1895 took that honour, with a grand total of five exhibits including two cars, a fire engine, a steam carriage and a tricycle.

SMMT's second show was also staged at Crystal Palace a year later. From 1905, with shows staged in February and November, the venue became Olympia. It remained there until the war years, 1914-18, during which there were no shows at all. But business resumed in November 1919, by which time motoring was taken much more seriously, in most part due to the role of the motor vehicle in the war itself.

1937 saw the historical move to Earls Court. There was another pause during the Second World War before the show restarted there in 1948, but organisers were less than optimistic about its prospects. At this time, buying a car was a slow process. Of the 334,000 cars produced in UK factories, only 113,000 were consigned to the home market. People ordering cars at the time were unlikely to take delivery for four of five years, so most vehicles in circulation were old bangers from the 1920s and 1930s. Even then, their use was restricted due to limited petrol allowances. Yet, when the doors swung open at Earls Court, it became obvious that the nation's appetite for motoring was still strong. Some 500,000 visitors poured through the gates - an impressive figure when you think that the 2006 show is expected to attract the same number.

In the Fifties and Sixties, the British International Motor Show became a cultural institution on a par with the Grand National or the Boat Race. Car ownership was growing fast, encouraged by clever advertising and marketing techniques. The next big milestone was the decision not only to move the show to the newly opened National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, but also to make it biennial. Everyone involved was nervous as the gates opened in 1978, its first year in the West Midlands. However the support from locals, who made most of the British cars, was overwhelming. Over 900,000 crammed into the NEC, setting an attendance record. By 1980, the NEC had extended its complex and improved its facilities, and similar improvements have been introduced for virtually every show since.

BESTSELLERS

1965

1 Austin Morris 1100/1300

2 Ford Cortina

3 Mini

4 Ford Anglia

5 Vauxhall Victor

1985

1 Ford Escort

2 Vauxhall Cavalier

3 Ford Fiesta

4 Austin/MG Metro

5 Ford Sierra

2005

1 Ford Focus

2 Vauxhall Astra

3 Vauxhall Corsa

4 Renault Mégane

5 Ford Fiesta

OLD MONEY

There were a huge number of manufacturers in the early days. A 1912 catalogue listed 165 makes, the most expensive being a Napier, whose 90 HP four-seater cost £1,840. The cheapest car available was the little two-seater Humberette at £95.

FURTHER INFORMATION

The 2006 show is back in the capital, in Docklands, for the first time in nearly 20 years, and you can take part.

Visit the careers village at the British International Motor Show at ExCeL in London, between the 20 and 30 July, to see how you could join this exciting industry. Log on to www.automotiveskills.org.uk/motorshow to find out all about it. To find out more about the SMMT, go to www.smmt.co.uk

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