Psst, want to know a secret? Motor shows are dying. Well, okay, no great secret perhaps.
There’s a groundswell of new, different and reformulated motoring get-togethers popping up that, while perhaps not directly leading the dinosaurs of Detroit, Paris and Frankfurt to the tar pits, is kindling interest of internet age car-lovers tired of time-honoured look-but-don’t-touch convention.
Punters now seem to want hands-on, living, breathing, moving car show engagement that alert the senses in ways the old ‘static car display’ formula fails to titillate. And promoters are trying different tacts, some hit (Goodwood Festival of Speed) and some miss (Motorworld).
BMW’s M Division has its own inimitable spin, called M Festival. And while brand diversity mightn’t be its strong point, as a one-marque love-in that connects petrolheads with a smorgasbord of M indulgences in almost every conceivable manner, it’s a helluva draw card whether you’re an M-tragic or not.
CarAdvice tagged along to the second bi-annual event in Johannesburg, South Africa, to see what all the, erm, fun is about.
Why Johannesburg? South Africa is a strong market for BMW M, it happens to be on ‘Europe time’, the weekend event offers a handy and affordable getaway for European travellers and, well, the local BMW arm is the enthusiastic host. Plus, there’s the magnificent Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit of a quality high enough to run the quickest machinery BMW can throw at it.
It’s also a bit of an experiment: Munich hopes to expand the showcase to other markets, including Australia, in future. Mount Panorama or Phillip Island, perhaps?
The ‘M Fest’ crams in so much variety into its two-day program that punters with even the shortest attention spans are easily kept engaged for the long haul. That is, once you negotiate the pilgrimage of go-fast BMWs entering the Kyalami grounds. Around 20,000 show-goers made it to the inaugural 2017 event and this year organisers hope for a 50 percent increase.
You could put on a pretty serious and comprehensive M-themed car show just using the punter machinery in the parking lot. In fact, the first thing you stumble across at the event near the carpark is the largest South African BMW car club concours event of the year, flanked by the non-concours car club ‘pits’.
The circuit’s infield also plays host to the M Test Drive track, which features a variety of models and variants show-goers can sample, back to back, in a low-speed environment. Even before you make your way through the entrance gates at the back of the pits, there’s a fair bit to do, and more of the infield is dedicated to the so-called M-Town Playground, where there’s a ton of fun stuff for younger kids not quite as excited about adult-sized machinery as mum or dad.
Pass through the gate – around AU$20 for general admission to AU$100 for top-tier VVIP access – and the event literally stacks a diverse array of attraction inside the circuit’s huge, three-storey pit complex, which affords a fortunate respite for the blaring 30-plus-degree heat. But with the South African spring sunshine just warming up, it’s prime opportunity to eyeball some of the non-stop track activities from some of the better outdoor vantage points.
Much of timetable is dedicated to flat-out punter rides in proper high-performance M-cars, riding shotgun with BMW Driver Training pros. And judging by the long lines of adults and kids preparing to shuffle into passenger seats, it’s probably the single most popular punter activity of the entire event.
CarAdvice got to drive a number of different models – M2 Competition, X3 M, X4 M and M340i xDrive – on the Friday before the event and the former Grand Prix track is certainly one the fastest and most enjoyable tracks you could chuck a fast road car around.
Or, as it turns out, full-house racecars. At certain intervals throughout the day, South African male works driver Sheldon van der Linde and BMW Motorsport junior female driver Beitske Visser take a select few passengers for rides in their respective DTM and GT4 racecars. I’d never seen a German DTM racer up close, or at full tilt, before and the sheer pace and noise the thing generates is quite extraordinary.
Part of the racecar show-off is a four-way, one-lap race with a staggered start, where the GT4 and DTM machines try hunting down an M135i xDrive road car and the just-launched S 1000 RR superbike. Even more entertaining, though, is watching a trio of pro drivers wring out M road cars in three-way drag races along the Kyalami main straight.
BMW South Africa also uses M-Fest to unveil new models and a good many, such as the M135i xDrive, M340i xDrive sedan, X3 M and X4 M Competition SUVs, were out circulating the track on debut. Others, such as the local unveiling of latest X5 M, X6 M and 8 Series Gran Coupe M Performance, were all on static display throughout the air-conditioned respite of the complex building.
The ground floor was the chosen venue for the Pinnacle Of Motorsport display that include some of BMW’s finest heritage racecars, as well as one classic road car that even BMW M boss Markus Flasch, on deck for the weekend, considered the jewel of the festival: a rare E12 530 MLE, a South African special edition recently restored to concours condition by staff who’d originally assembled them new at the factory in 1976.
Though hardly quick by today’s standards – 0-100km/h in 9.3sec, 208km/h v-max – the 530 MLE was Flasch’s choice for a punt or three of the circuit on the pre-event Friday.
While pretty much everything thus far I’d seen before at one car event of another, this is the first time I’d ever seen a one-marque, pop-up-style showroom the size and breadth of the M-Town Dealership. Crammed into the entire first floor of the complex, here were around 200 different M performance and high-performance cars, all for sale on the spot.
This alone is the one thing that really added a unique twist to the M-Fest format: it directly appeals to M shoppers and tyre-kickers, genuine or not. If you were (presumably) a South African keen on buying one of the breed, you could front up, experience the entire range in a manner of different ways, then walk upstairs and sign on the dotted line, there and then. In fact, if you stood around the M-Town Dealership long enough, every 10 minutes or so a bell would ring, a ‘sold’ sign would beam on an overhead display, and another punter became a new M owner.
Further, if you fancied a specific machine on display that already perched a sold sign on its windscreen, there was a bevy of sales staff on hand to source you an identical alternative example on the spot. As a car show, the M Fest makes one helluva touch-it, test-it and compare-it car dealership. Not surprising, then, that every dealer in Africa was in attendance for the good times.
There were certainly good times aplenty on the VIP and VVIP sections on the second floor: food, free-flowing drinks, World Cup rugby on the screen and a bird’s eye view of the on-track action. Show-goers without the fancy lanyards still got free live entertainment on the M-Town Music main stage that boast live sets from some of the nation’s most popular artists across the afternoon and evenings of both days.
The South African M Fest doesn’t offer everything. For one thing, it doesn’t offer those cliché, fictional motor show concept cars promising fanciful capabilities, fakery not likely to ever see production best consumed from the convenience of a computer screen or device.
And, for my money, it’s all the better and more attractive for it.