Has 2020 finally killed the motor show?

opinion
They've been dropping off and consolidating for years now, but could the pandemic have finally done the motor show in?
- shares

Motor shows have been in a parlous state around the world for some time now – this isn’t another COVID-19 rant by any means. There is plenty of thought, though, that the pandemic of 2020 and the associated shutdowns around the globe have driven the final nail into the coffin of what was once an automotive staple.

I remember when news first surfaced that the Sydney Motor Show was done for good. I was genuinely sad – not from a work perspective, because working at motor shows is brutal as a journalist – but from an enthusiast viewpoint. If you live in Sydney or Melbourne, that sense of anticipation every year when motor show time rolled around was palpable.

What would the exotic manufacturers take the covers off? Which new luxury car would you see for the first time? What had a group of Holden or Ford engineers been working on in secret for the past 12 months? Which manufacturer would choose Australia to make a global reveal?

A monthly subscription to your favourite motoring magazine, or the lift-out in the weekend newspaper, was as good as it got before everything came to life on our computers and phones.

Pre-internet, pre-social media, they were all very real questions that could only be answered from the floor of the motor show. You’d line up, grab your ticket and run for your chosen stand first to take a close look at metal you had no chance of actually driving, of course – usually because you didn’t even have a licence yet.

It was genuinely exciting stuff. And it was something you waited all year for. Leading into 2020, however, traditional motor shows were in real trouble.

Sydney and Melbourne were long gone, the UK had put the kibosh on theirs (after a rocky and rebooted past), and Detroit had been moved to later in the year, so as not to clash with CES – the Consumer Electronics Show – that was stealing a huge audience.

It wasn’t all bad news, mind you. SEMA (Speciality Equipment Market Association), which takes place in late October in Las Vegas, has become almost as much about manufacturer promotion as it has the aftermarket, the aforementioned CES event (also in Vegas) attracts more automotive manufacturers every year, and the Goodwood Festival of Speed (in England) is now a default motor show for the UK as well.

To be honest, as a punter, any one of those events noted above is more enjoyable than a traditional motor show, because of the way they mix the aftermarket with the new. SEMA, which isn’t open to the public, is a monster show that displays the very best both manufacturers and the massive American aftermarket can offer. It’s a mind-bender, in every sense of the word.

Likewise Goodwood, which is open to the public, is one of those once-in-a-lifetime events for anyone who loves cars. The way it comes to life, with everything from classic cars to exotic newcomers in action, is something no indoor motor show can emulate.

The reality, however, is that the days of the traditional motor show look to be well and truly numbered. The last time CarAdvice attended the LA Motor Show it was a ghost town, moving the Detroit Show is a last-ditch attempt to justify its existence, and the New York Motor Show no longer has the impact it once did.

People in the States have a long-held reputation for supporting live events, and if crowd numbers continue to drop off there, it’s a tangible sign that the rest of the world will need to take notice of.

In Europe, spiralling costs have put real pressure on the Geneva Motor Show, while the alternating Paris and Frankfurt motor shows have been shaken up by dwindling attendance, and public interest in the Frankfurt show specifically. As such, it was axed, with Munich beating out Hamburg and Berlin as the new location for 2021.

Still, it would seem that moving from one city to another is a last-gasp effort. It has to be said, though, Munich is a much prettier city to visit than Frankfurt, so that’s a positive for international visitors.

Most of the blame needs to go to the various – and seemingly never-ending – leaks that come out long before the motor show doors have even opened. That and the fact those leaks can be plastered all over the World Wide Web within minutes.

Pre-internet, there was no real way to see anything in a meaningful way before you physically got to the motor show. Now you can do it from your desk at work, your lounge room at home, or on the train on your way home from work. High-res imagery and video bring all the new metal to life. And, while it’s not quite the same as seeing it in the flesh, it’s enough to keep people away from the turnstiles.

Whether the motor show survives, and in what form, is something that 2021 will help to illuminate, but 2022 will be the real acid test if travel becomes easier again. All the signs seem to be pointing to the fact that they either won’t survive or they will look very different.

Manufacturers could control the ‘leaks’ that start to happen. That would be one thing. So, too, would coming up with compelling reasons for the public to return. If it were genuinely the first time a raft of interesting cars was unveiled, a motor show would be well worth attending in the flesh. Like they used to be in the good old days.

The incredible cost of attending an event – for the manufacturers, I mean – makes it easy for them to turn an event down when attendance does start to tail off. That’s a factor that undoubtedly contributed to the demise of our local motor shows. Rumours that a stand cost well over a million bucks to set up went some way to explaining the huge impost on a manufacturer.

I don’t know if you loved motor shows as much as I did, but I’d love to see them back as they used to be. It was a critical part of educating the next generation of car-mad youngsters, who would sustain the industry for the next few decades.