The Ode: British International Motor Show (1903 – 2010)

Created to promote British automobiles, it became a world–class affair. But like the industry itself, the show was eventually eclipsed by better offerings.

The first British International Motor Show opened on Jan. 30, 1903, at London’s Crystal Palace. Organized by the newly formed Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), the weeklong exhibition was a bid to unite England’s burgeoning auto industry, which had begun holding several competing London shows.

Though at the time there were only 8,000 cars in the U.K., some 10,000 people attended the inaugural event — signalling the beginning of the automobile’s transformation from luxury item to popular mode of transportation. “There lives no man with soul so dead as not to sigh from the happiness of possession as he wanders among the 350 magnificent cars exhibited,” reported The New York Times in 1912, “nor is there any reason why the sigh should be vain, because the era of cheap motoring has come.”

By 1913, the number of attendees had ballooned to 250,000 — making the annual show, which had been relocated to the Olympia due to the growing number of displays, more popular than the city’s Horse Show. Nine countries sent their newest models.

As the battle for dominance in the auto industry heated up, the Motor Show became a pivotal event. When the exhibition resumed after the First World War, car makers, which had yet to begin mass production, were flooded with orders from customers who had to wait months for delivery. At the time, Ford’s Model T, which was manufactured in Manchester, was the best-selling car in Britain. English firms, meanwhile, tended to favour smaller engines and lighter bodies. As H. H. Rice, president of the Cadillac Motor Car Co., observed in 1922, “The small car, of 10-horse power or under, was the outstanding feature of the London show.”

By the late 1930s, England was pumping out 500,000 cars a year, making it second only to the U.S. in automobile production. Though the Second World War put the Motor Show, which had moved to Earls Court, on hold for nearly a decade, it reopened to much fanfare in 1948 with the introduction of the classic Morris Minor and the lightning-fast Jaguar XK120.

In 1968, Princess Alexandra, the Queen’s cousin, opened the Motor Show, which had become a first-class affair, complete with flashy concept cars and displays flanked by beautiful women. The excess reached its peak in 1971, when TVR hired models to pose nude on its sports cars. The British auto industry, however, was in trouble. Beset by labour disputes and an inability to adapt to changing markets, the country’s largest firms merged in 1968 as British Leyland before being nationalized in 1975. Foreign ownership soon became the norm.

The Motor Show, meanwhile, was having problems of its own. After relocating to Birmingham in 1978, the event, which had become biannual, was consistently overshadowed by bigger industry shows in Detroit, Paris, Frankfurt, Tokyo and Geneva. Organizers had difficulty securing global debuts, and attendance began to slip, dropping from more than 900,000 in 1978 to barely 500,000 in 2000.

In 2006, in a bid to boost prestige, the SMMT moved the show back to London. Prime Minister Gordon Brown was among the VIPs who attended the 2008 event, which included 23 global debuts. When the recession forced organizers to cancel the 2010 show, hopes were high that it would return in 2012. But in October, SMMT CEO Paul Everitt announced that the event, which had, in recent years, “played a less important role in influencing new car buyers,” would not be reinstated.