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Geneva Then

10 Mar

Of the major European auto shows, Geneva has always been my favorite, for several reasons. First, it’s in Geneva. Amazing coincidence, that. Second, it’s held in early March, so there’s some hope that the earth will once again tilt toward spring in the northern hemisphere. And third, the show brings back memories. (Fast forward to today at “Geneva 2014“)

My first Geneva show was in 1980, and three of its elements are still bright in the otherwise murky landscape of my memory.

Number One: Paper

Reams of paper. Brochures. Booklets. Photos. The Internet was only a concept in 1980, and journalists used typewriters. There was no World Wide Web, so of course there were no web sites. Press information was doled out as printed matter, and there was lots of it. I must have accumulated about 25 pounds of press kits, which included a lot photography, mostly black and white.

The challenge of covering the show today is posed by the sheer volume of press presentations, but the Web and press kits on USB drives have eliminated the stevedore element—no more lugging mass quantities of printed material.

Number Two: Ferrari

Geneva has long been a favored forum for Ferrari, and in 1980 its major introduction was the Mondial 8. This was my first Ferrari intro, and it’s composed of two chapters in my memory. Chapter one was the show car, a handsome mid-engined 2+2 styled by Pininfarina. I was impressed.

photo credit: SpeedHunter XxX via photopin cc

photo credit: SpeedHunter XxX via photopin cc

But that positive impression was tempered by chapter two, when I drove a Mondial across the country, from New Jersey to Sunset and La Cienega Boulevards, in Hollywood, where I was employed by Motor Trend magazine. The Mondial turned heads, but it didn’t turn them quickly. There was a 3.0-liter twin cam V-8 engine mounted behind the cabin, driving the rear wheels. It was nourished by Bosch K-Jetronic mechanical fuel injection—the same engine was fed by carbs in the GT4, the Mondial’s predecessor—but at 205 horsepower, propelling some 3500 pounds of car, acceleration was distinctly ho-hum, and not at all what I expected from a machine bearing the logo of Enzo Ferrari.

Number Three: De Lorean

Perhaps this should have been number one, because it’s certainly my most incandescent memory from that 1980 show.

photo credit: SpeedHunter XxX via photopin cc

photo credit: SpeedHunter XxX via photopin cc

You’ll recall that John Zachary De Lorean was the General Motors renegade who left GM to establish his own company around a mid-engined two-seat sports car with gullwing doors and stainless steel skin.

The set designers for the De Lorean presentation must have been theater professionals, because the stand was beautifully set up, with soft lighting that dramatized the car’s silvery skin as well as the man’s thatch of salt-and-pepper hair. He wore his hair fashionably long, and the team that prepped the set may have spent as much time on that coiffure as the car. De Lorean was a handsome man with a strong presence, a compelling presenter, and a very good speaking voice—qualities that served him well as a fund-raiser, as they had when he rose to leadership of GM’s number one sales division.

I can’t recall specifically what De Lorean had to say in his Geneva pitch. It was generally predictable—the bold independent casting off the shackles of convention to create something memorable. But just about everyone crowded around the stand seemed mesmerized by De Lorean’s delivery.

It was a great moment, and proved to be the zenith of the entire DMC (De Lorean Motor Company) saga. I suppose it glimmers in my memory as it does because what followed entailed so many disappointments and so much disillusion.

Many of us were rooting for De Lorean and his dream—naively, it seems. Because even as we listened to John Z’s oratory, the dream was already coming apart at the seams. The car may have looked dramatic, but assembly quality was abysmal, power was tepid, and at about $25,000 it was overpriced. Though not as exotic, a new Corvette delivered much more performance, as well as readily accessible factory service, for about $9000 less.

Beyond that, the British government, which had heavily subsidized the startup, to create jobs in Northern Ireland, was already asking hard questions about where its loans were going. De Lorean, for his part, was simultaneously asking for more financing.

So in retrospect that great beginning at the Geneva show was actually the beginning of the end for De Lorean. Though there was a memorable press preview driving event in Northern Ireland. But that’s another story.

Requiescat en pace, John Z.

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