There’s a whole generation out there who can still remember where they were on the day President John F Kennedy was shot in Dallas. Now there’s a whole new generation of motoring writers, industry PRs and executives and show organising personnel who’ll long remember exactly where they were at the Frankfurt Motor Show the day the great US cities of New York and Washington were attacked by terrorists using airliners as bombs, writes just-auto.com deputy editor Graeme Roberts.
I sure won’t forget where I was on a day that over 5,000 innocent citizens of maybe a hundred countries died in a series of unprovoked and undeclared attacks on the land of the free.
The news spread like wildfire around the huge halls of the vast Frankfurt Messe exhibition hall complex from mid-afternoon on Tuesday, 11 September, the first of the show’s two press days.
At the time, I had just filed a story from the superb media centre provided by DaimlerChrysler for journalists in the Chrysler, Jeep and Smart hall. The D-C media facilities put the show organisers’ ‘official’ media centre to shame – comfortable seats at private booths equipped with state of the art TFT screen computers, CD and diskette drives, fast internet and email connections, international phone service and, in an adjacent lounge, a hot ‘n’ cold buffet with every type of beverage a thirsty working journo could want.
Magnificent office tower dominates Frankfurt’s Messe. Show rumour said police evacuated it following first news from New York
Take a bow, whoever at D-C was responsible. Thanks to you, just-auto’s Frankfurt show news stories were fed back to England to appear on the site as quickly and as easily as if we’d been sat in the office, rather than several hundred miles and a time zone away. Laptops are all very well, but not when their modems prove incompatible with German hotel or Messe phone lines.
‘A plane’s crashed’
A quick call to my fiancée, just coming off shift at home in England, brought stunning news: “A plane’s crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York, it’s on TV now.”
Simultaneously – this was just after 2.45pm in Germany and 8.45am in New York – a perceptible chill spread through the D-C media centre. There were many Americans present and cell phones began to ring. People dived for spare PCs to log on to the news websites – CNN, BBC, CBS, ABC, Et Al – but already the ‘net was hopelessly clogged as word of the tragedy in the Big Apple began to spread around the world.
Eventually, someone managed to get on to the Detroit Free Press website and the full horror began to emerge. Just as news of the first airliner’s full-speed plunge into one of the World Trade Centre towers was starting to sink in, another hijacked airliner literally crashed right through the second tower. Then a third ‘plane hit the Pentagon in Washington DC and a fourth dived into the ground in Pennsylvania.
“The effect of the unfolding tragedy in Germany was palpable, especially amongst the Americans.“
The effect of the unfolding tragedy in Germany was palpable, especially amongst the Americans. A woman sobbed quietly in a corner while a colleague comforted her. Groups huddled around screens anxious for further reports from the States. Others gathered together in corners, talking quietly. A New Yorker desperately thumbed his cellphone to check that family and friends back home were OK. He could not get through to anyone and the panic showed in his face. Rumour and counter-rumour spread like waves across the room.
Around the show complex, TVs were quickly switched to CNN or the German news channels and word spread so fast that, within a couple of hours, no-one anywhere in the Messe could have been unaware of events in the US.
The show quickly emptied. Less than an hour before the first news flashes, DaimlerChrysler’s Chrysler Group CEO Dieter Zetsche had been unveiling new models before a large audience of mostly European journalists.
Directly upstairs, out of earshot, I had been reading Zetsche’s speech off the autocue through the media centre’s floor-to-ceiling windows as he announced the launch of the 1.6-litre Chrysler PT Cruiser, a new 2.7-litre diesel engine for the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the German debut of the Jeep Liberty, badged the Cherokee for Europe.
Speech over, the questions and champagne flowed, sushi was served and the journos swamped the stand to inspect the new vehicles and perhaps catch a private word with Zetsche. Then there was a mildly facelifted Smart range to see, arranged around the centrepiece four-door concept that was making its Frankfurt debut.
Barely had Zetsche’s press conference finished when first news from New York reached the show and, within an hour, the Chrysler-Jeep/Smart hall was almost empty. Somehow, new cars didn’t seem important any more.
“Somehow, new cars didn’t seem important any more.“
Certainly, the show did go on. Although the crowds thinned, people still walked onto stands, looked at cars, talked with PRs, made notes. But not with the same enthusiasm of several hours before. On Tuesday evening, after a couple of hours glued to CNN, a few of us went out for drinks and a meal, but the chatter about new models inspected, contacts made and scoops obtained that usually accompanies major international motor shows was replaced by a sombre reflection of the events in America and the likely repercussions for the rest of the world. There in Frankfurt, we had already heard of office tower blocks evacuated, of panicky city officials and seen flags at half mast. And police sirens screamed back and forth across the city, one of Europe’s key financial centres, all night.
Reflecting on events, as the bad news continued to roll in seemingly interminably, I couldn’t help thinking about the effect on our American friends and colleagues. Last time anything like this happened on US soil, it was in 1941 at a Hawaiian naval base named Pearl Harbour; as far as I’m aware, mainland America has never been attacked in such an act of war. England and Germany have experienced war on home turf, of course, and there were people at the show like me who can recall parents or grandparents talking of bombings, the Blitz, the threat of German or Japanese invaders. But, for Americans, these four acts of war in the 48 states were unprecedented, unexpected, a huge shock.
The shock was noticeable, perhaps even more so, on Wednesday, the second press day. I’d arranged to meet one of just-auto’s American freelancers, an expatriate Briton who has lived in California for 20 years. When I called to fix the place and time, he was still too stunned to talk, all he wanted to do was go home.
Clever packaging, innovative seat folding should help new Honda Jazz succeed in tough European markets
And that wasn’t going to be easy. At Frankfurt as a guest of VW of America, his return flight had been cancelled as civil aviation in the US shut down. Now he was contemplating a chartered 767 flight to Detroit, via Stuttgart and London, followed by a two-day drive home. And the landing in the USA was by no means definite.
Meeting up with the rest of the just-auto team later in the day, I heard of other missed appointments. Of Americans who’d simply packed up and headed for the airport, anxious to be back home with loved ones. The Tiburon coupe unveiling and press conference just under way at the time of the first trade centre crash that was immediately shortened to just a few words and a low-key reveal by Hyundai Deutschland while journalists became increasingly distracted by events elsewhere.
In new car terms, Frankfurt 2001 rated as a good show, if not a great one. There were no stunning surprises on the first press day as most of the new models and concepts had already been announced in the build-up to the show. But there’s still nothing like seeing new cars in the metal for the first time, even if you’ve already perused the press kit and press hand-out photos.
Some colleagues derided the new Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo as unimaginative and, true, neither pushes the styling envelope very much but both companies know their conservative customers well and do not want to alienate them. I liked both cars – their styling is evolutionary yet new and different enough to stand out in the crowd while standard equipment and build quality are vastly improved on both.
Ford’s so-called ‘concept’ Fusion mini-minivan displayed near the Fiesta had to be all but production-ready; it looks just right, pushes on technological boundaries with its direct-injection three-cylinder engine plus automated manual gearbox and will surely at least partly fill the shoes of the five-seat Focus-based MAV (for multi-activity) model canned when Ford learned of GM’s rival seven-seat Zafira.
Which was also at Frankfurt, showing off, with other GM models, a sporty new OPC ‘concept’ specification – turbocharged engine, lowered and stiffened suspension, white dials, red and black sports seats, bright paint colours. GM Europe may be on the ropes but the attractive OPC pack, not yet offered but sure to go into production as a factory option package, shows that the troubled division isn’t out of the ring just yet.
Fastest folding roof in the West on the new Mercedes-Benz SL, one of the stars of the show
I looked long and hard at Honda’s new Jazz, nee Fit. Another company having trouble in Europe, if anything helps get Honda out of that particular hole, the Jazz is it. Sized and specified right for Europe, the Jazz offers an amazing amount of interior room for its size and adds a seat folding system as clever as the Zafira’s. In the Honda, apart from the usual flat-load-area/seating permutations, you can fold the rear base vertical against the back, leaving room in the footwells for tall pot plants or a bike. Clever.
Toyota didn’t break any new ground of note with the new Corolla which, in sedan form, looked just like one they prepared earlier – for the Thai market some months ago. But the new hatchbacks and tall-roofed minivan versions look good and are as well-built as ever. But when, Yaris aside, will Toyota really be an innovator in Europe rather than serving up cars that were really developed for other markets?
This was also the first European showing of Nissan’s superb new UK-built Primera hatchback, as stylish and innovative as the latest Renault Laguna it will rival in Europe, albeit unlikely match in volume. The wagon looks great, too, and the new trend, led by the Japanese, towards centre mounted dials surely makes LHD/RHD build mixes easier and cheaper in these cost-conscious times.
The Japanese are still the detail leaders – switch from AM/FM to climate control to bird’s eye view sat-nav in the Primera and the alternative symbols in the centre console rocker switches light up in sequence, making a series of seemingly complex operations about as intuitive as you can get.
Speaking of intuitive, my personal jury is still out on BMW‘s ingenious I-drive control system that debuted with the new 7-series. This was another car that looked far better in the metal than the preview pix but getting through the hordes of parochial German journalists to even sit in the thing was well nigh impossible. Once I did make it through the scrum, the impression was good: rounded BMW exteriors and interiors are gone to be replaced by sharp edges and there did not seem to be a component this side of fastenings carried over from any other Bimdub.
Perhaps mindful of cynics like me, BMW had I-drive working on its stand and it sure is clever. The large metal control wheel moves in eight directions as well as rotating and I’m still curious as to just how the engineers have managed to vary the feel of the various detents (which in turn are easy or hard to turn past) according to the menu you’re in – stereo, phone, sat-nav, trip computer and so on. I still reckon it’ll take at least a week with a car and a two-inch-thick owner’s manual to figure it all out, and that I-drive operation is no more intuitive than some features of BMW’s older sat-nav and trip computer set-ups but I’ll reserve final judgement till ride-and-drive time.
All things come to those who wait, at last there’s again a Porsche 911 Targa
Mercedes-Benz’s new SL, displayed in both roof-up and roof-down forms, with a third example rotating on a stand for good measure, was another car there was no chance of getting near. Best I managed was to inch alongside. Again, this is a car that takes its marque’s styling into a new era, particularly inside, and the engineering of the glass ‘n’ metal drop-top (wait till you see the centre glass panel do a 180-degree flip as the roof folds or unfolds) is awesome. As is its speed – it makes the SLK and Peugeot 206 roof operation seem Jurassic and is so fast it took four cycles of the turntable-mounted show car’s roof before all open/close stages were recorded by just-auto’s digital camera.
Coachbuilder Karmann also had a new opening roof design on display but one has to question whether or not we need a new method of electrically unfurling a canvas lid. Pretty concept convertible, though. And, at last, there’s a new Porsche 911 Targa with a lift-up rear window hatch, a solid front glass panel that zips down inside said rear window, plus an electrically operated roller-blind sunshade, ingeniously attached to the opening panel.
Back in affordability land, Citroen showed the curvy C3 hatchback but kept the show cars tightly locked so we’ll have to wait till later to try it for size and eyeball the engines and boot space. Styled a little more adventurously than the Fiesta and Polo, though apparently not as well built, the new baby slots in ‘twixt Saxo and Xsara and should give the ageing Renault Clio and Peugeot 206 a run for their money. Not to be outdone, PSA sibling Peugeot rolled out a natty little 206 estate and the equally attractive 307 load lugger, sure to be at least as successful as its odd-looking 306 predecessor.
The French have long had a knack of making decent wagons with long, flat load floors, even going to the trouble of developing a different rear suspension layout with near-horizontal dampers just for the estate versions. The effort usually pays off – well-used Renault, Citroen and Peugeot estates command good money here in Britain even when a decade old.
So many cars, so little time, so little space. Which we’re almost out of. So here, in no special order, is a personal, totally subjective evaluation of a show most of those who were there will never forget – sadly for the wrong reason.
Not just a stand but a whole hall, the Mercedes-Benz effort was simply stunning
Best stand: Make that hall. Mercedes-Benz always goes to special trouble to wow the press and, more importantly, cheque book-toting public on its home turf but this year’s effort was simply stunning. A whole hall several stories high, every M-B car, SUV and MPV you could want to see, a revolving SL showing off its folding roof, a hands-on wheel changing competition, safety displays galore, knowledgeable staff everywhere and a clever one-way pedestrian traffic system that routed people in at the top and out at the bottom.
Car of show: No contest, here, Merc’s SL. That roof is so clever and it’s a practical daily driver that’s a snug coupe one day and a Pacific Coast Highway-cruising convertible the next. Yeah, yeah, I saw the Lamborghini, the Ferraris et al, but I still lusted after the Benz.
Best ways to spend that lottery cheque: After a hard look at the new Lambo and Ferraris, I reckon I’d still opt for Maserati‘s lovely new convertible. Based on the 3200GT, it sits on a shorter wheelbase and has a restyled tail. The show yellow was stunning but I reckon it looks best in silver with red leather seats as also shown. I’d also buy a Porsche 911 Targa.
Reality check: One’s own money could be worse spent (in most European countries anyway) than on one of the new Ford Fiestas. There will be stacks of engine and trim package choices, all mod cons including sat-nav are also on offer, there’s a great new diesel engine (we pay $US5 a gallon for petrol hereabouts) and decent looks and build, plus it should, like its predecessor, have great handling and ride. And it’ll sell on easily after three years and, being a Ford, parts are probably available at the corner shop.
Best press day food: Toyota, this year, after Seat apparently overlooked to bring along the paella we’ve come to know and love.
Best freebies: With at least 13 halls to see, Frankfurt is also known as the ‘hard slog’ among veterans. Urban legend has it that a journalist one year wore a pedometer for the two press days and logged about eight miles. So Seat and Citroen’s free trundlers (get in early or miss out) coupled with TNT’s 15kg-of-press-kits-anywhere-in-the-world service were worth their weight in gold.
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