Vauxhall used Munich to show off its new Experimental concept – badged here as an Opel
We reflect on Europe’s biggest motor show since the Covid-19 pandemic
More than a dozen new cars made their world debuts at the Munich motor show, unveiled by the executives who helped create them.
Motor shows provide a unique opportunity to speak to so many of the industry’s brightest minds on the biggest issues all in one place. While shows might be an endangered species, they remain lucrative places to speak to the power brokers.
Here’s some of those I caught up with.
Vauxhall vs Opel
We often view how Vauxhall’s unique relationship with Opel works through the lens of Vauxhall, so it was interesting to hear Opel CEO Florian Huettl speak from the other side – albeit in a round-table interview containing just two Brits.
When answering a question on the threat of Chinese car makers, Huettl said: “When you buy an Opel, you buy a German car, a German brand… You expect a German treatment.”
When it was put to him that this was at odds with Vauxhall’s own positioning as a British brand, he said: “The British characteristics and the German characteristics are close.” He added that it was perhaps more a northern European thing: cars from this end of the continent always tend to be quite different from those in southern Europe.
“I guess there has been more proximity in terms of car characteristics between the UK and Germany than between the UK and Italy,” he said.
We think we get what he means, but it remains far from the easiest dynamic to explain when you go beyond the cars and try to amalgamate brands and brand stories. In an era when brand really is key, this is not one you can afford to muddle through in trying to explain.
The open secret that Cupra will take the place of Seat in the longer term was finally let out of the bag in Munich. As Cupra grows, so Seat will shrink and the brand will instead live on as a maker of other forms of mobility in the longer term, which may or may not include Citroën Ami-style four-wheeled offerings.
READ MORE: New role for Seat as rise of Cupra continues
Seat has always had a question mark over it, but this should be seen as a very positive outcome for the company and its future. Rather than shut down or sell Seat, or merely continue to let it limp on, the Volkswagen Group has found a way to really harness the talented individuals (as well as the impressive facilities and factory) that work there on an altogether more exciting – and profitable – car company. A happy ending.
The presence of China at Munich
In terms of OEMs present at the Munich show, it was only really the German makers, several Chinese car makers and Renault.
Inevitably, interviews with the home team were dominated by questions about what the impact would be on their businesses from the Chinese car makers, which led to one European to question why they’d even bother to turn up again if the show was simply a way to feel under siege and give promotion to well-funded rivals with a huge cost advantage and eyes firmly on expansion…
The Munich motor show’s VW Group night
It’s a fine line between being legendary and being infamous and it’s a line the Volkswagen Group ‘media nights’ on the eve of motor shows historically often fell on the wrong side of.
In its expansionist era and with its eyes on being the number one car maker in the world, these events were massive: hundreds if not low-thousands of people in seated auditoriums watching one by one new cars unveiled by each of the ever-growing number of brands.
Which was great for shock factor and grainy Blackberry pics (ask your mum or dad), yet they often ended up being bigger than the motor show the following day themselves. That infamy came from the tone they were delivered in, guests having to stand to applaud chairman of the supervisory board Ferdinand Piech and often his wife, and an obsession with celebrity, the likes of Pink, Justin Timberlake and Keanu Reeves all making perplexing appearances.
The executives of that time also took on a god-like status behind a rope. A fellow journalist from another title was once invited behind the rope for an interview with one boss – and a cigar.
The contrast between the Munich show VW Group night could not have been starker. There were speeches, yes, but they were shorter and just two cars were unveiled, with those from the other brands dotted around the room, where executives mingled freely to talk about them. All were friendly and accessible.
Star of the show was VW design chief Andreas Mindt, who, with a beaming smile, likened his feelings ahead of the unveiling of the VW GTI concept to that of a 12-year-old on Christmas Eve.
This is a new VW now, warmer, friendlier and more accessible – and with it actually more professional. Despite there being ostensibly less on show, my notebook ended the evening more full than it ever was a decade ago.
Security at Munich
There was a very real security threat to the Munich motor show and the potential for it to be disrupted by protesters. Greenpeace made it into the lake outside the show’s doors first thing with some sawn-off car roofs for a protest, but that was otherwise it when the media were in town.
Car makers had been given an extensive briefing on what to do if protesters did disrupt, including not to feed them, because police would no longer intervene at that point as the protesters would be regarded as having entered the disruptee’s care.
Security staff also apparently had bottles of coke on hand, which would be poured on the hands of protestors should they try and glue themselves to anything.
The Munich motor show layout
Munich’s show format, where it mixed a traditional exhibition hall set-up with city centre stands downtown, made it a tricky show to navigate and report on – and manufacturers weren’t keen either.
VW brand boss Thomas Schäfer said: “I don’t like Munich [the show] because of the separate locations. This complicates things and makes it very expensive. I personally think the time of the traditional motor show is over. I’m not a big fan.”
Schäfer liked the downtown element of the show, bringing it into the city (“get people together; celebrate the brand and products”) drawing comparisons with the Festival of Speed’s approach, but the traditional static cars in halls wasn’t for him. To that end, VW is undecided on attending the returning Geneva motor show in February.
What next for motor shows?
The Geneva show is the next motor show pencilled in on European soil, in February – if it goes ahead. The show last ran in 2019 and it was cancelled at the last minute in 2020 as Covid-19 reached Europe. Subsequent efforts to get it back off the ground have failed, with many an OEM still sore about the way that 2020 cancellation was handled.
No car maker has publicly committed to Geneva 2024 yet, and a spin-off Geneva show in Qatar next month looks like it won’t come with a single world debut, or much OEM presence beyond the VW Group brands, who have Qatari shareholding.