Geneva doesn’t sound like the first place you’d go shopping for supercars. Motorsport was banned in Switzerland for half a century after Pierrre Levegh’s horrific accident at Le Mans in 1955, and its income-related speeding fines are easily the world’s fiercest: a visiting 37 year-old Swedish millionaire was recently hit with a half-million quid ticket for doing over 180mph in his Mercedes SLS.
But since the 1960s the Geneva motor show - I can’t quite bring myself to call it the Geneva Salon, its official name - has seen the unveiling of some of the world’s fastest and most desirable cars. The show was first held in 1905, but its reputation for launching supercars started with the startling debut of the Jaguar E-Type in 1961 (below), and was sealed with the launch of the Lamborghini Miura (above), the car for which the term ‘supercar’ was coined, by CAR magazine, in 1966.
Since then, Geneva has seen the launch of more concept and production supercars than any other motor show. In these economically and ecologically austere times, cars that are too outrageous to launch at a show like Detroit can still take a bow at Geneva, and this year’s event boasts another assortment of long, low, unaffordable schoolboy fantasies.
So why does it all happen in Geneva? The Italian exotics - Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Pagani – aren’t far away in Supercar Valley, and the famous Italian automotive design houses such as Giugiaro and Bertone are closer, mostly based around Milan and Turin, as is the Fiat empire. The elite German brands like Porsche, BMW, Mercedes and Audi are a similar distance away to the north, as is Bugatti. For all of them, multilingual Geneva is close enough to qualify as their home show, yet in cars as in politics it’s neutral ground, with no carmakers of its own.
The big car bosses like it: their private jets can fly into Geneva airport, which is walking distance away, not that they’d do that. The show is small enough for them to get around comfortably in a couple of hours, unlike the sprawling halls of Paris or Frankfurt. I once saw Ferdinand Piech, de-facto boss of the VW empire and head of the Porsche clan, wandering around the show hand-in-hand with his wife, as if on a romantic stroll. They stopped at the shop on the Ferrari stand and the terrified staff seemed unsure whether he wanted to buy a toy car, a real one, or the entire company. Because all the bosses are here, Geneva is often where such deals are done, or at least begun.
Their presence draws the design houses, who don’t deal with the public, though we all get to enjoy the automotive eye-candy they bring. But it’s the kind of public that Geneva attracts that brings brands like Bugatti, which doesn’t bother with any other show, and the insane high-end tuners and modifiers like Mansory. The few people who can afford these things are often in town to keep an eye on their secret bank accounts, and have been known to wander in and buy the show cars right off the stands.
The motor show is an endangered breed: the downturn finally did for the British motor show and nearly killed even the mighty Tokyo event. Carmakers are turning to both different types of event and super-high speed broadband to give a more interactive, immersive experience of their new cars. But if the motor show is doomed, Geneva will be the last to go.