Any motor show whose highlights include a trio of new Astons, the fastest production Bentley ever built and a brand-new Rolls-Royce prototype is destined to be remembered as a special vintage.
Yet Geneva opened this week with all the above plus an array of star cars slated to include the new Bugatti Veyron Centenaire, a still-faster version of Top Gear’s ‘fastest-ever’ hypercar the Gumpert Apollo Speed, the Ferrari 599XX, the Pagani Zonda R, new Spyker C8 and D8s, the Weber Faster One… the list goes on. All come with stupendous ‘if you can’t afford it, don’t ask’ price tags that will make the €200,000 ‘baby’ Rolls look like the bargain of the show.
With such an abundance of exotica on parade, who could think of the Geneva Auto Salon as anything but an exuberant celebration of speed, luxury, exclusivity and extravagance? Or indeed as a giant two-fingered salute to the ‘credit crunch’ and its hapless victims, bowed-down by job losses, repossession and the spectre of more hard times ahead.Reality, as you might expect, is a little different.
Gumpert is a relative newcomer to the Geneva show scene, making its fourth appearance in 2009. Over the last three years the company claims to have sold 42 cars and Scheidel aims to shift 25 this year – a number revised down from a pre-credit-crunch target of 35.
‘We all know what’s happened to investment banking round the world and of course that will affect some of our customers. Others may not be affected in the same way financially, but perhaps they will think this is not the right time to buy an exotic car for ‘social’ reasons – that is what we just don’t know yet.’
Spyker, introducing the new C8 Aileron coupe at Geneva this week, is also cautious about future prospects. ‘We are fortunate not to have over-produced in 2008 and not stocked our dealers to the hilt,’ says Spyker’s CEO Victor Muller, ‘but it is the introduction of the C8 Aileron (with automatic gearbox) that should give further impetus to production this year.’
So for Gumpert, Spyker and their peers, the show must go on. ‘We go to meet the media, potential distributors and customers,’ says Scheidel, ‘Geneva is definitely the most important show for us because it focuses on small scale luxury producers.’
FAB Design SL
The Geneva Salon has always been unique in that respect. Unlike other shows in the international calendar where indigenous auto-industry heavies make vast territorial claims on available floor space, Geneva adopts a more even-handed approach. Give or take a few M2, everybody is offered the same.
As a result, Geneva tends to be packed out with small premium independents, from coach-built Italian exotics, to hardcore road/race specials from northern Europe, and even zany ‘custom cars’ from Switzerland itself. (Thank you Mr Sbarro.) All afforded as much dignity and respect as the mainstream manufacturers with whom they share the stage.
Established low-volume luxury brands like Rolls-Royce and Bentley are just as exposed to inclement economic weather as the Spykers and Gumperts, although both ‘British’ marques currently enjoy the shelter of a giant corporate umbrella.
‘It has been reported that our fantastic 2008 means we are bucking the trend, but the next 12 months will be as challenging for Rolls-Royce as for anyone’, says spokesman Jon Stanley.
‘The RR4 was first mooted at the 2006 Paris motor show when the economic situation was quite different, but despite the turmoil we’ve not adjusted plans to introduce the vehicle,’ says Stanley. Similar long-term planning requirements are responsible for the arrival of a number of Aston Martin show headliners – the DBS Volante, the Vantage V12, the One-77 and a new Lagonda concept.
So far Rolls-Royce is sticking to loose predictions that sales will double to around 2000 units when the RR4 comes on stream later this year, and the company makes no apology for the timing of its latest Geneva launch.
But safely nestled under BMW’s wing, Rolls looks very different to the company the Germans acquired. Not so long ago its very survival was in the hands of a single customer – the Sultanate of Brunei – whose profligate expenditure is said to have kept Rolls-Royce and Bentley afloat in the last economic down-turn. Remember the show-stopping Bentley Java concept at Geneva back in 1994? Without the Sultan to bankroll the project it surely would never have happened.
Rolls Royce 200EX Concept
Today, the idea of a single customer being able – or willing – to keep a car company afloat seems far-fetched, but it wasn’t only Rolls and Bentley who benefited from secretive Brunei’s largesse. Aston Martin and Ferrari, as well as the coach-builders Pininfarina and Zagato are among the famous names notable for their contributions to the annual Geneva spectacle, and all have reportedly benefited by varying degrees from the Sultanate’s oil-based ‘Shell-fare’ state.
Wealthy patronage of this type continues to support luxury marques at Geneva today, albeit in a slightly different form. Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo announced at this year’s show an opportunity for the super-rich to pump millions of Euros into its new car development by ‘buying’ one of a handful of 599XX models that will never turn a wheel outside Ferrari’s own test track. The similar FXX project in 2005 is believed to have netted in the order of €50million from billionaires eager for an experience ‘ordinary’ wealth cannot buy.
On a smaller scale Pagani’s Zonda R is a track-day missile costing its privileged few owners a mind-bending €1.5m Euros a pop – for a car that has also been described as a mobile test-bed for the company’s next road model. The tradition continues.
With conspicuous luxury consumption under increasing pressure, the super-premium sportscar sector is far from immune. Could Geneva 2009 be its last spectacular hurrah before the bubble bursts?