The Classic Car Show in Birmingham

Following my article in the last issue of Moss Motoring in which I recounted tales of the TR Register’s huge summer show, I feel that a few words about what we British get up to with our classic cars during the notoriously wet and windy English winter season might be of interest. Not being blessed with almost permanent summer like the Californians, we have to find other ways to exercise our classics in the winter, as well as just polishing them in their garages and putting right the ravages of a summer’s use.

The obvious way of doing this is to find a very large, weatherproof, covered area, and fill it with interesting vehicles and interesting people, charge the public to look at the cars, and hopefully cover the costs, and this is just what the November classic car show at the National Exhibition Centre near Birmingham aims to do. Birmingham is ideally located, almost in the centre of England, close by a motorway (freeway) crossroads, an international airport and a major rail station, with all the facilities of a million-plus population city close by. No doubt these are the factors that led to the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) being established at this spot around 20 years ago. Since that time, it had grown every year, and now boasts 12 vast halls, each one nearly the size of a couple of football fields. The whole complex includes parkland, lakes, hotels, pubs, a sophisticated road system with its own bus service, plus around a dozen huge car parks capable in total of accommodating around 20,000 vehicles.

The autumn Classic Car Show, with about a dozen successful years behind it, takes up two of the largest exhibition halls, and is open on both Saturday and Sunday. Organizational build-up to the show commences for exhibiting clubs and traders many months before, although the physical build-up of the stands takes place largely on the Friday immediately preceding, when feverish activity is evident on all fronts.

This year it rained practically all day Friday, so classic cars arrived dripping wet, mainly under their own power, but some on trailers! A vast army of helpers, mainly unpaid volunteers from the 100 or so car clubs involved, maneuvered cars into the exhibition halls, dried them all and commenced polishing, whilst the classic car traders tried to find ways inside to their pitches to offload motoring goodies of all sorts.

The whole scene at 6:00 pm on Friday evening was, to the untutored eye, one of disorganized chaos, but come 9:00 am on Saturday, the amazing transformation that had taken place overnight was apparent, the whole scene in the two halls being, as intended, just as if one had stepped back 30 or 40 years to the Earl’s Court motor shows of the 1950s or ’60s. Indeed, the large fabric banners hanging from the roof announced the names and depicted the badges of almost all the car marques of the period. At an impressionable age, I was taken by my father to the 1955 Earl’s Court Show and the sense of deja vu created for this enthusiast, at least, was uncanny.

Clubs and traders go to amazing lengths to create interesting and professional displays on their stands, all the paraphernalia of smart exhibition equipment being employed. Raised daises, balustrades, showboards, carpet tiles to cover the entire floor area of a stand, banks of flowers and photographs, counters, book and badge displays, garments of all types depicting the favored make, spotlighting, video projections, and much more besides. The whole display looked most professional, despite being largely assembled and arranged by amateur volunteers. Prizes are offered for the best stands, and competition is keen. Mannequins dressed in period clothes are employed on many displays, and on others, the club officials themselves dress appropriately for the period of their vehicles.

With something approaching 100 clubs taking part, each showing a minimum of two vehicles, and some up to eight or more, there were plenty of cars to see—almost too many, in fact, and even if one attended for the two full days, I doubt whether every car would be viewed. In addition to the car dub displays, many traders showed beautifully original or restored cars for sale, plus there were a large number of classics entered in the auction that takes place as part of the show. In total, I would estimate that around 500 cars of interest of all types were on display in those two halls!

Pride of place in the centre of one of the halls goes to the winner of last year’s Club of the Year award; this year it was the turn of the Morris Minor Owner’s Club, who won the 1996 title, and were rewarded with space to show around a dozen of these much-loved cars. I’m pleased to say that my own club, the TR Register, has won the 1997 Club of the Year award, and we are thus already planning our stand which will appear at the 1998 show.

Traders of all types abound, from the one-man band, semi-professional autojumbler selling new old-stock spares or literature, to the fully equipped mobile road shows of the type put on by Moss Motors (U.K.) and the Heritage organization. Moss’ stand this year had crowd-pulling miniature racing cars charging around a large oval circuit, with anyone able to have a go. A vast range of their products was also available and catalogues actually ran out because there had been so many requests.

You can buy anything for your classic car at the NEC show: parts, handbooks, brochures, manuals, period accessories, insurance, valuations, miniatures, and models; there were even several stalls just selling polishes and cleaners of various descriptions. A vintage picnic hamper, complete with 1950s Bakelite fittings? No problem, provided you have an odd £100 ($170) to spare! Some of the brochures and catalogues fetch tremendous prices—three-figure sums in some cases. Rare original motor racing photographs from the 1950s and ’60s are available from specialties—those bearing the signatures of, in some cases, long dead heroes can command $1,000 or more, and are highly sought after. A number of stalls specialize in just period tools for those looking for that elusive 1/16-inch box spanner to complete that 1954 Jaguar tool kit!

Not surprisingly, the final of one of the U.K.’s major concours events also takes place—20 or so of the top classic concours cars being on show, including, of course, the eventual winner. A good number of these vehicles are driven to the show, despite wet and gloomy November weather and crowded roads. Their owners put many hours in over the Friday night to ensure that their cars appear to be fresh out of the box come Saturday morning.

This year, among many interesting exhibits were more than one old double-decker bus, the first production Mini registered 621 AOK, several vintage Bentleys, and examples of most of the production MG models ever made. An incredible find on one specialist trader’s stand was a 1934 P-Type MG that had covered a bare 42,000 miles from new in the hands of one owner—for 63 years! How one values such a unique vehicle I cannot imagine, and it was indeed for sale. This car still had its original 1934 coat of paint, paperwork, tools, and would have been my personal choice had a benefactor told me I could take away any one car I fancied! Another car I was surprised to see was a Corvette on current Oregon plates—now did that drive to the show, I wonder? It is rare indeed to see a U.S. registered car over here.

A few stands were devoted to the sale and exhibition of new fiberglass replicas of classic British sports cars, sporting, modern engines, wheels, and tyres. It is quite beyond your author as to why anyone should want to pay £25,000 ($40,000) for such an animal—indeed I just cannot see the point in such creations when they cost as much or more than a condition one example of the original—or am I missing something?

One of the more historic cars on show was the second production Triumph TR ever, chassis number TR2. The TR Register has been given, and I mean given, this car on condition that the club restore it to original condition. The work is about to commence, so the club decided to display the car in its “as found” condition and then display it as finished in two years’ time.

This year’s NEC show attracted more visitors than ever, including a significant number from the U.S.—for instance, I was able to introduce two Virginians to each other, who, although they did not previously know each other, it turned out they lived barely 100 miles apart!

One of the most amazing things about the whole show is the rapidity with which it is dismantled come 5:30 Sunday evening. Within seconds of the last visitor leaving, stalls are coming down, boxes are being packed, vans are being bucked in for loading, and valuable classics are being driven out. Within an hour, half the show has simply disappeared, and by 7:30 pm just a few vans and traders remain, and the army of cleaners and sweepers employed by the NEC are in evidence, working late into the night so that a new exhibition can move in next morning. The whole thing was a model of efficiency, and the 1997 November Classic Car Show simply evaporated like the Cheshire cat in “Alice in Wonderland”—however, for two days in November 1998 it will be back, so why not make plans to come over? You’d enjoy yourselves.

(Who is going to grasp the nettle and put on a show of this kind in the U.S.?—Ed.)

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