The Biggest Car Show You May Never Have Heard Of

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ESSEN, Germany -- Most American vintage-car enthusiasts are familiar with the big annual gatherings commonly known as Pebble Beach, Barrett-Jackson and Fall Hershey. In recent years, growing numbers of well-heeled gearheads have found room on their schedules for overseas events like Rétromobile in Paris and the Goodwood Festival of Speed in England.

But the Techno Classica show, held each spring at the Messe Essen exposition center here, is a relative secret. Though vast, it is little known in the United States.

Techno Classica, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, combines dealer exhibits with car-club displays and a classic-car auction by Coys, along with hundreds of vendors selling new and used parts, accessories, clothing, die-cast model cars, literature and manuals.

Techno Classica may be the closest thing the classic car world has to an all-encompassing trade show. Consider the numbers: 2,500 cars on display, 234 participating clubs, 1,250 vendors and 1.3 million square feet of display space. Nearly 200,000 people attended over five days in mid-April.

Essen is in northwest Germany just 30 minutes by cab or train from the Düsseldorf airport. And while it's not Paris, Essen has its charms even though little of the old city survived Allied bombing in World War II. (The next Techno Classica is scheduled for March 26-30, 2014.)

Some of the larger American shows, like the concours at Pebble Beach in California and Amelia Island in Florida, feature enthusiastic participation by new car manufacturers. But at Techno Classica, automakers' involvement is positively off the charts, with a strong presence by Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Audi, Bentley, BMW, Citroën, Ferrari, Ford, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Mini, Opel, Peugeot, Porsche, Volkswagen and Volvo. The companies' lavish displays suggested that they were all aware of the equity in their heritage.

BMW's display was particularly impressive, celebrating the history of the "M" cars from its Motorsports division and the 90th anniversary of BMW motorcycles. And just to remind everyone of what country they were in, a giant beer tap was set up in the trunk of a BMW 502 sedan from the 1950s. The tap seemed to be in service nonstop from the 9 a.m. opening until the 6 p.m. close.

Club displays ranged from the Spartan -- a few cars with owners and club members sitting nearby -- to the elaborate and often incomprehensible -- like a Borgward Isabella sitting in a large makeshift bathtub. The more humble displays tended to showcase autos, like the Trabant and Wartburg, from the former East Germany.

A great deal of what was on display would have been wholly unfamiliar to all but the most knowledgeable American enthusiasts, including the Borgward -- along with its companion Lloyd and Hansa marques -- and the cars of Glas and Bitter. The profusion of never-seen-in-America models from familiar marques like BMW, Volkswagen and Opel would hold the attention of a curious American enthusiast nearly indefinitely -- or at least as long as one could stare at a display of tiny Volkswagen Polo GTis and unfamiliar versions of the BMW 2002, like the Turbo and the Touring hatchback.

The number of vendors was remarkable even if some of the wares were rather standard swap meet fare. Every car show on the planet seems to have a guy selling a miracle metal polish that will make an empty soda can shine like a mirror.

As one might imagine, given the location, Techno Classica was short on '57 Chevy grilles and long on Karmann Ghia bumpers and taillamps. One could pass the time staring into seas of red and amber taillamp lenses and puzzling over what cars they fit.

One vendor specializing in rebuilt vintage radios claimed to have virtually every type of postwar Blaupunkt unit, with prices starting at a lofty $392 for a basic unit that appeared to have come from an old VW Beetle. Steering wheels, carburetors, interior fabrics and leathers were common. Aside from wares for popular German marques, quite a few British vendors offered parts and accessories for MGs, Triumphs and Austin-Healeys.

Die-cast cars were available for nearly every make and model imaginable at prices ranging from $6.50 Chinese-made show specials to more than $1,300 for a meticulously handmade Auto Union Grand Prix car from the 1930s.

The swap meet included a few rather chilling reminders of Germany's Nazi past. Hiding in plain sight among a group of innocuous grille badges from the 1950s and '60s was an enamel door plaque denoting that the occupant was an "Ortsgruppenleiter der NSDAP" -- a municipal leader of the Nazi party. The Nazi Reichsadler, or eagle, was affixed to the top of the plaque but a price tag of 80 euros strategically obscured the swastika in the eagle's talons.

While it is generally illegal in Germany to display the swastika and other bits of Nazi iconography, this fact was apparently lost on the model aircraft seller who on the first day of the show displayed a large-scale replica of a Messerschmitt Me 109 fighter plane with a swastika on the tail. By the second day, the offending symbol had been covered up.

Shawn Dougan, the vice president for sales at Hyman Ltd., a St. Louis-based classic car dealer, was one of a handful of Americans in attendance this year, and his company was the only American dealer with a major exhibit.

"I can't figure out why this show is still such a well-kept secret in the U.S.," he said. "It's the biggest and best car show on the planet, and one of the few opportunities we have to meet face to face with a lot of our European clientele. There really is nothing like it at home."

Mr. Dougan noted that the American collector-car hobby was fragmented into niches and subniches like hot rods, customs and restomods, "and the various groups don't often have a lot in common." Also, he said, Americans are more resistant to transporting cars and exhibits for long distances. "Europe is a lot more compact," he said. "A show like Essen can draw exhibitors from France, Belgium, Holland and the U.K. -- it's just a day's drive for most of them."

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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