The Paris Auto Show, properly the "Mondial de l'Automobile," is a fashion exhibit of a different sort. Its displays are in metal and rubber. The excitement comes not from some slinky ingenue strutting down a runway. The auto show, which begins its 2004 run on Sept. 25, offers better than that. You can touch the models. And if you're lucky, you may even be able to take one for a spin around the block.
Since its inception in 1898, the Paris show has reigned as the world's premier automotive exhibit. Held every other year, its focus historically has been on European brands -- Peugeot, Renault, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen, among others. But the show has evolved from that regional parochialism over the years. It had no choice.
The auto industry no longer can be placed into neat little nationalistic boxes. Consider Britain's Jaguar Cars Ltd., which is bound to be the subject of much conversation and gossip at preliminary show events, beginning this week.
Jaguar's heritage is British, but its owner is American -- Ford Motor Co. Ford wants to make money. Jaguar is losing it, at the stupendous rate of $100 million a month, according to a current report on the Web at www.thecarconnection.com. Ford executives reached by The Washington Post would neither confirm nor deny that report. But some sources in Ford's Premier Automotive Group (PAG), of which Jaguar is a member, confirmed that the British car company is losing lots of money.
And so a longtime rumor in global automotive circles -- that Ford might attempt to cut its Jaguar losses by closing the division's oldest and, according to some PAG sources, most inefficient plant -- came true. On Friday, Ford announced it would end car production at the 53-year-old facility at Jaguar's Browns Lane headquarters and shift it to two other plants in England. Ford also announced that Jaguar would pull out of Formula One racing.
Closing any plant is bad news. But closing one in which many of the 2,000 workers effectively inherited their jobs from fathers and brothers who worked there generations before them is a very emotional, politically dicey thing. The Ford announcement specified that 750 salaried workers would be fired, with many others shifted to other plants or allowed to retire.
For that reason, Ford executives were meeting with British politicians and union leaders to try to work things out, even as the head of the autoworkers union there was saying it might strike other Ford installations. That means the preliminary auto show meetings and press conferences should be interesting, perhaps even a bit testy. It does not mean that Ford will tuck tail and hide, not at all.
In fact, as it has often done on grand automotive stages in places such as Detroit and Geneva, Ford is expected to put on quite a show. It is introducing a new Focus compact car, one much more sophisticated than the model sold in the United States. (It does boggle my mind why U.S. car companies seem to save some of their best stuff for overseas sales.) And what car show can be considered a premier show without a display of another Ford-owned British brand, Aston Martin? None. Which means new Aston Martin models will be on display as well.
This is all very serious business. For example, take the European automakers. For the past two decades, their most lucrative markets have been in North America in general and the United States in particular. European cars were hailed as the symbols of quality, panache, sophistication. Their sales soared as swiftly as the American eagle.
But, lately, the news in the trade press hasn't been good for European models. For the first time since 1993, sales of European cars are falling in the United States, according to Automotive News, a trade journal based in Detroit.
In the first seven months of 2004, European car sales totaled 658,456 units, down 3.9 percent from the same period a year ago. That news is making European auto executives nervous. As a result, many of them are planning to use this year's Paris show to show off new models that they are planning to sell -- in the United States.
If you think that those new European-born models are going to be little cars in the manner of BMW's Mini, you'd better think again. The Europeans still seem to be wedded to the notion that American buyers want big rides, and that they are permanently in love with SUVs.
Thus, Ford's British-owned Land Rover brand will be showing off the new mid-size LR3 (see review, Page G1), which is bigger than the mid-size Land Rover Discovery, which continues to be sold in Europe. Mercedes-Benz is coming up with a new made-for-America G-Class SUV. Heck, even in its miniature Smart car division, Mercedes-Benz is thinking bigger things for the USA. Instead of the itty-bitty Smart For-Two car seen all over in places such as Rome, Mercedes-Benz is planning the larger Smart Formore compact SUV for the United States.
There will be small cars, but they likely will be shown by Asian companies, such as Japan's Nissan Motor Co., which is controlled by France's Renault S.A. South Korea's Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors Corp. will also display some cute urban runners. But Hyundai is clearly moving upscale. It will use the Paris show to tout its extensively redesigned Sonata mid-size sedan, which will be released next year.
Hyundai may have a drivable prototype of its new Sonata handy for a Paris run. I'll look into that possibility.