Mark Andrews: The year a 'jelly mould' stole the show

The crowds were huge. No social distancing in the autumn of 1982, and the pushing and shoving would perhaps seem a little unseemly in post-Covid society. You can bet that if it happened today, there would be an army of jobsworths wearing lanyards ordering people to stand back.

The Birmingham Motor Show used to be the highlight of autumn time in the West Midlands
The Birmingham Motor Show used to be the highlight of autumn time in the West Midlands

But the atmosphere was electric. Hundreds of thousands of people, from across the country and beyond, had converged on Birmingham. And everyone was jostling for a one-to-one with the star of the show.

Boy George? Michael Jackson? Adam Ant? Shakin' Stevens? Actually, the hordes who had travelled to the NEC were clamouring to look at a Ford Sierra.

I suppose if a Martian had landed his spacecraft in Birmingham 39 years ago, he would have been somewhat perplexed to see so many people desperate to see a mid-range family car that within a few months would be the mainstay of travelling salesmen up and down the country. And which you could view anytime you liked, without any pushing and shoving, at a showroom near to where you lived. But back in the 1980s, the autumn motor show was a big thing.

During its opening year in 1978, the British International Motor Show at Birmingham attracted more than 900,000 visitors, three times the record attendance at Glastonbury. And that was the year when the star of the show was the rather unremarkable Chrysler Horizon. Two years later, Margaret Thatcher rolled up in an Austin mini-Metro, dubbed "A British car to beat the world", and hailed as the great white hope that would save the British car industry. In 1984 it was the teardrop-shaped Vauxhall Astra which wowed the crowds.

But for this writer, at least, it was the 82 show which was the one that got the pulse racing. Because, if the aforementioned Martian saw the object of everybody's desire, there is another reason why he would have wondered what all the fuss was about. Because the new Sierra would probably have looked a bit like his spaceship. At least that was the way it was perceived at the time.

The Sierra replaced the Ford Cortina, which had been Britain's biggest-selling car forever, and essentially looked like a box on wheels. There was a brief experimentation with transatlantic 'coke-bottle' styling when the Mk 3 version came along in the early 70s, but as a rule the Cortina was about as adventurous as a night on the town with Chris Whitty. The Sierra, with its weird, 'jelly-mould' styling and strange plastic disc wheel trims looked more like the stuff of comic books. Think the Birmingham branch of Selfridges on wheels. Of course, the novelty quickly wore off, and car nerds will tell you that beneath the Buck Rogers styling it was just a re-skinned Cortina, which was quickly outsold by the technically more advanced Vauxhall Cavalier. And while the spaceship styling went down a storm at the motor show, the average detergent salesman did not necessarily want to stick out like a sore thumb every time he pulled up outside a Little Chef.

The British International Motor Show at Birmingham did outlive the famous Ford repmobile by 11 years, but finally bit the dust in 2004 when it was moved to the spring and attendances fell to a disappointing 461,000. There was an attempt to move it to London, where it was combined with a rock-music festival, but it didn't really come off.

The problem is, of course, that with a few exceptions, modern cars are boring. Who in their right mind would clamour for a glimpse of the various minibuses, pseudo off-road vehicles and dreary electric hatchbacks made in the Far East that dominate the roads today?

Ironically, while you are reading this I will probably be back at the NEC admiring the lovingly preserved Ford Sierras,Triumph Dolomites, Vauxhall Crestas and old MGs at the Classic Motorshow.

Old cars, like music, are part of our social history. We can't turn the clock back and relive the best years of our life, but anyone can get on a train to the NEC and lust over the sticky seats, vinyl roofs and eight-track cartridge players on show.

Some of the more hopeless nostalgics, like myself, take it a step further and go out and buy the car they dreamed of in their youth. The hypothetical Martian would undoubtedly look at the service bills I have accrued over the past 14 years, and think I have taken leave of my senses, and on the whole I would probably be inclined to agree. But then, life would be very dull if we were sensible all the time.

And a visit to the Classic Motor Show is usually how this madness begins...

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