Mark Webber spent the day at Porsche's booth at the 87th Geneva International Motor Show. It was nearly 5 p.m. and the recently-retired Formula One driver hadn't yet had a chance to walk around.
Later, he would make an appearance at a restaurant on the banks of Lake Geneva, at a reception for guests of Porsche. But with a few moments to himself, he stopped by the Bentley booth to take in its new concept car, a sleek pearl-white electric convertible.
Bentley claimed the vehicle could drive from London to Paris on a single charge, although, since it's just a concept, the auto maker might as well have said the car could drive to the moon. It was beautiful though, and with its burgundy leather interior, the cabin looked like the inside of an Hermes purse.
"I've been to a few car shows," Webber said. "But this is the place to be, this is the show to be at."
He is correct.
The Geneva show is a hot mess of schmoozing and shopping, of sweaty handshakes and business cards flying in all directions. It is a melange of boutique car companies, companies nobody has heard of, big car companies, new ones, little ones, Chinese ones, car-tuning companies and carrozzerias. In this large room, we find proof money cannot buy taste, and that it can buy happiness.
You can buy a Ruf from Alois Ruf Jr., a Pagani from Horacio Pagani and a Koenigsegg from Christian von Koenigsegg, all in the same room. You can compare the craftsmanship and design sensibility of Touring Superleggera against Pininfarina and Italdesign by walking down the hall. You can discuss colour choices for your new 720S with the CEO of McLaren and weigh the pros and cons of Mansory versus Liberty Walk when considering a new body-kit for your gold Ferrari.
Unlike other car shows, the ultra-rich come to Geneva and they come to buy. That gives the proceedings an exciting air you can only find at an auction, or on the trading floor, or any other place where great gobs of money move on a whim.
All of the most expensive toys are on display at Palexpo, a stadium-sized warehouse of a convention centre next to the airport. Each of the bigger car companies builds a multi-level booth with VIP area, catering and meeting rooms. Smaller firms have meeting cubicles. It's a simple, industrial and cramped setting. You can see the entire show in 30 minutes, unlike the bigger expos in Frankfurt and Paris. Car companies don't bring all their cars, they just bring the good stuff.
Kazunori Yamauchi is a connoisseur. As the creator of Gran Turismo – a series of racing games for PlayStation which have sold 80 million copies over 20 years – he likely bears more responsibility than any other person for creating a new generation of gearheads.
"I like the fact that it's not just the big auto manufacturers," Yamauchi said through his translator.
Favourite cars from the show?
"The Alpine, and also the Aston Martin AM-RB 001 [Valkyrie], and, of course, the Pininfarina Vision GT [Fittipaldi EF7] is a great-looking car, too."
Renault is resurrecting cult-favourite French auto maker Alpine. Its first new little sports car, the Alpine A110, revealed here is achingly desirable: 250 horsepower in a beautiful lightweight mid-engine coupe. The stand was packed all day.
According to show organizers, more than 100 cars made their international debuts.
And it wasn't all supercars. Subaru launched an all-new Crosstrek, a jacked-up hatchback. Honda showed a production-ready Civic Type-R and finally revealed how fast it'll go: 0-100 in less than 5.7 seconds, thanks to a revised 2.0-litre, 316-horsepower, turbocharged motor. (No all-wheel drive, but it does have a six-speed manual gearbox.)
Alpina – not to be confused with Alpine – pre-empted BMW's M5 with the B5 Biturbo, a 608-horsepower version of the 5 Series. New SUVs were in abundance, from Volvo (all-new XC60); Land Rover (Range Rover Velar); Mitsubishi (Eclipse Cross); and a Hyundai concept previewed an upcoming hydrogen-powered SUV.
Volkswagen's Sedric concept showed what a "one-button" autonomous car-sharing service could look like. Audi had two new high-performance models: the RS3 Sportback and RS5 Coupe.
Porsche gave the world its first station-wagon and Mercedes showed off an 805-horsepower hybrid sedan concept, which we sincerely hope becomes reality.
Michael Mauer, head of design at Porsche and the Volkswagen Group, appreciated the chance to see what smaller companies were doing. "Sometimes these little companies, they have solutions that – as a big brand – you don't dare to do," he said.
Mauer, like many auto industry execs, likes to combine the Geneva show with a ski vacation in the Alps. Perhaps this explains why all the top chief executivess and designers are in attendance every year.
Geneva stood in stark contrast to the lacklustre Detroit show. Indeed, Geneva stands in increasingly stark contrast to all other car shows. It's not just the fact that it's physically smaller with a wider variety of cars. Neither is it all the money being spent, or all the poster-worthy new supercars on display.
At a time when the need for big international auto shows is being called into question – what place will they have in a future full of self-driving cars, or car-share subscription services – major auto makers are frequently skipping them altogether. Porsche wasn't in Detroit and Chrysler didn't hold a news conference. Luxury auto makers are looking to reach customers in more intimate, upscale settings – such as the Goodwood Festival of Speed or the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. Mainstream auto makers are reaching customers directly through social media and sponsored events.
A handful of automotive conglomerates, each with a multitude of sub-brands, dominate the industry. While consumers have more choice, the selection is more homogeneous than ever. But not so in Geneva. Morgan held a news conference about its three-wheeler and touted the fact that the company is still family-owned. A Chinese company, Techrules, had a working prototype of a turbine-electric hybrid with six motors and 1,200 horsepower.
Geneva is a throwback to a time when the car industry was dispersed, splintered and strange. It's a throwback in other, less benign ways, too. Many auto makers still hire female models to take the sheets off new cars and pose next to them.
Above all, Geneva is a festival of eccentricity and a celebration of excess, the best and worst of the car industry in one room. It is a must-see spectacle.
The writer was a guest of Porsche. Content was not subject to approval.