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Works of art? The Art Basel for classic car fans

The Swiss city of Basel recently hosted a four-day classic car show featuring over 100 exclusive automobiles from “past, present and future”. swissinfo.ch’s Thomas Kern visited the first inaugural luxury and classic car trade show, Grand Basel. 

I wonder whether they managed to meet their 12,000-visitor target and budget? In any case, the organisers seem happy. Before the show, the press material was a masterclass in understatement: “a building full of expectations!”, “masterpieces, significant cars, that’s what it’s all about”, or simply “cars are art.” 

However, on the day I visited, Hall 1 was slow to fill up. Collectors and VIPs had gone the previous two days. Today was the first one for the public and I was in good company. Most people had come to ogle and take snaps with their smartphones. There were only a few women, mostly accompanied by men. 

When admiring so many beautiful luxurious cars, you often feel like you are in church – you can just hear the hushed conversations and faint footsteps in the sparsely populated exhibition hall. 

Curvy objects of desire

In one corner, Professor Paolo Tumminelli is lecturing a group of design fans. “Is it square or round?” he asks. Possibly round, maybe anthropomorphic. The cars and their curvaceous bodywork are transformed into feminine objects of desire, mythical sirens that seduce us with their entrancing engine sounds. 

However, the sight of a rusty Fiat Panda with worn-out seats standing on artificial grass in the middle of the luxury show is a shock. Its appearance is funny, and somehow makes sense, as Fiat is a design icon. But using the slogan “Save the Panda” to suggest it’s an endangered species is cringy and, surrounded by so many exceptional design classics, smacks of bad taste.  

The Grand Basel car showexternal link, which ran from September 6-9, 2018, was conceived by the MCH Group, which also organises Art Basel and Baselworld. Grand Basel is due to take place three times a year – subsequent fairs will take place in Miami Beach and Hong Kong. 

Grand Basel claims to be “the first and only show to present the automobile in the cultural context of art, design, architecture and lifestyle”. The organisers say it is aimed at a “discerning audience of collectors, restoration and conservation experts, dealers, manufacturers and connoisseurs, offering a global platform for exchange”. 

Sitting in minimal box-like showcases, the cars on show – most of which came from Switzerland - were carefully selected by a team of experts, including Swiss artist Sylvie Fleury, creative entrepreneur and founder of Garage Italia, Lapo Elkann; and the founder of the Goodbrands Institute for Automotive Culture and board’s chairman, Professor Paolo Tumminelli. Around one-quarter of the vehicles were for sale.