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Book celebrates car show's centenary

The poster from the first show, back in 1905 (salon-auto.ch) salon-auto.ch

This year’s International Motor Show in Geneva marks the 100th anniversary of the city’s first motor and cycle exhibition back in 1905.

This content was published on March 2, 2005 - 17:53

In honour of the centenary, a 300-page commemorative book has been published looking back at the show’s history and European automotive progress.

The Geneva show has survived both rivalry with German-speaking Switzerland and an automobile industry crisis, and remains one of the major events of its kind worldwide.

Joëlle de Syon, co-author of 1905-2005 - 100 years of motoring progress, talked to swissinfo about Geneva’s century-old love affair with cars.

swissinfo: Why was Geneva selected to host Switzerland’s first motor show?

Joëlle de Syon: In 1905 Geneva had the largest number of cars in Switzerland, with around 400 vehicles registered in the canton. A range of [related] industries began to develop in the region, directly or indirectly providing jobs for around 8,000 people. Geneva is also close to France and Germany, two of the world’s largest automotive producers.

In German-speaking Switzerland, the population was scared of this new means of transport, which created huge clouds of dust. In French-speaking Switzerland, however, people began developing a passion for cars, despite similar fears.

In 1898, the Swiss Automobile Club was established in Geneva and a handful of people, including club president Charles-Louis Empeyta, Paul Buchet of Michelin Switzerland and Jules Mégevet, a young Genevan carmaker, decided to start up an exhibition dedicated to their passion.

Geneva’s event in 1905, which followed a similar show in Paris in 1898, was one of the first exhibitions dedicated solely to the automobile.

swissinfo : The third Swiss motor show was held in German-speaking Switzerland. Why?

J. de S.: A growing number of car-related companies began to spring up in the region and they managed to convince the Swiss Automobile Club to transfer the show to Zurich, which was a real blow to Geneva.

But that only happened once, since the automobile industry was going through a major crisis. In the following years, there was no such exhibition in Switzerland at all and then the First World War started.

The motor show was started up again in Geneva in 1923, thanks to an opinionated man named Robert Marchand, who saw that the German-speaking Swiss were revving up their engines to host another exhibition, this time in Basel.

He convinced the International Automobile Association to allow Geneva to keep its status as an international show and, two months later, he managed to get the city’s exhibition back on track.

swissinfo : By that point, had the public’s fears about cars largely dissipated?

J. de S.: They had come to realise that cars weren’t just toys for rich people anymore and had a wider use. During the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918, only doctors had the right to use their vehicles and many people, especially those living in the countryside, realised that without cars it would have taken longer to receive treatment.

Following the First World War a large number of surplus army vehicles also came onto the second-hand market.

Citroën had also begun to produce modern-style cars that required no special assembly. Before that, the detached pieces of the car, including the chassis and the motor, were sold separately and assembled by an auto body shop.

swissinfo: Were there any Swiss car manufacturers on the scene by this time?

J. de S.: Up until 1925 some Swiss carmakers did exist. After that, it was mainly lorry producers.

Switzerland had a good reputation for building quality car frames... but the Swiss auto industry didn’t really take advantage of opportunities for mass production.

It was mainly a luxury car industry, thanks to Piccard-Pictet, which produced custom-made cars with extreme attention to detail.

swissinfo: But they were unable to sustain this niche market?

J. de S: That’s right. The Genevan brand, Stella, even had contacts with Rolls-Royce. But it didn’t work out in the end.

swissinfo : Do German-speaking regions still object to the motor show being held in Geneva?

J. de S.: Today no one in Switzerland is really looking to compete with Geneva. But the German-speaking Swiss did try several times in the past to bring the exhibition back to their turf, as was the case in 1975. This was logical, since all the big importers are in the German-speaking region.

swissinfo: So the International Motor Show does link the two linguistic regions in many ways?

J. de S.: Yes. For a large number of German-speakers, the motor show was the principal, if not only, reason to come to French-speaking Switzerland. For many years, the exhibition allowed friends to reunite in Geneva and spend a fun weekend together... and that tradition remains today.

Whole busloads and trainloads of people come to Geneva from the rest of the country for the show. In fact it’s almost a Swiss-German event on Swiss-French soil.

swissinfo-interview: Frédéric Burnand in Geneva

Key facts

The 75th International Motor Show is taking place at Geneva’s Palexpo Hall from March 3-13.
Each year hundreds of thousands of Swiss flock to Geneva to discover the latest innovations in the automobile industry.
The $630 billion automobile industry is the world’s second largest export sector after the chemical industry.

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In brief

The 1905 Geneva show was one of the first exhibitions dedicated solely to the automobile.

It survived an industry crisis and a temporary move to Zurich, and is now firmly established as one of the major events of its kind.

Joëlle de Syon says the show today is almost a Swiss-German event on French-speaking soil.

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