Say Essen Motor Show and the first things that comes to your mind are the images of '90s and early '00s Fords, Benzes, and Opels bathed in metallic greens, pinks, and gold, equipped with crazy hood vents, chromed wheels, Lexus-style taillights, and big, red Sony Xplod subwoofers barely fitting in their small trunks. Oh, dude, I can even hear a Missy Elliott tune banging through the trunk lid.
Come 2015 and it's all the same here, with the Euro compacts glittered with shiny metallic paints, Lambo scissor doors, and oversized wheel arches. It's like the time has stood still for the expo halls on the outskirts of Essen, a Las Vegas-sized city in northwest Germany. Population is not the only thing these two cities from two opposite ends of the world share: as the Sin City's SEMA Show winds down each November, its European counterpart in Essen opens its doors for the tuning- and performance-hungry crowds. In the span of two autumn weekends and five weekdays in between them, the 2015 edition of the show attracted nearly 360,000 visitors, just like in its golden age. You can like it or not, Essen Show is still the biggest, most popular, and best tuning event in this part of the world, period.
But it's not all about the tuning here. Now celebrating its 48th edition, the Essen Motor Show first came to fame in the '60s as a specialist motorsport fair, and in fact they kept this epithet for the best part of its history. Back to the times when tuning was still mostly about performance, it was natural for it to become part of the Essen show. As the hype for modified cars unfolded, they became an increasingly important part of the show, making it the most important trendsetting meeting of the European tuning scene. It's here that many of the biggest names in the tuning industry were shown to the world for the first time, and many of the modifying trends were started, be it some of the legends like Hamann or Brabus, or anonymous personal projects.
Motorsport still plays a key role in these halls, though. By "motorsport," Germans understand "Porsche." The no-nonsense track 911s bruised by some proper competition collected just as many stares as the most extrovert tuning creations, while the 919 Hybrid competing in the WEC racing series was one of the biggest stars of the event. Germans just love Porsche and the brand returned some of the love by giving an exclusive first look of the Cayman GT4 Clubsport, an even more hard-core evolution of the Cayman GT4 that the sort of people visiting Essen show would surely appreciate.
But even the longtime showgoers coming this year may have been surprised that the first thing that welcomed them at the show's entrance was a collection of 13 Formula 1 cars depicting the complex evolution of the queen of motorsports from Fangio's '57 Maserati 250F to Vettel's '11 Red Bull RB7. As the classic car market has expanded, the old-timers have become something of a third tier of the show after motorsport and tuning. The collection of more than one hundred classics of all shapes and sizes brought here would be a reason enough to come to Essen. The show's hosts have in-depth knowledge of the European classic cars scene, too, organizing each spring in these very halls one of the biggest events for classic cars in the world, the Techno Classica Essen. Old Ferraris, Maseratis, Citroens, and, yes, Porsches. It surely attracts a new type of visitors to the show and gives something new to the ones already convinced to attend. The classics add some sophistication to the whole fest, but it's also a good business for the exhibitors. As one of the merchants reveals, during the show his company had sold a rare '93 Porsche 964 Speedster and several early 356s. Did I mention Germans like Porsche?
It'd be unfair to say that the tuning part of the show isn't evolving as well, which has both merits and drawbacks. Once the show for the unbearably rich German tuning scene, it used to see a myriad of notable Brabus, Techart, Gemballa, and Lorinser premieres. Many of the local tuning manufacturers attended the show, as some were located literally down the road from the show's premises. Those times are practically gone; blame the recessing market and closure of many of the smaller firms specializing in bettering cars' looks and performance. As mass-market carmakers saw their opportunity in the modifying market, they filled this niche with their own offerings. It's not a coincidence then that a growing number of the big car companies build their shiny grandstands here, boasting their abilities to turn ordinary cars to showstoppers, just what the tuners used to do in the past. Apart from a lime-green Skoda Superb that divided opinions (the flagship limo of the Czech brand performs pretty well in this part of the world), Ford stirred up most emotions with its new Focus RS. Just a few steps away, its European rival was lurking: the Peugeot 308 GTi coming straight from Paris.
It's a good thing to see that the big carmakers are still able to do something just for the fun of it, but you come to Essen mostly to see the private projects. The organizers know that, and they deliver. This year, there were no less than 150 vehicles of all sorts tuned with DIY methods, displaying awesome creativity of car guys from all over central Europe, Sweden, and the U.K. Imports still have a strong following here with many Skylines, Mazdas, and American Impalas and Rams given some love. But still, Essen is mostly a Euro feast: Europeans modify everything from an old Golf II to the straight-outta-showroom Ferrari 488 GTB and are as happy with the results of each. No surprise then that there were equally impressive projects coming from both ends of the automotive spectrum: classic BMWs, everyday Opel Insignias (Buick Regal in American speak), and every VW model you can think of on one end; AMGs, new BMW M4s, Audi R8s, and Italian exotica on the other. No matter what the car is, a European owner will apply a take-no-prisoners attitude, cutting the car bodies mercilessly, adding some inches to the width, and putting turbos so big that the bumpers won't fit afterward.
The general impression, though, isn't that bright for the Euro tuning scene: Apart from some single innovative moments like an Audi S4 Cabrio trimmed with leather from the outside or a VW Eos with a Scirocco front end, there are few fresh ideas from Europe that could wow the rest of the tuning world. Once it was a trendsetting scene inspiring Japan and the U.S.; now it's the other way round, as could be concluded from the number of stanced and rocket-bunnied creations at the show.
It was also foreign (mostly U.S.) aftermarket performance parts exhibitors that were the brightest stars of the show, with the European representation limited to well-known names like Bilstein and Akrapovic. It's not only the number of cars exhibited that pulls the crowds here, but also the great choice of parts to come by. If you buy new things for your car at events like these, then Essen is definitely the place for you. The show has everything to offer: from the grandstands of top-league players in the rim, turbo or suspension market to the old-school garage-sale-style booths of some locals. After hunting down the parts and getting a good price on them (they're usually higher than average here), you can treat yourself with a drift show performed under the roof of another hall. After all these years, the Essen Motor Show just keeps on improving.