Grand Basel: Cultural Diversity
Plurality, rather than exclusivity proves to be the strength of the inaugural Swiss high-end car show.
Any show where a Fiat Panda is placed right next to a Bugatti Chiron must obviously have some merit to it. Not to mention an exhibition showcasing the semi-forgotten car design foray of one of the masters of modernist architecture.
According to the organisers’ claims, Grand Basel is ‘the ultimate show for automotive masterpieces’, which sounds like a recipe for yet another gathering of numbingly expensive and astonishingly rare automobiles, the likes of which are held all over the globe during the more pleasant seasons of the year, every year. Of course, Grand Basel comes with some added high-brow appeal, thanks to the involvement of automotive culture expert, Paolo Tumminelli, and the advisory board he’s gathered together, which certainly makes for impressive reading.
Sylvie Fleury (artist), Lapo Elkann (Agnelli family scion and founder of Garage Italia), Stephen Bayley (writer and critic), Michael Erlhoff (design theoretician) and a certain Giorgetto Giugiaro obviously constitute a rather formidable lineup of experts. And, to varying degrees, they deliver on the promises their reputation makes, as exemplified by the cars each one of them was asked to choose for the exhibition part of the show
Unsurprisingly, Paolo Tumminelli brought one of his trademark ‘saved’ original Fiat Pandas to Basel. Moreover, someone had the bright spark of putting it next to a Bugatti Chiron, thus depicting not just the breadth of the automobile, but also utter opposites in terms of design intent. Bravo! Michael Erlhoff brought some scale model cars instead, in order to ‘show that big dreams can come in small packages’. And why not? Sylvie Fleury chose to feature a wonderful ’63 vintage Elwood Engel-designed Lincoln Continental, which happened to have been Pablo Picasso’s last personal car, alongside her own sculpture of a giant, silver shark’s tooth. Stephen Bayley, on the other hand, went for a less showy (albeit exceedingly rare) exhibit in the shape of the Ford Capri I, which he considers the embodiment not just of British middle class aspirations during the 1950s, but also an expression of Britannia trying to cope with her decreasing role in the post-colonial era.
Unfortunately, neither Lapo Elkann (who was not personally present), nor Giorgetto Giugiaro could resist the lure to use this opportunity for marketing purposes. So the former brought his Garage Italia outfit’s quaint Fiat 500 Spiaggina retro roadster along, whereas the great Giugiaro had the rather mediocre GFG Style Sybilla concept car (originally unveiled at Geneva this year) in tow. Which was ever so slightly regrettable in either case, despite the Spiaggina being a rather charming device and Giugiaro exhibiting some of his impressive paintings alongside Sybilla.
It was not just these paintings though that put Sybilla’s shortcomings into context, but an impressive lineup of other Giugiaro designs from the past half-a-century, from the Bertone Testudo (which was intriguingly parked next to the Lamborghini Miura, thus highlighting quite a few stylistic similarities) to the Panda (which would have deserved the maestro’s patronage just as much as Tumminelli’s), the numerous Iso models whose design Giugiaro was responsible for, as well as a resplendent Maserati Ghibli Spyder.
A Q&A session-turned-panel-discussion further emphasised the potential of such a rarefied group of people coming together, as this did not so much end with arguments about mere aesthetic merits, but involved reflections on how changing cultural values shape the automobile and the effects of ‘peak car’. An entire afternoon of listening to Giugiaro, Bayley, Tumminelli et al discussing such matters and others would certainly hold considerably more appeal than the collection of (theoretically exciting, actually strangely ubiquitous) super cars spread across the show. Regrettably, due to its abbreviated length, this discussion was more of an hors d’oeuvres for a menu not served on this occasion.
Another attraction of the culture tinged kind was the unveiling of Linea Diamante. As imagined by famed Italian modernist architect, Giò Ponti, in 1953, Linea Diamante was the concept for a family car of far more advanced packaging than was the norm in its day. As the manufacturers showed little interest in Ponti’s design, Linea Diamante was to remain confined to sketches and drawings for 65 years, until the (unfortunately interiorless) life size model unveiled at Grand Basel was created by FCA Heritage, under the watch of Roberto Giolito. Giolito, (in)famous for having designed the highly controversial Fiat Multipla, has some form when it comes to creating ingeniously packaged, peculiarly styled automobiles, so it only appears fitting that he was involved in the realisation of Ponti’s Linea Diamante, which boasts the looks of a tall Renault 16, envisioned 12 years before the French trailblazer was put into production.
However, in the final analysis, Grand Basel is no museum or intellectual colloquium. It is a fair, which means it must possess enough allure to attract companies wanting to sell a product and customers willing to buy it.
The only major car manufacturer present at Grand Basel happened to be Tesla, who brought the recently announced Roadster to Switzerland. Despite its name, the prototype appears to be a targa coupé at best and is as much of an aesthetic non-entity in the metal (or composite) when painted white as previously released photos and renders of the car in red suggested. Automobili Amos’ Lancia Delta Futurista is certainly more charming in contrast (particularly thanks to the rigorously ‘80s style brown suede interior, which only Italians would ever have the nerve to fit a €300,000 car with). A similar sense of - slightly retro-tinged - flair was exhibited at Garage Italia’s stand, where a customised Fiat 500 boasted a cabin of materials and craftsmanship that were as exquisite as its colour scheme was idiosyncratic. It is a bit of a shame that none of the recently relaunched Italian luxury brands (Maserati, Alfa Romeo) currently boast comparable levels of Italianate panache, which suggests Lapo Elkann’s pet enterprise is indeed far more than a vanity project.
Connecting the commercial with the intellectual side of Grand Basel was the architecture of the show, which involved ‘modules’ of varying sizes. These are distributed across Messe Basel’s enormous main floor, appearing like lit up compartments in an otherwise completely black, blank space. This concept - which is described as ‘generic’ by its creators - certainly helps avoid any sense of a ramshackle wheeler dealer’s bazaar, just as the lighting lends the cars a particularly sculptural quality. However, what this also does is lend Grand Basel in its entirety a slightly aseptic flair - somewhat akin to certain art shows, incidentally.
Grand Basel may lack the elegance of Villa d’Este’s Concorso d’Eleganza or the raw charms of ‘moving’ automotive events à la Goodwood. There are also certain issues regarding the heterogeneity inherent in trying to combine a commercial fair with a cultural happening - as exemplified by that rusty, well-worn Panda that has spent most of its days performing the duties of an automotive mule side-by-side with the Bugatti, which has been polished for longer periods of time than it was ever on the road.
And yet this conflicting diversity has also the potential that could make the Basel show truly grand.
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