Essen Motorshow 2003

Interesting month was November 2003 – at least as far as the world of aftermarket tuning goes.

Starting with the SEMA show in Las Vegas and then ending in Germany at the Essen Motorshow, you simply could not find two more contrasting aftermarket tuning exhibits to cover in one 30-day period.

Those of you who’ve followed our SEMA coverage know that beyond the flashy chrome, neon lighting, double-decker spoilers and the Disney-World-for-adults atmosphere that is Las Vegas, there was actually very little for an enthusiast of fine European automobiles to sink his teeth into. Simply put, for every single European automobile represented at SEMA there seemed to be at least two or three buh-linged-out Hummer H2s. As you may have already inferred, Essen was the complete and total opposite. Fitting, too, since the city of Essen simply couldn’t be more different than our very own Las Vegas. Dark, cold and far from flashy, Essen seems like just another industrial German city, except this particular one happens to be the European tuning capital of the world – at least once a year, it is.

Each year, around the first week or so of December, everybody who’s anybody in the world of Euro-tuners heads for Essen to show the rest of the world what they’ve got. Brabus, Abt, Kamei, Rieger, BBS, Tech-Art, Breyton, and many, many others could be found displaying at this year’s Essen Motorshow. In fact, the 2003 event saw over 570 exhibitors spread over 105,000 square meters and expectations are that after all is said and done on December 7, close to half a million visitors will have traveled through Messe Essen’s 19 fair halls and Galleria.

Another contrast of note between SEMA and Essen is that some of the big Euro OEMs actually show up at Essen. VWAG and Mercedes, to name but a couple, took center stage in Halle 3 and is there perhaps something to infer from the fact that both Abt Sportsline and Zender had their displays exactly on the periphery of VWAG’s? I’ll leave that for you to decide… VW offered a clean design study for a Touareg Sport and told us that if this vehicle gets enough positive attention, they’ll offer it as a limited edition. VW also displayed the same GTi ‘concept’ we saw at Frankfurt and there were plenty of lower-model Golfs scattered about as well. Fittingly for an Essen show, one of the Golfs was dressed in the latest fashion from VW’s own Votex.

Audi was no wallflower themselves at this event and their truly amazing LeMans prototype was front and center. Quattro GmbH (Gay-em-bay-Ha – right, George?) took an $80,000 A8L and added another $80,000 or so of their special bits and pieces, just to show what’s possible (for everyone but us, that is) and it was pretty neat to see Randy Pobst’s Speed GT winning RS6 on display so far from home.

The Japanese OEMs don’t shy away from Essen, either – Mazda used the event to publicize their sporty new 3 series (hmm… that sounds a bit familiar), as well as some of their own tuning accessories for the new 6. Subaru had a modest display that consisted of their new Rinspeed-modified Forrester Turbo, a new STi, and one of their 2003 WRC Imprezas as well. Mitsubishi used the event to debut their new 2004 WRC car, Toyota debuted a new MR-S turbo, and Honda had the largest display of all the Japanese manufacturers.

The German economy is still on the slow side, so 2003 yielded a fairly subdued event, as far as extravagance, new product and absolute participation go. For example, unlike in recent years past, companies such as Oettinger, MAE, B&B, BMW, Porsche and others chose not to display at this year’s event. Still, for every former exhibitor that chose not to display this year, there seemed to be two or three newcomers waiting to take their places. New guys such as German Air-ride Systems, Mr. Sweden, One Eleven Projects, Verhoeven Tuning and many others seemed more than happy to be present at this illustrious event and I think that’s a healthy sign for the industry in general.

Certainly one of the stars of Essen 2003 was VW’s new Golf V. Five and three door versions were everywhere and modifications ran from nothing more than lowered a bit with nice wheels, to German Air-ride Systems’ bagged, tucked, two-toned, shaved and smoothed five door. We saw this car on the way to the show (on a trailer, of course) and it was just amazing to see such a brand new model so heavily modified. GAS must have put in some long hours getting this car ready for Essen and they should be applauded for such dedication to their craft.

Newcomer One Eleven Projects had a Lotus Elise with a rather special engine under its cover. Similar to what Sun International of SoCal used to do, 111 switches out the ubiquitous Rover ‘K’ engine and swaps in a Honda lump. But instead of using an Integra Type R engine, 111 takes the bigger, 2.0 liter 240-hp i-VTEC beast from the S2000 and inserts it into the super-lightweight Lotus. They’re looking for a US partner, if anyone is interested…

Mercedes had their new SLR supercar on display, and as impressive as it certainly is, I must be honest and admit I think it may take me a while to get used to the extra long hoods required by the new front mid-engine trend that’s all the rage these days.

A unique aspect of Essen, as far as trade shows go, is that there’s a special section just for vendors who wish to make retail sales to the general public. Understandably, this area is often the most hectic and crowded of all the show areas. Companies such as Dietrich, DTS, Bonrath and other accessory distributors use the area for both display and retail purposes. As crowded as this place can get, it’s even more interesting when there’s no shortage of people willing to navigate the endless seas of spectators while carrying their new RS6-look front bumpers, or even full cat-back exhausts. Combine this activity with the German’s steadfast aversion to saying “Excuse me” or “Pardon me” and this truly becomes an enter at your own risk proposition.

With any big tuning event you’ll often find that some of the coolest cars are in the parking lots, and Essen is no exception. Custom car freaks from across the European continent make the trek to Essen each year with an almost religious fervor. Nut-jobs from Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and even the UK drive some pretty neat machinery to the event and it’s worth taking the time to cruise the parking lots, as you never know what amazing vehicle you might stumble across.

In my last op/ed column, written the day before I left for Essen, I mentioned that I was extremely curious to see how far the Euro tuners had moved away from their traditional Euro-look values. Values such as smooth, subtle and minimalist changes have been quite recently the status quo for a Euro-look vehicle. But as I mentioned in my column, the 2003 show scene has brought to light the fact that many influencial euro-types have abandoned this look for something a bit more, shall we say, in your face – multi-tone paint jobs, air bag suspensions, US-made chrome wheels and in some cases, crazy body kits have started cropping up increasingly larger numbers. So, did Essen confirm or deny the existence of this new Euro-look? Take a look through our gallery, especially at some of the Golf V displays, and draw your own conclusions.

More than any, I’d say the Essen Motorshow is the one must see event for any die-hard Euro-car enthusiast and the fact that it’s held in Germany certainly doesn’t hurt. Fly to Frankfurt, pick the right car, and make the 280-kilometer drive to Essen in around an hour. Take a couple days to spend at the show checking out the world’s best-tuned vehicles while munching on some native bratwurst and sipping some damn fine pils… What’s not to like?

* Special thanks to H&R for sponsoring our coverage of the 2003 Essen Motorshow!

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For more photos of the car in this story, click on the link to our gallery at the right.