Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on October 2009

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Now might be a good time to think about sex. Not me, you understand: I’m talking about car manufacturers. Sex sells, apparently. Clearly cars don’t at the moment, so including sex in the equation would seem like a no-brainer.

There was a time when you went to a motor show almost expecting to get real sex. Petrol heads already see it in cars: when they exhibited the Bugatti Veyron at the Tokyo Motor Show a few years ago, it had to be placed very close to the toilets.

Showing such vehicles in today’s economic climate seems somewhat titillating , but supercars with thrust and grunt aren’t going away. After all, what else are footballers going to drive?

Well, probably not the Nissan Leaf. Electric cars like the recently unveiled plug-in are, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn tells us, the way of the future—and the future is what motor shows are all about. So expect to see a lot of Leafs (Leaves?), hybrids and other so-called eco-vehicles at this month’s Tokyo Motor Show, along with a number of underclothed young women trying desperately to make them look sexy.

Motor shows are essentially trade and PR events: the car companies display their current wares, attempt to impress journalists and the buying public, throw loads of parties, and try to sell stuff. Selling is what they’re about, but it’s more a question of selling ideas than persuading Mr. and Mrs. Suzuki to buy a new set of wheels on the way out.

“Toyota Motor Corporation views motor shows as presenting some of the best opportunities to highlight new automotive possibilities,” Toyota spokesperson Paul Nolasco tells Metropolis. “As such, over the years, we have used motor shows to unveil numerous concept vehicles and groundbreaking technologies. This is especially true for the Tokyo show.”

Of course, Tokyo isn’t the only automotive expo in the world. It’s not even the most important: Frankfurt, Geneva and Detroit rank higher, while Shanghai is also turning into a major contender. But the event is important for Japanese manufacturers. So while some domestic automakers have skipped other auto shows this year, mainly to save money, they’re not about to pass up on Tokyo.

Their foreign counterparts, however, have done exactly that. At the start of the year, reports circulated that the Japan Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (JAMA) was considering cancelling 2009’s show altogether, after numerous automakers missed the registration deadline. Though the organizers decided to soldier on in the end, the ensuing months saw a depressing stream of no-shows, culminating in Hyundai’s sudden pull-out at the end of September—a move described by the JAMA’s Toyokazu Ishida as “unbelievable.” While 26 foreign manufacturers participated in the last event in 2007, this year that number has dwindled to just two: Lotus and Alpina.

“I don’t think the motor show circuit died during 2009, but we certainly took a much harder look at the value we could deliver through shows,” says Simon Sproule, director of communications for the Renault-Nissan Alliance. “If we have a good story and a motor show is the best place to tell that story, then we will be there.”

In the end, Nissan opted not to tell any stories at Frankfurt in September so it could concentrate on Tokyo. Its partner Renault, on the other hand, came on strong at Frankfurt but will be skipping Tokyo.

“Overall, both Renault and Nissan have the same approach to motor shows, but will differ in terms of the shows they prioritize and how they execute,” says Sproule. “For Renault, the European shows such as Geneva, Frankfurt and Paris are very important, and for Nissan, shows such as Tokyo and Beijing/Shanghai [are].”

It’s hard to say what that means for the long-term future of Tokyo Motor Show. Barring a dramatic upswing in the industry, we might have to get used to the event being smaller and more domestically focused than in the past. But look on the bright side: it’ll still be sexy.

Tokyo Motor Show 2009
41st annual expo featuring cars, motorbikes, parts, machinery and tools. Oct 24-Nov 4, ¥1,300 (adults)/¥600 (students)/free (elem, MS). Makuhari Messe, Chiba. Nearest stn: Kaihin-Makuhari. Map. Directions. www.tokyo-motorshow.com/en/