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Roy Lanchester remembers the 1989 Frankfurt Motor Show

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The legendary local newspaper motoring correspondent casts his mind back to one of his most memorable motor shows

I did not attend this year’s Frankfurt Motor Show on account of an ongoing disagreement with German authorities over what is and isn’t an acceptable arm gesture to make to one of their passport officials, and also, later, their police. However, last week’s chatter about this biennial annexing of the IAA exhibition centre by the three reiches (Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW) set me thinking back to my most memorable trip to this truly vast event, in a time before I cleverly alighted on the idea of demanding a mobility scooter to get around on account of my diabetes and spastic colon.

The year was 1989 and I was to be taken to the show as a guest of Land Rover who were using Frankfurt as the place to announce their new Discovery, in those days an entry-level model with stickers up the side and an interior designed by Alan Coren [CHECK THIS]. In truth, I had already seen this vital new model a few weeks earlier at a top secret preview for high ranking regional journalists such as myself held at the company’s Solihull nerve centre, but they had agreed to take me to Frankfurt as well, despite what happened that afternoon.

We were flown to Frankfurt by Lufthansa, or Luftwaffe as I whimsically called them, to a humourless response from the hostess, some of the other passengers and, eventually, the deputy captain. The flight was otherwise uneventful and, all credit to the other cabin staff who required relatively little persuasion to supply an adequate amount of flying wine and eventually assisted the man next to me to move to another seat, which was to my delight as he was one of those nuisance “counting people” so keen to exclaim “A third one! A fourth one! Now you’re having a fifth one!” and so on. I despise these busy bodies and try to avoid them wherever possible on aeroplanes, buses, airport monorails and so on. One other demerit; the wine was German and, though it proved drinkable in an emergency situation like this, I would have preferred some options from France, Italy or another country where they know what they’re doing, a point I made clear to the Land Rover PR man when he met us in the arrivals hall at Frankfurt aerodrome. “Well, you’re here now. Just don’t try to peel anything off this time!” he quipped, to which I replied that my bag was over there and he’d better look sharp to retrieve it. In situations like this it’s important to remind these people who’s boss, otherwise they’ll never learn. That said, I flew Lufthansa/waffe again a few months later on a VW trip and the wine was still all-German so it’s clear the Land Rover chap did not have a word with them, much though he promised he would when I raised the issue again that evening. He later went to work for a car battery maker and I hear his wife left him or died or similar which just goes to show the ultimate price of sloppy unprofessionalism.

I am more of a pro, of course, and did not let the airborne wine quality spoil my mood, which was then lifted when we arrived at our hotel in downtown Frankfurt and I discovered my room and its minibar to be as ample as the bosom of the girl who checked me in, which is to say ‘fairly’. There was something rather odd about the latter, however, as her initial greeting to me had been one laced with wry amusement and surprising familiarity, as well as one of those well-organised German accents that is frightening and yet erotic. Stranger yet, her colleague standing behind the reception appeared equally amused and seemed, almost involuntarily, to emit a word which I later discovered to be “Hoppla!” This experience caused me to think back to my progress through the airport terminal earlier when a gentleman mopping the floor exclaimed what I believed to be the same word, though at the time I thought he was simply being friendly because we both had moustaches. Then I recalled the group of teenage girls in baggage reclaim who were seen to giggle and point at me, initially causing me to fear I had repeated an incident on the Lancia Dedra launch the previous March in which my trousers had become compromised with regard to their appearance and dryness.

Photograph: Roy Lanchester

I thought no more of these curious events until dinner in the hotel that evening. In many respects, this was a textbook pre-show breather comprising the merciful option to imbibe of non-German wine, a steak which my notes from the time record as “mostly succulent”, and a seating plan which put me pleasingly far from Dick Frisbee of The Stoke Sentinel who was still griping about the events of the Citroen dinner dance a few months previous, and in particular the things that he claims I said about/splashed upon his clothes and wife. Even a crisp debate with another of the Land Rover PRs about the time of the Discovery reveal the following morning and whether or not 10am could be considered “unreasonable” was resolved in satisfactory manner when he agreed that my hour of rising was mine to decide and he would simply have the press kit sent up to my room. As dinner concluded, however, there was another unwelcome echo of the earlier events, this time from a member of the waiting staff whose attention I had secured via the international language of hand gestures in order that he might bring me another bottle of the ’86 Châteauneuf-du-Pape. “Hoppla!” he replied with a smile, before disappearing into a backroom and returning with two things, mercifully one of them being the wine. The other, however, was a request, delivered initially in impertinent German and then latterly, once I had reminded him of the score in War 2, through faltering English. From the latter it became clear that the young man wanted my autograph. Initially I assumed him to be a reader of The Harrogate Herald, though in retrospect this was unlikely as his English was poor and he seemed unlikely to be interested in news from North Yorkshire nor our ‘foreign news’ section which was largely stories from other parts of Yorkshire. Nonetheless, I agreed to his request, happily signing a torn-out page from the branded notebook Land Rover had left at each place setting for those fools who wanted to spend their dinner listening to some engineer droning on about wading angles and such like. The lad seemed puzzled by my signature but nonetheless thanked me, gave another cheery “Hoppla!” and retreated ‘below stairs’ leaving me to complete the fresh bottle of red before retreating to the bar for several different sizes and colours of nightcap, as well as an argument about whether it was appropriate or not to discuss the well-known sexual antics of the wife of Tim Hudspith from the Batley Advertiser, yours truly being very much in the ‘yes’ camp while the ‘not appropriate’ side was defended by some other journalists, PRs, a passing group of German businessmen and of course Tim himself.

The next morning I awoke from an excellent sleep (this being 1989 when I was still blessed with a strong and well-sealed bladder and a nocturnal life that seems a far cry from the triple piss nights that have become a feature of my sixties). To my surprise it was relatively early, though I had still missed the Land Rover coach that was scheduled to leave the hotel at some unholy hour like 8:45am. Instead, I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast in the hotel which, I now observe, received a glowing write-up in my notebook of the trip. You can say what you like about the Germans, as I often do, but one has to admire their dedication to a sausage-based foundation for the day’s opening repast, and on this occasion in ’89 I was delighted to plunge into their meaty, cylindrical goodness, though this later had some pretty heavy consequences for the lavatories behind the Isuzu stand.

At my convenience, I ordered the hotel to order me a taxi which I would later bill back to Land Rover and was rather perturbed when the driver, an older chap and fellow moustachian, was yet another person to gleefully exclaim the mysterious “Hoppla!” catchphrase and then spend the entirety of the 15 minute journey to the motor show babbling away to me in German. Fearing that the man was a lunatic, I could only attempt to placate him with full agreement to every unintelligible statement, issued via a series of positive grunts, hums and purrs. These seemed to delight and amuse him, and mercifully he did not attack me with a claw hammer in some kind of deranged killing frenzy in the back of his Mercedes 200D.

Photograph: Roy Lanchester

I cannot deny I was disconcerted as I arrived at the exhibition centre and engaged in a brief but heated discussion with the press desk as to why my passport, given as proof of ID, did not match the name on my pre-arranged pass, which was “Royl Anohester”. I blamed Sue from The Herald office who had been tasked with sending the press pass request letter some weeks earlier and who was professionally cretinous in many ways, one of them being sloppy penwomanship. During my firm exchanges with the stridently unhelpful desk commandant I was once again troubled to hear not one but six passing people emit the by-now-familiar “Hoppla!” catchphrase and I resolved to find out exactly what was going on here, just as soon as I had gained access to both the show and the large glass of nerve settler I now required. With the former achieved, the latter was then secured thanks to the good people of Vauxhall-Opel who (eventually) agreed that 11:50am was “practically lunchtime” and served me a Claret as smooth as the styling on their new Calibra which I was able to admire from afar and, later, a little too closely after stumbling on the edge of a dangerously moving turntable.

Still none-the-wiser about this wretched “Hoppla!” business I finished my Vauxhall wine, by which time lunch was being served, so I ordered another drink, topped up with sausages and a little bread and some other meats and a little more wine, and then made my way to the Peugeot stand to observe the new 605 executive saloon and appraise the way it sat with both the smaller 405 model and a hearty Bordeaux.

Some time later I fancied a change, persuaded the server to let me finish the rest of the bottle and then moved on to Alfa Romeo for very heavy Barolo which proved to be the perfect accompaniment to the rather unusual SZ sports coupe. Yet I could not concentrate fully, haunted as I was by the ongoing cries of “Hoppla!” that accompanied me that day whatever I did, said or ordered more of. Seeking some familiar faces, I headed back to the Land Rover stand (pausing only to take the aforementioned ‘download’ of the earlier breakfast sausagefest behind the Isuzu stand) and was met by one of the PR honchos who sensed all was not right and wasted no time in asking how I was and how much I’d had. I explained the increasingly troubling “Hoppla!” business and the press goon had the presence of mind to sit me down in the hospitality area of the show stand from where he called over an opposite number from Land Rover Germany who, unlike many of his foreigner cohorts, had the decency to admit that he spoke English. As such, he was able to listen to my tale and immediately furnish me with a telling piece of information. “This word ‘hoppla’ is, as you would say in English, ‘oops’, you know, if you make an accident or a mistake,” he said. How interesting, I replied, but this information is neither easing my mind nor filling my glass. Happily, he was then able to do both and I found his explanation as palatable as the Cabernet Savignon, which is to say, ‘quite’. “Hoppla”, he explained, was the catchphrase of a new celebrity in his homeland, a man who had won a top-rated television talent programme and had done so with a magic act based around the gentleman’s apparent ineptitude for magic tricks, hence the “oops” catchphrase. This man had greatly amused Germans, and I speak from experience when I say that this is generally impossible.

Why, then, had so many people that thirsty day in Frankfurt been keen to unleash a television magician’s catchphrase in my direction? The local PR man was quick to answer; “I think, Roy, that you are very similar in appearance to this man from our popular television broadcast,” he said. “He has a moustache, he is of the same size as you, there is much that is similar, you see? This man performs under the name of ‘Fette Magie’ which in German means ‘Fat Magic’.”

At last, the mystery of that unusual day at the Frankfurt Show was solved and to celebrate, I asked the serving girl to leave the rest of the bottle and bedded in on the Land Rover stand, later quite literally until I was rudely awoken by some jobsworth idiot making a needless fuss about someone catching a quick snooze in the cutaway display model of their new car. However, I had made a ‘Discovery’ of my own that day and it was that, somewhere in Germany, there was a man who looked like me and who sounded like he was equally unfortunate where playing cards were concerned (though I’m sure a lucrative television career was an excellent way to clear any irksome gambling debts; alright for some, eh!?).

All in all, a most memorable day at the 1989 Frankfurt Motor Show, though it took a turn for the worse, quite literally, when, having been roused from my slumbers, I made to leave and fell down a switched off escalator in front of a medium sized crowd in the lobby below. You can guess what many of these people cried as I came to rest at the bottom! Yes, I’m assuming it was “Hoppla!”, though I don’t know for sure on account of having been knocked unconscious!

Fewer people shouted “Hoppla!” at me during subsequent visits to Frankfurt and many years later, via the wonders of the internet, I was able to look up my Germanic, magic-making double to discover that he quickly fell from favour and was eventually found dead in a hotel room so at least that’s one thing we’ve yet to have in common! Hoppla!!

Roy is motoring correspondent for Crime Scene Cleaning magazine and founder of his own blog, Over The Limit with Roy Lanchester. His book, How To Be A Motoring Journalist, is still on sale.