Farewell to Frankfurt: highlights of Europe’s biggest motor show

As the Frankfurt Motor Show closes its doors, we look back at the coolest debuts from its history – including the Lancia Delta, BMW M3 and Porsche Carrera GT

For now, the Frankfurt Motor Show is no more. We’ve got used to walking the huge halls of the IAA every two years, but the biggest motor show on the calendar won’t be held there in 2021.

Home of the greats

Which is a shame. It’s the show where some of the all-time great cars were seen for the first time. Where will the icons of the future be revealed? The internet, probably. From the BMW M3 to the Ferrari F40 – we look back on some of the biggest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts of the past 50 years.

Porsche 914 – 1969

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

Like the other German marques, Porsche makes a big effort for Frankfurt. In 1969, it brought along the mid-engined 914 sports car. Much derided for many years, the 914 is now a leftfield classic, and popular in the historic racing scene.

BMW 2002 Turbo – 1973

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

Can you imagine being stand-side as BMW revealed the mad little 2002 Turbo? Even outside the context of pre-M performance cars, the 2002 was important. It was BMW’s first turbocharged production model.

Lancia Delta – 1979

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

As modern classics go, the Lancia Delta is well up there. On its debut at Frankfurt in 1979, it was far from the blister-arched, flame-spitting rally monster that evolved over the coming decades. Back then, the Delta was merely a stylish, Giugiaro-penned family hatchback.

Porsche 944 – 1981

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

At the start of the 80s, Porsche wanted to move away from the rear-engined 911, which wasn’t even 20 years old at the time. The 944 was a fine front-engined coupe, but the fact that the 911 lives on today, while a 944 successor is nowhere to be seen, seems telling.

Mercedes-Benz 190E – 1983

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

Mercedes is a marque made famous by executive saloons, and the 190 is one of its greatest. The original 190 debuted at the 1983 Frankfurt Motor Show. It would be replaced by the C-Class in the 1990s, which remains in production today.

Volkswagen Golf Mk2 – 1983

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

The sophomore Golf is a fan favourite today, for some even more so than the Mk1. It grew up and grew bigger, but designer Herbert Schafer maintained a lot of the original Giugiaro style. The Mk2 GTI is among the best of the hot hatch breed, too.

BMW M3 – 1985

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

At this point, you might think Frankfurt is the place to reveal your future motoring icon, and you’d be right. Without the first BMW M3, there’d be no CSL, no M4, no C63 AMG, no RS4. Bahnstormers the world over owe their existence to this mid-80s homologation special.

Porsche 959 – 1985

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

Some consider the 959 a bit of a white elephant, especially alongside Ferrari’s contemporary rival, the F40. Regardless, this incredibly sophisticated four-wheel-drive supercar could walk the walk, hitting 60mph in 3.6 seconds on the way to nearly 200mph flat-out.

Ferrari F40 – 1987

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

The last road car to get sign-off from Enzo himself, the F40 is considered one of the greatest Ferraris ever made. It had visible carbon you could see through the paintwork, plus turbo lag measured in calendar days rather than seconds. A gloriously single-minded supercar and a Ferrari great, first seen at Frankfurt.

Vauxhall Calibra – 1989

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

The Calibra is one of the Griffin’s modern greats: handsome when new, and even cooler today. Especially now all the cars that were extravagantly modified in the 90s have made their way to the scrapheap in the sky.

Land Rover Discovery – 1989

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

Land Rover’s bridge between the utilitarian Defender and luxurious Range Rover came in 1989, and was an instant hit. Its high-sided silhouette would endure for 24 years, before the Disco got a full overhaul for its third generation in 2004.

BMW 8 Series – 1989

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

Yep, 1989 was a cracking year for new car debuts. Joining the Disco and the Calibra at Frankfurt was BMW’s soft-focus supercar, the lavish 8 Series. Overnight, night club owners needing transport had the answer to their prayers.

BMW 5 Series – 1995

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

Another Beemer, and the 1995 Frankfurt debut of what some argue remains the best car ever made. The E39 5 Series is still very highly regarded, but it all started at Frankfurt in 1995. The M5 it spawned is also one of the greatest sports saloons ever.

Land Rover Freelander – 1997

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

The last proper Land Rover? Well, it was the last developed by the Rover Group, as we knew it then. Test mules were even disguised as Austin Montegos. The Freelander arguably invented the crossover back in 1997.

Mercedes-Benz A Class – 1997

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

Some revolutionary cars don’t have staying power. Merc’s clever compact was yet to face the infamous rollover ‘elk test’ when revealed at Frankfurt in 1997.

Audi A2 – 1999

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

Unfortunately Audi drank the same Kool Aid as Mercedes for the A2. Its lightweight, alloy-bodied eco hatch was brilliant but expensive. Indeed, it was clear from the beginning that this car wouldn’t be a commercial success. A brilliant machine that was ahead of its time.

BMW X5 – 1999

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

Say what you like about the X5, but BMW rewrote the rules back in 1999, showing Mercedes that a German-badged SUV could be a success. The X5 was part of BMW’s three-pronged assault on Frankfurt that year.

BMW Z8 – 1999

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

Remember the BMW Z8? Henrik Fisker’s forgotten roadster borrowed the M5’s heart and mated it with a retro-futuristic body. It was as expensive as it was pretty, but the drive didn’t live up to expectations.

BMW M3 – 1999

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

Quite the opposite is true for the E46 M3, which also debuted in 1999. Alongside the E39 M5, it’s considered one of the M car sweet-spots. A singing six and perfect coupe proportions made for an very desirable sports coupe. That it drove like a dream only added to its allure.

Vauxhall VX220 – 1999

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

Some non-BMW madness from 1999’s Frankfurt show comes in the form of the Vauxhall VX220. It’s what happens when you restyle and re-body a Lotus Elise. A firecracker of a car.

Lamborghini Murcielago – 2001

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

Lamborghini came out swinging at the first Frankfurt show of the new millennium, launching the long-awaited successor to the Diablo. With new-found Audi money and razor sharp looks, the Murcielago became an instant pin-up. If you’re a top-level Lambo, that’s job done.

Mercedes-Benz SL – 2001

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

The year 2001 was important for Mercedes, too, with the launch of the svelte ‘R230’ SL roadster. AMG versions came with a 493hp supercharged V8, while monstrous turbocharged V12 models had more than 600hp. The former was famously championed by Jeremy Clarkson in the early years of ‘new’ Top Gear.

Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren – 2003

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

Of course, the SL, with help from McLaren, spawned Mercedes’ split-personality supercar: the SLR. Not sure whether it wanted to be the ultimate GT or a successor to the F1 hypercar of the 90s, the SLR caught a lot of grief from critics. We happen to think this droop-snoot supercharged savage is one of the best-looking cars of its era.

Aston Martin DB9 – 2003

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

Aston Martin was making waves in 2003, too. If the Vanquish was a bit of a non-starter, the DB9 was a breakout success. So revolutionary was it in comparison with its DB7 predecessor, it skipped a number in the naming system.

Maserati Quattroporte – 2003

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

The reborn Maserati Quattroporte came with Ferrari V8 power and oodles of desirability. Another modern classic in the making, once the numbers begin to dwindle.

Porsche Carrera GT – 2003

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

Can you tell the economy was booming around 2003? The Porsche Carrera GT was the second German hypercar to launch at Frankfurt 2003, and had a starting price over £300,000. With a manual gearbox, screaming V10 and engineering that’s as artful as it is functional, it’s one of the last great analogue supercars.

BMW 6 Series – 2003

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

Arriving to fight the Mercedes SL at Frankfurt in 2003 was the reborn BMW 6 Series. Jeremy Clarkson famously said it looked like the stylist died while designing it, with BMW finishing it the job by dumping a duvet on the back.

Porsche Cayman – 2005

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

Returning to the show in 2005 was Porsche, with a hard-top version of its Boxster roadster. The Cayman quietly became the best sports car Porsche makes. Sshhh, don’t tell the 911!

Jaguar XF – 2007

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

The triumphant return of a Jaguar for the mainstream, the sleek XF is the seed out of which today’s brand grew. And it all started at Frankfurt in 2007.

Ferrari 430 Scuderia – 2007

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

About time we featured a Ferrari, right? Normally frequenting Geneva’s hallowed halls with its new models, Ferrari chose Frankfurt in 2007 to debut its hardcore F430, the Scuderia. It’s one of the most beloved driver’s cars to come out of Maranello.

Ferrari 458 Italia – 2009

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

But it didn’t shake up the supercar world like the 458. This thing was an absolute revelation. Indeed, much of the 458 lives on in the new F8 Tributo. It was the last non-track-focused mid-engined Ferrari with a naturally-aspirated V8.

Bentley Mulsanne – 2009

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

An old-school Bentley for the modern era, Frankfurt was chosen to debut the Arnage successor in 2009. Rumours were it would borrow the W16 engine from the Bugatti Veyron. In spite of that not being true, the Mulsanne was every bit as imperious as we’d hoped. It soldiers on even today, selling fewer than 1,000 units a year.

Volkswagen Up! – 2011

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

Volkswagen’s clever supermini was a long time coming, but worth the wait. It’s still one of the most satisfying small cars on sale, especially now it comes in pokey GTI guise.

BMW i8 – 2013

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

It’s amazing to think this car is six years old. Alas, we’re now less than a year away from the i8 ceasing production. When it debuted at Frankfurt in 2013, it offered a brave new world of eco-conscious performance. No-one saw the barrage of 2,000hp electric hypercars coming back then.

Porsche 918 Spyder – 2013

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

Ten years on from the Carrera GT’s arrival at Frankfurt 2003, the production version of Porsche’s all-wheel-drive hybrid hypercar was revealed. A Nurburgring lap-record holder, it also started the journey to the all-electric Taycan.

Jaguar F-Pace – 2015

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

Jaguar really got into its stride with the F-Pace SUV, revealed at Frankfurt in 2015. It seemed to achieve the impossible by making an SUV look sleek and sexy.

Bentley Bentayga – 2015

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

Jag wasn’t the only British luxury marque to jump on the SUV bandwagon in 2015. Bentley was also at Frankfurt with its own 4×4, although it was the opposite of sleek and sexy. Still, the Bentayga was a slam-dunk in terms of sales.

Volkswagen T-Roc – 2017

Greatest Frankfurt Motor Show debuts

Finally, we arrive at the previous Frankfurt Motor Show in 2017. Our pick of the bunch when it came to new reveals? The T-Roc – Volkswagen’s replacement for the beloved Scirocco coupe. Blasphemic though it may seem to replace a coupe with a crossover, the T-Roc is a cool looking thing. Ford is taking a similar direction with the new Puma, which debuts at Frankfurt 2019.

Land Rover Defender – 2019

It’s fair to say Frankfurt went out on a high, with 2019 one of the biggest years in recent memory for hot debuts. None more so than the all-new Land Rover Defender, which was finally revealed after a five-year wait.

Volkswagen ID.3

Volkswagen chose Frankfurt to unveil the third chapter for the people’s car. First Beetle, then Golf, now the all-electric ID.3. Deliveries of the dedicated all-electric hatchback begin this year.

Porsche Taycan

We began this gallery with a Porsche and we followed the marque through its history of Frankfurt debuts, from the 914 to the Carrera GT. It’s fitting, then, that perhaps one of the most important Porsches in history should arrive at the final Frankfurt show. An electric super saloon, the Taycan is here to show Tesla just what ‘legacy’ manufacturers are capable of. It’s a brave new world, now, sadly, bereft of the Frankfurt Motor Show.

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Ethan Jupp
I'm Content Editor at MR. Road trips music and movies are my vices. Perennially stuck between French hot hatches and Australian muscle cars.


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