Techno Classica

ESSEN: Most US vintage-car enthusiasts are familiar with the big annual gatherings commonly known as Pebble Beach, Barrett-Jackson and Fall Hershey. In recent years, growing numbers of well-heeled gearheads have found room on their schedules for overseas events like Retromobile in Paris and the Goodwood Festival of Speed in England.

But the Techno Classica show, held each spring at the Messe Essen exposition center here, is a relative secret. Although vast, it is little known in the United States. Techno Classica, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, combines dealer exhibits with car-club displays and a classic-car auction by Coys, along with hundreds of vendors selling new and used parts, accessories, clothing, die-cast model cars, literature and manuals.

Techno Classica might be the closest thing the classic car world has to an all-encompassing trade show. Consider the numbers: 2,500 cars on display, 234 participating clubs, 1,250 vendors and 1.3 million square feet of display space. Nearly 200,000 people attended over five days in mid-April.

Essen is in northwest Germany just 30 minutes by cab or train from the Duesseldorf airport. And while it's not Paris, Essen has its charms even though little of the old city survived Allied bombing in World War II. (The next Techno Classica is scheduled for March 26-30, 2014.)

Some of the larger US shows, like the concours at Pebble Beach in California and Amelia Island in Florida, feature enthusiastic participation by new car manufacturers. But at Techno Classic, automakers' involvement is positively off the charts, with a strong presence by Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Audi, Bentley, BMW, Citroen, Ferrari, Ford, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Mini, Opel, Peugeot, Porsche, Volkswagen and Volvo. The companies' lavish displays suggested that they were all aware of the equity in their heritage.

BMW's display was particularly impressive, celebrating the history of the "M" cars from its Motorsports division and the 90th anniversary of BMW motorcycles. And just to remind everyone of what country they were in, a giant beer tap was set up in the trunk of a BMW 502 sedan from the 1950s. The tap seemed to be in service nonstop from the 9 a.m. opening until the 6 p.m. close.

Club displays ranged from the Spartan - a few cars with owners and club members sitting nearby - to the elaborate and often incomprehensible - like a Borgward Isabella sitting in a large makeshift bathtub. The more humble displays tended to showcase autos, like the Trabant and Wartburg, from the former East Germany.

A great deal of what was on display would have been wholly unfamiliar to all but the most knowledgeable US enthusiasts, including the Borgward - along with its companion Lloyd and Hansa marques - and the cars of Glas and Bitter. The profusion of never-seen-in-America models from familiar marques like BMW, Volkswagen and Opel would hold the attention of a curious US enthusiast nearly indefinitely - or at least as long as one could stare at a display of tiny Volkswagen Polo GTis and unfamiliar versions of the BMW 2002, like the Turbo and the Touring hatchback.