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Anger over Virgin 'star' role at show

Carmakers and franchised dealers have attacked an SMMT decision to allow internet-based Virgin Cars to have a high-profile presence at next month's Birmingham motor show. Dealers are not allowed to exhibit.

A senior executive of one carmaker said: “Last year's London motor show was hijacked by the Consumers' Association. Now we see the trade body which is supposed to represent the industry encouraging these companies, and in effect getting into bed with them.”

The anger centres around a decision to allow Virgin Cars to sponsor one of the main features at the show, the Star Studio.

As a result, the Virgin Cars logo is appearing on Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders' press material relating to the feature and in advertising.

The feature will occupy a corner site in hall 3, one of the main halls for new car manufacturers. It is understood that CarsDirect backed out of a similar contract, and that Virgin Cars chief executive Ian Lancaster moved in to clinch the deal this month.

Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson plans to visit the show on press day - which is likely to further inflame resentment within the industry.

A Virgin Cars spokeswoman said the company would use its stand space to demonstrate its service and staff would be available to deal with customers' enquiries.

“Customers will be able to specify and order a car via the website from the stand,” she added.

Alan Pulham, National Franchised Dealers Association director, said: “It is appalling and disappointing that the SMMT should consider taking sponsorship from Virgin and similar companies when franchised networks are precluded from exhibiting.”

The SMMT confirmed that “traditional bricks and mortar” dealers would not be allowed to exhibit at the show, though they could sponsor features.

Virgin Cars would have stand space as part of its sponsorship deal.

Al Clarke, SMMT spokesman, said: “Dealers are clearly represented at the show by their manufacturers. For instance, we wouldn't want all 300 Ford dealers there. The Ford stand represents the brand and all its dealers.” Mr Clarke said Virgin Cars and other dotcom companies were exhibiting as “service providers” to the industry, not retailers.

“It is a reflection of the changing marketplace,” he said. “The Consumers' Association site, Carbusters.com, would have been welcome but they decided not to exhibit.” Robin Woolcock, Volkswagen Group director and long-standing opponent of internet car sellers, said he welcomed the opportunity for customers to put Virgin Cars' claims to the test.

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