Posted by: Jerry Garrett | January 22, 2019

The Rise And Fall Of The Detroit Auto Show

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An auto show is supposed to be all about glitz and glamor. (Jerry Garrett Photo)

Back in 1982, someone gave me tickets to my first Detroit Auto Show. It was right across the street from where I worked. I decided it wasn’t worth it.

A colleague later confirmed it wasn’t worth walking across the snowy, unplowed street for. Back then, it was mostly a dealer show, trying to interest locals in buying a car. In recent years, I don’t know what you would call it.

Although there has been a Detroit auto show since 1899, in some form or fashion, the Detroit show re-branded itself in 1989 as the high-falutin’ sounding “North American International Auto Show”.

In so doing, the organizers (again, local dealers) tried to fashion it into an international confab, meant to equal the likes of the posh Paris Motor Show (the world’s oldest). Civic boosters demanded the Detroit show be held in the dead of winter (it had originally been held in the fall, when new American cars were traditionally introduced), in an effort to fill downtown hotel rooms that would otherwise be empty.

The “Big Three” Detroit automakers tried their best to pump the show up with glamorous concept cars, fanciful design studies, and their shiniest new cars. They showcased them in lavish displays – some of which, like Ford’s legendary “Bridge to Tomorrow” in 1999 – cost tens of millions of dollars to construct.

For a time, it seemed to be working. The auto industry was humming along. Local politicians, like eccentric mayors Coleman Young and Kwame Kilpatrick (now jailed), promised to revitalize Detroit’s notoriously moribund downtown, and improvements were promised for the shabby Cobo Center where the show was held.

The weather was a constant enemy. In 1999, a notorious blizzard shut down the city for several days. One group of Australians claimed they were stranded in Las Vegas the whole time – which they decided would be a much more favorable host city for the show.

A well-established show in Los Angeles, which had its date more or less appropriated by Detroit, refused to die; it proved popular for Japanese manufacturers who were based there (and often made to feel unwelcome in Detroit).

Suggestions – much less criticisms – offered to the Detroit organizers received chilly receptions; I was hassled over credentials for twenty years, after I dared to pen a critique.

It was very clubby. “They had, generally, an ‘our-shit-don’t-stink’ attitude,” a well-known auto industry analyst once told me. “After awhile I, and some of my colleagues in the financial world, decided we didn’t need that.” Attendees often complained of being ripped off for hotel rooms, restaurant meals, and cab rides. Stories circulated of outrageous fees to set up display booths (like $100 per chair to place them for a press conference).

I am aware of an instance where a Mitsubishi executive, trying to lobby for a coveted main floor display location, was told by an organizer the request might receive more favor if he were to be awarded a Mitsubishi dealership (he didn’t get it, but I wished he had; he would have deserved what was coming).

The promised improvements to the Cobo Center never really materialized. Plumbing broke, backed up and overflowed with some regularity. The heating system was hit-and-miss. The electrical system was a nightmare; the place actually caught on fire during one show. It was dirty, dingy and unsafe (a serious, dangerous and largely unaddressed problem for the entire downtown area; many attendees complained of being robbed). Display items disappeared; I have heard stories of cars vanishing. This year, a water main break caused brown water to flow out of taps; a “boil water” directive included all the downtown hotels as well as the Cobo complex.

Manufacturers have threatened to pull out, if changes weren’t forthcoming. They weren’t; and many manufacturers have made good on threats to leave.

The show’s fortunes really sagged with those of the Detroit auto industry; in 2007-2008 when General Motors, Ford and Chrysler all flirted with bankruptcy, the show barely survived. It’s been a tough road to try and bring the show back from that low ebb.

The final straw may have come with the 2019 edition, which just closed. Public attendance was still fairly strong, but there was little to see; more major manufacturers than ever stayed away. The vaunted press previews, which in the show’s heydays ran several days, were over in little more than a morning.

In desperation, organizers announced a shift to June for the 2020 edition, to showcase the city’s more salubrious summer weather. But it may be too little, too late.

The calendar is now quite full. Los Angeles show was successfully located to a well-received period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Two trade shows in Las Vegas, the Specialty Equipment Market Association’s week-long gathering after Halloween, and the Consumer Electronics Show just after New Year’s, have garnered burgeoning interest from the auto industry.

And frankly, auto shows worldwide are in decline, as manufacturers question the wisdom of trying to compete for interest and floor space with dozens of competitors in the same cavernous convention centers. Why not hold your own special event, at a glitzy venue, and showcase your product to an exclusive audience?

Meanwhile, what is the audience for the Detroit Three anymore? GM and Ford seem to be cutting back on operations in the Midwest, and just over the border in Canada. The hurt feelings of once-loyal customers and employees can’t be minimized.

And does the new, projected June date for the 2020 “North American International Auto Show” really coincide with any established cycle for new products?

I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole thing was called off. Who would really care if it was? But the Detroit show’s tenaciousness has surprised me before; I didn’t think it would last much beyond that 1982 show I skipped.

Jerry Garrett

January 22, 2019

 

 

 

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