Back in Royal Leamington Spa, a town where the last big event was when Queen Victoria came to take the curative waters, I’m able to look back on a visit to the first week of the North American International Automobile Show.
To someone used to European auto shows, it’s quite a stunning, strange vista. The amazing thing is that having been in Detroit for six days, I left on the first day in which the show was actually open to the public. Over here in Europe, we are used to shows that open up to the paying customers after one or two press preview days.
Detroit undergoes the longest gestation period of any. When the show first went international, in 1998, it followed the usual pattern, with two, maybe two and a half, press days, but now it has four official ones plus one extra, which has grown out of Chrysler’s idea of introducing its concept cars on the Sunday. Chrysler did it first in 1999, and this year the other two of the big three joined in, ensuring that most of the international press has to be in Detroit by Saturday.
Chrysler seems to have led every move that has turned Cobo Hall in Detroit into the Las Vegas of the Midwest. It was first with concept cars, first with the big-stage spectacular press ‘events’ and now it has taken away the press’s weekend. The latest DaimlerChrysler trend in media extravaganzas is the mammoth party. The company started it last year, and this year it had another — so GM had to have one too. Next year expect Ford to join in, with a monster finger buffet for six or seven thousand of the company’s closest friends. That’s the number of media representatives at the show this year, and they were all invited to both the DC and GM bashes.
Standing (and shoving) room only
Unfortunately, the press presentations at the show are so good that if you don’t get in half an hour early, you probably won’t see them. From where I stood at the back of the crowd for the Chrysler concept show, all I could see were a group of ninja aerialists shinnying up and down ropes. Because concept cars are usually low and sleek — and DC’s were — they were totally invisible. Fortunately, since I was at the back, I was close to the table where the press kits were to be given out — but "not before the presentation was over," as the lady in charge told us forcibly.
Once the presentation was over, the lady disappeared under a welter of pushing, grabbing hands, all seeking a kit to tell them all about the cars they couldn’t see in the crush. A good proportion wanted two kits (one for the files, one for eBay) and that probably explained why after the Ford concept unveiling the latecomers couldn’t get a press kit in any other form than as a CD. But at least at Ford you could see the cars — if only because the event was held in the remote Cobo arena.
And so it went on, for three more days. More smoke, more mirrors, more executives proving they could read balance sheets better than they could read an autocue. Although not every manufacturer can keep up with the Big Three Joneses, it’s become the rule that they should all at least canter along behind. This means that every year more and more stands start their lives during the press days as temporary theatres, with banks of seats, platforms for the TV cameras, and banks of mixing desks to control the microphones and lights.
The problem for journalists is that once the stand’s twenty minutes of fame is over, it has to be converted into the display the public will see on Saturday. This means that a post-conference arrival is likely to find chaos surrounding the cars he or she wanted to see. This year the worst example of this was Mitsubishi, where all that was to be seen for the whole day after the unveiling was three interesting but unlit concept cars and nothing else.